Since The Believer premiered at Sundance in 2001, the actor has rigorously steered clear of the road most traveled—no superheroes, no summer blockbusters—and that has made him an even hotter commodity. Off duty, he mostly stays out of the spotlight, using his fame to campaign for Darfur or build houses in Mississippi post–Hurricane Katrina. His girlfriend, Rachel McAdams, 29, whom he met on the set of The Notebook—they began dating long after the movie wrapped—is equally adept at dodging the obvious. (She famously walked off a Vanity Fair cover shoot rather than pose nude.)
Gosling insists he had no idea they would become an item while they were filming. “We were together long before we were physically together,” he says. “All I knew is that she was a force to be reckoned with. How I was going to reckon with it, I had no idea. She's not someone you can ever dismiss or put into any category. She's many things.”
An elegant if sappy love story, The Notebook was a sleeper hit in the summer of 2004. Gosling and McAdams have never watched it together. Indeed, the movie is so swooningly romantic that if they did, in all likelihood they would have to break up. How could their real-life relationship ever live up to the grand gestures, the sexually charged arguments and the deep and constant confessions of true love?
“Yeah, every time I come home, Rachel screams, ‘Why didn't you write me?’” Gosling jokes, citing a particularly wrenching scene from the tear-jerker. “Every morning I put arrows outside her bed. And I build her a house every week.” Still, he won't comment on engagement or marriage. “Ask her,” he says, though when I suggest we call her to do just that, he quickly changes the subject to his reading habits.
Gosling's idiosyncratic film choices also make him hard to pin down. He followed up The Notebook with last fall's Stay, a fractured, dreamlike film ostensibly about the aftereffects of a car accident. According to many critics, the movie was not even a noble failure. “We knew going in that they were giving us way more money to make it than we would ever make back, that people were going to ask the same questions that they asked,” Gosling says of the box-office disappointment. “I had a kid come up to me on the street, 10 years old, and he says, ‘Are you that guy from Stay? What the f--- was that movie about?’ I think that's great. I'm just as proud if someone says, ‘Hey, you made me sick in that movie,’ as if they say I made them cry.”
Half Nelson, which was bought for a reported $1 million at Sundance in January, is as challenging and provocative as Stay, though the critical response has been more adulatory. (Manohla Dargis in The New York Times wrote that the film “offers further evidence that Mr. Gosling is among the most exciting actors of his generation.”) Gosling plays an inner-city junior high school teacher who forges an unlikely connection with one of his students after she discovers his drug problem. The film offers no easy ways out for its characters, but it does showcase the actor's most intense and electrifying performance to date. Throughout the movie, Gosling emits an existential desperation that is alternately repellent and heartbreaking.