He has played a Jewish neo-Nazi, a crack-addict teacher and a man who falls in love with an inflatable doll.
But suggest to Ryan Gosling, an independent-film poster child for the better part of a decade, that he chooses roles for their complexity rather than their commercial appeal, and he'll wave you aside.
"When I make these movies, I don't think, 'I want to make a little indie movie, and I want to stay in the indie world because I think it's cool,' " says the Canadian actor. "I make these movies and think, 'This is the one. This one is going to be "The Blair Witch Project.' " I'm sure of it while we're making it. And then it comes out, and it does no business."
REPUTATION FOR PURITY It's not clear yet if the 30-year-old's latest film, "Blue Valentine," will become a Burkittsville-level phenomenon. But it's certain to burnish his already shiny reputation for artistic purity. The actor spent an on-and-off period of four years shaping the character and discussing the role, one that he got so carried away with that in one scene he spontaneously climbed a fence along the Manhattan Bridge and teetered 200 feet above the East River.
Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, the harrowing romantic drama stars Gosling as the working-class, functional alcoholic Dean. Through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, Dean is seen falling in and out of love with wife Cindy (Michelle Williams), with whom he is raising a child.
A VERSATILE ACTOR Other actors may have played Dean in a single key, but Gosling moves fluidly between different moods: torment, agitation, sweetness. As he has with many of his other characters - the neo-Nazi in "The Believer," the teacher in "Half Nelson" (which earned him a lead actor Oscar nomination), the whimsical romantic in "Lars and the Real Girl" - Gosling is able to inspire an unlikely mixture of repulsion, fear and sympathy.
Compared to some of the exotic characters the actor has played before, the Dean role feels ordinary, even pedestrian. Yet Gosling says this part is closest to his heart.
"I feel like 'Blue Valentine' is the biggest dog on my porch because it's the most universal experience: What happens when love goes away," Gosling says. "It's the ripple effect of that lost love, the shadow it casts."
LOOKING INWARD To tap into the brokenheartedness at the center of "Blue Valentine," Gosling looked at his own relationships (he dated "Notebook" co-star Rachel McAdams and is frequently rumored to be dating other actresses, including Williams), at his parents, at his coupled friends. He recalled how a pair of married friends argued strenuously, before they divorced, about the correct way to wash dishes.
"You could tell these were people who didn't know how to address the bigger problems in their relationship," he said. "People are fighting about these things that are not really what they're fighting about."
COMEDY AHEAD Next up for Gosling is another marital-crisis film, but this time it's a comedy: the Steve Carell movie "Crazy, Stupid, Love," slated for release this summer. (Gosling said he was so enamored by Carell's flair for comedy when the two were shooting a pilot years ago that he'd lurk around the set on his days off just to watch him.) "I don't want to play the same note," Gosling said of his decision to make a studio comedy for the first time. "I feel like after 'Blue Valentine' I don't know what else to do in terms of an independent, romantic drama."
Valentines to 'Blue'
In his three-star review of "Blue Valentine," which ran in Saturday's Newsday, Rafer Guzmán praised the film for its "rare emotional intensity" and cited stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as "utterly, painfully convincing as a couple driving itself apart." (Read the entire review at newsday.com
/movies.) Most critics agree with Guzmán's assessment. "Blue Valentine" and its stars already have garnered a slew of awards nominations (including Golden Globe nods for Gosling and Williams). Look for the movie to pick up more when the Academy Award nominations are announced Jan. 25.