Ryan Gosling is charming in the manner of truly charming people. His trick is to make you think that somehow you are the charming one. He laughs easily, a husky, conspiratorial chuckle. He listens carefully and answers thoughtfully, as if he hasn’t been asked the same question a thousand times before, as if the two of you are old friends catching up, shooting the breeze, not two strangers sitting in a hotel in L.A. surrounded by publicists. This is his magic, to be the devastatingly handsome but sensitive guy with the firm handshake and the sly smile. And we all love him for it. Men, women, children – we all go weak at the knees for Ryan Gosling. It helps that he is tremendously talented, a child actor done good, a kid from Nowheresville, Canada, who somehow climbed over the wall into Hollywood. After threatening to retire from acting (and after his poorly received directing debut, Lost River) Gosling is back with a vengeance. He is a jazz pianist in the musical La La Land and a brooding indie rocker in Terrence Malick’s Weightless. But before that, he’s sporting a Ron Burgudy-ish handlebar mustache playing a down-on-his-luck private detective in this month’s 1970s-set comedy thriller The Nice Guys.
Your character in The Nice Guys is a single father. This is your first role as a dad since you became an actual dad. Did experience bring anything to the role?
“That’s a good question. I guess this character in The Nice Guys is your nightmare version of a father. He’s the manifestation of your fear of how bad a father you could be. And there’s something cathartic about that. I really had fun playing this character.”
You’ve played a lot of dark roles. The Nice Guys is a slapstick comedy. Were you in the mood for something a bit lighter?
“This was a lot of fun, like the kind of stuff I grew up on. I grew up on Mel Brooks films. That was film to me until I got a little bit older and realized there were other kinds of movies.”
The film is set in the 1970s. In a way it’s like a love letter to a lost Los Angeles. Did you have an image of L.A. in your mind as a kid growing up in Canada?
“You know, it’s cool that you asked that. I definitely had an image of it in my head when I was a kid. And I think I’ve made films trying to find that same image again. Drive was part of that, of that Los Angeles in my mind. The Nice Guys fulfilled my 1970s fantasy of what it was like.”
You spent your childhood appearing in kids’ shows. Where did that drive come from?
“The biggest influence was probably my uncle. He moved in with us when I was a kid and became an Elvis impersonator. The whole house was taken over by this show he was putting on and everyone became involved in it somehow. As crazy as it sounds, at the time, it somehow made perfect sense and it was really fun. And he looked nothing like Elvis – he was bald, he had a mustache and a giant birthmark. But he was Elvis when he was onstage. Watching him become that character, watching him become someone else, watching that energy around it and the way it brought the best out of everybody… When he decided he wasn’t going to do it any more, it was brutal. Because everyone went back to their lives and life was boring again.”
So you could have ended up an Elvis impersonator?
“And take the reins from him, or take the sideburns or whatever you want to call it, and carry on the legacy? No. But I wanted to find some way to keep that feeling, to be around that energy. So I went at it a bunch of different ways. I joined a dance company for a while; I tried a bunch of different ways of finding my way back into it. And then films began having an impact on me.”
What film had the most influence on you?
“This is going to sound ridiculous, but I remember watching Boyz n the Hood and there is a scene where Cuba Gooding Jr. gets pressed against a car by another police officer and he starts crying because it’s so humiliating. I remember thinking in that moment that I could totally identify with him, and I’m a little white kid from Canada. That’s impossible, but that’s the power of film. If it’s good it can somehow make you feel connected to even the farthest thing from your own experience. When it was over I went back to be a little White kid from Canada but for those two hours, I wasn’t.”
Your next film is the musical La La Land. You play a jazz pianist. Was a musical on your bucket list?
“No! I never really felt like I really wanted to be a singer. When I was a kid I would sing ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ at weddings. I was like eight and it was an easy 20 bucks. So when the musical came, I was nervous about it, because it’s not really what I do.”
You’ve also just worked with the legendary Terrence Malick. Tell me about that.
“I’m sure I’ll never have another experience like it. It was unbelievable to watch him work. He’s such a special filmmaker and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. And he is really just on another level, he never gets sick, he speaks ten languages, he can tell you what bird has just whistled: ‘That was blue finch.’ He’s a really impressive, lovely guy and it was a great experience. I play a musician. There was no script. I remember one day Malick whispered in my ear, ‘Go jump on Johnny Rotten’s back.’”
Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols in the film? How did he feel about you jumping on his back?
“He was cool with it.”
The Nice Guys opened on May20.