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Half Nelson - Ryan Gosling interview

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From Mormon to Mickey Mouse mouthpiece actor Ryan Gosling is not your average film star. He tells Tom Dawson some half-truths about his new film Half Nelson

The versatile, chameleon-like Canadian actor Ryan Gosling has consistently been drawn to dark, emotionally troubling roles. He has played a Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer, a teenage killer who flirts with the investigating policewoman in Murder by Numbers, and a student planning to make his own suicide a ‘great work of art’ in Stay. Now in Half Nelson he’s an inner-city teacher, seeking refuge from his disillusionment and confusion in crack cocaine.

The 26-year-old Gosling’s compelling performance in the film led to him being nominated for the Best Actor prize at this year’s Oscars. Yet, speaking to Gosling just before last Christmas, it was clear that the desire for wider recognition wasn’t the driving factor behind his participation in Half Nelson.

‘I just read it and it stuck out like a sore thumb,’ he explains in a measured drawl. ‘I felt when I read it that it was about people I’d met or who I would meet after I’d read it. I didn’t recognise many clear character arcs, which I liked. And there was a self-righteousness to the characters. These were people who got embarrassed and were inappropriate and were in conflict. The sort of things we deal with all the time in real life, but don’t get shown in films. The director Ryan Fleck hadn’t originally thought of me for the role, but then that’s how all my best movies start.’

Gosling has little time for the tired storytelling conventions contained in most of the scripts he’s sent. ‘You know how in movies people realise stuff about themselves and are able to implement it into their lives,’ he continues. ‘Well I’ve never been able to do that and I don’t think I’m alone in that. What I felt about Half Nelson was that I could relate to the day to day struggles of the characters, even if the specifics are different from my own struggles.’

It’s tempting to read Gosling’s preference for taboo-breaking parts as a rebellion against the strictures of his childhood growing up in small-town Ontario to strict Mormon parents. He followed his older sister around to local auditions and talent contests, and by the age of 12 he’d moved to Florida after winning a presenting slot on The Mickey Mouse Club, where his colleagues included Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. His performance in The Believer, made when he was still a teenager, earned him stellar reviews, but it’s only recently that he has realised; ‘I was steering my own career. For a long time I was on autopilot, making decisions I didn’t really think about.’

Having long finished filming the psychological thriller Fracture (also out this fortnight) alongside Anthony Hopkins, and having recently completed Lars and the Real Girl, a film about a man who falls in love with a sex doll, Gosling is preparing to direct his own debut feature The Lord’s Resistance, which deals with child soldiers in Africa. ‘The best piece of advice I received was from Terrence Malick. I told him I was writing a script and he said to me, “Don’t spend too long writing the script. Movies tell you what they want to be while you are making them, not while you are writing them”.’

Half Nelson is at Cineworld Renfrew Street, Glasgow from Fri 20 Apr and Cameo, Edinburgh from Fri 4 May. Fracture is on general release from Fri 20 Apr.

Watch the trailer

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