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What's Ryan Gosling's secret to his on-screen poise, his ability to disarm and provoke merely by his laconic presence?
"Just try not to blink," he says with a self-deprecating smile.
But Gosling's uncanny, communicative stillness - along with his sensitive vulnerability, his serious dedication to his work and, well, the guy ain't bad looking - has made him one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, a widely beloved, new-generation idol. It might be the only role he's uncomfortable playing.
Rather than exude preternatural cool, in a recent interview Gosling spoke more with the uncertain, self-critical grasping of a still-developing actor trying to find his foothold in an illusory profession. Soon to direct his first film, he's looking forward to taking a step back just when moviegoers can't get enough.
"I've been doing it too much," he says of acting. "I've lost perspective on what I'm doing. I think it's good for me to take a break and reassess why I'm doing it and how I'm doing it. And I think this is probably a good way to learn about that. I need a break from myself as much as I imagine the audience does."
But first, this spring will bring two new films from Gosling, starting with "The Place Beyond the Pines," his second collaboration with director Derek Cianfrance, whose gritty portrait of decaying love in "Blue Valentine" was one of the first showcases of Gosling's talent for immersing himself in a character.
In "The Place Beyond the Pines," which opens in limited release March 29, Gosling plays a tattooed motorbike rider in a traveling circus who, visiting an old fling (played by Gosling's real-life girlfriend, Eva Mendes), finds out he's the father of her toddler - a discovery that prompts an awakening in him, along with a desperate urge to support the child. With a more experienced friend (Ben Mendelsohn), he takes to robbing banks in Schenectady, N.Y. His story composes the first section of a triptych connected by a violent incident that reverberates across generations.
Gosling, 32, started performing as an 8-year-old (coming from an Ontario, Canada, home of divorced, working-class Mormons). He was famously part of the "Mickey Mouse Club," along with child cast members Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Often performing in secondary roles to them conditioned Gosling, he says, to consider himself an ensemble player and character actor.
"There's a lot of pressure to be the lead of a film," he says. "I have done it. It's not my favorite way to work."
Gosling's break came in 2001's "The Believer," in which he played a neo-Nazi teenager. A new level of fame came with "The Notebook," the 2004 romance co-starring Rachel McAdams that made Gosling a bona fide heartthrob.
"By virtue of being in a movie like that, it just changes people's perception of you," he says. "But it doesn't make it true."
Since then, he's largely eschewed the conventional movie star path many in Hollywood would love for him to pursue. Instead, he's worked in naturalistic indies like "Half Nelson" (Oscar-nominated for his performance as a wayward but decent inner-city teacher) and the offbeat comedy "Lars and the Real Girl" (as a delusional introvert with a life-size doll for a girlfriend).
He was atypically active in 2011, with three varied roles: an idealistic press secretary in George Clooney's "Ides of March"; a suave ladies' man in "Crazy, Stupid, Love" (a rare glimpse of a polished, buoyant Gosling); and a quiet, proficient getaway driver in "Drive."
"Ryan was able to convey everything vocal-less," says "Drive" director Nicolas Winding Refn, who also directs Gosling in "Only God Forgives," due out in May. "He was beyond talking. His movement, his posture, his eyes, his thoughts would tell a story."
Gosling often obsessively plunges into a character. For "Lars and the Real Girl," he lived with the doll. In "Blue Valentine," he stayed in a Scranton, Pa., house with his movie wife, Michelle Williams, for a month. For "Pines," he learned to skillfully ride his motorbike, which he kept and still rides.
He grants that he tries to stay "hyper-focused" to shield him from the "seductive environment" of film sets. But he declines any Method acting mantle: "I don't know what I'm doing," he says. "I haven't quite figured out what the balance is between being able to be lost in it - or try to, anyway - and then step outside of it."
Cianfrance, whose background is in documentaries, shoots in real locations and encourages improvisation, pushing, the director says, toward "that place where acting stops and behavior begins." Mendelsohn, who with Gosling significantly altered their characters' relationship into a less typical, shifty friendship shortly before filming started, recalls the week of freeform shooting as "gossamer."
"Ryan, without terribly much trouble, could be the world's most ginormous box-office juggernaut type of thing," says Mendelsohn, whom Gosling recommended for the movie and who'll co-star in Gosling's soon-to-begin-filming directorial debut, "How to Catch a Monster." ''From what I can gather, his interests are a lot more nuanced."
A self-declared "mama's boy" having growing up with his mother (who home-schooled him) and sister, Gosling regularly inverts traditional movie masculinity for more vulnerable, conflicted portraits. He calls his muscly "Pines" character "a melting pot of all these masculine clichés" who, faced with a child, realizes "none of those things make a man."
With his kind of consuming devotion, it's little surprise that Gosling's personal relationships often blur with his fictional ones. Cianfrance calls him a brother. Refn refers to their "bromance." He's had lengthy relationships with several of his co-stars, including McAdams, Sandra Bullock ("Murder By Numbers") and Mendes, who'll also co-star in his "How to Catch a Monster."
"Working with someone is the best way to get to know someone, especially if it's a creative endeavor," says Gosling. "When you work creatively with somebody, it's very telling and you sort of fast-track with everyone."
Having arrived at a rarefied position in movies, Gosling intends to appreciate it, even if his version of a "leading man" is to question masculine stereotypes and avoid leading altogether.
"The more opportunities I'm given, the more I learn about how easy it is to (expletive) it up," he says. "You fight for freedom and then you get it, and then you have enough rope to hang yourself. It's like trying to exercise some restraint because I do have so much freedom."