Ryan Gosling brought me flowers when we met for this interview on a hot Sunday in July. Our earlier scheduled meeting had gone awry, and he was feeling badly for his part in the miscommunication. I don’t mind saying that I loved the gesture or that I’m a huge fan of Gosling’s work—even before he brought the flowers. We sat at an outdoor café in Brooklyn and talked informally for a good 20 minutes before the interview got started. I was nine months pregnant at the time, and Ryan was genuinely curious about what it felt like to be so pregnant, to be anticipating a new life—this new person to whom I could introduce so many cool things. His inquisitive nature and gentle questioning is indicative of the kind of actor he is—he doesn’t want to intrude, but he wants to know, to learn, and he is eager for a real exchange to take place. The characters Gosling has played in his independent film career thus far are simultaneously lucid and diminished—clear in thought, even if that thinking is twisted by societal terms (Danny in The Believer, 2001); focused and gifted, even if completely lacking in ambition (Roy in The Slaughter Rule, 2002); compassionately murderous (Leland in The United States of Leland, 2003). All are paradoxical characters with no easy way out—among the best kind to watch and clearly the right kind for an actor like Ryan Gosling to play.
RC: When you were doing press for The Believer, you said that what you learned from playing Danny was that nobody really ever thinks they’re wrong—nobody thinks they’re a bad person. And that is really striking to me because where then, in film and in real life, which I think is more often and better depicted in independent film, does accountability come into play? Danny, this Nazi Jew, doesn’t think he’s wrong, but how does he end up ever being accountable for his actions?
RG: Accountable to who?
RC: To himself or to the people he directly affects, who maybe are trying to love him and help him live?
RG: I remember seeing some guy on “Maury Povich” or “Ricki Lake”—a black guy who hated black people. He was wearing blue contacts, had dyed his hair blonde. He hated everything that he was. And I didn’t understand how he was alive.
RC: You mean why he didn’t kill himself?
RG: Yeah. With the passion in which he spoke about his disdain and disgust for a race that he was part of, I couldn’t understand how he got through the day.
It really made me think about who you are versus what you are and how those things can be very different. And when I read the script for The Believer, Iwas reminded of that guy. Danny went to yeshiva, grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, and eventually was going to Torah study class by day and KKK and Nazi rally meetings at night. And he was bringing knishes. But Henry [Bean, the director] took it to another level—he saw Danny as someone who wanted to be a Jewish Nazi. He didn’t want to be just one or the other. He wanted to be both. And he wanted that to be okay.
RC: Do you think that kind of dichotomous existence is very rare or more common than we might think?
RG: I don’t know, but I grew up around some really amazing people—real individuals. I was introduced to life through these really incredible people who weren’t necessarily happy with either who they were or the course that their life had taken. There was an inherent disappointment. It always interested me, and it still interests me—how that happens and what that’s like.
RC: And that’s what I mean about accountability—I guess the issue is really about being accountable to yourself. Playing Danny had to have been an extraordinary experience for you.
RG: Oh yeah. I had no idea—I kind of have more of an idea now—but I had no idea then what it was exactly that I was going to do [with my career]. And this script came along, and for some reason, in a way that I could not articulate, I knew [this film] was something I had to do. And I didn’t know why, but I knew I wouldn’t understand until I did it.
RC: And do you now understand?
RG: I guess I realized that the thing that centers me the most as a person, is to find common ground with other people. I really dig when I meet somebody that is completely different from who I am, and we talk for a while, and I figure out that we’ve got this place where we both live—everything else is different, but there is this one place where we both meet. To take somebody like Danny and work through to find that place where we both live was a really important thing for me. And from that experience, I learned that in this whole thing, movies, the whole business, there is a place for me where I can take these people who seem so different from me and figure out where we’re the same.
RC: You’ve done some Hollywood films—how do those experiences measure in contrast to your work in independents?
RG: I know how hard it is to make a movie, especially a big movie, and most of the people involved in creating the thing bust their ass to make a movie that people will enjoy. Now granted, a lot of times it’s about making money, so they want you to enjoy it so they’ll make money—but they’re still trying to make something that you’ll enjoy. And that can’t be wrong. If you’re paying money for something you enjoy, and someone’s working hard to give you that—that’s a pure exchange. It’s just not how I want to spend my time.
RC: Why not, if it’s a pure thing?
RG: It’s a little more selfish for me—a little more about figuring things out. You know, sometimes you just want to go to the Caribbean and make a movie about pirates. And the people who make those movies have the greatest time ever, and the stories they tell are fantastic. But for me, making something like The Believer is more fun, because when I leave it, it gives me a bit more perspective on myself, and that settles me.
RC: The Slaughter Rule, a great film. I’ve wondered about the relationship between David Morse’s character, Gideon, and your character, Roy, in the film. I’ve read that some see Morse’s character as a paternal figure, but I saw him as being kind of in love with Roy.
RG: Well, the great thing about that is I can’t answer that. I would always ask him: “Dave—is he into me? Or is he not into me?” And he wouldn’t answer. I auditioned for that movie, and I knew I had to work with [Dave]. I read with him, and I didn’t know where he was coming from, but wherever it was I had to find out. I knew that working with David Morse was going to make me a better actor. And it did.
RC: I was surprised the film didn’t get more attention.
RG: I think it’s a confusing film because it’s not a sports movie, and it’s not this other kind of film…
RC: And it has to be something, right?
RG: It doesn’t have to be something. It is what it is. But there’s no real name for it yet. So it’s hard to market, and everything is about marketing now. There are so many options, and if you’re someone who works hard for your money, and you’ve got ten dollars to go to the movies, you kind of want to know what it is you’re going to see. And if somebody has a hard time explaining to you what it is, then you might go see something else. I think we’re really at a point of transition with the kinds of movies we’re making.
RC: I think so too, but what exactly is that point of transition? What is happening with all this marketing and all these options now?
RG: Well, what’s happening is that marketing is a new art in and of itself. You really only have to make a trailer and a poster that’s appealing [to sell a movie]. And that’s it. What the movie is—doesn’t really matter. They’re really just the trailer but longer.
RC: You mean studio films or independent?
RG: With a couple of the films I did after The Believer, I started to see that the people making the film knew by a week or two before the film came out how much money the movie was going to make. By test audiences, by polls, by whatever it is they do—they knew how many people were going to go see the movie. So that now, before a movie gets made in a studio system, it has to run through the marketing people. Here’s a script—from that, it’s: how can it be marketed and who’s attached?
RC: And with independents?
RG: The independent world, which really isn’t independent anymore, has kind of turned into something else. It’s a great time to be working in it though because there aren’t a lot of rules. If you can get around the right people, I think you can try a lot of stuff now. There’s a new independent film—I don’t know what it is, but it’s coming.
RC: Is that because the old independent film has been divvied up into various branches or arms of the studio system?
RG: It’s also fallen into this kind of pattern, which I’m not into, where to be independent it has to be a dark, depressing point of view—where everyone is humorless and life is just so hard. And we need to reflect that because people are going through it and isn’t it terrible. But I don’t think that’s what life is like at all. And I don’t think that’s what people are like at all. People are amazing and can be happy in situations that you can’t believe. I was just in Chad recently at the Darfur refugee camps—I’ve never been around people that were happier or more present in my life. And I feel like we do them a disservice when we [try to] reflect those who have gone through a difficult time.
RC: But it is hard to figure out how to get an idea of what others have experienced or are going through, and to make a difference and be solid with your intentions.
RG: I think independent film started out trying to say [in reaction to studio films]: I don’t look like that person, I don’t talk like that, my life isn’t like that. I don’t identify with that at all. So I’m going to make a movie about what it’s really like. But now I think we’ve gone so far the other way that that’s not what it’s like either.
RC: You’ve got a film coming out next month called Stay, directed by Marc Forster—what was your experience like working with him?
RG: The thing about Marc—and I hope it’s okay to say, because I feel like it’s kind of what makes him the filmmaker that he is—is that at a very crucial point in his young adult life, he experienced two complete extremes. He had all the money in the world and then had absolutely nothing. And it was almost overnight. He and his family went from having an embarrassment of riches to living, I think, in one room with each other. And Marc was happy in both worlds. So he makes movies from that place, and I think that’s a real gift to us as people who love movies.
RC: How did you come upon the project?
RG: I read the script, and then I met with Marc. I knew after meeting him that working with him was going to help me be better.
RC: And that’s definitely a factor for you when you’re choosing what you want to do—whether or not it’s going to make you better.
RG: I get bored easily. I want to keep things interesting. And I know that when I meet people like Henry Bean or David Morse or Marc Forster, that I’m going to learn something from knowing them. I can stay in this place that I’m in and try to feel comfortable, but I know that there’s more, and that certain people I meet seem to have it.
RC: And do you feel that you also bring as much?
RG: I think what I bring is—I’m a fan. I’m a real fan. I really admire people who are doing things and saying things that I’m not—I want to be around that and learn where that comes from. So I meet these people who are real individuals, who are great at what they do and are great people, and I want to figure out how to be that—or what that is.
RC: But do you think that you bring as much? You’re a fan, but would someone say the same about you— that Ryan is really good at what he does and is an excellent individual,
someone I want to be around?
RG: Yeah. I feel like I’ve had the opportunity to do some pretty amazing things in my life and to meet some pretty incredible people. So I love to meet people who haven’t had those experiences and tell them about them. And I know that I affect people when I do. I feel like that’s what I do when I work—I just try to tell people about the experiences I’ve had. I think that’s what I have to offer.
RC: The film that you’re shooting right now is called Half Nelson—tell me a little about that.
RG: Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden had a short film called Gowanus, Brooklyn that won Best Short at Sundance, and they’re making it into a feature. I’ve never had more fun making a movie, ever. $700,000 budget, there’s only like a couple of actors in it, and everyone else is kind of just living their life in the movie.
RC: It’s about a social studies teacher and his student at a public school in Brooklyn, right? Where are you shooting?
RG: In Fort Greene. It’s great. I’m living three blocks away from the school where I’m teaching. I wake up at 6:30 am, I go to class—I teach 25 kids, who are in the school that they go to.
RC: It’s a white teacher and a young black female student?
RG: My character sees this student who’s at a point in her life where she’s ready for somebody like him, but he doesn’t know who he is. They’re both trying to be the people that they see in each other. I really wanted to work this way—where you get to throw anything at the wall and see what sticks, which you don’t get to do when there’s a lot of money at stake.
RC: Well that’s the idea behind independent film, right?
RG: Right, but this is it in effect. This is exactly why you want to make independent movies because you get to really figure it out. You get to try things that you’re not sure about and see if they work.