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In Rodrigo Cortés’ new thriller Buried, a truck driver named Paul Conroy wakes up in a roughhewn coffin, entombed somewhere in the Iraqi desert with no clue how he got there. For the rest of the film, the camera never leaves that box; the only human contact Paul has is with disembodied voices on the other end of a cell phone. It’s a high-concept story that rests entirely on a single actor’s performance, and Cortés could only think of one guy who could pull it off: Ryan Reynolds.
Of course, Cortés isn’t alone. In the last two years, Reynolds has become one of the most in-demand actors in the business, having finally graduated from the romantic comedies that defined his early career to, well, more successful romantic comedies such as 2009’s The Proposal. But he also surprised many with his turn as the acerbic assassin Deadpool in the X-Men spin-off Wolverine, a role that prepared him for what will be his biggest undertaking yet: playing the lead in next year’s Green Lantern. Expectations are so high for Green Lantern’s success as a franchise that rarely does a day go by without Reynolds’ name being bandied about for some other big-budget comic-book movie—including his own Deadpool spin-off, the Dark Horse adaptation R.I.P.D., and even The Flash, none of which exist beyond notions at this point. In the meantime, Reynolds is shoring up his sudden ubiquity with diverse films like the upcoming body-switching comedy The Change-Up and Safe House, in which he plays a CIA agent opposite Denzel Washington. The reason Reynolds has become so sought-after is the same reason Cortés wanted him for Buried: Reynolds may have become a movie star worthy of carrying whole films on his back, yet somehow he still exudes a regular-guy persona that audiences relate to, whether he’s trapped in a coffin or wielding a magical glowing ring. The A.V. Club spoke to Reynolds at Fantastic Fest about the importance of maintaining that humility, his willingness to beat himself up for roles, and why he’s really mindful of not becoming an asshole.
The A.V. Club: It seems like acting really depends on playing off other people, but you’re all alone in Buried. What did that do to your performance?
Ryan Reynolds: This movie is strange, because it’s such an extraordinary situation, both as a character and as an actor. Both of us are going through an extraordinary situation at the same time, and it was odd. It was weird not having a co-star to cut away to for the most part. It just forces you to never have a deficit in the performance. If you do, if you have a dishonest moment, you’re going to lose the audience. So I had to not only light myself in the scenes… [Laughs.] Which was difficult. But you just can’t have a bullshit moment. And look: I have bullshit moments every once in a while—like every actor does—and thank God we had a great director who had a very finely tuned bullshit meter.
AVC: What would you classify as a “bullshit moment?”
RR: It’s just a moment that doesn’t feel 100-percent truthful, a kind of a square peg/round hole situation. Which is why the preproduction on a movie like this is so important, because you can’t just push those through. You have to really make sure that every moment means something, and that every moment, there’s a purpose for it. And then you have to blend it all together without it looking like you’re really focusing on it. That, to me, was the magic trick that was most difficult for the film. It was finding those moments where you allow the audience to breathe and laugh. To make them laugh is difficult when you’re in a coffin. You have to really find the most opportune, honest moment to do that in and take your shot, and then hopefully it pays off, and it doesn’t take people out of the movie. I think without that, you’d just basically pass away watching this film. Too much intensity can be a bad thing.
AVC: Speaking of breathing, it really seemed like that was almost as important as the dialogue. On a movie as barebones as this, is it important to concentrate on that sort of thing—to find the stuff between the lines?
RR: Oh yeah. The thing that I wasn’t expecting going into it is that we’re always moving. I’m very rarely still in the coffin, so there’s always something going on. In the negative space, you’re filling it with a lot of movement, a lot of action. Paul’s always working, he’s trying to find some way out of there. Yeah, the breathing was tough. I was hyperventilating a lot, which was strange. At the beginning, I was passing out in takes. I kept passing out. Obviously there was just way too much oxygen in the brain and I couldn’t process it all, and I would just sort of drift away in the takes. [Laughs.] Rodrigo kept coming up to me, asking what I was doing at the end of the take there, why I would sort of fade out and whisper. I was like, “Because I’m blacking out!” I had to figure out a way to hyperventilate without actually hyperventilating. That was definitely a not insignificant challenge.
AVC: You were also pretty much isolated while filming in Spain, especially because you don’t speak the language. What did working on this movie do to your general mental state?
RR: I was having a tough time, I think, out there. I don’t know what I was expecting, but at the end of the day, I would take it all home with me. But we were in Spain, you know, we’re in Barcelona. Ostensibly, it’s a gorgeous city—though I never really saw it. I would just kind of wait for the sun to come up again so we could go back into the coffin and shoot some more, and just get this thing over with. I wasn’t doing much. I had a real issue with insomnia out there, probably for the first time in my life. And you sort of attach that anecdote with a bit of glibness, but it was actually really awful. [Laughs.] I don’t know if you’ve ever had insomnia, but it’s a really terrible feeling when it’s days and weeks on end. It was kind of awful. But thankfully the shoot was 17 days. My family understood. I didn’t really talk to them or call home much or anything like that. I just kind of tried to get through it. I treated it like a mini tour of duty.
AVC: With this movie and Green Lantern, you’re developing this reputation for really beating yourself up in movies. Do you think that an actor should beat himself up a little to earn a role?
RR: I don’t know about that. I know there are actors we all want to beat up a little. I think it’s important to do whatever it takes, and whatever it takes sometimes involves some physical or mental discipline. There’s a lot at stake. I mean, not to over-romanticize this thing that we do, but there is a lot at stake—a lot of money at stake. It’s something that requires a lot of focus. You have to be prepared. So yeah, I’ll do whatever it takes for a movie. I don’t really care what that is.
AVC: According to the GQ profile that’s out this month, that’s sort of how you’ve always been, though—like when your brother talks about how, when you were a football player, you were always getting concussions.
RR: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I’ve had an alarming amount of concussions. [Laughs.]
AVC: And in Buried, you ended up losing some of your hair, you burned your fingers…
RR: Yeah, there were a lot of weird little things that happened. Yeah, I wore my hair away on the sand on the back of the coffin, which was kind of weird. I started to notice it about halfway through shooting. I noticed that there’s not much I can do about it. By the end, it looked like I’d had a haircut—but it was though someone had bitten my hair off. It was really bizarre. But yeah, I got a lot of burns. I was virtually skinless by the time I left.
AVC: Are you looking forward to the day when you can just be lazy and you don’t have to suffer so much?
RR: I’m looking forward to that movie. The latter half of Raging Bull would be nice. [Laughs.] Just to eat ice cream every night and go to bed.
AVC: Well, on behalf of all the dudes in America, you can stop doing sit-ups any time you want.
RR: [Laughs.] Done! It’s been three months since my last sit-up, and I’m still hanging in there.
AVC: With a character that comes with so many preconceptions like Green Lantern, what have you done to personalize it?
RR: I don’t think you can help but personalize a role. You almost play to none of the preconceived notions of it. It’s more or less a personal experience and journey. I’ve said it before that I see the guy like a cross between Han Solo and Chuck Yeager. He’s that kind of archetype. There’s something classic about that, something I don’t think we’ve really seen in the modern superhero film. It’s that kind of ability to walk the line between drama, adventure, and a bit of humor. He’s not like a funny guy, but he’s a witty guy—if that makes any sense at all. It’s funny: I noticed while working on Green Lantern that the actor—albeit forefront in the film, obviously, and the key focus for the audience—is kind of the smallest cog in the machine when you’re shooting. I mean, it’s just such a huge operation. It felt like a military op to some degree. And Martin Campbell is a director who has that ability to marshal so many forces together and create a film like that. I mean, the scope is just so huge. It’s obviously space and Earth, but there’s more involved in each of those two huge storylines as they come together. I’d say that I’m as curious to see it as everyone else is, definitely.
AVC: That’s kind of Green Lantern as a character, too: He’s the hero, but he’s also beholden to the power of his ring and the Guardians Of The Universe. He’s also somewhat of a cog in the machine.
RR: What I liked about it was that it’s a story about a character who’s got an issue with hubris and a character fault of arrogance, I think, and he’s bestowed this extraordinary gift, this extraordinary ability, and it’s actually humbling for him. It’s almost the opposite way to go with a guy like this. You would think he would kind of go wild with it—and there would be a temptation I’m sure, on behalf of the screenwriters, to have that moment where the character is kind of abusing this and enjoying this for a little while before he becomes the responsible so-and-so. But right away, it’s incredibly humbling for him, and he doesn’t really understand it. He’s trying to figure it out. It’s fun to tell an origin story, but at the same time it’s nice when the story doesn’t start in the third act, like a lot of origin stories do. This one gets going pretty quickly.
AVC: That story could also be about you: Here you’ve been handed this huge franchise and you’ve become this very in-demand actor—and thus, there’s a temptation to really abuse that power and become a total dick.
RR: It’s funny, because there are so many stereotypes out there about actors and movie stars in general, but I’ve had a great opportunity to meet a lot of them, and maybe it’s just because they don’t behave that way around me, but I rarely see that kind of abuse of power. Or, I haven’t seen that much of it. I’ll say I’ve seen a little bit of it, definitely. [Laughs.] Full disclosure. But no, for the most part the actors that have been around a long time, they have something—a work ethic, discipline, something—that makes them easy to be around, and that studios want to keep working with them and crews want to keep working with them. I find that, if they’re not working anymore, something’s either gone wrong, or maybe they’ve assholed their way out of the business. But I’ve had the pretty good fortune of working with some decent guys and gals.
AVC: This really does seem like your year. Have you noticed a drastic uptick in the number of roles you’ve been offered?
RR: Of course. It’s been interesting. I mean none of it was really handed to me on a silver platter. Green Lantern I screen-tested for twice. I fought for the role. And I’m glad I did, because I felt like I earned it. I didn’t feel like I was given this gigantic franchise just because, you know, The Proposal did well. [Laughs.] I had to go in there and prove that I was the right guy for the job. I like that that still exists. But it’s definitely been a whirlwind year in a lot of ways, both personally and professionally.
AVC: Are there roles you wouldn’t do at this point? What if you were offered a Van Wilder sequel?
RR: No, but I’m one of the most fortunate guys around, man. I still get to do those kinds of movies, and then I get to do Green Lantern, and I get to do Buried with an auteur like Rodrigo Cortés. I enjoy that I can get away with that. The next film I’m doing [The Change-Up] is written by the guys who wrote The Hangover. It’s with Jason Bateman, and it’s a rated-R comedy. After that I do a thriller called Safe House. It’s cool that we live in a climate where that can happen. And I think it’s happening because I wasn’t wildly famous when I was 21 years old. I think that because of my career being somewhat of an aggregate, I can kind of get away with that. So far.
AVC: Not that it’s an accurate portrayal, obviously, but shows like Entourage suggest that getting the lead in a comic-book movie is kind of the end-all be-all for actors. What do you think about that?
RR: [Laughs.] Well, I think it’s satirical, obviously. I don’t think it’s necessarily 100-percent true. But comic books have infiltrated the mainstream Hollywood in ways that I don’t think I ever would have seen or thought imaginable a while ago. But it’s also cyclical. You saw it in the ’80s when it became kind of huge again. And then it disappears for a while, then it comes back again, then it disappears for a while. So yeah, there’s something about that. It really is established as a genre unto itself, much like the thriller or the horror movie or the comedy. And those things trend.
AVC: You’ve become the go-to guy for comic-book movies now. In addition to Green Lantern, you’ve also been attached to R.I.P.D., Deadpool—
RR: Well, I don’t have any of those. Those are in-development films. But when you sign on to say, “Okay, yeah, let’s develop this,” usually that turns into, “Oh, he’s doing it.” But there’s no script for some of these things. I mean, Deadpool has a script, but it’s a very complicated process to find the right filmmaker. We’ll see. The R.I.P.D. picture is like a graphic novel, I guess. I don’t know if it’s like a typical kind of comic book. But there is great source material for those kinds of films. Graphic novels and comic books offer an easy foothold into that world, and screenwriters and studio execs gravitate toward those, because I think they can see it all right there. It’s like, “Here’s what the movie looks like. Here’s how it feels.”
AVC: “Here’s where Ryan Reynolds goes.”
RR: [Laughs.] Yes, I guess so. Sure.
AVC: Are there any actors whose careers you’d like to emulate? Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed some loose parallels to Michael Keaton, what with the way you both came up in comedies, then moved to franchise comic-book movies, then thrillers and so on.
RR: Michael Keaton had a great, great career. I do remember when I was a young guy thinking about him, about how he’d had the chance to do it all, so yeah. But you know, there’s nobody where I’ve said, “Man, I really want that guy’s career.” I mean, each of us has to make our own go of it. There are guys I admire. Like Jimmy Stewart and—a more modern example—Tom Hanks. They managed to do it and have a really high standard for their work, but at the same time they remained incredibly classy and well-regarded personally throughout the process, which I thought was rare and kind of cool. And I’m trying. I try. I haven’t thrown any TVs out the hotel window yet.
AVC: Well, we’re in the Four Seasons. You couldn’t ask for a finer hotel to do that in.
RR: [Laughs.] The day is young!