How ‘Deadpool’ Saved Ryan Reynolds

ryan reynolds variety deadpool cover story
Peter Yang for Variety

Ryan Reynolds spent 11 years thinking about what it would feel like to walk in Deadpool’s shoes. So when he finally got to don the red Spandex suit, he’d already worked out the character: His underdog Marvel superhero wouldn’t have Superman’s steely strut but instead would walk with a bounce. “Deadpool is so feminine,” the actor says over soup at a hotel in Bel-Air. “At least in how I saw him.”

The trouble was that the stunt doubles had a hard time dropping the macho swagger. “I’d say, ‘When you land, can you sashay away?’” Reynolds laughs.

This week, Reynolds’ special gait will be on full display on the red carpet of the Golden Globes. “Deadpool” is the first live-action comic-book movie to score a best-picture nomination in the organization’s 74-year-history, competing in the musical/comedy category. And Reynolds is in the running as a best actor nominee, following a prize at the Critics’ Choice Awards last month. “Not to sound too esoteric,” Reynolds says, “but I really got this guy.”

In a year of outsiders in which Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders emerged as political superstars, “Deadpool,” a D-list comic-book mercenary with a disfigured 
face and an arsenal of raunchy puns, became one of the major success stories at the movies. The 20th Century Fox release, cobbled together on a shoestring (for the genre) $58 million budget, raked in $783 million worldwide, surpassing “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Suicide Squad.” But just as important, the movie catapulted 
Reynolds, an amiable Canadian who has had his share of flops, back onto the A-list.

Peter Yang for Variety

“I’ve navigated those choppy waters,” says Reynolds, 40, who lives in upstate New York with his wife, actress Blake Lively, and two young daughters. “When ‘Deadpool’ came along it was a great relief — it was a role I felt we could get right.”

Reynolds — who is not quite as sarcastic as Deadpool, but close — ratcheted up the snark to portray the disenchanted anti-hero with the survivalist power to heal himself. Now, fans are saying that “Deadpool” should be given a golden ticket to the Oscars in February. Don’t roll your eyes: Seven years ago, the Academy expanded the best picture race to as many as 10 movies, in the hopes that comic-book tentpoles like “The Dark Knight” would be included. Instead, Oscar voters have loaded up the added slots with art-house titles like “Amour” and “Her.” If “Deadpool” crashes the Oscars, it will be a populist victory.

Hugh Jackman, who worked with 
Reynolds in 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” says, “When I hosted the Oscars, ‘Batman’ didn’t get nominated, and everyone was talking about it. It’s a stretch to say these are injustices in life — we are happy and making movies. But I love it when someone like Ryan gets recognized.” He adds, “These big-budget or comic-book movies are not easy to pull off.”

Reynolds believes that as the Academy voting body evolves, more sophisticated comic-book movies will start making 
the cut. “‘Logan’ looks like a movie that might break that glass ceiling,” Reynolds says about the final Wolverine picture, directed by James Mangold (“Walk the Line”), 
which opens this spring with a rare R 
rating. “I know first hand that it’s amazing,” he adds. “I’ve seen some of it. It’s mind-blowing.” If it works, the movie will owe a debt 
to “Deadpool” for proving that super-
heroes don’t need to be PG-13 to rule the 
box office.

Deadpool, an ex-military officer named Wade Wilson who mutates into a superhero following a botched cancer treatment, is Marvel’s first pansexual character, a trait that is only hinted at in the first film. Reynolds, who’s here in L.A. working on a sequel, isn’t ruling out a boyfriend for the character down the line. “What love is to Deadpool may not be what love is to Batman or someone else,” Reynolds says. “I think that could be played up more. He’s an outsider in every way, shape, and form.”

BIG SHOT: Actor Ryan Reynolds and director Tim Miller on the set of “Deadpool”

Hollywood has been nervous about introducing same-sex couplings in superhero movies, out of fear that gargantuan tentpoles could alienate audiences in countries less tolerant of gay rights. “That’s not really a problem for us, because we were banned in China,” 
Reynolds notes. “We were rated ‘F–k you!’ in China.” But judging by the illegal downloads, “Deadpool” was just as popular there as
anywhere else. “We might have been the first billion-dollar R-rated movie,” Reynolds muses.

In that spirit, Reynolds has big plans 
for Deadpool’s next act, which will shoot 
in 2017 for a 2018 release. (The first 
movie’s director, Tim Miller, left the sequel 
over creative differences and will be replaced by David Leitch.) “The budget 
is not going to be phenomenally bigger,” Reynolds says, but then takes it back. “Who knows? Maybe the budget will be 
bigger — anything can happen.”

He’s not worried about being typecast as a comic-book hero. “I would love to play Deadpool for as long as they would let me play Deadpool,” he says. “We have outlines and stories for a number of different films.” He envisions a standalone movie with Deadpool and Wolverine — although that’s news to Jackman.

“I’m hesitating,” says Jackman, who plans on retiring the Wolverine character this year, “because I could totally see how that’s the perfect fit. But the timing may 
be wrong.”

Reynolds isn’t giving up. “I have no 
idea if I can change his mind,” he says. 
“It’s the audience: I would exclusively exploit that relationship to get Hugh back for another one.”

Reynolds doesn’t act like a mega movie star. He arrives early for his photo shoot and shakes hands with members of the crew. He’s not shy about eye contact with strangers. When I start to feel carsick on the ride back to his hotel, he channels a Lamaze coach, saying, “You’re doing great.”

His compassion makes sense: He grew up in Vancouver suffering from anxiety. 
“I have three older brothers,” he says. “Our father was tough. He wasn’t easy on anyone. And he wasn’t easy on himself. I think the anxiety might have started there, trying 
to find ways to control others by trying to control myself. At the time, I never recognized that. I was just a twitchy kid.”

At 13, he starred in low-budget teenage soap operas. “The stuff would pay $200 to $300 a week,” he says. “I still kept my newspaper route.” After high school, he drove a forklift for a grocery store. Then, he says, he went to college. “I’m not being facetious. I spent 45 minutes in college, and I turned around and said, ‘I’m going to drive to L.A. and try to get into the Groundlings.’”

His first night in town, his Jeep was stolen from the parking lot of a fleabag motel. “I found it a couple blocks away with no doors and the stereo gone. I went through pilot season with no doors on my car. It was the year of El Niño.”

He got involved in an improv group and landed on the 1998 ABC sitcom “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place,” as one of the title characters. He liked to warm up the audience with a standup set. On the first day of the first episode, a producer noticed his ease with the improv routine and urged him to own the stage more during his work on the series. “When I would go out, my volume was lower,” Reynolds recalls about the early acting job. “Everything would minimize.” He didn’t see himself as a leading man. “I was thinking of myself as the wacky next-door neighbor.”

Peter Yang for Variety

Reynolds made the leap to Hollywood movies with the 2002 comedy “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder,” set in a college fraternity. From there he did “Blade: Trinity,” “The Proposal,” in which he played Sandra Bullock’s fake fiancé, and “Safe House.”

“The movies I’ve done that worked financially were all mid-budget,” he says. “I really feel comfortable in that space. You don’t have this gigantic overhead hanging over you.” He regrets that studios are turning away from such films. “The mid-size movie is vanishing,” Reynolds says. “It’s not unlike the middle-class in this country — it’s having some issues.”

As his star power rose, the thought of adapting the comic book “Deadpool” into a feature turned into an obsession. Reynolds 
wanted to play the character when he saw a 2004 comic strip describing Deadpool as his own spitting image. But despite Reynolds’ attempts to get the film made, Fox repeatedly passed on the idea of a Deadpool movie, even after Reynolds and his co-writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, fine-tuned the first draft of a script in 2009. Finally, in 2014, “Deadpool” was greenlit after fans championed a test reel that had migrated online.

“When the leaked footage got around the internet, it created this enormous groundswell,” Reynolds says. “I credit Twitter users, Facebook users, and Instagram users for getting this movie made.” He won’t say who leaked the footage, but it was presumably an inside job to nudge Fox executives. “I have an entertainment lawyer. 
I’ll leave it at that,” he says.

Back before all this, Reynolds played a version of Deadpool in 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” in which, because of the writer’s strike, he had to ad lib many of his lines. His interpretation got lost in the movie’s mediocre reviews. Then, in 2011, he made DC Comics’ “Green Lantern” at Warner Bros.

“I don’t think it was fleshed out,” 
Reynolds says of the box office disappointment. “You begin shooting without a finished script — they basically have storyboards, a poster, and a release date.” He says he won’t reprise the role in future installments.

The failure of “Green Lantern” added to Fox’s reluctance to gamble on another comic-book movie starring Reynolds. “Part of the reason ‘Deadpool’ wasn’t greenlit right away was certainly because of me,” he admits. “If Robert Downey Jr. was playing it — I don’t know how much greener a light you can get to make a movie.”

Deadpool Origins: Ryan Reynolds first played Wade Wilson, the character who turns into Deadpool, in 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”

“Deadpool” may not be your typical Oscar bait, but it does have an awards-season narrative: It’s a passion project developed with blood, sweat, and unabashed nudity. (Asked how much CGI was used in his full-frontal scene, he’ll only say, “Speculation is good.”) After Fox finally came around, Reynolds went into overdrive. He was a one-man “Deadpool” machine, playing the film’s star, producer, script doctor, editor, and marketing executive, who’d make 2 a.m. calls to bat around ideas. (“If I was up, I would answer,” says Marc Weinstock, the studio’s ex-president of theatrical marketing, now at Annapurna Pictures.)

Reynolds spent two hours a day in the gym to get lean but not too bulked up. “We wanted him to be really lithe, kind of like a middle-distance runner,” Reynolds says. The transformation took a toll. “He would reach for a cereal box and pull a lat muscle,” says Wernick. “That’s how ripped he was.”

As he got ready to shoot, Reynolds’ age-old anxiety took hold. He’d stay up late with the script so he could punch up Deadpool’s trademark zingers. In one of the film’s funniest moments, Deadpool grumbles that there aren’t more X-Men in his movie and wonders outloud if the studio couldn’t afford them. It was a joke the actor inserted after Fox slashed the movie’s budget by a few million dollars right before production got under way. “I’ve always said Ryan would be the best sitcom writer on any staff in town,” says Reese. “He’s extraordinarily quick.”

“I’d write 10 more jokes,” Reynolds says of his time perfecting the script. “I never, ever slept. Or I was sleeping at a perfect right angle — just sitting straight, constantly working at the same time.”

His biggest fear was that he’d let the fans down. “By the time we were in post, we’d been to Comic-Con, and people went crazy for it. The expectations were eating me alive.” Lively, who was shooting the shark-attack movie “The Shallows” at the time, calmed his nerves. “Blake helped me through that,” Reynolds says. “I’m lucky to have her around just to keep me sane.”

This year, Reynolds will appear in the space thriller “Life,” co-starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and the summer action movie “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.” But his primary focus going forward will be the next Deadpool. He’s still not sure how to process the end of his journey with the first movie, capped off with surprise awards attention.

“I think there’s a slight sadness to it,” Reynolds says, with his eyes cast down. “I haven’t really been able to come to terms with it.” Then he looks at me straight and adds, “It’s really proof that literally anything can happen in Hollywood. I wish I could absorb it.”

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  1. Dave C says:

    I’d prefer if Jackman just had a cameo in the next Deadpool and called it quits, but it’s his choice. Just like Star Wars, he’s going to be idolized in the future by today’s kids.

  2. Rex says:

    Deadpool is essentially the living embodiment of the perception — both real and or imagined — of Reynolds both as an actor, and as the characters he tends to play in all of his movies. Where that persona is often slightly smarmy and off-putting in his other films — to their general detriment at the box office — in Deadpool it clicked and audiences were gladly willing to pay up. I have a feeling this won’t make his roles outside the character resonate any more deeply with audiences than they have in the past. If you look at nearly every other character he’s played, they’re essentially variations on Wade Williams, but without the context of the Deadpool franchise, that’s not a proven formula for success.

  3. It is a shame that actors are given multiple chances to play superheros, whereas thousands of equally talented, if not more so, are given none. Reynolds was not the reason why Deadpool was a success, but rather director Tim Miller. Close your eyes and hear the phrase “…rich Corinthian leather…” uttered and tell me you haven’t seen Jim Carey doing the exact same shtick countless times in the past. I like Reynolds and he was good in this, but let’s let other actors have a shot at playing a superhero. If you f#*ked one up, that should be it for you.

    • Dave C says:

      Deadpool’s success is equal parts Miller and Reynolds. There’s nobody working in Hollywood better suited for the role and more enthusiastic about the role than Reynolds.

    • jedi77 says:

      If the same went for rom-coms you would have a lot of unempolyed actors and actresses in Hollywood.

  4. Bas says:

    Greatness. Thank you 2016!

  5. Nicki says:

    His eyes are still too close together.

  6. While listing some of his previous work, I can’t believe you guys forgot to mention the underrated cult classic, “Just Friends.” I knew that guy was special when I saw that film. Oh and Deadpool had tons of cool jokes, but by far the best one was that the studio couldn’t afford another X-men joke. Good to see the handwork is paying off for him.

  7. Anonymous says:

    He casts such a confidence in his roles it’s hard to imagine him being anxious or insecure with himself. Deadpool was a great movie, easily the best comic book movie since Bale’s three turns as Batman. I hope it wins some awards, but that $730M profit should be an adequate consolation prize if it doesn’t.

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