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The Loner

Ryan Gosling wants to hide from us. He plays weirdos and sociopaths in small-budget films. He guards his personal life fiercely. He's never in the gossip rags. So how did he get this famous By being one of the finest actors of our time, for starters

In photographs, Ryan Gosling often appears to be in the early stages of cultivating Frank Serpico's beard, but today he's looking almost altarboyishly presentable—hair neatly combed, facial scruff pruned.

He's sitting up straight in a postmodernStoneAgeJetsons coffee shop in Hollywood. He comes here often, and the waitresses know he wants the meatloaf before he even orders it, and he watches them go, with a look that's more wistful than wolfish.

What was the question Oh, right:

Gosling's staying in an apartment near here. He says he's been doing "experiments," and declines to elaborate. But until recently, he had a place in downtown Los Angeles. He moved there four years ago, back when downtown was where you moved if you wanted to be in L.A. but not of it, and I'd asked if that was part of its appeal.

"No, man," Gosling says. "I moved down there because you could do anything you wanted."

Back then, downtown was another city, Gosling says. An island of community amid L.A.'s lonely sprawl. You knew your neighbors. You knew the bums. It was sort of lawless, too:

"I started tagging," Gosling says. "I tried to start a battle. I'd heard if you tag over someone else's tag, you declare war. So I worked on my tag. Spray paint, stencils—I got down. And when I thought I was ready, I started tagging over some specific guys' [tags].

"Not one of them ever messed with me, man," he says. "Because my tag was so pathetic. Maybe they thought some drunk monkey got loose with a spray can."

Gosling's Tshirt is torn at the neck and faded to the point of translucence; his black boots are battered and pale with white dust, like he's been kicking drywall. His voice is a sinusy rumble, a head cold caught from Dustin Hoffman, with a backspin of wiseguy how'syamutha Brooklynese, which is charming but also incongruous coming from a Canadian. It makes him seem older than 26, or temporally displaced—a time traveler from the days when movie actors didn't speak with heydude flatness because they were not mere dudes, because they'd actually lived, slung hash, fought wars, fid things when they broke. Gosling isn't one of those guys, but the essence of his appeal is that he seems like he could be.

Nick Loui