- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
In Shawn Levy’s Free Guy, comedian and actor Lil Rel Howery stars as number two to Ryan Reynolds’ main character — though as non-playable characters in an open-world video game, neither are really supposed to be a “main” anything.
But Howery’s role as Buddy, a saccharinely optimistic bank security guard and best friend to Reynold’s blue-shirted bank teller, Guy, sees the actor delivering several of the film’s most emotional side quests, alongside a loot box of comedic scene-stealing moments. Now that it’s a box office hit with a sequel in development, Howery can add 20th Century Studios’ charming spin on gaming to his growing stash house of successes within the last several years.
Free Guy, which is ultimately as much about gaming easter eggs as friendship, wish-fulfillment and kindness, follows a series of theatrical and streaming hits for comedian, writer and producer, including Bad Trip, Fatherhood, and Oscar-winning films Get Out and Judas and the Black Messiah. Those have been stuffed between appearances in Jay-Z’s Friends-inspired music video “Moonlight,” Tag, Bird Box, The Photograph, Space Jam: A New Legacy, Insecure and his own show Rel — to name just a few of his projects.
As Howery continues to expand his on-screen presence through performances of the best friend variety, the actor-comedian says that even he’s surprised by all the power-ups that have come his way. But those creative choices, including heartfelt action-comedies like Free Guy, will always be about a larger vision of his work and his identity in Hollywood as a relatable multi-hyphenate.
Following the release of Free Guy and ahead of Howery’s new comedy album Humbly Vulnerable, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to the actor about what it takes to be Hollywood’s best best friend, that famous Oscars Glenn Close moment, and his untitled project about the Jan. 6 insurrection that will see him reteam with Judas‘ Ryan Coogler, Shaka King and Charles D. King.
Free Guy is doing well, especially in the pandemic as a video game film not based on IP. How does that feel and has your decision to work on this been reaffirmed?
I’m a big Ryan Reynolds fan so just to work with him, in general, has been like a dream come true. And then it was cool because it is an original idea and it’s still kind of new today. But you know, I’m incredibly grateful because it’s been a really interesting year. I’ve just been a part of really good stuff, and it’s weird that it’s all doing well. It’s really throwing me off. I’ve just been in my house sitting here thinking about it like, “What is going on?” But, man, I’m so lucky to be here. I get the chance to work with so many dope people. I was just texting Ryan yesterday thanking him and Shawn for letting me be a part of this. That’s when he also let me know that he wanted to keep working with me, wanted to work again together. Might be getting a script soon from him.
Ryan recently announced that Free Guy was getting a sequel. Are you excited to continue in this universe with director Shawn Levy and Reynolds, and what might you want for your character in part two?
You know what would be interesting — and I don’t know anything yet because they just brought it up [Saturday] — it would be interesting to see who Buddy becomes in this next one, right? Buddy was made one way, but it would be interesting if he ended up having some powers or he ends up being a badass. I’m not always the biggest fan of sequels because some sequels are forced, but in this case, they started another video game. So it is literally a whole other world that could happen with this, and who’s to say Antwan still not mad? (Laughs.) So, I cannot wait to hear what Shawn and Ryan’s idea is for part two.
Buddy is designed to be a best friend, so he’s got this perpetual loyal, supportive, super optimistic air to him. What was it like having to constantly play that upbeatness and emotionality with Ryan?
What’s brilliant about this video game they created is that our characters don’t know they’re in a video game. We just do every day what we’re supposed to do. There’s that scene where I grab a gun and say, “I’ve never used a gun before!” But it’s been on [Buddy’s] belt the whole time. (Laughs.) He just never touched it. I think they were truly brilliant in thinking about who these video game characters are and what they do every day. We really committed to that.
But Buddy is a bank security dude and he’s Guy’s best friend, but that had to be played with an innocence to it. So I remember when Shawn and I first started talking about the character, we thought it’s like, he’s a grown four-year-old. And because I was shooting a movie in Boston, my kids were with me. They were on set almost every day. It made me communicate with them more. And I think if you look at me and Ryan, the way we did it, it makes his character fascinating, too, when he starts to realize we’re not real. If you don’t play it innocently, you can’t even see that character take that ride. So that’s really what it came down to — making sure we kept those characters grounded in innocence.
Free Guy is an action-comedy, but two of its biggest themes are friendship and kindness — both of which your character embodies. It’s got a lot of heart and it’s really sincere, which ultimately also drives the comedy. How does that line up for you in terms of how you see the role of comedy in entertainment?
Heart and comedy go hand-in-hand. One of my favorite actors of all time is Robin Williams. One of the silliest people of all time, one of the funniest people. When I tell you that man could put some heart in something, he’d have you die laughing and crying at the next thing. Comedy has always had that balance of heart. My favorite comedies are the stuff with heart in it, not the mean stuff, you know? It’s the stuff with pure heart in it.
That’s why I like Ryan Reynolds so much. Definitely, Maybe is one of my favorite movies of all time. And I’m such a romantic-comedy person, too. When Jodie [Comer] and Joe [Keery’s] characters realize what their dynamic really is… my heart warms every time I see that scene. That’s what I thought was brilliantly done too, is the love story. You saw two love stories — one with those two, and you saw Buddy and Guy’s love story as best friends. This is why I think Free Guy works. It has so many layers to it. You go into the movie theater thinking it’s one thing, and then you’re like, ‘I didn’t expect any of those things.’
You have sort of perfected the best friend role. You do it in Free Guy, Bad Trip, Get Out — acting as the audience’s character, regardless of genre. Is there anything that draws you to this type of character?
You know, one of my producer homies said this to me a couple weeks ago. He said, “You know what you do?” I said, “What do I do?” He said, “You pick characters that represent everyday people.” That’s intentional. I love representing a good friend. There’s different versions of it, but it’s like, this is what a good friend looks like. And there’s going to be a friend in everything you watch. If it’s a Tom Hanks’ movie and he’s on an island by himself talking to a rubber ball — that’s a friend! (Laughs.) So what I’ve done is I’ve invited it. With my friend characters, you feel like you know that character. I enjoy beautiful friendships. When I did Photograph and I played Lakeith’s brother, you’re seeing siblings who are actually friends.
I do it because I like to represent the everyday person and I think friendships are part of that and they are also so important. I know I love my friendships, so to actually represent friendship on screen as much as I can — I love it. I’m even doing it in the movie I’m filming right now, which is another comedy and hysterical so far, where I’m doing my version of Will Ferrell. I’m a Black Will Ferrell. But, you know, we need a friend in everything so I guess I’m going to keep doing it as long it comes. You know what? I might have to get some more credit for this. Maybe it’s a Guinness World Record or something that I’ve played the friend in the most things ever or I’m the most memorable friend of all time.
You’ve got a comedy album coming out, which pays homage to your inspirations and where you came from. It’s an opportunity outside films to get to know more of you as an artist. Why did you decide to do this album and do it now, and how do you feel it solidifies who people know you to be creatively?
At some point, people grew to know me as an actor even though I come from comedy. But stand up is how I got here. And I started thinking about my heroes, right? And just with the cats we elevate now, I said, “Well, let me think about this. Why am I not considered one of the best?” I’m a fan of this business. I love comedy. I look at my heroes and I see I’ve done what most of my heroes have. I made this look kind of easy, but it wasn’t, and I truly believe, I’m one of the best to be doing this right now.
And two, with this album, I really hope people start to say, “It’s not just Dave Chappelle or Kevin Hart.” I free-styled the whole thing, I didn’t write it. I showed up in Nashville, put a suit on and just talked. I think it’s my most honest work too because I was naked. I was so vulnerable. That’s why I called it Humbly Vulnerable. But… I mean, it might also be a couple of people who don’t invite me to their parties no more because of stuff I said. (Laughs.)
You just spoke about honesty and before you mentioned not wanting to be mean in your comedy, which I think Free Guy has an interesting conversation about. How are you comedically honest while avoiding that meanness?
I’ve never been a mean comic in general. I can roast people and I say things, but it’s all out of honesty. Now people be like, “We can’t say anything!” You can, just don’t be mean about it. I think about some of the trouble that some comedians have gotten in over the years is because the bit, a joke or tweet or whatever, was just really mean. Like, “You did what? Why would you say that?” I’ve been able to always say what I want to say because it always comes out of a place of love and honesty. When I think about my heroes, like Richard Pryor, one of the greatest things about that brother was that he was just so vulnerable and honest. I just think if you come from a place of love and honesty, you can do so much. And once again, if you look at the films I pick, there’s a reason why I’m doing all of this.
Speaking of things you pick, I have to ask this. You went viral earlier this year for your Oscars bit involving Glenn Close and “Da Butt.” How did you pick that and pitch that to her? And did you have a backup plan?
I didn’t even pitch it to her. All I did was tell [Oscars producer] Jesse Collins. That was it. I didn’t know if she was going to do it. If she didn’t do it I was going to ask somebody else to do it. I really just free-styled it and had fun. When you watch it, that’s why I’m laughing so hard. I didn’t know she was going to do it. I didn’t even know she knew how to do “Da Butt.” I just put her on the spot and she did it. That was such a fun moment. I was having so much fun that day, because I did the pre-show and I did the interviews, and I got a chance to see a lot of my friends. It was a fun day. But literally, if you rewatch it, watch just how loose I am. I’m back there with Harrison Ford throwing a couple back. (Laughs.) Just having a good time. It was just a fun moment. And it’s just so weird because, you know, it’s the Oscars. I have to pinch myself sometimes. But at the same time, it’s like, if you put Rel at the Oscars, you get Glenn Close to do Da Butt. It’s the Oscars, on national television — this ain’t the BET Awards. This is the Oscars. (Laughs.)
Have there been any talks for you to return at all to do a future Oscars event?
I don’t even know if I want to host the Oscars. You know what? I’ll give you two awards shows I truly want to host. BET Celebration of Gospel cause I love Gospel music, and the MTV Movie and TV awards. The reason for that is you can do skits. If I’m a host, I gotta be creative. I don’t want to just stand there with a mic. I want to have some fun. I’m not saying I wouldn’t do anything with the Oscars, but I wouldn’t necessarily host it. If they have me do something fun again, fine. Other than that, I like to do stuff that I can get overly creative with. You let me host the MTV TV and Movie Awards, watch how it’s gonna be crazy.
You’ve got a host of projects coming up, including Vacation Friends with John Cena. After that, what is the next thing you want to do?
Honestly, I think, the next thing I want to do is be a villain. I want to surprise the audience. I always do the little hero stuff and everybody’s always like he’s a good dude. I want to throw everybody off and play somebody evil.
Are there any existing properties that you would consider or want to be a villain in?
Star Wars. It would throw everybody off if I was in some way part of the Empire. You can throw me in Kobra Kai. I’ll come in as a bad karate person. (Laughs.)
You’ve seen continued success over the last several years, including now Free Guy. Have you thought about changing how you approach projects or are you keeping to the tried and true path? And have you thought any about expanding your work outside of writing and acting?
Well, one thing I’ve always been good at is just making sure everything’s different, and just doing what I want to do. I was only in Judas and the Black Messiah because I asked them to be in it. I wanted to be a part of Fred Hampton’s story because I grew up and I knew it. I’m constantly only trying to impress 10-year-old me. (Laughs.) But right now it’s dramas, I’m writing a lot of stuff — I’ve got a rom-com coming — and I’m just having fun. Sometimes I think we can overthink being in this business. I’m just trying to do everything until the wheels fall off — [things] that seemed unrealistic at one time when I was living on the west side of Chicago.
Being a producer is also very important to me because I feel like you can be an actor, you can just get cast, but I think you can offer more than just being in front of the camera. After all my successes and number ones, that’s what I learned from Ryan Reynolds — produce, star, write. I wanna be that type of leader on set, that kind of creative. That’s why Free Guy was so good. Ryan had his hands all in it.
And my pen game is crazy, especially when it comes to comedy which is why I make sure I work with directors who are comfortable with me changing things because, you know, I’m not a robot. If you hire me because you think I’m funny then let me pick the funny. What I’m working on right now — Bromates — it’s funny but it’s such a great creative process.
You mentioned Judas and the Black Messiah and we know you’re reteaming with Ryan Coogler, Shaka King and Charles D. King for an untitled project around the Jan. 6 American insurrection. Can you share anything about that yet and how it came together?
We were all at dinner — I think it was like a day or two before the Oscars — me, Shaka King, the Lucas Brothers, Jermaine Fowler, and Shaka was saying how he’s just thinking about what his next film is gonna be. We were just throwing ideas out, and then I pitched them this idea that I had about the Capitol riots. And he just stared at me like, “Bruh.” Called me the next day, “Rel, we got to do this. We gotta bring Ryan in, Macro in. We have to do this.” But it was an idea that I came up with while watching it happen, for real. (Laughs.) It was like, white people is crazy. We can’t tell you what it is, but it’s a crazy idea and Shaka was at my house the next day like, “Yo, let’s do it.” I love that brother for that.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day
Tokyo Film Festival