June 23, 2004 06:00 AM

Graduation season came just in time for Ryan Gosling: The 23-year-old actor has officially moved up to leading-man status in the romance epic The Notebook, playing Noah, the star-crossed lover of society girl Allie (Rachel McAdams). It’s a big move for Gosling, who’s known mostly for his quirky roles (The United States of Leland) and for his way with older women (or at least with onetime girlfriend Sandra Bullock, 16 years his senior). Gosling recently chatted with reporters about his early start in the business, filling the shoes of Notebook costar James Garner and wishing for moves like Karl Malone’s.

So, you were a Mouseketeer with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera?
That’s the rumor.

Do you feel like you’ve come a long way since then?
I don’t know. I was so young. I don’t remember a whole lot about that time except that I rode a bunch of great rides at Disneyland. … I wasn’t really in the show.

What do you mean you weren’t really in the show? You were on for two seasons.
I think that they realized right away that I wasn’t talented. I couldn’t do anything. I don’t know how I got on the show. I think that they needed to fill a Canadian quotient.

Is that why you have such good chemistry with your Notebook costar Rachel McAdams? You’re both from up north.
She’s a lovely girl, and so it’s easy to have chemistry with her.

We heard that you and director Nick Cassavetes went around the country searching for women to fill that role.
Well, the truth is that we weren’t making the movie when we were doing that.

So you were just having fun?
Meeting girls? Yeah, it was fun. Really, it’s Rachel’s movie and she drives it. The main difference with her and a lot of the other girls is that they kept asking us what we thought. They were like, “What do you think? How do you think I should play it?” And I don’t know anything about women, and Nick doesn’t know anything about women, and so we needed someone who was going to tell us. Someone who would say, “Bottom line, I’m a girl, and I know. This is how I’m going to do it.”

Gosling bulked up for his role as Noah. "I just felt like five years of war and building a house on your own, he just had to be strong."

How were you able to pull off being a young James Garner?
Look, when James comes on set, women literally act like they’re on drugs. They start foaming at the mouth and they’re laughing all the time. That doesn’t happen when I come on set. So I kind of made a decision really early on that I wasn’t going to try to do some terrible impression of James. I was just going to play a character in their story.

What’s next, now that you’ve done your big summer romance?
God, don’t put it that way.

What’s this movie called Stay, due out this year?
Stay is actually really interesting. It was Mark Forster who directed it. He did Monster’s Ball, and Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts are in it. The setup is essentially that there’s this young guy (Gosling) who’s going to commit suicide on his birthday, which is in a couple of days, and the therapist (McGregor) has to try and stop him.

When did you realize you wanted to be an actor?
I still don’t know if I’m going to be an actor. I feel like I’m young, so I think that I have some time to sort of explore this before I get a real job.

What else would you do?
I wish that I could be (L.A. Lakers star) Karl Malone. But that’s not going to happen. I don’t know what I’d do, which I guess is the problem, isn’t it?

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