"The movie is groundbreaking in a lot of ways," asserts Ryan Reynolds of Deadpool, the blockbuster comic book adaptation released last February that he produced and stars in, as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of the Awards Chatter podcast. "It usurps certain tropes of the superhero genre that were well-ready to be usurped. And, again, timing, timing, timing, you know? We were kind of at peak superhero, in terms of tone, and it just offered something completely different in that respect. It also had just an unabashed commitment to its R rating. As I look back — and hindsight is obviously 20/20, but — it knew what it was, and I always knew what it was. I knew exactly how to play this guy [the irreverent title character], and I felt, in some weird way — not to sound too over the top or esoteric, but — like I was born to play this guy. I really understood him. And it just kind of popped."
It sure did. After 11 years in development at multiple studios, the "labor of love" finally was made by Fox for just $58 million (a low budget for a movie of its genre) — and then grossed an astounding $132 million on its opening weekend and, by the end of its theatrical run, $363 million domestically and $783 million worldwide, making it one of the biggest hits of 2016. It also garnered rave reviews — it has an 84 percent favorable rating at RottenTomatoes.com. And now, against all odds, it has become a serious Oscar contender: Over the past month or so, Reynolds received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Critics’ Choice Award for Entertainer of the Year and a best actor (musical or comedy) Golden Globe nomination, while the film was recognized with a best picture (musical or comedy) Golden Globe nom, as well as PGA, WGA and DGA noms. Who knows what Jan. 24, the day of the Oscar nominations announcement, will bring?
Reynolds was born in Vancouver, Canada, the youngest of four boys, and began studying improvisation at the age of 13. That same year, those skills helped him to land a spot — over 5,000 other youngsters who auditioned at a cattle call — on the Nickelodeon soap opera Fifteen, which he then followed with TV movies and the like. At 17, a conversation with a friend who was moving to Los Angeles to pursue acting motivated him to skip out on community college and head west, too. There, in 1997, he landed a sitcom, Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, which sent him on his way.
For most audiences, Reynolds entered the picture with the 2002 comedy Van Wilder, in which, he says, he was "just doing the best Chevy Chase impression I could do." The movie wasn't well-received upon its release, but it has found an enduring following. "I had a couple of those movies in my career," he notes. "I think that one and, I would say, Waiting... and Just Friends [both 2005] were all movies that didn't really hit at the box office and didn't really resonate with critics, but had this weird, long cult life afterwards. People found the movie and sort of memorized it and did drinking games to it, you know?"
He first entered the world of comic book movies with Blade: Trinity (2004), in which he played an undead detective and for which he put on 25 pounds of muscle. Both the performance and the physical transformation led studios to consider casting him as a leading man, and indeed, it was while he was on the set of that movie that Deadpool first crossed his radar. An executive who had control of the property at the time sent him some panels to check out, one of which even referenced him by name. He was intrigued. "I really saw an opportunity for something that was completely different," he explains. "This guy operates in ways that I felt meshed really well with the things I appreciate and my sensibilities — just the meta aspect, the fourth-wall breaking, the self-awareness, the filtering his pain through this prison of humor. I just loved it and thought the sky was the limit for a character like this." He soon thereafter met with Avi Arad, the then-chief of Marvel Studios, and Stan Lee, the mastermind behind Marvel Comics, to try to get a big-screen adaptation off the ground. "It was just this rock I kept rolling up a hill that kept coming back down on top of me," he says. "It just never could get the traction that I think it merited." The struggle continued even after the property wound up at Fox.
Over the 11 years between that initial exploration of Deadpool and the eventual release of the film, Reynolds starred in many other movies of different shapes and sizes. He tended to do his best work in indies like 2007’s The Nines, in which he plays three different characters ("It really changed my idea of film — I suddenly saw film as this limitless medium"); 2009’s Adventureland, a rom-com about summer love (which he made with "an incredible group of people"); and 2010’s Buried, a Hitchcockian drama in which he plays a truck driver kidnapped and buried alive in Iraq ("That's one of my favorite movies I've ever done").
Bigger movies were more hit or miss. In 2009, he finally got to play Deadpool — but as an underdeveloped supporting character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, for which he had to write his own lines (due to a writers strike) and which didn't blow anyone away (making it doubtful that a spinoff about his character ever would materialize). "I was f—in' depressed and bummed out," he admits. "That one hurt a little bit." But two months after that film's release, he and his longtime friend Sandra Bullock starred in one of the biggest hits of the summer, the rom-com The Proposal, which blasted him onto Hollywood's A-list (and also to the top of People's "Sexiest Man Alive" list). "It came around right when there was a huge drought in romantic comedies," he notes. "It felt like a bit of a different era [for me after that]."
However, the project that came about in large part because of the success of The Proposal quickly poured cold water on that. Reynolds auditioned for the title role in Green Lantern — another comic book adaptation, this time from DC Comics, Marvel's archrival — not really expecting to be offered the part. When he was, he says, "I quickly called the executive I knew at Fox who had Deadpool and I said, 'Look, I am standing at the altar right now, and I'm about to say "I do" to someone else. I will walk away from this if you even think that you can make a Deadpool movie with me.' And he said, 'Unfortunately, no, I don't think that that's gonna happen.' So I went off and did Green Lantern."
He continues, "The weird plot twist was, somehow, some way, Deadpool got reinvigorated at Fox while [Green Lantern] was happening. ... What a lot of people don't know is [writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick] flew to New Orleans and, while I was shooting Green Lantern, we were actually all together writing Deadpool." He adds with a laugh, "We were breaking the story of the original Deadpool movie in a house that was being paid for by Green Lantern's dime." All the while, Reynolds worried that he might never be allowed to play Deadpool, even if the film moved forward, now that he had hitched his wagon to Green Lantern. "I thought, 'If Green Lantern is a huge hit, they're never gonna accept me as both, and if Green Lantern is a huge failure — which it ended up being — they're never going to hire me.' "
Green Lantern (2011), which cost $200 million plus P&A but grossed just $116 million domestically, "fell prey to some of the classic studio tropes," acknowledges Reynolds. "You know, you go for a poster first and a release date second, or vice versa, and a script last. It just never really understood what it was. ... It was a huge learning experience." The upside of doing it was that it led to him meeting his future wife and mother of his two children, the actress Blake Lively. The downside was that it marked the beginning of a string of bombs, along with The Change-Up (2011) and R.I.P.D. (2013), that more or less left him with the label "box-office poison." "It was a rough go," he volunteers, and in late 2013, he made the difficult decision to replace the team of agents who long had represented him. That — and "dumb f—ing luck," as he puts it — soon turned around his fortunes.
In July 2014, some test footage that prospective Deadpool director Tim Miller had shot of Reynolds as Deadpool was leaked online and caused a sensation. "Suddenly that's on the internet and then, 'Boom,' " he says, "the next thing you know, they greenlit the movie." While Deadpool was, at long last, coming together, Reynolds also was regaining his cred in a series of quality indies, among them: 2014's The Voices, a dark comedy in which he plays a serial killer; 2015’s Woman in Gold, in which he plays an inexperienced attorney representing a Holocaust survivor (Helen Mirren) who is seeking to recover a Klimt painting from the Austrian government that had been stolen from her family by the Nazis (distributor Harvey Weinstein was frustrated that the actor's good looks were buried under glasses and false teeth in the film); and 2015’s Mississippi Grind, in which he plays the traveling buddy of a gambling addict (Ben Mendelsohn) and which deserved more attention than it received ("I thought it should have gotten a little more traction," he agrees).
Ultimately, the first authorized footage of Deadpool was revealed at Comic-Con in July 2015 — and attendees went nuts. "When that audience went ballistic — screaming for us to play it one more time — it was one of the strangest things," Reynolds says with a smile. "It was a really great moment." Then, over Valentine's Day weekend in 2016, the film opened and set a new bar for an R-rated movie's opening-weekend gross, among other records. More recently, it began to hold its own in the awards conversation, something Reynolds — who already is at work on its not-yet-titled sequel — still is trying to wrap his head around. "We had no idea we would ever get anything beyond an MTV Movie Award best kiss nomination," he cracks. Of the prospect of a best picture Oscar nomination for the film, he says, "If it does end up in that category, I think that's kind of a cool moment, for not just us, but for everybody — for the people that went to see the movie, the people that made the movie, the studio, even the Academy. I don't think that any superhero film has ever really broken that glass ceiling, so it would be nice to see one like Deadpool do it. And I can certainly promise one f—ing crazy reaction video online. In the Deadpool suit. Guaranteed."