When Ryan Gosling's mother, Donna, sat down with her son to watch his first leading role in film - as the ferocious Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer - she lasted only 10 minutes before bursting into tears and locking herself in the bathroom. Watching her son so plausibly embody a desolate soul who feels nothing but furious contempt for his own heritage, she felt that she'd failed him and that he was channelling his own emotions. It took Gosling an hour to coax her out.
Seven years later, their relationship has progressed to the stage where Gosling can take home a life-size sex doll every night and sleep with it in his mother's basement outside Toronto without her batting an eyelid, which is what happened during the making of the comedy Lars and the Real Girl. “My poor mother, she doesn't ask questions any more,” Gosling says. “She just says, 'Oh yeah, sex-doll movie. It's great!' She's a really supportive mom.”
In a filmography that started off idiosyncratically and hasn't changed yet, Gosling has specialised in portraying damaged individuals - from the sociopathic teen killer in Murder By Numbers to his Oscar-nominated turn as a crack-addicted school teacher in Half Nelson. Lars Lindstrom is the least threatening character he's ever played. In Craig Gillespie's comedy-fable, Lindstrom is a small-town introvert who orders a sex doll on the internet and parades her around town as his girlfriend, Bianca. Lars fancifully introduces Bianca as a religious missionary who doesn't believe in sex before marriage, and the film landed a PG-13 rating in America, which tells you everything you need to know about its resolute chastity.
“This film is not so far-fetched,” Gosling says. “First of all, it happens. There's a huge community of guys out there that have these dolls, and one aspect of the relationship is sexual; but they also have real emotional connections to them. One guy is a hang glider and he takes his doll to watch him hang glide so that he has company. It's fascinating. Kids do it all the time. When a kid loves their teddy bear, he loves it. It doesn't love him back, but that doesn't matter, and if he loses it, it's heartbreaking.”
Those murky corners where pain, discord and ambiguity are rife have always attracted Gosling. As a child, acting offered him an escape from small-town bullies, who bashed him for being different (he was raised as a Mormon, and his mother home-schooled him for a year).
If you attempt to draw any link between his own life and the characters he plays, he's quick to bristle. “Come on, doesn't everybody feel like an outsider? I mean, we all do, man. We all feel like Lars. We all have trouble connecting. It's like those drugs that they sell on TV now for anxiety - they basically describe everybody. Lars has the same qualities as I do, and I think as everybody does: trouble communicating who you think you are and relating that to who you are and people's perceptions of who you are. It's difficult to be a person.”
You wonder how long Gosling will stay in low-budget indie films before Hollywood swallows him up. It's not for lack of trying: it was almost shocking to witness Gosling turn up in last year's glossy, cat-and-mouse thriller Fracture, opposite Anthony Hopkins. “Fracture was Anthony Hopkins,” Gosling says. “I would work with him on anything and that was my opportunity. OK, so you make certain compromises, but you get to watch Anthony Hopkins up close for four months and see how he does it. And that was just as important an experience for me as doing an independent film and getting to do whatever I want.”
Last year, he signed up for The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's bestselling novel. Gosling was due to play the grieving father of a murdered 14-year-old girl, only to be dismissed two days before production started. The first time I met him, in Toronto in early September, he was weeks away from heading off to Philadelphia for The Lovely Bones shoot. As much effort as he'd put into ageing himself for the role, with added bulk and a thick, well-tended beard, he was still surprised at having been cast.
“They called me, and I just couldn't see myself as the father of this girl, you know?” says Gosling, who was just 26 when Jackson hired him. “I called Peter and said, 'You must be nuts. I love the story, but me as the dad? You're crazy.' And they were like, 'That's the way that we see it.' So who was I to argue because they want the parents to be young?”
When he reported for duty, it didn't take long for him and Jackson to realise he wasn't a good fit (Mark Wahlberg replaced him). “It was always an issue for me. I always felt too young for the role. It's psychological, I guess, but for me that just felt impossible. We did everything we could to get it to that point, but at the end of the day, I couldn't accept it. Within myself, I just didn't feel right.”
Does that mean it was his decision to leave? “No, it was mutual. I mean, it wasn't dramatic, it just became clear that it would be better with someone else. I feel like it's a better movie with Mark Wahlberg in it. You have to know what you can't do, too. The problem is, when you're just starting out, you're trying to convince everybody that you can do anything, because you need a job. You train yourself to think that way. And then when you get to a point where you don't have to hustle for jobs any more, you have to sort of reprogram yourself and think, 'Well, what can't I do?' Because the truth is that they'll catch you. They'll put you in anything.”
Will the experience make him reassess how he approaches offers? “Yeah, I think so. It was nice to be believed in that much, but it was also an important realisation for me: not to let your ego get involved. It's OK to be too young for a role.”
Hollywood never looks kindly on actors who lose jobs, no matter what the true cause, and the New York Post declared in its gossip column that Jackson was alarmed by the actor's cantankerousness about his wardrobe. But it's a rare actor who can resist the industry's compulsion to fence him in, and Gosling has succeeded longer than most. It was fortunate for him that The Believer was his first leading role, after proving that the small, prickly stories are there for actors willing to take the risk. He insists that the only pressure he has, he puts on himself, “living up to my own expectations in the ways I would deal with the opportunities I've always wanted”.
He is working on the cautionary love story Blue Valentine, another low-budget independent movie by a first-time film-maker, about “the domestic life of a man and a woman, which to me is the most interesting dynamic there is”. Michelle Williams was to play the female lead, although she's since put herself on indefinite sabbatical following Heath Ledger's death. He's also been involved in All Good Things (directed by Andrew Jarecki, also making his first fictional feature-length film), a period story that will cast Gosling as a wealthy real-estate scion whose poor girlfriend (Kirsten Dunst) goes missing. It's not a coincidence that half of Gosling's 10-film output has been with first-timers. “There's something about working with them that makes you feel like, whether the movie's any good or not, you're working on something special. If you work with a film-maker who's done a lot of movies or has had success, it's different. There's less at stake. It's like, it could work or not work - it doesn't really matter.”
More crucially, on low-budget projects no one can force Gosling to do anything he doesn't want to. “Cost is directly related to freedom,” he says. “As long as you keep something under a certain number, people don't really care what you do with it. But as soon as you hit a certain budget, you have a lot of people wanting to know exactly why you're wearing those pants and exactly why you're talking that way or being that way, and you have to justify all of your choices to a committee. And they're not really things you can defend. Ultimately, you're just doing them because it feels right - and when you're working on something with a bigger budget, that's not a good enough answer. You have to back it up with charts and graphs, and at that point, your character loses life.”