Just too cool for school

Times Staff Writer

the kind of unfocused kids who make parents weep.

"I was bad at everything. I used to sit in the back of the class my whole school career. My father said to my mother, 'There's something radically wrong with this boy.' He despaired of me," says Sir Anthony Hopkins with a chuckle.

"I was always picking fights. Because I thought that was what the girls would like," says Ryan Gosling. "I'd pick on the toughest guys because the girls liked them. So if I beat them up the girls would like me. But it never worked. I was just in so much trouble. They called me 'Trouble'; that was my nickname."

Years later (about 60 for Hopkins and a mere 10 for Gosling), the pair, small-town guys from modest backgrounds in Wales and Canada, respectively, are celebrated actors, an Oscar winner and a nominee, with the psychic gratification of proving wrong all who ever doubted and gratitude for those who incongruously believed in scrappy boys with no discernible talent. The duo star as antagonists -- the proverbial cat and mouse -- in the thriller "Fracture," which opened Friday, but it's clear as they sit in the coffee shop of Santa Monica's Fairmont Hotel (a favorite hangout of Hopkins) that they barely know each other.

Both seem surprised and amused to know they shared an early disdain for school. "I became an actor because I didn't know what else to do," says Hopkins. "If you're creative or artistic, I think you live in another world. It's difficult to grasp onto things."

In person, the man famous for playing one of the most diabolical killers in the world -- the depraved and brilliant Dr. Hannibal Lecter -- is jolly, erudite and interested in other people, although he alchemically exerts an almost gravitational pull to himself. Dressed in a slouchy khaki blazer over a striped polo shirt, he speaks in a quiet rasp, with an air of devilish glee. He describes himself as "hyperactive. I wish I could sit and relax, but I can't. I have this driving force in me that makes me move and get out of bed in the morning. It may be a kind of neurosis, but I feel happy."

On a typical nonworking day, he flits between reading, playing the piano and, more and more, painting. "I paint and paint. I could do five paintings in a day," he says. Recently, he's sold a bunch and given the proceeds to charity.

By contrast, the lanky Gosling, with his lopsided features and slacker jeans and sweater, is at once more earnest and wary. With the exception of the romance "The Notebook," he's generally steered away from big studio movies in part so he can retain his mystery as an actor. "I'm sick of me already," he says. "All this talking about myself, with this award thing and this movie coming out. If I'm sick of me and I'm me, I can't imagine what other people are thinking. You do something that's too big, and it's hard for people to buy your characters after that. They always see you as that person."

Still, the lure of working with Hopkins proved irresistible to Gosling, who had initially turned down the role before the veteran Brit signed on. With a career built largely on playing dysfunctional, lost young men in such indies as "United States of Leland," "Half Nelson," for which he received the Oscar nomination, and Showtime's "The Believer," in which he played a rabidly anti-Semitic KKK follower who turned out to be a Jew, Gosling had never acted before with any of the titans of the industry, the De Niros or Streeps, who have defined modern acting.

"He's a master, and it's important to watch masters work," says Gosling. Whenever the younger man starts praising him, Hopkins looks down at the ground with embarrassment, although when he looks up, he appears to have enjoyed the adulation.

Something extra

BOTH actors elevate what is essentially a rote genre thriller about an icy genius (Hopkins) who shoots his adulterous wife in the face, confesses to the police, then proceeds to get off, having committed what seems to have been the perfect murder. Charged with prosecuting him is Gosling's character, a D.A. who's pulled himself out of poverty to become a lawyer and now is on his way to a blue-chip law firm. In another era, it would have been the quintessential Tom Cruise role, the bright young man in too much of a hurry, but Gosling seems congenitally unable to play any part straightforwardly.

"I liked it because he was the good guy in the movie, but he's not really that good. He's just not bad. It's not in his nature to be heroic or do the right thing. He's a selfish, self-centered, egotistical, ambitious guy, and he's not judgmental of those qualities," says Gosling, who borrowed freely from some talent agents he knew. "He has to do the right thing, but it's annoying to him."

Both say that they had little to do with each other for most of the L.A. shoot, mysteriously "put into different camps" as Gosling says. "We started off this movie with a strange tension," concurs Hopkins. Director Gregory Hoblit insists the estrangement was merely character-related: "It's a good thing for characters that are going to be antagonists, who have to find out about each other as the movie is being made, to not get all buddied up and be friendly. You want the chemistry to not be affected."

But that changed when they were both called back to rework the ending.

Given how difficult it is to stay ahead of procedural-savvy audiences, thrillers in particular have a history of forcing directors to go back for a redo. After initial test audiences balked at the original cerebral ending of "Fatal Attraction," the filmmakers famously went back and conceived of the cathartic Glenn Close-in-the-bathtub slash-fest. Here, Hoblit and company junked the more stereotypical action tropes (Hopkins whacking away -- in slow motion -- at an elaborate Rube Goldberg construction with a poker) for a more psychologically intense, less cheeseball, finale -- the kind only possible with good actors. "Finally Anthony and I really got to collaborate on something," says Gosling. "We both walked through that house and figured out what we thought it would be."

Picking up pointers

EVEN today, however, Gosling seems hungry to glean wisdom from the classically trained Hopkins, who's played roles as diverse as a young Richard in "The Lion in Winter" opposite Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole, Nixon, Picasso, Hitler, Van Helsing in Francis Ford Coppola's sex-soaked "Dracula," and the repressed butler in "The Remains of the Day."

Hopkins spends a lot of time poring over his scripts in the privacy of his head. "I remember sitting up in Malibu reading the script. Just going over and over and over it again. I like to just learn it so I can relax. Odd things start happening." He doesn't do research, though oftentimes a performance is triggered by an external character detail. "Sometimes you can approach from the outside. I tend to be that way. I don't have the mental application to go through the laborious thing of internalizing."

For "Fracture's" chilly villain, the voice was the trigger. In one of his only scenes with Gosling -- an interrogation scene -- "suddenly an Irish accent came over to me. I knew somebody years ago -- a pretty scary guy. He was ice cold, an iceman, very dangerous guy. He talked mildly like that. It was the sound of the voice which in a way was a mask."

Hopkins, who has studied the Stanislavski method as well as the psychology of gesture, no longer believes in over-analyzing. When he was young, he used to cover his scripts with copious notes about subtext, but "I got stuck. I would be afraid to commit myself to anything." Now he appears to believe in just trying to be as free and intuitive as possible.

"It's so easy for Tony," says Gosling with a vaguely despairing laugh. He got his start, improbably enough, in TV's"The All New Mickey Mouse Club," in the same class as Justin, Britney and Christina Aguilera. "I don't really have a method," he says with a sigh.

"He's very loose and naturalistic, like James Dean," says Hopkins with encouragement.

"I try to take different roles that are very different from one another so I can develop a technique," says Gosling. "For me, by taking different characters that pull on different parts of me -- I always have to develop new tools for each one."

Then there's always the lesson he learned by bombing at school.

At one point, his mother quit her job to home-school him. "It was one of the greatest things that happened. She got me tested and realized that I learned differently, and once I knew that I had the tools to educate myself," he says. He studied at home for a year, and when he returned, he did fine in school. "What I learned is you really didn't have to listen to anybody. It was OK to be different and run with that."

rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com

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