Ryan Gosling, who gives an astonishing performance as a Jewish neo-Nazi in Henry Bean's lurid pulp shocker The Believer (opening May 17), prepared for the role by plowing head-on into its contradictions. "I tried to read Mein Kampf and study the Chumash at the same time," says the 21-year-old, who can also be seen as a teen sociopath toying with Sandra Bullock in Murder by Numbers (he licks her face at one point). "But the propaganda became unimportant. It's hate without reason and it's from an outsider's perspective. This kid was from the inside. I had to understand the faith to understand what pushed him away from it."
To that end, Gosling relied mainly on Bean, the veteran scriptwriter turned director. "Henry's wife is the daughter of a rabbithey run a kosher household and they kind of adopted me. I went into this thinking it was a film about hatred. But it became a love story about a boy and his faith. He loved and needed his faith so much that he didn't know where the religion ended and where he began. He kept trying to push it away, and that got out of hand. I guess I understood that kind of all-consuming love. It becomes hard to separate yourself from someone and you start to resent it."
Raised Mormon in Cornwall, Ontario, Gosling (who now calls himself "religious but nondenominational") says his background made it easier for him to grasp one of The Believer's main themesthe inconsistencies at the heart of religious faith. "My parents were more Mormon than I was, but it did help me understand. I see how happy it makes my mother and sister, and I think it's beautiful. Maybe I'm too selfish, or I'm jealous of their humilitythat somebody can say, yeah, it doesn't make sense but I'm going to believe it anyway."
At age 12, Gosling moved to Florida to join the Mousketeer brigade that included Britney, Justin, and Christina. "Everyone wants to know about The Mickey Mouse Club," he says, pensively chain-smoking out the window of his hotel suite. "Well to be honest, it was the best thing that happened to any of us. We were 12 years old, and we were paying bills and renting apartments. It gave us this work ethic."
Gosling indeed became the family breadwinner at a young age. His parents got divorced and "it was sort of like, hey, this is a fun way for me and my mom to eat." He landed the lead in the Fox Kids network series Young Hercules but "in TV," he says, "you work with so many actors who've given up. I was a kid having fun, but these people around me were going, 'Trust me, kid . . . ' "
Shortly after he relocated to L.A., The Believer came along. "In every way that I thought I knew myself, I didn't anymore," says Gosling of the experience. "The shooting conditions made things a lot more realistic than they would've been with a bigger budget, and the realism was scaryjumping on a subway without a permit and shooting a scene where you're terrorizing a yeshiva student and half the car not knowing what you're doing. People think it's real and you start thinking it's real."
Gosling says he continues to favor partnerships with first-time directors: "I like the idea that you really can't refer back to anything." He recently finished shooting Matthew Hoge's "meditation on morality" The United States of Leland, and galvanized Sundance a second year running with Alex and Andrew Smith's The Slaughter Rule, playing an alienated Montana teenager opposite David Morse's lonely football coach. "It was like watching one of your favorite performances happen right in front of you," Gosling says. "I felt like on The Believer I learned how to talk. Working with David, I learned how to listen. Actors usually just talk at each otherthey're used to CGI scenes with tennis balls. So it's strange when you feel somebody's really listening to you."
After just a handful of films, Gosling's gallery of intense young men already matches the best early work of Gary Oldman and Tim Roth. He himself has another role model in mind. "When I was a kid, I was only allowed to watch G movies. So when I was 14, I went to the video store and told the guy I wanted an R-rated movie. He gave me Blue Velvet. I've never been the same. I see Dennis Hopper's character creeping into the sort of roles I'm interested in. That turned me on. You know like when somebody awakens you sexually, that's sort of your type? And they all mirror that person? Well as an actor, Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet is my type. Oh and then I got into Cassavetes. Shadows was like punk rock to me. Everything else feels like lying now."
He's looking to broaden his range tooor has been advised to by at least one concerned professional. "I went to my doctor the other day and he prescribed me light comedyliterally. He said, 'You're not sick,' and he filled out a prescription: light comedy. But nobody's offered me any yet."
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.