Ryan Gosling on Nearly Turning Down Ken, Singing Live at the Oscars and Wanting a ‘Beach-Off’ Over Those ‘Barbie’ Snubs

For an actor it’s a strange experience to come upon a character you’re about to play in the flesh — or in the plastic. After Ryan Gosling first read the script for Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” he walked into his backyard and found the real thing — one of his daughters’ Ken dolls — lying in the dirt, naked, with his face in a pile of mud.

“I’m sure you heard this story,” Gosling says with a grin. It’s true — it’s a story he loves to tell. But now there’s a new ending. Long after “Barbie” opened in theaters last July, after it became the biggest movie of 2023 and inspired grown men to don neon pink in public, Gosling spotted Ken in his family home once more. This time, he was better dressed, which is to say that he was dressed. “He was wearing a tuxedo, albeit a sleeveless one,” Gosling says. “And I asked my daughters, ‘What happened?’ And they said, ‘Oh, he died of armpit arthritis. Ken’s dead!’” Gosling leans back in his chair, looking amused. “And I was like, ‘Well, at least he’s face up and wearing clothes.’ I feel like he was a little better off than where I found him.”

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Maybe, just maybe, Gosling’s subversive performance helped bring extra attention to one Ken doll living with two little girls in Southern California. The actor certainly gave new life to the character. Ken’s name is embossed on sweaters (based on the one Gosling wears in the movie that says “I am Kenough”). The charismatic himbo ruled Halloween as one of the year’s most beloved costumes; all you needed was a headband and Rollerblades. And with help from “Barbie” star and producer Margot Robbie and director Gerwig, Gosling rescued Ken from the confines of his Mattel box.

Ryan Gosling Variety Cover
Ryan Gosling Variety Cover

“We couldn’t imagine anyone else being able to do all the things he needed to and also have the humility to be Ken in a Barbie movie,” Robbie says. “I don’t know if a lot of big male movie stars would do a film with a female director where their character isn’t the title of the film. We both sensed he’s not that kind of guy.” Robbie lists off Gosling’s unique abilities to navigate both the comedic and dramatic elements of Ken — one being he’s sincere but not satirical — and she tops it off with another key quality he brought to the role. “And, of course, he’s gorgeous,” Robbie says. “He’s unbelievably gorgeous. Our Ken needed to have that.”

The actor’s blond pick-me hunk helped lead the film to $1.4 billion in box office receipts for Warner Bros., and Gosling has even landed an Oscar nomination — one of eight for the film — for bringing new layers of Kenergy to a nondescript toy. (“Barbie” was also nominated for best picture, but the absence of Gerwig in the director category and Robbie in best actress sparked no small amount of outrage among the film’s fans.)

Although Gosling didn’t write the song “I’m Just Ken,” an ’80s-style ballad by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt about the male fragility of a character who has no purpose without his Barbie, it wouldn’t soar were it not for Gosling’s tour-de-force vocal performance. Nominated for best original song, it’s the comic inverse of Billie Eilish’s moving “What Was I Made For?”

“It’s the hardest role I’ve ever had to play,” says the 43-year-old star of “Drive” and “Blue Valentine,” meeting over coffee. Indeed, he originally turned down the part due to scheduling conflicts (and some trepidation about embodying what was a punchline in pop culture). Once he agreed to play the role, though, he went to startling lengths to figure out who Ken was — or who he could be. “It was like a high-wire act — in tiny shorts and no shirt — with no net,” Gosling says.

Ryan Gosling Variety Cover Story
Ryan Gosling Variety Cover Story

Because there was little to base Ken on beyond an aesthetic, Gosling dug through fragments of his own life as a child performer, one who sang at weddings, eager for approval. (Gosling got his big break after moving from the small Canadian town of Cornwall, Ontario, at age 12 to appear on “The All-New Mickey Mouse Club” alongside Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.) “I wanted to make sure if I was going to do it — I was like, ‘I can’t mess this up. I can’t be the guy that messed up the Barbie movie,’” Gosling says. “So if I’m going to do it, I have to do more than I know that I’m even capable of.”

His singing, dancing, gleefully chauvinist yet lovelorn Ken showed a side of Gosling that he hasn’t exhibited much since his Disney days — so much so that an Oscar nomination, his third after nods for “Half Nelson” and “La La Land,” seemed a foregone conclusion after the film’s release. And yet that honor feels complicated. We’re meeting on the Warner Bros. lot, a happy place for him, on the day after the nominations have been announced, and there’s mass public backlash about Gerwig and Robbie’s snubs. Hillary Clinton has somehow compared her winning the popular vote in 2016 but losing the election to the Academy’s latest omissions. (“Really?” asks a genuinely surprised Gosling, who isn’t on social media.) Gosling had issued a statement, too, calling out the absence of key mentions for Gerwig and Robbie (both were nominated in other categories: screenwriting for Gerwig and producing for Robbie).

“Look, I heavily edited that statement,” Gosling says. “I think if I say any more about it, I’m going to basically put on a mink and start challenging people to a beach-off on Malibu Beach.” (He’s on-message here: For the few people on Earth who haven’t seen the film, that’s how Ken channels his aggression.) He references the themes of Gerwig’s script: The Barbie characters live in a feminist paradise and are shocked when, in the real world, they encounter systemic sexism at every level. “In terms of people’s reactions, the film continues to provoke conversation in every incarnation,” Gosling says. “It keeps provoking this dialogue. It’s the power of this movie. I struggle to compare it to anything.”

Ryan Gosling Variety Cover Story
Ryan Gosling Variety Cover Story

He continues. “But it’s yet another reason that proves it’s more than a summer blockbuster. It’s a great work of art. That’s what Greta and Margot created.”

I point out the idea that Ken getting invited to the Oscars, but not Barbie, could almost be a subplot from “Barbie,” as written by Gerwig and her partner, Noah Baumbach. Gosling sighs and stares straight ahead — he’s said all that he wants to about this subject.

Ken might never have been Ken were it not for three women in Gosling’s life. His two daughters, Esmeralda Amada, 9, and Amada Lee, 7, who helped him learn the dance moves for “I’m Just Ken,” and his wife, the actress Eva Mendes, ran lines with him during the COVID lockdown. From humble beginnings, Gosling’s been brought to staggering new heights — quite literally. For our photo shoot, Gosling asked that he do something no one has done in years: get to the top of the Warner Bros. water tower (with the help of a cherry picker and stuntman Chris O’Hara, with whom he worked on his next movie, “The Fall Guy”). Eating veggie burgers 133 feet above the city of Los Angeles might sound like a boss movie-star move, until you hear about Gosling’s fear of heights. “Oh, my God,” he says. “I was frozen.” He quotes a Will Ferrell line from “Talladega Nights” about not knowing what to do with his hands. “My whole body turned to stone. I had no control over it.”

Why ask to summit the tower if it’s so fear-inducing? Well, because it was a childhood dream, and playing Ken brought him closer to his younger self. For Gosling, the character became a manifestation of insecurity, the nostalgic yearning for something bigger — a girlfriend named Barbie, in his case, but also ultimate acceptance in some form or another.

“When I was very little, there was a show called ‘Animaniacs,’” Gosling says of the zany, reality-bending ’90s cartoon. “And they lived at Warner Bros. in the water tower — that was like their clubhouse. I loved that show. And I think it planted some seed in my head. That’s what making movies was like: The lot was just your home, and you wander in and out of Western sets, and you can hang out in the water tower.”

Ryan Gosling Variety Cover Story
Ryan Gosling Variety Cover Story

Gosling spent most of his youth trying to make it as an actor, fueled by a love of movies. He started to perform at the urging of his uncle Bill, who took him aside when he was 7 or 8 and predicted he’d someday win an Academy Award. “And I had never heard of them before,” Gosling says. “And it was even more random, because I wasn’t an actor. It just came out of nowhere. And he pulled out this big scrapbook that he’d bought, and he said, ‘I’m going to fill this with all your accomplishments until you do.’”

The scrapbook seemed like no small expense, and Gosling didn’t want to let his Uncle Bill down, odd as his prediction seemed. So he began singing at weddings and malls, walking in fashion shows and auditioning for local acting parts in Canada. His first role was in the Nickelodeon series “Are You Afraid of the Dark?,” acting terrified as Gilbert Gottfried played the host of a haunted radio show. He followed this with another scary turn in R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” TV series. “I was in an episode called ‘Say Cheese and Die’ about a haunted camera,” Gosling says. “Everyone I took a picture of would show something terrible happening to them, and then it would come true.”

In his real life, the camera recording Gosling took him far from home, on adventures that — like those Ken encounters on his trip to the human world in “Barbie” — weren’t all they were cracked up to be. “Putting myself in this dance company and ultimately auditioning for ‘The Mickey Mouse Club,’” Gosling recalls, “moving to Florida, not feeling like I was very good in anything on ‘Mickey Mouse Club,’ and living in a trailer park where there was a gas leak — my mom and I were tired all the time until we found out there was gas in the trailer — just hustling to figure it out, not knowing what it was. But honestly, it’s hard to overstate, when people believe in you.”

Just like young Gosling was fully focused on adding new accomplishments to his uncle’s scrapbook, Ken embarks on a similar quest for recognition. While preparing for the character, “so many times, I would come home and say, ‘What am I doing?’” Gosling recalls. “And I would overthink it.” His wife would tell him, “Just make it about Barbie,” he says. “And so every take became an opportunity to get Barbie to notice me.”

Gosling says that’s why he decided to over-accessorize Ken, with multiple sunglasses and watches — doubling up his chance of being seen by Barbie. As a child actor, Gosling was also willing to try any costume, all in pursuit of his craft. “I was a hamster in ‘The Mickey Mouse Club,’ just to figure it out,” Gosling says, “and all these ridiculous things. I could relate to Ken and the need to find yourself and distinguish yourself.”

After “Mickey Mouse,” Gosling did a year on the 1997 teen comedy “Breaker High,” which added enough to his bank account to get him to Southern California on his own at 16. “Thank God for West Hollywood,” he says. “This director I had worked with told me when I was a kid, ‘If you ever come to L.A., you can sleep on my couch.’ I had an amazing experience. I did my homework at the Abbey. My next-door neighbor was named Mocha Cream. It was an amazing place to land: Somebody had showed me the movie ‘Auntie Mame,’ and I felt like the kid in ‘Auntie Mame,’ who was like, ‘Only yesterday, he was in short pants.’ Everyone was just so accepting and living their dreams. It was very supportive and creative.”

Around this time, Gosling dropped out of high school, focusing on auditioning for a series of roles he describes as teen soap operas similar to “Dawson’s Creek.” He needed to try out for lead roles, because he knew studios wouldn’t cover the costs of a work visa if he only had a few lines of dialogue. “A film was never in the cards,” Gosling says. “It was only TV shows. And if you were lucky, you would get a film out of a TV show. ‘Summer Catch,’ a Freddie Prinze Jr. film, was one of the few films I had an audition for.” He can’t name the part, or who got it. “Still waiting to hear …,” he says.

Ryan Gosling Variety Cover Story
Ryan Gosling Variety Cover Story

Coming home from an audition one afternoon, his car broke down. “I didn’t have the money to tow it or fix it,” Gosling says. “So I tried pushing it, people honking at me. I was like, ‘I wouldn’t be pushing it if I could drive it.’ I thought, ‘Forget it. I’ll just leave it.’”

He was broke, and now without wheels to take him to his next audition. “I lay in bed, I stared at the phone, and I remember thinking, ‘If that phone rings, my whole life will change. And if it doesn’t, I’m going home.’ So I was staring at it, it rang, and they said, ‘You got the part!’” He’d been cast as the star of the new spinoff “Young Hercules,” which shot 50 episodes in New Zealand.

These years passed uneventfully. “Young Hercules” paid the bills but wasn’t challenging Gosling the way he felt he needed. After the show ended, Gosling spent his 20s in dark indies, jetting off to Sundance with the industry’s next generation of storytellers. (“My mom always asks when I’m going back,” he says. “She loved the swag rooms.”)

Gosling played a skinhead in 2001’s “The Believer,” a break-out role that became a calling-card, allowing him to book studio movies like 2002’s “Murder by Numbers” (in which he appeared with Sandra Bullock, whom he dated for two years). “The Notebook,” in 2004, represented his first real commercial success, but he followed it with risky roles, from a drug-addicted teacher in “Half Nelson” to a man in love with his blowup doll in “Lars and the Real Girl” to one-half of a breaking-down couple in “Blue Valentine.” After his 2018 turn as the grief-stricken astronaut Neil Armstrong in “First Man,” he took four years off to focus on fatherhood.

“Just to be with my family. I didn’t want to miss anything,” says Gosling, who met Mendes on 2012’s “The Place Beyond the Pines,” where he played a motorcycle stuntman. “My priorities changed, and I wanted to be with my kids. It’s going super fast. I hear the clock ticking. I don’t know how much time I’m going to get, and I don’t want to spend it in the wrong place. I know I’m not spending it in the wrong place if I’m with my family.”

Because of the SAG-AFTRA strike, which began a week before the release of “Barbie,” Gosling never got to speak at length about his process of becoming Ken. What he says now makes clear that it’s not a break from his past work — it’s a continuation of it. “In some way, everything I’ve done led to it,” Gosling says. “And I can’t believe I’m saying that. There were moments when I would do it where I’d think, ‘I haven’t felt like I’ve worked this hard since “Blue Valentine.”’ There were moments when I left ‘Blue Valentine’ just completely emotionally spent, laying on the floor of the car on the ride home just done — empty. And it was even harder to play Ken. And I thought, ‘How am I feeling that on this film?’” Just as in “Blue Valentine,” he was playing a partner who couldn’t keep his relationship together, but this time, he had to make it funny.

Maybe that explains why he initially passed on “Barbie.” “There were actual reasons why I couldn’t do the film,” Gosling says. “Schedule things. Life things. And I would call months later to my agents or something and say, ‘Hey, who did they get to play Ken?’ And they would say, ‘Greta says it’s you.’”

Ryan Gosling Variety Cover Story
Ryan Gosling Variety Cover Story

Gosling couldn’t understand why Gerwig wouldn’t move on. But Gerwig had no backup actor in mind. The director cranked out the script with Baumbach in a fever dream during lockdown, and she wrote it for Gosling, even though she’d never met him. She even put his name — “Ken Ryan Gosling” — in the pages.

“There was a question of his schedule, but I just knew it had to be him,” Gerwig says. “I think at one point I told him that I’d seen the future, and that he was in it and he was Ken. That made him laugh, but I think he also secretly saw the same future.”

Robbie, who shares an agent with Gosling, kept pushing too. “He absolutely passed,” she says. “We just couldn’t let that happen. There was just no other version. Greta and I are both extremely determined and persistent people, otherwise this movie never would have happened. Every time he’s like, ‘I’m not doing this,’ we were like, ‘We are doing it, and it’s going to be fun.’”

Robbie knew how pivotal Ken was to Barbie’s story: “We didn’t want any part of this movie to feel like a letdown,” she says, so she offered Gosling something that’s not traditionally part of a contract negotiation for a role. “I promised him a present every day,” Robbie says. “I said, ‘I’ll buy you a present every day if you come and do this movie.’ And so I did. I bought him a present every day, and I’d leave it in his trailer, wrapped in pink and a bow tie, and it said, ‘To Ken.’” (The presents were usually inexpensive — ranging from puka shells to a book on horses, Ken’s favorite animal — but meaningful nods to the character.)

Gosling says, “Eventually, I thought, ‘Who am I to argue with Greta Gerwig and Margot?’ They had a vision for it. They believed it. And they believed I should do it more than I believed I shouldn’t.” So he started to soften. “At a certain point, I thought, ‘They see something that I don’t see.’ I thought it was such a great part that anyone could play it. I understand now, but it took me a while.”

Months later, after Gosling accepted the part, he and Gerwig started brainstorming over text about the origins of Ken — a buildout of a doll whose whole point is that he’s secondary to Barbie. “There was no template for it,” Gosling says. “It was going to have to be very personal. There was no character to hide it behind, even though it sounds ridiculous.” Gosling says that their initial exchanges were almost like imagining together what Ken’s Instagram would look like. “I sent her a cover of Muscle & Fitness magazine from the ’90s that I remember my parents having when I was younger,” Gosling continues. “My parents were bodybuilders for a while. It had the Barbarian Brothers on the cover.” She sent him back a picture of actor Michael Beck from “Xanadu.”

And the mink Gosling wears as Ken came from Gosling and Gerwig’s mutual love for ’80s Sylvester Stallone, on top of the world and in thrall to his ego. “We found out that Stallone wore a lot of minks,” Gosling says. “As long as Ken was wearing it, he was the Ken with the mink — and that separated him from the other Kens.” But there were other modern reference points, including a famous dating reality show.

“Some of it also came from ‘The Bachelorette,’” Gosling says. He points to the show’s tendency to cast men with a single defining characteristic. “One guy’s the guy that wears glasses. One guy has the one earring. If you were to challenge and do the same thing as that person, you’d be infringing on their identity, and so Ken’s identity became the mink.”

Does Gosling watch “The Bachelorette”? “Oh yeah,” he says. “I watch a lot of reality TV. A lot.” And he makes a striking connection to Barbieland and the “Bachelorette” mansion. “It’s not dissimilar, in the sense that they sit around idly waiting for the Bachelorette to acknowledge them. And, yes, they have no attention outside of the attention she gives them.”

To maintain Ken’s washboard abs, Gosling worked out four hours a day, attended dance classes and restricted his diet. “It was basically nothing,” Gosling says. “It was just, like, coffee.”

Robbie laughs when she hears this. “I saw him at the Thai truck a couple of times,” she says about lunch on the “Barbie” set. “Don’t feel too sorry for him. Anyway, I know for a fact he was in the gym a lot because I was in the gym a lot too — and he was in there way more than me.”

Ryan Gosling Variety Cover Story
Ryan Gosling Variety Cover Story

Gosling decided to bleach his hair at the last minute, after a wig didn’t look right. “I had this almost Redford wig, they called it,” he says. “I looked at the screen test, and I thought it wasn’t Ken. I looked like I worked at Shutters or something.” He found unlikely inspiration in Jennifer Jason Leigh. “I thought, ‘Ken is “Single White Female”-ing Barbie.’ So he would try to dye his hair, even though he can’t dye his hair. I thought, ‘I should bleach my hair, but it should be an off version of hers.’” He was less of a stalker than suddenly a kid again. “What was weird was I ended up looking like I did at 8 or 12, which was the era I was revisiting anyway.”

That Disney song-and-dance-boy training came in handy: Gosling’s showstopping “I’m Just Ken” number started out as a smaller idea and got bigger — blossoming into a dream ballet on the beach where the Kens fight each other while the Barbies protect their constitution. Gosling recorded his vocals to “I’m Just Ken” in a London recording studio with Ronson. (“I cried when I was sent the track with Ryan singing,” Gerwig says.) Ronson usually doesn’t watch singers during recording sessions, but when he looked up, he was surprised at how far back Gosling stood. “He looked like the Great Caruso — he was singing the song with his entire body five feet off the mic,” Ronson says. “He had so much power and resonance in his voice, like those old operatic singers and theater singers.”

Gosling, who once fronted his own indie band, Dead Man’s Bones, is accustomed to singing for smaller crowds. “It was always in churches and graveyards — not arenas,” he says. The Oscars are a bit grander than that, and millions will be tuning in for Ken’s big number. “I still have not been asked,” Gosling says. “It might be too much of a risk to have me do it. I don’t know how that would work. But I’m open to it.”

He squints, in the middle of another brainstorm, as he tries to put himself back in Ken’s shoes, this time singing the song on a huge Hollywood stage. (“Don’t worry,” says Robbie on the subject, “we’re poking Ryan whenever we can: ‘Do it. Come on. It’ll be fun.’’’)

Gosling asks me how I’d like to see the song performed, and I tell him it can’t be scaled down for the Oscars: Fans of the movie will want to see “I’m Just Ken” as an extravaganza.

“It can’t be pared down?” Gosling says, nodding. “OK. It’s anthemic. So we’ll need a budget.”

Perhaps, as the culmination of a movie in which his character’s pathetic attempts to win his love fall flat, Ken will finally get his moment, seeing Barbie cheering from the stands.

“I would love nothing more,” Robbie says. “That would make me — and the world — so happy.”

Grooming: Lucy Halperin/Tracey Mattingly/Dyson; Styling: Mark Avery/Avery Ranch; Clothing Credits: Tank: Scott Frasier; Jeans: Levi’s; Boots: Redwing; Watch: Tag Heuer; Necklace: Rockstar Couture Jewelry; Yellow jacket: Vintage Avery Ranch; Jean jacket: Vintage Wrangler/Avery Ranch; Varsity jacket: Gucci; Plaid shirt: Vintage Avery Ranch; Yellow sweater: King & Tuckfield 

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