The first factoid presented by the Internet Movie Data Base's bio of Canadian actor Ryan Gosling is that he's the first person born in the 1980s to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. That was in 2006 for the indie sleeper Half Nelson, which, by the way, was not released formally in Japan until 2016. At the time he was nominated, Gosling was 26, hardly a spring chicken by Hollywood standards, but Half Nelson, in which he played a psychologically damaged public school teacher with a drug addiction, was the kind of film that keeps on giving. Casting directors who no longer have to check on past performances to get an idea of what he's capable of probably still like to refer to the movie as one of the most auspicious, though also low-key, debuts ever.
Though Gosling is the product of a strictly middle class upbringing in Canada (mother secretary, father salesman), he was home-schooled for a good part of his childhood, which gave him plenty of time to work within his own mind. When he finally did go to school, it was a specialty institution, a vocational school, but his vocation turned out to be drama. Interestingly, his first gambits as a performer were as a singer paired with his sister Mandi. He even auditioned for The Mickey Mouse Club in 1993 and beat out 17,000 other aspirants to win a spot on the show. During the two years he appeared on the program he lived with Justin Timberlake's family.
Untypically for a person of Gosling's strict temperament, he never took to acting classes and after Mickey Mouse ended he went straight to professional work as a teenager, mostly in TV series like Young Hercules and Breaker High, followed by numerous small parts in small movies. His break came when he was 21 and played the oxymoronic "Jewish neo-Nazi" in the film, The Believer, which won some awards at the Sundance Film Festival. Director Henry Bean cast him not so much because of his acting chops, but because of his isolated upbringing, the kind of experience that tends to produce obsessives, which the character was.
What made Gosling a star was his leading turn in the romantic tearjerker, The Notebook, when he was 24. Though the part was not much of a challenge, it turned him into a matinee idol overnight, a distinction that, surprisingly, he didn't take advantage of, since he didn't act in a film again until Half Nelson two years later. It was obviously a smart move. If he had gone the movie star route after The Notebook, he likely would have been pigeonholed as the quiet, smoldering hunk, whereas his strong point was as someone who had something to hide.
"There is this idea in Hollywood," he once told an interviewer, "and I've seen it work for people, where the unspoken rule is 'Do two for them and one for yourself.'" In practice, Gosling has never followed this rule, and has done pretty well picking and choosing parts that suit his temperament. This partly explains his appeal to certain directors. With the indie auteur Derek Cianfrance he's made two critically lauded movies—Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, that boosted his credentials as an all-around talent while giving both those films more mainstream cred than they would have likely gotten otherwise.
He's also done two very violent films with the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive and Only God Forgives, that likely expanded his audience as well as his existing fans' outlook (though, considering the blood involved, they may not have appreciated it).
Fame gave him the chance to direct, and the result was probably the first instance where his work met with universal disapproval. Lost River was confused "fantasy noir" that sunk right after it was screened at Cannes. Gosling had said he needed a break from acting, but directing was obviously not the way to go.
Since then he's kept on the straight-and-narrow, mainly by choosing guaranteed crowd-pleasers that nevertheless offer something idiosyncratic, from the blustery stock trader in The Big Short to the bumbling detective in The Nice Guys and, of course, the jazz pianist in La La Land, which earned him his second Oscar nomination. Interestingly, Gosling in real life is an accomplished jazz guitarist, but for the movie he had to learn to play jazz piano from scratch, and did a great job, according to all concerned.
But certainly the most heavily anticipated role of his life is K, the titular "blade runner" in the new sequel to Ridley Scott's beloved adaptation of the Philip K. Dick dystopian classic. Generally speaking, the project has been cloaked in mystery, but we do know that Gosling's character seeks out the original blade runner, Deckard, played by the actor who made him what he is, Harrison Ford. Maybe no two actors of different generations belong together in the same movie as much as these two.