Just how hot, exactly, is Ryan Gosling?

The answer to that question is subjective, of course, but the reaction it inspires in those who go weak-kneed at the thought is indisputable.

The 32-year-old Canadian actor has inspired dozens of Internet memes, a couple of viral videos and even a grassroots protest - complete with placards - when People Magazine failed to crown him its Sexiest Man Alive in 2011 (The Hangover's Bradley Cooper was crowned instead).

Even those accustomed to meeting attractive Hollywood stars go gaga over the man.

Ryan Gosling, a reluctant sex symbol?
Ryan Gosling in Gangster Squad. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

While waiting with a group of journalists recently to interview him about his movie Gangster Squad, this reporter inadvertently starts an argument after daring to suggest that the star of romantic films such as The Notebook (2004) and Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), both of which established him as a bona fide pin-up, is not conventionally good-looking.

This is not, evidently, a discussion that takes place very often, and one suspects the actor is aware of this on some level, because he walks into the Four Seasons Hotel that day wearing a brown-and-white sweater so ugly that only someone utterly secure about his appearance would put it on.

Perhaps he wore that because he does not want to talk about his sex-symbol status.

Gosling, who speaks in a low and curiously monotone voice, demurs on the subject.

"I'm as uncomfortable with it as I am uncomfortable talking about it. It's not a real thing. It's some kind of cosmic joke that's going to be revealed," he says, looking suitably embarrassed.

The actor - who in his latest film plays a Los Angeles policeman reluctantly drawn into a secret operation to take down the Mob - swears that he was not an object of lust before he became famous.

"I think a lot of it is to do with the stigma that attaches to you from film, you know. I think anybody who was in The Notebook would be receiving similar comments. It's just the nature of it," he says of his role as the romantic lead in The Notebook.

"I know from just being a guy looking at a billboard, you're like, 'That guy's not a sex symbol. They're trying to sell that guy? No way, that's never gonna stick.' And suddenly he's a huge deal, and you can't believe it. I used to hate those guys and now I'm one of them."

Being in the movies gives him an unfair advantage, he claims. "Film romanticises. People associate you with those roles and cut out all the bad bits. You come on set and they put make-up on you and nice clothes and music underneath what you're saying. And it's not fair to everyone else.''

What about the chiselled physique he stripped to reveal in Crazy, Stupid, Love? Was it digitally manipulated like his love interest in that movie suggests?

"It was Photoshopped," he deadpans, and as a consequence, "you have to talk about your abdomen. To strangers. All day long."

If this is false modesty, it is pretty convincing, especially delivered, as it is, in such a lugubrious demeanour and with an oddly retro, Brooklynite drawl. The accent, he has said, was developed as a child because he loved actor Marlon Brando, but which has stuck with him since.

Between this and his random bursts of goofy humour, Gosling quickly wins over the room, breaking off mid-sentence to dramatically herald a sneeze, or to tease a reporter for not acknowledging him in the lift.

He makes a fair point about how some sex symbols are created. Talk about his being one also tends to obscure the fact that he can act circles around many of his peers.

Critics have been unstinting in their praise for many of his performances. Whereas other Hollywood heart-throbs seem to return to the same characters time and again, Gosling's body of work is not so easily categorised.

There was Half Nelson (2006), in which he plays a drug-addled high-school teacher; Lars And The Real Girl (2007), a bittersweet comedy about a man who falls in love with a blow-up sex doll; Blue Valentine (2010), an unflinching look at the unravelling of a relationship, and Drive (2011), a stylised mood piece about a getaway-car driver.

Lars and Blue Valentine led to Golden Globe nominations and sealed his reputation as a dedicated actor who thoroughly inhabits his characters.

He has proven equally adept when it comes to purely commercial fare such as Crazy, Stupid, Love, in which he was paired with Emma Stone, who is also his love interest in Gangster Squad.

Ryan Gosling, a reluctant sex symbol?
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling paired up again in Gangster Squad

Life! asks where the chemistry between the two of them comes from.

"I don't know, I think she just evokes the chemistry, you know?" he says. "I think I just have great respect for her. Maybe you can feel that."

Although he is in the prime of his career, he is making plans to give up acting and go behind the camera, which he feels is a natural progression after having been in the industry since he was 12.

His directorial debut next year will be How To Catch A Monster, a modern-day fairy tale starring Mad Men actress Christina Hendricks as a single mother whose teenage son discovers an underwater world.

"I feel like I've worked with so many great actors and, as I'm there take to take, watching their performances, I get to know them in a way film-makers can't because they're directing the movie. I often see how much these people are capable of and how little of it makes it to the final cut.

"It's not that I'm sick of acting, but that I'm a fan of acting and actors. A lot of the people in my film are people I've worked with before, and now I would like to create an environment where they can show what they're capable of."

But Gosling is not going to kill the golden goose just yet. He appears in two widely anticipated films due out this year: The Place Beyond The Pines, a crime drama with Cooper and Eva Mendes, whom Gosling is dating, and an untitled project by the reclusive director Terrence Malick (Tree Of Life, 2011).

But he is choosing his projects with some care. He and Drive director Nicholas Winding Refn have reconsidered their involvement in Only God Forgives, a movie set in the Bangkok muay thai scene, despite having already flown there and started work on it.

"We took a stab at it but felt we couldn't quite get a handle on how to do it right. We didn't want to do it a disservice because it has a huge fanbase that deserves to get the movie it's looking for," he says.

They are also in two minds about whether to do a sequel to the film Drive, which earned Refn a Best Director gong at Cannes.

"Yeah, we're torn. Obviously we'd love to do it but, at the same time, the driver just drives on, you know? It's just kind of fun to dream about that right now."

Gangster Squad is now in cinemas.

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on January 9, 2013. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.