Taking it seriously

WHEN HE was in high school, Ryan Gosling's nickname was "Trouble." It's hard to figure that one out now, since he seems to be the most untroubled young star in Hollywood. Of course it helps that his career is going swimmingly.

Virtually unknown a few years ago, Gosling caught critics' eyes in The Believer (2001), scored a surprise box-office hit with The Notebook (2004) and most recently was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance as a drug-addicted teacher in Half Nelson (2006). He came to the Oscars with his mother and his sister.

"My mom cried so hard when I told her that I was nominated that I had to take her," Gosling recalls. "And then, when I made a second call, my sister cried louder. She was on my other arm."

If that sounds unusual for a hot young actor, well, Gosling isn't your usual up-and-coming actor. Hot as a pistol off "The Notebook," he disappeared from Hollywood to spend a few months in Biloxi, Miss., helping with the cleanup effort in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

"He was in a Vietnamese Buddhist monastery helping them clean up," says Gregory Hoblit, who directed Gosling's new film Fracture, in a separate interview. "Ryan was roadblocked in New Orleans, got himself some Red Cross decals for his cars and drove to Biloxi. He was just driving around trying to be useful. He saw this temple in bad shape, and spent the next month just helping them dig out."

On a Sunday morning at a hotel in Beverly Hills, Gosling doesn't seem to want to talk about his work in Mississippi.

"I get just as much out of those situations as I give," he says with a shrug. "As for Biloxi, well, that's an experience that I will take with me for the rest of my life. It's such a rich experience. I can't even put that time in my life into words."

Easier to put into words is why, since scoring at the box office with "The Notebook," he has spent most of his time on low-budget independent films, not Hollywood blockbusters.

"I've done a lot of small movies where they basically couldn't pay me," the 27-year-old Gosling says. "I'm lucky, because I have a lawyer who works for me for free. I have an agent who offers me money, so I don't do jobs I don't like. I have a manager who finds things like 'Half Nelson.'

"Obviously I make a good living," he adds, "because they pay actors way too much for what they do. My thing is to work with people who are really supportive of the things I want to do."

Not that he objects to mainstream movies, if the right opportunity comes along: Fracture, set to open on April 20, is a classic courtroom thriller about a wealthy man (Anthony Hopkins) who kills his cheating wife (Embeth Davidtz), confesses and then tries to beat the rap through legal trickery. Gosling plays the young assistant district attorney determined to bring him down, but there are plenty of twists still to come.

The appeal to Gosling, of course, was the chance to work with Hopkins.

"It was completely terrifying," the young Canadian says, "because I'm a huge fan and Hopkins is the master. For me it's really important to work with a master at this point in my career.

"What I found out is that Anthony Hopkins is intimidating, but not in the way I thought he would be," he says. "He's constantly creating. He's painting, doodling and composing. He does the most intricate doodle and design. He can't stop. He's painting between takes. He comes out with paint all over his hands and hides his hands under the table before the scene. When you look later, you find out that he's painting great paintings.

"The key to him is that he's a genius, but he doesn't torment himself," Gosling says. "I'm a victim of taking these things too seriously."

Hopkins doesn't take things seriously?

"He will bark like a dog," Gosling says bemusedly. "If everything gets too serious, he will start barking. It's actually the perfect dog bark. You would swear that a dog is in the room."

Gosling grew up in London, Ontario, where he was home schooled by his mother until high school. As a young boy he sang in local talent contests with his older sister, but his life changed in 1993 when he went to Montreal for an open tryout for "The Mickey Mouse Club." Gosling beat out 17,000 kids to nab a spot on the popular series, appearing on three episodes of the show ... not as a singer or an actor, but as a dancer.

"I wanted to be a dancer because I figured that it would help me meet girls," he says with a laugh. "All my friends were playing hockey with the guys. So, when I turned 11 and read that they wanted dancers for 'The Mickey Mouse Club,' I went for it. Later on I figured that there weren't many future jobs for dancers, but there were more jobs for actors. And you still got to meet girls."

Gosling made his movie debut in Frankenstein and Me (1996), then headed for the small screen to play Young Hercules (1998-1999). He had a small role in Remember the Titans (2000), then drew solid reviews for a larger part in the Sandra Bullock thriller Murder by Numbers (2002). Then The Believer - with Gosling starring as a Jewish anti-Semite - won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

The Believer changed the young actor's life.

"I didn't know they made movies like that film," he says. "I didn't know that I could be on a job that I loved that much and be in a movie that meant so much. It really set the bar for experiences I wanted to have as an actor.

"I've been trying to build on that experience, figuring that the money is the money, but you can't buy art," he says. "And there is so much money out there that I don't discriminate when it comes to a budget. If it's a small movie, I'll do it if it's good. If it's good, I have to do it. There is no question."

Even if it takes him in odd directions, such as his next movie, Lars and the Real Girl.

"It's a really beautiful love story about a guy who falls in love with a sex doll," Gosling says, absolutely in earnest. "He's convinced that she's real. It's really one of the best scripts I've ever read."

Offscreen Gosling and his "Notebook" co-star Rachel McAdams do their best to avoid the celebrity-couple trap, maintaining a low profile and keeping out of the tabloids.

"I really don't know how to deal with celebrity," he says. "I haven't had a lot of experience with this public life. I guess I've had little doses of it. I'd really like to just avoid it."

With the success d'estime of Half Nelson inevitably came some additional attention. He hadn't expected an Oscar nomination, Gosling says, but he's been pleased with the results, even though Forest Whitaker went home with the trophy.

"There are definitely more opportunities," he says, "but with those opportunities comes a responsibility to make the most from what you are given. I've worked hard to have opportunities. When I started out I didn't have many, and tried to do the most with what I was offered.

"I know I have a window of time," Gosling concludes, "but it's just a window. This won't last forever."

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