You’d never know it from the smooth-operator vibes and Disney prince handsomeness that radiate from his magazine covers, but Ryan Reynolds is often, quite secretly, a nervous wreck.
He gets wracked by dread and nausea before every talk-show appearance and becomes quite convinced he might die. During his ABC sitcom days, he chose to warm up the audience, partly to ingratiate himself, but mostly to redirect his panic or, as he describes it, “the energy of just wanting to throw up.” When we met at the Four Seasons here in Beverly Hills late one afternoon in April, he had barely eaten all day, because interviews for profiles make him crazy jittery too.
“I have anxiety, I’ve always had anxiety,” Reynolds said as the hotel suite filled with an Angeleno sunshine that perfectly matched his golden latte-hued self. “Both in the lighthearted ‘I’m anxious about this’ kind of thing, and I’ve been to the depths of the darker end of the spectrum, which is not fun.”
It was quite the admission from a man whose outwardly sun-kissed life, and wife, are fawned over in celebrity rags, and who, in 2010, was named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. Then again, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that the guy behind the near pitch perfect 2016 blockbuster Deadpool, about a sardonic Marvel anti-hero with a twisted mind and a filthy mouth, could only have developed his wicked brand of humour after a lifetime of alchemising comedy out of angst.
Now Reynolds, who is 41, faces the moment movie franchisers dream of: the sequel. The stakes are much higher this time around. Deadpool, a passion project for Reynolds 11 years in the making, was largely unknown, cost just $58 million (Dh213 million) — far less than most superhero movies — and was marketed with a grass-roots campaign that included viral videos, very silly billboards and Reynolds’ wry promotional tweets. (“There will be blood. Guns. F-bombs. And graphic, expertly lit French unicorn sex.”) It ended up being a surprise hit, earning $783 million worldwide, landing two Golden Globe nominations and making Reynolds one of GQ’s 2016 Men of the Year.
It also marked a true phoenix-from-the-ashes moment for Reynolds, whose high-profile relationships — an engagement to singer Alanis Morissette, a three-year marriage to Scarlett Johansson — have sometimes overshadowed a hit-and-miss career that included the 2011 superhero clunker, Green Lantern, a film he describes as “the hair shirt I’ll wear.”
While Deadpool had less on the line, its runaway success meant that Deadpool 2 will open to towering anticipation — it has already broken ticket presale records for an R-rated movie — and the bigger question of whether Reynolds can catch lightning in a bottle twice.
“When there’s built-in expectation,” he said, “your brain always processes that as danger.”
The sequel more or less takes up where the original left off and again presents its protagonist with an existential crisis and a deeply personal cause, an approach that helped make the first one a hit. “Keeping the stakes personal is much more compelling to audiences, instead of global stakes they’ve seen so many times,” said David Leitch, the film’s director.
But it comes with some baggage. The first film’s director, Tim Miller, exited, reportedly after Reynolds, who was a producer on both films and a writer on the second, fought against making the sequel a megabudget project. Last summer, a stuntwoman died during production, and in April one of its cast members, T.J. Miller, was charged with falsely calling in a bomb threat. There had previously been calls to replace T.J. Miller when past allegations of sexual assault surfaced last year. (Reynolds would not comment on T.J. Miller but said he will not be in Deadpool’s next film, X-Force).
In March, FX cancelled a Deadpool animated adult comedy series by Donald Glover, who created Atlanta. The show was not connected to the film, but Reynolds said he still lamented the news and considered Glover a genius.
“I would’ve loved to have seen what he did with that,” Reynolds said.
On the day we met, Reynolds had been up since dawn, poring over final edits and tweaks on the film. If he was exhausted, it didn’t show. Wearing a suede coat over a crisp blue T-shirt, his tawny hair swept up from his long boyish face, he evoked Tintin reimagined by Ralph Lauren. As his Deadpool co-star, Leslie Uggams, told me, “The man is built, the man is handsome, and he takes care of himself.”
He is also much more contained and low-key than his many outsize screen personae suggest, a contrast that he said has long surprised people he meets. After he starred in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002), about a seventh-year college student, ebullient 20-somethings approached him in bars offering Jagermeister shots, only to discover, crestfallen, that he was “this incredibly boring version of a guy who looked like their hero,” he said.
“Offstage, he’s not bigger than life,” Uggams said. “He’s not like the Rock. When the Rock walks in the room, I’m sure it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, the Rock.’ But that’s not Ryan. He’s not Mr. Hollywood.”
Part of the reason Reynolds is not Mr. Hollywood is that, like Deadpool, he is Canadian. The actor proudly adores his home country and said it gave him a slightly outsider’s perspective on moviedom that he uses to his advantage. “I’ve never felt like I’m in it, like this is my game,” he said. He now holds two passports and is a dual citizen, having recently been naturalised in the United States.
“I feel the compulsion to vote,” he said, and then let a beat pass before whispering, conspiratorially, “Especially now.”
Reynolds is also viciously funny. The internet is full of assorted compendiums of his best tweets — he has 10.6 million followers — many about the two young daughters he has with his wife, Blake Lively.
“No matter which kids book I read to my screaming baby on an aeroplane, the moral of the story is always something about a vasectomy.”
And: “On our 6am walk, my daughter asked where the moon goes each morning. I let her know it’s in heaven, visiting daddy’s freedom.”
When someone asked in a tweet how his daughter might one day respond, Reynolds shot back, “Jokes on you. We’re not teaching her to read.”
Much of this humour, he said, is rooted in self-defence mechanisms he learnt as a kid.
He grew up the youngest of four boys in Vancouver, British Columbia, in a home that was made volatile by his father, Jim Reynolds, a former police officer-turned-food wholesaler whom Reynolds calls “the stress dispensary in our house.” To head off screaming matches or any tumult, Reynolds tried to fix anything that might set his father off, be it by keeping the house immaculately clean or mowing the lawn. “I became this young skin-covered micro manager,” he said. “When you stress out kids, there’s a weird paradox that happens because they’re suddenly taking on things that aren’t theirs to take on.”
Yet Reynolds said he didn’t view his childhood with sorrow. Jim Reynolds was difficult but also quite the character, a man who had a welter of scars on one arm from an old tattoo he had burnt off. He made red wine at home in a garbage pail in the basement, terrible, noxious stuff that Reynolds still has a bottle of despite worries that someone will one day mistakenly drink it and die.
His father also introduced him to comedy greats like Buster Keaton and Jack Benny, and could perfectly imitate Robert Goulet and Bill Cosby, or recite any episode of Fawlty Towers. Out of all this, Reynolds learnt to be watchful, listen closely and to plumb tragedy for the absurd, traits he doesn’t think he’d have if he had come from an idyllic, placid home. (His father had Parkinson’s disease and died in 2015. Reynolds serves on the board of the Michael J. Fox Foundation and named his firstborn daughter James after his dad.)
Reynolds is “incredibly astute in the moment and knows how to make a moment better,” said Morena Baccarin, who plays Deadpool’s girlfriend in both films. “The wheels are always moving back and forth.”
The first time Reynolds remembers making a grown-up laugh was on the set of his first television show, a Canadian teen drama called Hillside. Vancouver-area high schools were asked to send their top drama students to audition, and although Reynolds was not picked, he went anyway and got the job. One day, a crew member mentioned that he needed to figure out how to bend light around a corner. Oliver Stone’s JFK had just come out, and there was a lot of talk of the magic bullet theory. Reynolds jested, “Do you have JFK bullet lights?” and, to his delight, the crew member cracked up.
Inspired, he formed a short-lived high school comedy troupe called Yellow Snow and continued to act, but landed jobs so sporadically he considered quitting. Then he headed south to Los Angeles, signed up with the Groundlings sketch troupe and was hired to star in the 1998-2001 sitcom Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place as Berg, the resident smart alec. The series was pretty standard issue but showcased Reynolds’ innate comic timing and gift for zaniness.
But his early 20s were tumultuous; he calls them his “real unhinged phase.”
“I was partying and just trying to make myself vanish in some way,” he said. He frequently awoke in the middle of the night, paralysed by anxiety, agonising about his future. He got through it by self-medicating, but after a few friends died of overdoses, he toned the partying way down.
Bigger roles followed, and smaller ones, and bigger ones again. When I told Reynolds I pulled up a list of his movies on Rotten Tomatoes, he paused, leant forward, hands clasped, and stared into my eyes with a slight look of concern.
“I’m so sorry you did that,” he said, dropping his voice low. “Are you OK? Do you want a tiny novelty-size alcoholic beverage?”
Ha. Did it bother him that there were more splats than hits?
“I feel like a dink saying the word ‘hit,’” he replied. “But some of the biggest hits I’ve had are not critically received. That’s just a bonus when that happens.”
Before Deadpool, his most critically acclaimed films were also largely unseen, dramas like the indie Buried in 2010, and Mississippi Grind from 2015. The splattiest splat of all was Green Lantern, which carried a $200 million price tag and teed up Reynolds to be the picture-perfect leading man. Reynolds said he loved working on the film but wasn’t surprised that it failed, because the emphasis was on spectacle over character.
Still, the experience had its perks. He discovered that the leading-man archetype didn’t sit well with him and that he was more inclined to lampoon it, which he does during the closing credits of Deadpool 2.
He also befriended, and eventually romanced his co-star, Lively, whom he wed in 2012. They opted out of the Hollywood life and instead are raising their family an hour and a half north of New York City (they also have a place downtown). The pair have become media darlings, not least because Lively has also proven herself a savage social-media wit. On Father’s Day in 2015, she posted a photo of Reynolds along with the caption, “Since the day our baby was born, I’ve felt so strongly in my heart that you were most likely the father.”
“She gets me a lot,” Reynolds said.
Before our interview wrapped, I asked him how he deals with anxiety, what with all the promotional interviews and inevitable talk-show appearances ahead. First off, he said, he’s doing a lot of the interviews in character as Deadpool. Also, he uses the meditation app Headspace. And finally, the second he walks onstage, he knows that the anxiety will lift, and then the blessed relief descends.
“When the curtain opens, I turn on this knucklehead, and he kind of takes over and goes away again once I walk off set,” he said.
“That’s that great self-defence mechanism,” he continued. “I figure if you’re going to jump off a cliff, you might as well fly.”
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Deadpool 2 releases in the UAE on May 17.