Earlier this month, Ryan Gosling’s latest movie, Only God Forgives, premiered at Cannes Film Festival. It’s set in Bangkok, albeit in a much seedier side of the city than the one we like to move through during business trips and holidays – Gosling himself appears in the film’s poster with a badly smashed-up face. (We doubt it will have an effect on his status as one of Hollywood’s leading heartthrobs.)
This is the third Gosling film of 2013, after Gangster Squad and, more recently, The Place Beyond the Pines. In the latter, the 32-year-old plays a blonde motorcycle stunt driver who turns to robbing banks to support his baby boy. I met the star during his promo tour for the film and got his thoughts on everything from tattoos to superheroes.
We hear you’ve been greatly influenced by an Elvis impersonator.
My uncle was one. It took me a little while to realise that that’s what he was – I just thought that he was different than everyone else. But he came to live with us for a while, and he started making this jumpsuit; he was putting sequins on it, bedazzling it. I was little and it was the most interesting thing happening in the house, you know? Then he was singing in the mirror and he was doing the voice, he was working on the songs.
I guess I watched him create a character over the course of a few months. And then he put me in the act; I was head of security. Suddenly we’d be walking out and the music’s playing and he’s Elvis; he was a totally different person. Meanwhile, he had a birthmark, a moustache and no hair, he looked nothing like Elvis. But he became Elvis … I think that must have had something to do with it.
So did the menacing tattoos help you get into Luke’s character in The Place Beyond the Pines?
[Laughing] Well, the truth is, those tattoos are the ones I’ve wanted over the course of my life, so I’ve saved them all. One day when I’m not an actor I’ll get them. So, that was a chance for me to live with them for a few months and see how that felt.
Just before we started shooting, I chickened out about having the dagger tattoo on my face. I told Derek, “I can’t do this. This is too much; it’s too distracting.” But he explained to me, “But that’s exactly what happens when you do a face tattoo. You regret it and you can’t take it off and you’re stuck with it!”
Luke finds that his stunt riding skills translate well to bank robberies, what skill would you use to steal money?
[Director Derek Cianfrance] said I was gonna get to rob the banks for real. There would be no cuts, and real people in there, real bank tellers. I’d have to ride the bike up, rob the bank, and ride away on the bike. I was very excited – I thought I was gonna be real scary.
But then I got up there in the bank and in the heat of screaming at these people, I just looked down at them and they were all smiling. The bank employees were just enjoying the show. Some of them were even taking pictures of me with their cellphones. I wasn’t exactly making anyone tremble with fear.
And then Derek was like, “You gotta scare ’em, you know?” And I was like, “OK”. And I went back and did it again and I kept trying to be scarier and scream louder and louder and trying to make them react like it was a real robbery. But I think the angrier I got, the more fun they were having.
OK so scaring people ain’t your forte but you got the physical traits of a tough guy down. Was it hard to put yourself through that training?
As an actor you have to be able to change; it depends on the role. I’ve done roles where I’ve had to be really out of shape, too. I had to put on weight for a movie once (Lars and the Real Girl), and it seemed like a really good idea at the time. I was melting Häagen-Dazs and drinking it when I was thirsty, and that was fun for about a week but then I was dreaming of salads.
How did it feel to get recognition in 2011 for recent performances in films such as Drive and The Ides of March?
That was a great year when those films came out. I had been waiting for that kind of a moment. You can’t plan things; I take each project as it comes and I try to work with talented people. I feel like I’m getting more opportunities and a chance to be part of more interesting films, so on that level there’s been a definite difference. But you’re also aware that the stakes are higher and you want to make sure you don’t make mistakes.
People were protesting, “He was robbed!” when they found out you failed to get an Oscar nomination for Drive.
[Laughing] I didn’t realise that they did that. Did they? Were there riots? Was there riot gear? Was anyone arrested? No? Then it wasn’t a protest.
No, I mean look, when you do these things, you never expect that stuff and so you really just can’t expect that kind of thing to happen, and with Drive, we were just happy to get it made, honestly.
Why did you move to New York? La-la land get too much?
I reached a point where I couldn’t live in Los Angeles anymore even though I loved the weather and the palm trees. The problem is that you spend half your life sitting in traffic and driving from one place to the next. Everything in that city seems to be centred around the film business and it just pervades everything you do. In New York I can walk around more or less freely and it feels real there. There’s such a strong sense of identity and culture to the city that you thrive on that kind of spirit. I love it there.
What big-budget superhero film would you most like to play lead?
Drive was my attempt at the superhero movie. I had a costume and everything – the scorpion jacket. It was like my cape. It was like the idea of a guy that had seen too many superhero movies and then decided that he was going to make himself into one.
And finally, what’s next?
I don’t have any master plan. I love acting; I love being able to play characters that are a mix of good and bad, and are as flawed as they are admirable. It’s my way of trying to make sense of human nature.