Fiery, idealistic educators and twitchy, narcissistic drug addicts are well-worn cinema archetypes. It takes a protean actor to meld the two, and a confident one to play it mellow, creating a novel persona, the kind of wounded young man you might actually know--and like. "Dan doesn't have a perfect character arc," says Ryan Gosling, of the engaging Brooklyn, N.Y., junior-high history teacher he plays in Half Nelson, who's also a crack addict. "There's a series of stops and starts. Even if Dan is learning lessons, he isn't immediately able to implement them in his life." Gosling, 26, a Canadian and former Mouseketeer, revealed his intensity as a neo-Nazi teenager in 2001's The Believer and his easy charm in the 2004 period romance The Notebook. As Dan Dunne, he flexes those acting muscles plus a few more. Dan's affection for his students focuses him, yet his addiction renders him foggy-eyed. When one of Dan's pupils discovers him with a crack pipe in the girls' bathroom, a fragile friendship develops. Clumsily steering her from the neighborhood drug dealer as he crawls to that dealer himself, Dan is the mentor who needs to be needed.
To prepare, Gosling shadowed a teacher in New York City. As for the drug use, "I've been smoking crack for years, so that came easily," he says. We're sure he's joking, despite his pale skin, lithe frame and convincing calm in the crack-house scene. Gosling does live in Los Angeles' Skid Row, a neighborhood filled with potential character studies. "Most movies are science fiction to me," he says. "Everyone looks a way and talks a way that I've never seen. Reading [the Half Nelson script] was like seeing an old friend." Watching Gosling is like seeing that friend too. And you can't help hoping things work out for him.