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SBS Film

14 May 2009 - 1:14 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

Half Nelson screens on SBS ONE on September 15, 2012 as part of American Indie Season.

I think my character in the film has many addictions, but probably his main one is the belief that his students had in him.

With an Oscar nomination under his belt, mountains of critical praise, and a fistful of extraordinary performances to his name, HALF NELSON star RYAN GOSLING is the best young actor in Hollywood. End of story. BY FILMINK'S PHILIP BERK

Hailing from London, Ontario in Canada and with no formal acting training under his belt, the Mormon-raised Ryan Gosling has nonetheless received stellar notices for a string of bold, daring performances in a brace of highly unusual films. But before that came the deliriously cheesy teen TV: as well as doing time on The Mickey Mouse Club – alongside the seemingly incompatible likes of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera – Gosling also appeared on Young Hercules and Breaker High. From there, he eventually moved onto quality films, first making a minor splash as a good-natured teen in the racially driven football drama Remember The Titans before taking on the role that would score him his first laudatory reviews.

In the little-seen The Believer, Gosling rocked the rafters as a conflicted young Jewish man who develops a violently anti-Semitic worldview and becomes a white supremacist skinhead. Gosling was summarily nominated for his first Independent Spirit Award. “Henry Bean, the writer and director of The Believer, is kind of crazy,” Gosling laughs in recollection. “He loves the idea of the dark horse, the long shot. He feels like one himself. And he saw that in me. I hadn't done anything. I'd done a bunch of television work. I'm not Jewish. I'm not from New York. I'm not a Nazi. I'm not any of those things. The character was in his late twenties, and I was nineteen. There was no reason for him to give me that opportunity, but he did. I feel pretty confident that I wouldn't be speaking to you today if it wasn't for that shot.”

Says Henry Bean: “He came in dressed kind of sloppily, with a full head of hair, and he looked more like a skateboarder than an intense neo-Nazi, but he had an unmistakable charisma that is shared by the character.”

Tagged as an edgy young actor all too eager to take risks, the demanding – and largely uncommercial – films continued to roll Gosling's way. He played a high school outsider who gets mixed up with a mysterious would-be mentor in The Slaughter Rule; stole the standard Hollywood thriller Murder By Numbers from under leading lady Sandra Bullock's nose; went toe to toe with Don Cheadle and Kevin Spacey in the bruising drama The United States Of Leland as a teen imprisoned for the murder of an autistic boy; found rare box office success with the sweeping, intelligent romance The Notebook, opposite current girlfriend Rachel McAdams; and torched the screen as a suicidal art student who bends Ewan McGregor's psychiatrist out of shape in Stay.

But the crowning achievement of Gosling's career has undoubtedly been his staggering turn in the gritty independent film Half Nelson. With uncanny sensitivity and creativity, Gosling makes his character Dan Dunne – a talented, effective and well-meaning high school teacher riding a nasty drug habit that he's barely managing to control – nothing short of stunningly real.

With its uncompromising style, rich characterisation, gripping story and strain of social comment, Half Nelson truly was the film that Ryan Gosling was waiting for. “My manager, who I've been with since I was fourteen, read it and knew that I would love it,” he explains. “I'd been looking for something in that spirit for a long time, and I'd seen [director] Ryan Fleck's short film, Gowanus, Brooklyn, which I thought was objective and beautiful. Half Nelson was about people that we all have known at some time. I could relate to them. It was a great opportunity for me to work with a bunch of people who weren't quote-unquote professionals. It forced me to meet them at their level. The filmmakers created an environment for us where we could be creative. We didn't have any marks to hit. We didn't have to do something the same way twice; we didn't have to do anything for editing or continuity. On Half Nelson, we went into every scene looking to find something new. It's hard to fail in that kind of environment. That was the most exciting element about the film for me.”

At the heart of this highly complex film is the main character's addiction to crack, which kicks against his innate decency and desperation to do the right thing by his students. “It's very complicated,” Gosling says. “I wouldn't know how to answer exactly why people have these addictions. I think my character in the film has many addictions, but probably his main one is the belief that his students had in him. That's what made him come to work every day.”

Did he ever have a teacher like the one he plays in Half Nelson? “I had a difficult time in school,” Gosling replies. “I went to many schools, and I had many teachers. In the fifth grade, my mother took me out of school and taught me at home. Not only did I draw on that for the film, I draw from that in my everyday life. It had a really profound effect on me. They were passing me grade-wise, and I didn't know how to do a lot of things that I should have known. Thank God for my mother. She came in and saved the day.”

More so than any other interview subject, Ryan Gosling continually returns to the influence that his mother has had on him. It's an oddly engaging trait, and points even more to his honesty and earthed humility. “Ever since I could talk, she would ask my opinion,” he says. “There were a lot of conversations about politics and things. It was important to her that I had my own ideas. She gave me the power to control my own destiny. She really encouraged me to change things I didn't like. On The Mickey Mouse Club for instance, whatever problems the kids were having, most parents were so terrified that their kid would lose his position on the show that they just bowed down to Disney. But not my mother; she got right in their face about it. And we've always done that. I hope I behave in a way that honours that. She taught me not to submit to any kind of arbitrary authority. Everyone has the right to question. My mother gave me permission to question my teachers and the school system. It taught me that I could do that in life. And if a studio's telling me I have to do it, I don't necessarily believe that. I always have a choice, and I take responsibility for the things that I do.”

Ever since, Gosling has taken a gut-instinct approach to his career, often choosing to feel rather than think. “Films suffer when there's no room for exploration,” he says. “With Half Nelson, you could really do anything. I have to thank the filmmakers for providing an environment for us to be free and to explore. I'm looking for films about people I can relate to. With most of the things I read, I've never really met anybody like that.”

But then, as though lost in his thoughts, Gosling adds, “I don't feel appropriately in my life. Sometimes I'm happy when I should be sad, and I'm sad when I should be happy. Sometimes I don't feel anything when I should. I think what pulls me is love and the lack of it. We all want it, and we don't know how to get it.”