He's Still Here
Casey Affleck has spent most of his career on the fringes of Hollywood. But with his Oscar-worthy turn in 'Manchester by the Sea', he’s finally standing center stage.
Deep beneath the old castle fortifications in Budapest, on a hill just west of the Danube, is a subterranean labyrinth that winds for several miles. At the very end of one twisting tunnel, a long walk from the surface, there is a chamber, and in its center, barely visible through the smoke that fills the room, is a small crouching statue of a grotesque, winged demon perched above a flat rectangular tombstone. The tomb's purported occupant is identified by a single chiseled word: DRACULA.
This is where Ryan Gosling has chosen to meet.
He hated being a kid. He just didn't like the way it felt, and he wanted it to be over.
“I just felt this sense of: I have a limited amount of time and, you know, I've got to get started. I also didn't like the arbitrariness of control that people seemed to have over me.”
I think most kids don't know to question that. They just accept it.
“I think my mother encouraged that. I had one teacher, because I was dancing, he thought that was funny and he would make jokes about it in class, and my mother said, ‘You know, if ever you feel like he's being disrespectful, you can just leave.’ And I did one day. I called her and said, ‘Hey, I left.’ Also, when I was homeschooled for a year, I saw my curriculum come in the mail, and I saw that it was just this tangible stack of books—I guess I realized that there were other ways to do it. The fact that I could stay home and watch Planet of the Apes in the morning and then go downstairs and draw while I learned about some historical battle—draw these maps and scenarios and connect to it in a way that was personal to me—I just felt like: Oh well, then there must be another way to do everything.”
And so why would Ryan Gosling choose to meet at Dracula's underground tomb? Did he choose somewhere as far and different as possible from the magical star-filled Los Angeles skies of his new movie, the musical La La Land? Or is he looking to suggest something profound about time and mortality and notoriety that is better demonstrated than explained? Or is it just that, when you're Ryan Gosling, arranging a spooky rendezvous deep below the surface of the earth might be a way of at least staving off the questions he knows are coming? In marked contrast to the thrilling and eclectic parade of characters he's portrayed on-screen (just to pick a few career highlights: The Believer; Half Nelson; Lars and the Real Girl; Blue Valentine; Crazy, Stupid, Love; Drive; and The Big Short), Gosling has generally preferred to play his cards close to his chest offscreen.
Fittingly, when he strolls into Dracula's purported final resting place, Gosling offers little clarification about this choice of location, except to note, “If we start with a torture chamber, everything's uphill from here,” which sort of makes sense and sort of doesn't. (For the record, there is little serious pretense that Dracula is really buried in this tomb, though supposedly Vlad the Impaler was imprisoned somewhere in these catacombs in the 15th century.) We linger for a few minutes, making small talk, but it's clear pretty quickly that we've already done just about all there is to do here. As we wind our way to the exit, though, he does acknowledge an ingrained affnity for such places. “My mom used to hang out in graveyards when I was a kid, so…,” he says. “She used to like to read the headstones. So they weren't sort of scary places.”
We emerge into a wet, dark Saturday afternoon. On the street, Gosling tells a man in a parked car that we're going to walk, and we head off, looking for somewhere to sit and talk. Maybe a hundred yards later, a different man approaches Ryan and gives him a briefing about which cafés and restaurants nearby are open, and which are full. It's funny, the way these people associated with Gosling keep appearing out of the rain and darkness; I begin to imagine that there might be dozens of them. I tell Gosling that I like the way he seems to have someone on every block.
He nods. “Someone on every block,” he repeats.
One evening when he was in first grade—he was raised in Cornwall, Ontario, where his father and most of his male relatives worked for the local paper mill—young Ryan Gosling saw Sylvester Stallone's primal and brutal revenge drama First Blood, the original Rambo film, on videocassette. The next day, he packed his Fisher-Price magic kit with the Gosling family steak knives. Suitably armed, he headed to school, ready to put into action the new lessons he had just learned.
“I think I saw it too young,” he says. “I wasn't able to separate those realities. I don't blame it on the film. Part of being a kid in the '80s was that these movies, we didn't have the experience necessarily of going to the theater, of this thing outside your life. You would watch it while you were falling asleep on the couch, or you could re-watch it, and they were tangible things, these VHS tapes, and they were like friends of mine. And so I connected with them in a very, you know, personal way.”
Even so, you might assume that taking a set of knives to school was just some inappropriate, but ultimately harmless, playacting. But when I ask Gosling about what was going through his mind that morning, his reply makes clear that the boundaries between reality and fiction were still precarious, even dangerously shaky, at that point in his life.
“I just remember there being, like, some injustices on the playground, you know. That there was bullying going on, or something. And I felt like”—he laughs—“that's the feeling I remember. There was something unjust going on.”
So you weren't just going to school and playing Rambo—you were going to sort shit out?
“I didn't think it through, you know. I just thought, in my mind: This is not right, what is happening, and something has to be done. Thank God, you know, I was suspended. I should have been. My mother was mortified. And it was like reality came in. I had to get control of my imagination.”
Did that feel like a good lesson learned? Or like you'd had your imagination reined in?
“No, it felt like a lesson learned. I think I felt pretty guilty about that. I think. Although, I don't know. I was so young, I don't know what the fuck was going through my head.”
In all these things, did you feel as though you were different from most of the kids you were around?
“Not in a good way. I was doing very badly in school, and I just couldn't remember what the teachers were talking about. I felt like it looked easier for everyone else and it was harder for me. It affected my self-worth.”
Did people tell you that you weren't smart?
“I mean, they started feathering me into some special-education classes and things like that. I mean, I remember playing chess with a kid who was eating his queen, you know.”
Gosling has been in Hungary for most of the past four months, filming the Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049. “It's like three movies that I usually make in one,” he says. “Just in terms of the length and just the whole scope and experience.” I ask how it's going, and he quotes something his co-star Harrison Ford said the other day: “cautiously optimistic.” But he knows that people have high expectations, and how treacherous those can be. “The snipers,” he says, “are in the bell tower, waiting.” But, that aside, he says that he can't tell me much: “I've never done something so shrouded in secrecy or where there's so much anticipation.”
I hear that Harrison Ford punched you in the face?
He looks surprised. “How did you hear that?”
I've got people on every corner, too.
“Yeah, he did. It was kind of, you know, a rite of passage.”
How did it happen?
“We were just doing a fight scene and, you know, it just happened. But what was funny was, when it was over, they brought ice for my face, and Harrison pushed me out of the way and stuck his fist in the ice.” He laughs. “I asked him the other day where he got his sense of humor from—was it from his mother or his father? He said, ‘Sears.’ And he didn't have much time to shop around so he just had to grab one and get out.”
So did it hurt when he hit you?
“You know…he's tough. He's been an inspiration to everyone—everyone is doing push-ups now and taking an interest in their fitness. As soon as it happened, the director came up to me and said, ‘Look at it this way—you just got hit by Indiana Jones.’ ”
Was he suitably apologetic?
“He came by afterward with this bottle of scotch, and I thought, ‘Oh, I knew this was coming.’ And he pulled out a glass from his pocket, poured me a glass, and walked away with the rest of the bottle. So I guess he felt like he didn't connect enough to earn a whole bottle.” He smiles. “You know, they say don't meet your heroes, but I would say the addendum to that is ‘…unless they're Harrison Ford.’ 'Cause he's a cool motherfucker.”
One of the great bait and switches with Ryan Gosling is that his face and demeanor send the signals of a regular guy, even while it's clear there's just as much deep and dark and strange stuff sloshing inside of him as in just about any other weird-guy actor.
Here's one characteristic example—an insight into how movies helped shape his young mind, and how over time they beckoned him toward them:
“Like, when I saw Dumbo and The Elephant Man—I felt like those films were smashing down some wall inside of me and creating a room called empathy. And being very grateful for having seen those films even though they were painful, and the idea of watching them again was scary, because I didn't know that I wanted to feel those things again, but it did feel different after seeing them. Like they had exposed some part of myself to me that I didn't know was there.”
As he says this to me, I realize he's being utterly sincere, but I'm also confused: Is he saying he saw these two very different movies at the same stage of his life? And surely he's aware of the surreal elephant theme here? But he sort of ignores me when I ask these questions, as though they're the kinds of things you'd only bring up if you hadn't really been paying attention to what he was trying to say.
“I don't know why I put them together,” he says. “But I guess I remember feeling for both of those characters.”
We escape from the rain into a restaurant whose name translates as the Black Raven. He orders coffee and talks about what he found in acting, and at first it sounds like the kind of earnest but boilerplate spiel that hides what it offers to reveal, but then what he says shifts into something more personal and heartfelt.
“I didn't grow up watching independent films or art films,” he says. “I just generally watched whatever blockbusters came to our theater. But the people I grew up with weren't reflected in the movies I was watching growing up.” What was invigorating and inspiring was the discovery that there were movies—and, later, that he could be in movies—that felt like they were filled with the real people he knew. “Because I was always so fascinated by my uncles, my family, how complicated they were, the light and dark sides of them. It wasn't something that was part of the dialogue in our family, or in school, or in life. It was just something that I was just kind of privately clocking, and being compelled and repelled by. When I saw there were people out there trying to capture that on film, and reflect that and celebrate that, the messiness of it all, it felt very exciting.”
And then he adds this: “I think there's an idea out there that you become an actor because you like to be at the center of attention, or because you're a natural performer. Which in some cases I'm sure is true. But I feel more often than not that what drives you to become an actor is an instinct to disappear. To become someone else. Not yourself.”
I guess the obvious question is: How much is wanting to be someone else not wanting to be yourself?
“Two things can be true and co-exist at the same time. To me, it wasn't about not wanting to be myself, it was about wanting to not only have to be myself. Because I don't have to. And so why would I?”
Nonetheless, there is one moment from his childhood that he credits with setting him on the road to becoming a performer of some kind—“the clearest moment I can think of,” he says, “when things were different.” Though a very different kind of moment than, say, seeing your first Cassavetes movie.
What happened was that an uncle, who was also an Elvis impersonator, came to stay with the Gosling family.
“I remember things being very mundane until he came around,” says Gosling, “and suddenly he was wearing a jumpsuit around the house and talking like Elvis, putting together a show and putting my mom as a backup singer and my father as head of security. And all our family was coming around, making costumes…family members that didn't necessarily talk before. It just brought everyone together. I was in the act—I handed out teddy bears and scarves.”
His uncle would perform under the name of Elvis Perry, often at the mall. It wasn't this general sudden infusion of show business into daily life that so affected young Ryan, but one very specific aspect of it.
“When he sang ‘Suspicious Minds,’ ” Gosling recalls, “he got emotional. I remember sitting and watching him, and he'd have tears in his eyes while he sang, you know. Really singing that song. I mean, I was so young, but I remember understanding that it was a dialogue between a woman who was leaving her man, and you get the understanding of the physicality of him kind of standing in a doorway, begging her not to go. And it's like a scene. It's a very powerful song, and I remember him not only just singing that song but becoming the guy who was pleading for his woman not to leave him, and getting moved every night. Every night he did it. And then we would all go home and have dinner, and everything was back to normal. But in that moment he was in that moment, and everybody was moved by it.” He laughs a little self-consciously. “It sounds so silly. Because it felt so serious at the time—but he was Elvis Perry and we were in a mall. But it's true.”
When you look back now, as an adult, was your uncle showing real emotion, or showbiz emotion?
“I think it was real. You know, other than him, most of the men in my family were at a paper mill. It's just hard work. And I think there was this artistic part of him that kept him out of that. Maybe I read it wrong—I was just a kid—but it resonated to me as something that he was accessing in a real way.”
Then, says Gosling, his uncle got the cancer diagnosis, began chemotherapy, and became very introverted. A curtain had been briefly opened; now it closed.
“Everything stopped,” Gosling remembers. “People stopped coming around. And I just thought, you know: ‘Can we do…maybe not exactly that, but something like that…again?’ ”
And in one version of Ryan Gosling's story, everything since can be seen as his emphatic answer to that question.
Gosling says that one of the attractions of his new movie, La La Land, was that he would be able to spend three months not only working with a jazz pianist—so that he could “really try and understand and embody a Thelonious Monk piece”—but also learning how to “do some of the styles of dance I wish I had spent time on when I was a kid.” Back then he would “shake it like a showgirl,” as he puts it—the boy star in a dance company of girls whose precocious and gleeful hip-thrusting would help bring in the trophies, and would ultimately lead to his famously unlikely teenage career diversion as a member of the Mickey Mouse Club, alongside Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears.
For a while in his mid-20s, he took dance classes again, in private. “I missed it,” he explains. That time he did tap, and some ballet—stuff he'd wanted to focus more on as a kid but never got the chance. “I liked being in the studio, and being in a class. And I like dancers—I like their energy, I like the way they approach what they do. I really liked them as a kid—I loved hanging out with them. I just think dancers are an interesting breed. They're like athletes but they're not competitive. I love to watch them. I love to see the way that they embody the music and communicate themselves physically. I think it's so beautiful. I wish that I had that.”
And you like the feeling of yourself when you're doing it?
“I do. It was harder as an adult, because I was more self-conscious.”
When La La Land' s writer and director, Damien Chazelle, first approached him, Gosling says he was enticed by the way Chazelle talked of creating an immersive and transportive experience for the audience. “I think I've made a lot of films where I wasn't really conscious of the audience,” Gosling reflects, “because I didn't know what they wanted, and I didn't know how to connect with them.”
But he also knew that there were far more ways a movie like this—a movie that switched between drama and sweeping musical numbers—could go wrong than go right. “There was a small room for success here,” he says.
What worried you?
“You know…just that it would be ridiculous. You know, people are breaking into song and dancing and flying in the stars, and [the audience is] also having to accept them as real people in the world. That was the challenge. More what it is is that it's not cynical. There's nothing cynical about this movie, and there's no out for us to say, ‘Just kidding!’ We can't be ironic about it. There's no avenue for that in this. It wears its heart on its sleeve, this film.”
You were personally scared you'd look ridiculous?
“I knew it was a strong possibility.”
And that would have been awful?
“I mean, that's not the target I'm aiming for. But if you're going to take yourself out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself, you risk looking ridiculous for doing that. But it also felt worth it.”
It's been exuberantly praised at film festivals. Why do you think it's connecting?
“I think it's a cynical time and this movie has nothing to do with that.”
Gosling's parents split up as his childhood career was beginning to build. He remains close to his mother—she is here in Hungary—and he has talked at length about her role in who he has become. But when he first became famous, he wryly commented about how his father had seemed too into his son's success (for instance: “So when I finally got out of the grips of my father, I said, ‘I'm not going to do anything you can brag about anymore’ ”) and it was implied that they had no ongoing relationship. If so, this is no longer true. “There was a long period of time where, you know, things were complicated,” he says, “but things are different now.”
How are you most like your mother?
“She's funny. My mom used to wake me up to watch Johnny Carson, to watch his monologues. Abbott and Costello, she used to make me watch them. She knew that that was special, and she really wanted me to get that, and I still love those things. My mother's more of an academic—she went back to school five years ago and became a teacher. She's here and she's learned 500 words. I'm not an academic in the way that she is, but I do have her kind of curiosity.”
Is it really true that she had a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger on the fridge when you were growing up?
“She did, yeah.”
That's really disturbing.
What was the photo?
“He was on a horse with a cigar with his shirt off.”
What was that about?
“My parents got into bodybuilding for a little while. My father was a Ferrigno fan. He liked Lou Ferrigno. My mom liked Arnold.”
So they were bodybuilding Mormons?
“My father was really more into it. She wasn't herself a bodybuilder but I think, in the '80s, everybody tampered with that a little bit, or at least the idea of it. Maybe I'm wrong. No?”
That's not how I remember the '80s.
“That's true. I didn't see an issue of Muscle & Fitness at any of my friends' houses.”
Gosling has two daughters with the actress Eva Mendes, the eldest 2 years old, the youngest born last April, and the whole family is here with him in Hungary.
“Your whole life,” he says, “you hear what it's like to have kids, and all the clichés are true. I felt I knew that everything would be different, but until you experience that, there's no way to really know what people mean.”
“I only know what it's like to have my kids. And in my situation, Eva's the dream mother, and they're dream babies, and it's like a dream that I'm having right now. I'm dreaming it all. So I feel so lucky.”
You didn't think it would feel like this?
“It's not something I really thought about, or even thought I wanted. I didn't have a romanticized idea of it.…It came about in a very surprising and kind of organic way. There was nothing kind of premeditated about it, you know. It just suddenly was: My life had changed. And thank God it did.”
How does it affect everything else?
“There's a kind of chaos in it that I love. Maybe in my life I sort of put myself in situations that were chaotic, outside of my life. And now I have it at home, and I don't have to go looking for it.”
A sweeter kind of chaos, I would hope.
“Yeah. I mean, maybe not that. It's a beautiful chaos that's…surreal and serene.”
I think it's pretty common for parents who come from broken homes to worry about whether they're going to do it right. Do you have that?
“Sure, yeah. I mean, not leading up to it, but now. When you meet your kids you realize that they deserve great parents. And then you have your marching orders and you have to try and become the person that they deserve.”
I also think something that freaks a lot of new parents out is that they expect their kids to be some kind of fusion of the two parents—and suddenly these different, completely independent people turn up.
“I mean, it's a relief when you realize that they are who they are. You're nervous that they'll get all the qualities of yourself that you have been struggling with, and then you realize that they're not you. And it's a relief. Then—and again, I don't mean to talk like I'm anything but new to this—as I start to get to know who they are, again you have your marching orders, which is to try to provide them with the things that they need to fulfill that.”
How has having them all here changed the experience of making the movie?
“Well, it made it possible. I know I couldn't be away this long. They come to [the set], too. So it's nice to share that. Especially with my oldest. All these sets have been made, and there's incredible craftsmen involved, all of the seamstresses making all these costumes, and the love and attention that's going into every detail—I really wanted her to see that.”
Does she understand what Daddy does?
“I don't know. She was on set the other day and I was doing a fight scene with Harrison and she just yelled out in the middle of the take, ‘You're winning!’ Well, first she said, ‘You're doing great,’ and then Harrison stopped in the middle of the take and said, ‘What about me?’ ”
FROM A YOUNG AGE, he says, there was always a part of him that was outside what was going on.
“Watching myself. Watching the people around me. There was some part of me that was there as a kid and growing up and living my life, but there was also some part of me that was watching it all happen from the nosebleeds.”
In an ideal world, how would you like people to think of you?
“Um…without contempt? Without a deep sense of regret?”
So how would you worry that they might think of you?
“Boy. Well, you know, in the age of the Internet, I know the worst-case scenario. There's no mystery anymore.” He laughs. “You know, there's no secrets. The comments section of anything, you can't go into. That's the new bathroom wall.”
Yes. But even by the normal standards of the Internet, Ryan Gosling's other life—the shadow persona created for him by others online—seems a particularly unusual one. This persona is most famously expressed via the “hey girl” memes, in which Gosling is presented as masculine but sensitive, kind of the world's most perfect boyfriend. But the phenomenon extends far beyond that. Among the (unoffcial) books you can buy about Gosling are 100 Reasons to Love Ryan Gosling, a Ryan Gosling-themed coloring book, and the landmark Feminist Ryan Gosling: Feminist Theory (as Imagined) from Your Favorite Sensitive Movie Dude. What's fascinating is why all of this should have accrued around Gosling in particular, and why it makes a kind of intuitive sense to so many people. After all, Gosling tends to come across offscreen as a reticent under-sharer, while on-screen he has generally (with one notable exception) played complex and often fairly dark roles—roles that offered very little to fuel this notion of who he is. That exception is the fiercely romantic and melodramatic The Notebook, but surely that one role more than a decade ago couldn't be responsible for all… this?
“I think it's part of…um…America just finally realizing that there's a place called Canada. That it's nearby. And the people there are, you know, different but the same. And not just America's hat. We have free health care, education.”
So you're saying that what people see as perfect boyfriend material is actually…?
I don't think that's right, though I kind of love the idea.
“Well”—he laughs—“it's the only thing that makes any goddamn sense. I mean, look at Trudeau. He's doing a lot of things, but things that are kind of natural parts of being Canadian. I don't think Canada is as shocked by what Trudeau is doing as the rest of the world is.”
Though, to fold that thought back on itself, you can go on YouTube and find Trudeau discussing Ryan Gosling “hey girl” memes.
“Because he's taken the mantle. They're trying to get him to accept it, and I think he deserves it way more than I do.”
It does set up a standard of being someone that no real person could live up to. In those things, you are the most sensitive and patient and thoughtful and empathic man who has ever existed.
“Right. That's fucked-up.”
So should we clarify that you're not exactly that? Or do you want to claim it?
“I think it's just, again, my Canadianness. It is what it is.”
Does it trouble you, or is it funny, or…?
“It's just a thing that is a constant point of conversation, just a thing that I don't understand. It's everywhere. People yell it on the street. I mean, there was a period of time when one kid made up a Vine that I wouldn't eat my cereal and people were angry at me for that.”
Yeah, I'm not sure I ever quite understood the cereal thing.
“Honestly, it's actually a funny idea. This kid was watching a movie— Drive, I think—and he was eating cereal and trying to hold the spoon up and filming these moments where it looked like I was refusing to eat it. And Vine, it just repeated, so it got funnier and funnier. He made a lot of them, and it just became a thing people were asking me about. It's such an absurd… The Internet is just an abstract place. Sure, I've become part of that in some way, but it's hard for me to wrap my head around a lot of it. I prefer just to kind of stay out of it. It's weird to have no control over something that you're involved in. A lot of these things feel like quotes that you've said, but you haven't said them. That's a strange thing to get used to, because I do care about what I say, and how I say it. Even if they're positive things, it's an odd thing to be quoted, to be credited for something that you don't deserve and haven't earned. It's like being set up for a fall. But at the same time, I also think they're funny.”
So what's your favorite?
“There was one of, like, me with cats at Disneyland which was pretty fun. Someone sent a few of them to me.”
But all this doesn't happen to everyone who's famous. Which still screams the question: Why?
“I really don't know. I used to say it was like the moment when Fabio got hit in the face with a pigeon on the roller coaster. I don't know. Sometimes I didn't know if I was Fabio or the pigeon. It depended on the day.”
He has to go. There is a farewell dinner for Harrison Ford, who has finished his stint on the film, and Gosling is late. We have each drunk two cups of coffee. Gosling wants to pay, but the waiter, who hasn't previously acknowledged that he knows who his customer is, prefers to barter.
“Nothing,” he says. “Just do picture.”
Whether or not it's the deal Gosling would have chosen, it's easier to accept than to refuse. No matter how much care you take in this world, there's only so much you can control. So he accedes, then walks out into the darkness where, presumably, his various people still await him.
CHRIS HEATH is a GQ correspondent.
Casey Affleck has spent most of his career on the fringes of Hollywood. But with his Oscar-worthy turn in 'Manchester by the Sea', he’s finally standing center stage.
How the 'La La Land' star left an anxious childhood in Arizona behind to become America’s most freewheeling leading lady.