In Marjane Satrapi's The Voices, the Vancouver-born movie star Ryan Reynolds plays a sweet, people-pleasing guy who happens to kill people. It's a far cry from the romantic-comedy and superheroic roles that made him a Hollywood player, but is in keeping with projects like Buried and Atom Egoyan's The Captive, movies that aim to knock our expectations off balance. And it seems to be the kind of thing Reynolds, now close to 40, is determined to keep doing. He spoke to The Globe at last year's Toronto International Film Festival.
It's hard to make the argument that the world needs another serial-killer movie. Why make this one?
It was a challenge because you have a character who's got this unspeakable wellspring of darkness but it's filtered through this incredibly likeable, eager-to-please persona. When I read it, I thought if you show even one facial expression of madness in this guy you've lost the audience. Completely. Because then it's just a serial-killer movie and who cares? Besides, you don't worry too much because it's so low-budget if it doesn't work no one will see it. But if it does, it's one of those movies that sticks around, maybe becomes a cult classic. So you hope.
Coming off Egoyan's The Captive, with The Voices it seems you're casting around for riskier material than Green Lantern. Is that fair?
Totally. These days I'm getting older so it's more about the experience for me. I don't need to do another movie. But it's a difficult thing because we're dealing with mental illness and you have to be careful because that's something that's real in the world and you never want people to think you're making light of it. To me it was worth doing because Jerry was a character walking that very fine tightrope between protagonist and antagonist.
After the screening I attended, I heard more than one person ask, "What did I just see?"
What I like about the film is that it creates discussion. I remember when I was young I saw that Philip Seymour Hoffman movie Happiness. Remember it? I walked out of the theatre and everyone was talking about it. The audience had gone outside to converse with perfect strangers about what they'd just seen. When we screened The Voices in Sundance I saw that same thing happen. I don't care whether people liked it or hated it, they felt the need to discuss it. These days, that's a huge win.
Defying expectations doesn't seem to be much of a mainstream priority these days.
It's cool that you can remove expectations, but that's always a tough thing to do, particularly in the American machine. The Voices was on the blacklist, not unlike another film I'd done called Buried, where I was in a coffin buried in a desert for the entire film, a movie that does not have a rosy, happy ending. When the American distributors got their hands on it they asked, 'Can we give it a positive spin at the end? Can he live? Can he get out?' And you just sort of go, 'um, no … ' That's why they like this sort of stuff in Europe. When you do movies that take away the expectation and replace it with something unexpected, it's exciting. Not to be be too grandiose about it, but it does the whole industry a service. One day maybe there'll be a $180-million movie that has an ending where you just go, 'What was that? What did I just see? That was something I didn't expect.' You hope.
And Marjane Satrapi seemed like somebody who could make that kind of movie?
I'd seen her first movie Persepolis, which I loved. Loved her style, that totally interesting voice. When I heard The Voices was her next project I started reading it and said, 'I gotta get this, but I know she's not going to want me for this because I do stupid superhero movies. So how am I going to get her to see this character in me?' When we met I explained in great detail why I felt I could pull this off and what I liked about it and sure enough, by the end of the meeting, it was sort of a done deal. It's not a movie that you're expecting to get paid or anything like that, you just want to hear that word 'Yes.'
When I look at the number of stars or former stars rushing to independent movies and cable TV, it looks like you're not the only one seeking risks.
I've been lucky enough to work in movies where I got paid very well and you know it's all about that. But those scripts that say something to an audience in a distinctive way are really hard to find and you have to get them quickly. As soon as I read The Voices, I said I've got to get to Marjane before – name-your-other-Hollywood-actor – does. Because as soon as he sees this script he's going to be all over it. Hopefully he's got so much on his plate that this is on the bottom of the pile. Because it's the weird one. It's a funny little fish bowl we're swimming in.
This interview has been condensed and edited.