Ryan Gosling, ‘Half Nelson’

Lead actor contender

Some actors were born to play tortured souls.

In 2001, a 20-year-old Ryan Gosling delivered a breakout performance as a Jewish neo-Nazi in Henry Bean’s Sundance hit “The Believer.” Five years later, Gosling returned to Park City as the star of “Half Nelson,” another low-budget New York indie about a troubled young man struggling to hide a dangerous secret. This time, his character wasn’t hiding his heritage but a life-threatening drug problem.

Here he’s Dan Dunne, a history teacher at a Brooklyn public school who has a passion for progressive ideals and an easy way with kids. In his off hours, he spends most of his time smoking crack.

As his addiction worsens, Dunne makes a desperate attempt to save himself through a friendship with Drey (Shareeka Epps), a troubled student who has discovered his secret. In a performance that meshes seamlessly with the grainy, handheld style used by co-writer/director Ryan Fleck and co-writer/editor Anna Boden, Gosling delivers a naturalistic perf that has drawn glowing reviews.

Since first hitting it big in “The Believer,” Gosling has made it a point to avoid the trap of big paydays in forgettable material.

“A lot of actors who get noticed play with the idea of making ‘two for them and one for you,’ but most of the time that doesn’t work,” says Gosling. “When I met Ryan and Anna, they immediately impressed me because they weren’t a bunch of smooth talkers. They weren’t phony. They wanted to make a movie, and that was it.”

“Nelson” was shot on location in Brooklyn during the summer of 2005. Despite the low budget and tight schedule, Boden and Fleck made sure Gosling and his fellow cast members were given the time they needed to discover their characters on the set.

“Ryan and Anna understood the movie that they wanted to make and knew it wasn’t right to try and control the action,” he says. “It was as much freedom as I’ve ever had. Plus, I was working with all these amazing non-actors who were better than I’ll ever be. They weren’t conditioned to lie convincingly. It really puts the heat on you. But it was worth it, for sure.”

Favorite film of the past five years: “I can’t answer that because I know I’m going to regret what I say.”

Actor who impressed you greatly after working together: “David Morse, who I worked with on ‘Slaughter Rule.’ When he talks, you listen. I also learned a lot from Shareeka (Epps) in ‘Half Nelson.’ She showed no reverence for a scene — where it was supposed to go or what it meant in the context of the story — she just wanted to get lost in it, to not try and control it or watch it.”

Next project: “Lars and the Real Girl,” about a man who falls in love with a doll he finds on the Internet.