Wrestling with dark roles

Ryan Gosling of `Half Nelson' is gaining attention for his stellar performances as troubled characters

September 12, 2006|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

In his brief time in movies, 25-year-old Ryan Gosling has already given stunning performances as the Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer (2002), the teenage thrill-killer in Murder By Numbers (also 2002), and the wrong-side-of-the-tracks romantic in The Notebook (2004). Now he's reached a new personal best in his portrayal of Dan Dunne, a gifted, coke-addicted history teacher and girls' basketball coach in Half Nelson, which opens Friday in Baltimore.

Dunne forms a turbulent friendship with one of his middle-school pupils, Drey (Shareeka Epps), after she finds him coming down from crack with a bad case of the shakes after a game. As the movie goes on, Dunne faces up to the loss of an old girlfriend and recklessly disrespects his new one, derives little solace from his graying New Left family, and closes himself off from his colleagues. Drey becomes his one resilient human connection. She's his life preserver.

When Gosling picks up the phone in Los Angeles, you feel like telling him what Ralph Waldo Emerson said after he first read Walt Whitman: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career."

But the actor has enough modesty, seriousness and playfulness to put off any grandiosity or flattery. He doesn't even want to think about why his two major performances, in The Believer and Half Nelson, are about implosive personalities, at war with the world and with themselves.

"I never think of them like that," Gosling says, laughing. "And that's so funny you say that." Indeed, Gosling creates his own sardonic laugh track on his side of the phone line. It fills in the silence as he gathers himself to elaborate on his first response. "When I read a script, I look for people I know or people like me. People I can identify with in some way. I'm not good enough to create a character out of something I don't know."

If he appears to have a penchant for playing conflicted men, it's because he prefers scripts in which "good people are doing bad things, and bad people are doing good things, all at the same time."

He's averse to scripts obsessed with a "clear arc" for the hero or antihero. Of course, studio execs and script teachers alike subscribe to the grade-school notion that drama is about characters learning something or even becoming better people. Gosling instinctively opposes that view. "A lot of times, characters get compromised by these arcs." He says he gravitates toward screenplays in which "the people feel like human beings, not somebody's idea of who we are."

Drey keeps an eye on Dunne without his knowing it. She has the guts to keep after him even after she learns the total horror of his addiction and the damage it's inflicted on his life. Dunne is still lucid and idealistic enough to marshal whatever strength he has left to protect Drey from corruption on the street. Their friendship is no silver bullet, but it is a sign of life in a blighted urban landscape.

Gosling deflects praise for Half Nelson and gives credit for his way of capturing a smart yet self-destructive character to the rest of the ensemble. "Actors are like anyone else: if you don't feel safe, you tend to protect yourself, protect your character. If you're working with actors and you can feel vulnerable with them in some way, things happen. It's not about planning moments - they come out when it's time to come out."

Drey is a phenomenal first-time piece of feature acting for Epps. Half Nelson director Ryan Fleck and co-writer and co-producer Anna Boden discovered her at William Alexander PS 51 in Brooklyn, N.Y., and used her in their short, Gowanus, Brooklyn. Gosling gives Epps credit for the chemistry of the movie's core relationship: "Shareeka and I didn't have to strive for a relationship. We were fast friends. And she's amazing. She has this kind of unrelenting hope for you; she looks at you and you know that she wants you to do something great. Everyone was trying to get some time working with her every day."

Gosling says the scenes of him teaching history to junior high kids using dialectics - Hegel's view of history as opposing forces - became genuine for two reasons. One, the kids "really did find dialectics interesting; they would come up and ask me about it." And, two, they didn't find moviemaking "as interesting or glamorous as they hoped."

At one point, Dunne brings home the idea that history is the chronicle of opposing forces by arm-wrestling with a young man named Terrence. He's played by Nathan Corbett, a young actor from Baltimore. But Gosling says most of the child actors went to the same middle school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and volunteered for filming during summer vacation. Director Fleck set up the classroom scenes so that "kids could get up and sharpen their pencils and walk around," so the lens caught realistic expressions of boredom or engagement, Gosling says.

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