Ryan Gosling looked pretty ordinary as he tried to pick between this table and that table and then order tea ... no ... coffee ... at the Standard on a recent afternoon.
The 23-year-old actor, who stars in the just-opened film "The United States of Leland," also wasn't behaving much like a celebrity 30 minutes earlier, as he traded goofy faces with an apparently homeless man lounging on a bench across from him while Gosling posed during a Sunday photo shoot.
"He's like, 'Sucker, look at you dancing for the man,' " Gosling later laughed. The two eventually took a few photos together, arms around each other like old friends.
Gosling leaned forward as he talked, occasionally taking a sip from his coffee or tapping out the ashes of his Camel Light. Palm trees reflected in the black lenses of his silver sunglasses. If he wasn't at the bar, Gosling said, he'd be at home napping with George, the mutt with a "healthy ego" that he got at the pound. Gosling said George often looks at him with an expression like, "You sit."
It's this everyday quality — the fact that he still takes out his trash, does his laundry and shops for groceries — that makes him believable in the roles he plays. Gosling doesn't want to be known as a celebrity because "a lot of people can't relate to big movie stars. They don't look like that; they don't feel like that."
In "The United States of Leland," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003 and opened commercially Friday, Gosling plays Leland P. Fitzgerald, a quiet suburban teen who murders an autistic boy. According to writer-director Matthew Ryan Hoge, the movie is meant to explore why teens are turning to violence as a solution to their problems, but it doesn't set out to give "the easy answer."
The portrayal recently earned Gosling a nod as "male star of tomorrow" at ShoWest, the official convention for the National Assn. of Theater Owners. He can next be seen in Nick Cassavetes' "The Notebook," Terrence Malick's "Che," and "Stay" with Bob Hoskins, one of Gosling's favorite actors.
"I like to take projects that remind people like me that there are people like 'them,' " Gosling said of Leland. Although he has never turned to violence, Gosling said he knows how it is to feel out of place.
"I remember one teacher saying that it was pointless to teach me because I didn't retain anything," Gosling said of his learning difficulties. He was put in special education classes, then was home-schooled and never finished high school — something he said he is sure causes his mother some pain.
Gosling began his acting career at age 13, when he moved from Cornwall, Canada, to be on Disney's "The Mickey Mouse Club" and then the television series "Breaker High." Rumors that he is also an accomplished guitarist-singer with songs on the Internet are a lot of bunk, he said.
In addition to his television gigs, Gosling has been a killer who licked Sandra Bullock's face ("Murder by Numbers," 2002), an emotionally confused player on a six-man football team ("The Slaughter Rule," 2002) and a Jewish nazi ("The Believer," 2001).
"I feel like when I did 'The Believer,' it was the first time everything came into place," Gosling said.
"I'd been kind of fooling around before that."
He says his more serious roles are a sort of homage to everyone his age, who he feels are given short shrift by being labeled solely because of the music they listen to, the stuff they buy or the things they do.
"I'm a young man, and I feel like it's my job to take life and everything else way too seriously," Gosling said with a little smile. But Gosling's serious role as Jewish Nazi Danny Balint worried Hoge, who couldn't picture Gosling morphing from the scarily articulate Danny to the quiet and inaccessible Leland.
"Ryan's manager sent 'The Believer' and said, 'Here's your Leland,' " Hoge said, "and I said, 'No way.' "
The two met for multiple readings of the part and sized up each other's commitment to Leland.
Kevin Spacey said his company, Trigger Street Productions Inc., decided to help produce the movie because it showed "a remarkably complex, very well thought out group of characters placed in a situation that none of them asked for."
But some have protested the movie, saying that Leland's victim, Ryan, a boy with autism, is a replaying of "vicious" and outdated stereotypes; one woman has started an online petition against the movie. Hoge, who has taught children with autism part-time and whose mother is a longtime special education teacher, said the movie is neither a statement on autism nor on the reactions of parents whose children have autism.
Gosling said his character cares for Ryan but never understands that "there is a whole world going on" inside the boy's head.
For Hoge, a relatively new director, the movie is personal — the character of Leland grew out of Hoge's experiences teaching kids awaiting trial at Central Juvenile Hall in East Los Angeles. The movie, Hoge said, asks, "Can you define a life based on one action?" "I think it's more honest to say people who do bad things can still have good in them."
To prepare Gosling for the movie, Hoge took him inside the system. The actor said it was chilling to listen to one boy who was "pretty convinced that he and his friend were going to be the best serial killers." But then, one of the boys would make a silly face, and Gosling would realize they were still kids.
"I'm not saying they shouldn't suffer the ramifications of what they did," Gosling said, "but I'm saying a little understanding never hurt anyone."