(CNN) — It started because Ryan Gosling gave someone a ride home.
When the actor was given the script for "Drive," he was also given the option to choose the director.
"Whether I did it or not depended on who was going to direct it," Gosling said.
Having seen the films of Nicolas Winding Refn ("Bronson," "Valhalla Rising"), he thought the Danish director might be the right guy. But then they had an "awful meeting," probably because Winding Refn had the flu, and Gosling wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.
One catch: Winding Refn couldn't drive and needed a lift. Gosling reluctantly obliged.
"On the ride home, we were just playing music and driving," Gosling said from a New York hotel suite with his director nearby, eating his lunch of soup and hard-boiled eggs. Looking back at that meeting, he said, they had "an epiphany" when the REO Speedwagon song "Can't Fight This Feeling" came on the radio and Gosling started singing along.
"I think we both saw the movie in that moment. Conversation wasn't really part of that moment. It wasn't conceptual. It wasn't based on ideas. It was based on this experience, this quick experience. It was only 10 minutes in the car, but it was a feeling that was a relatable experience, and we thought, 'Why not make a movie about driving that's really about driving? Not stunts?' It came to us in a flash, and we both had that as a benchmark."
"Drive" was the first time Gosling got to pick a director for one of his movies and take charge. It was the first time since 2002's "Murder by Numbers" that he'd made a "really violent film, a gory film." It sparked a daredevil streak in his career, which is reaching a new height (or low, according to some critics) with his latest Winding Refn collaboration. The controversial and ultraviolent "Only God Forgives" features a lot of limbs and other body parts getting lopped off, drenched in blood and red light. One act of violence begets another in an elliptical and relentless revenge cycle that includes a man sticking his hand inside a dead woman's body, perhaps to reclaim her womb.
But for Gosling, it was one way to put an end to any idea that he was just a Hollywood heartthrob (or sexy Internet meme), his pretty-boy face as bruised and beaten up as possible on the film's poster, a trademark of Winding Refn's.
Gosling's career, which started as on the "Mickey Mouse Club" (along with Mouseketeers Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Keri Russell), gained traction in 2004 with the tearjerker romance "The Notebook," which won him such accolades as Best Kiss at the MTV Movie Awards.
But it wasn't until "Half Nelson" in 2006 (which got him an Oscar nomination) and "Lars and the Real Girl" in 2007 (which got him his first Golden Globe nomination) that he was taken seriously by the critics. He could have had his pick of projects, but instead he took a break for a few years, until he found a handful of films by auteur-type directors that would break convention and would mean something to him: "Blue Valentine," with director Derek Cianfrance (with whom he reteamed on this year's "The Place Beyond the Pines"), and "Drive."
Winding Refn, like Gosling, was placed in a prime position to do "more of a Hollywood film" after the critical acclaim and commercial success of "Drive."
He chose not to.
"I admire that," Gosling said. "He makes films for personal reasons, and that was an experience I wanted to have, to keep having. It's contagious."
When he worked with a revolving door of directors on Hollywood films, Gosling said, it wasn't satisfying.
"I just feel, after a while, like it's serial dating," he said. "And at a certain point, you want to settle down and see what's really there. It takes more than one film to do that, because you waste a lot of time on a film getting to know somebody, being polite, getting to see how the other person works. It's nice to have a history with someone, so you can keep in touch with each other, so you can trust what they're saying to you."
Gosling knew that "Only God Forgives" would be a "difficult film" that would "divide people" (and divide them it has; the festival audience booed the film at Cannes). Still, he plunged into it headfirst, even though, he admitted, he didn't know what it was.
"Nic makes his movies chronologically," he said. "You find it while you're making it. You have to just follow your intuition, and there's really no other experience making a film quite like that. It's like taking a drug. You go on a trip."
Since his job was to have the same deadpan expression no matter what happened, Gosling calls "Only God Forgives" "basically a silent film."
"We're so accustomed to words," Winding Refn said. "Turning down the sound on a television is an alien concept."
With little conversation between them, the characters become ciphers, inscrutable (save for Kristin Scott Thomas as Gosling's psycho of a mother, who has a lot to say, often in the crudest terms possible).
Without words, most of the communication is physical and symbolic. Gosling holds out his hands, either to examine them, to reach for a prostitute he wants to pretend is his girlfriend or to punch the cop who killed his brother. He leaves the amputations to other characters, but Gosling isn't tentative about violence onscreen. (He counts "Rambo: First Blood" and "Blue Velvet" as some of his childhood favorites.)
Some critics objected to the lack of dialogue, lack of character motivation and style over substance in "Only God Forgives," but Winding Refn enjoys the criticism.
"If everyone loves it, we're not different," he said. "How can we all love and hate the same things? If people love it for the exact same reason other people hate it, it penetrates. Your penetration has been successful."
And it's this lesson that Gosling has absorbed for his first film as a director, "How to Catch a Monster," which he's currently editing. On the set of that film, which includes his "Drive" co-star Christina Hendricks, he practiced the most peaceful, nonviolent thing he ever saw Winding Refn do: listen to his own instincts first but listen to everyone else involved in the project as well.
"There was a guy auditioning for a stunt role, like Guy No. 15, who gets his head chopped off," Gosling said. "Nic talked to him for like two hours: what he thought of the story, what he thought about the film. He just really engages everybody and collects their ideas, and I think it's a really smart way to work. All these people come to you with an entire history and they can offer a perspective to what you're doing, whether you like it or not. It seems strange now to work in a situation where people are closed off to everything but their own ideas."
Sounds like Gosling won't be going back to that anytime soon.