On a chilly winter day in Los Angeles, Gosling — who became the object of the fantasies of untold numbers of women with his shirtless, soaking-wet scenes in The Notebook (2004) — is clad in ratty jeans, a plaid shirt, and enough facial stubble to pass for one of the construction guys working on the outside patio at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Sipping a Dr Pepper as he sits for an interview, the 32-year-old Canadian doesn't exude the poise and practiced charm of a movie star. In fact, he botches the first question entirely.
"What was the question again?," he says after a pause. "Sorry, I just had a Red Bull. I need to focus."
Gosling is here to talk about his new film, Gangster Squad, which will open nationwide Friday. Directed by Ruben Fleischer, the loosely based-on-fact film recounts the Los Angeles Police Department's secret fight to keep the city free of Mafia chiefs from the East Coast — including ganglord Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) — during the 1940s and 1950s. The ensemble cast also includes Josh Brolin and Emma Stone.
Gosling plays Sgt. Jerry Wooters, a police officer whose desire to do the right thing is compromised by a hot temper, a daredevil mentality, and a pronounced streak of fatalism.
"He's the guy with the devil-may-care attitude," Gosling says. "He figures that someone or something will take him down, so why not put up a good fight and do some good on the way out?"
He also has an affair with Cohen's longtime girlfriend, played by Stone.
"The film has an interesting tone," Gosling says, "because it promises not to be your father's gangster film. You can expect to be surprised. I think the film really is a love letter to Los Angeles.
"It's a serious movie, but it can also be comedic at times. I'm coming from a comedy background. For me, this movie was a way to make that transition to an action movie, but I knew I had a lot of learning to do."
Perhaps his comedy background accounts for Gosling's unorthodox approach to his character, who is based on a real-life L.A.P.D. officer from that era.
"I've always admired how Bugs Bunny was not just a rabbit dressing like a lady to get out of trouble sometimes," the actor says. "I thought that approach to a character is interesting. With this character, I tried to avoid making him inconspicuous. I was trying to relate this to the fact that it's a real person with a job to do.
"It's important to note that the man himself was much braver than the version of him that I play in the film, which we changed for dramatic purposes."
The key moment in the film, for him, was one in which a shoeshine kid Wooters has befriended is gunned down in a battle between cops and criminals.
"My character needs to have real angst and conflict," Gosling says. "I thought he was really affected by the death of this young shoeshine kid. The kid was almost forced into the action and paid for it, so that was difficult to deal with emotionally for him."
It was important to him, the actor adds, that Gangster Squad reflect reality, rather than other gangster movies.
"I found a picture of my real-life counterpart and met with some of his family members," Gosling says. "His kid even came to the set and told me a lot of great stories. Apparently his dad would ash his cigarettes in the cuff of his pants, and then at the end of the day he would dump his pants. I thought that was such an interesting detail."
Playing a police officer in a gangster movie did come with one major disappointment.
"I realized that I was never going to get a Tommy gun," Gosling says.
"I thought for sure that I'd have one, but I got this little lady gun for the film because Josh Brolin hogged the Tommy guns."
Gosling grew up in Ontario with his parents and an older sister. He was home schooled, and eventually attended Cornwall Collegiate and Vocational High School in Burlington, Ont., where he focused on drama and fine arts. Talent contests at his new school fueled his love for performing. He was a good singer, but all along he had his eyes set on acting — and, in particular, acting in movies.
"Movies put a spell on me as a kid," he recalls. "I was a little kid when I saw First Blood . I walked out of there thinking I was Rambo. Even my face felt different when I touched it."
His life changed when he went to Montreal for open auditions for The All-New Mickey Mouse Club. There were 17,000 kids who tried out, there and elsewhere, but Gosling won a part and spent two years, from 1993 to 1995, in Florida appearing on the show. During that time he lived with the family of one of his castmates, Justin Timberlake.
The young man's eyes were still on the movies, though, and after some work on Canadian television he headed for Hollywood, where his first movie was Remember the Titans (2000). His breakthrough came with The Believer (2001), a based-on-fact drama in which he played a Jewish youth who becomes a violent anti-Semite.
The Notebook, which paired him with fellow Canadian newcomer Rachel McAdams, made him a star and led to a series of powerful dramas that have included Half Nelson (2005), Fracture (2006), Blue Valentine (2010), as well as Drive (2011).