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How Ryan Reynolds Unexpectedly Became An Independent Film Superstar

How Ryan Reynolds Unexpectedly Became An Independent Film Superstar

READ MORE: How Ryan Reynolds Rediscovered His Place in Hollywood’s Blockbuster Age

Editor’s Note: Indiewire has partnered with DIRECTV to present the exclusive premiere of “Mississippi Grind,” now available on DIRECTV before it hits theaters on September 25.

That Ryan Reynolds has spent entire years attempting to bring comic book character Deadpool to the big screen with his own dedicated film may appear to be an outlier in the fickle world of the blockbuster movie — Reynolds’ other big superhero role as Green Lantern is already on deck for a reboot, without the actor returning for the feature — but it’s not surprising to anyone who has closely followed Reynolds’ extremely varied career. Sandwiched in between buzzy roles in studio films, Reynolds has made it plain that he also values the freedom that independent features can offer, and that when it comes to his work, he’ll place a premium on passion, no matter what the budget of the project. 

Reynolds’ early years in acting played out in a mostly traditional fashion — the Canadian actor’s first role was as “Billy” on his home country’s “Fifteen” (known as “Hillside” in its home country), an early nineties teen soap that gamely tackled all manner of high school age issues (drinking, dating, drugs, the whole gamut). Reynolds appeared in thirteen episodes, eventually moving on to television movies and appearances on other scripted shows, from movie of the week fare like “A Secret Between Friends: A Moment of Truth Movie” to hit series like “The X-Files” (he co-starred in a single episode in 1996).

Eventually, Reynolds’ good looks helped Reynolds lock down roles that imagined him as the dreamy love interest, like in the “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” television movie or the Kirsten Dunst- and Michelle Williams-starring “Dick.” In 1998, Reynolds took a leading role in TV’s “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place” (he was, of course, one of the titular guys — and, arguably, the more appealing one). But although Reynolds’ mainstream choices seemed to indicate that he was a young actor compelled to star in easily consumable projects, the actor began to take on a series of unexpected — and very indie — roles that hinted at his interest in doing work decidedly out of the box.

By the early aughts, Reynolds began to work in to disparate worlds, going from something like “Two Guys” to Martin Cummins’ semi-autobiographical “We All Fall Down” as a minor character only known as “Red Shoes.” In 2001, the year his sitcom ended, Reynolds took a leading part in Jeff Probst’s “Finder’s Fee,” a festival favorite that never received a wide release. The crime thriller was directed by eventual “Survivor” host Jeff Probst, and while few people ever saw the feature, it actually won Best Film at the Seattle International Film Festival.

The next year, Reynolds took on his biggest — and, to be sure, his most mainstream — role to date, starring as Van Wilder in the college-set comedy “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder” (alternately known as “Van Wilder: Party Liaison,” which is certainly factually accurate). The film made nearly $40 million at the global box office and established Reynolds as a recognizable actor who could pull off the “hey, I’m handsome, but I’m also roguishly funny” act with ease. The film was Reynolds’ highest-grossing film yet, and though it spawned a sequel, Reynolds didn’t return for a second go-round.

“Van Wilder” didn’t catapult Reynolds to instant fame, but his run of roles in its wake was solid, a mix of comedy and action that showed off Reynolds’ range. He even dabbled in horror with an “Amityville” remake, and again established himself as a solid bet for cult comedy films, like “Waiting.” Reynolds, however, still hadn’t found his niche.

That changed with Joe Carnahan’s “Smokin’ Aces,” a 2006 crime caper with a stacked cast that continues to engage fans — new and old — with its mix of wild action and stylized sequences. The film wasn’t an indie, but Carnahan is an auteur, and his fingerprints are all over the film. The shift in Reynolds’ career post-“Aces” soon became apparent, as the actor slowly moved into smaller films that placed a larger premium on story, cast and craftsmanship. Although Reynolds continued to star in big budget studio films — like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” his first outing as Deadpool — he also began to spend more of his time on smaller pictures that were not designed to be studio smash hits.

In 2007, Reynolds took the lead role in John August’s first — and to date, only — feature directorial outing, playing three characters caught up in one massive, sprawling story. Although the film boasted a compelling cast, including Hope Davis and a just-about-to-break Melissa McCarthy, it didn’t fare well at the box office, making less than $150,000 in domestic and international returns. Instead of mainstream success, the film found its audience at film festivals, and it was nominated for Best Film at the Sitges – Catalonian Film Festival. 

The actor continued to take risks on first-time filmmakers with roles in Dennis Lee’s “Fireflies in the Garden,” Marcos Siega’s “Chaos Theory” and Kieran and Michele Mulroney’s “Paper Man,” and although none of those indie films made big money at the box office (“Paper Man,” which premiered at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival, is actually Reynolds’ lowest-grossing film that features him in a starring role), all of them seemed to feed his desire to do something different, something more, something freer. Although Reynolds continued to be recognized for his blockbuster work — not just “X-Men,” but even something like “The Proposal,” a moneymaking juggernaut that no one saw coming — he still found the time to work in the indie space.

That dichotomy continued to drive Reynolds even into the second decade of the twenty-first century, as he took on the leading role in “Green Lantern” just a year after starring in Rodrigo Cortes’ literal one-man show (and festival favorite) “Buried,” which placed Reynolds center stage with its claustrophobic and clever conceit. But Reynolds wasn’t done with his blockbuster work, no matter how many in-roads he had made with his carefully chosen roles. From 2011 to 2013, Reynolds moved firmly back into studio territory, starring in a string of would-be blockbusters backed by big money, from the comic book flop “R.I.P.D.” to the action outing “Safe House” to voice work in “Turbo” and “The Croods.” The results were decidedly mixed, which is perhaps why Reynolds has seemingly rededicated himself to his indie career.

Reynolds’ recent roles have reestablished him as a truly independent talent, including starring parts in Marjane Satrapi’s wickedly (almost literally) funny serial killer comedy “The Voices,” Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan’s “Captive” and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s hard-luck drama “Mississippi Grind,” which pairs him with indie darling Ben Mendelsohn. This year, Reynolds found unexpected success with the limited release feature “Woman in Gold,” which has gone on to become the year’s highest-grossing indie film (although distributed by The Weinstein Company in the U.S., the film never hit more than 1,550 theaters).

Although he continues his work in the superhero space — has any actor ever worked harder to play a comic book character? — Reynolds is now a regular on the festival circuit, turning up at Sundance and TIFF in support of films made on indie budgets for indie audiences. That Reynolds will next be seen as his beloved Deadpool shouldn’t scan as strange, as despite its studio backing, the “Deadpool” film still feels closer in spirit to Reynolds’ work in independent films, hard-won endeavors seemingly created purely out of persistence and artistic drive. Even the film’s director reflects Reynolds’ indie spirit: the film is director Tim Miller’s first feature, a scary proposition for some actors, but one Reynolds seems to be genuinely excited about, something reflective of his ever-growing dedication to independence.

READ MORE: Ryan Reynolds on His ‘Risky’ Career Choices (Like ‘The Voices’) and Learning Not To Be a ‘Sh*thead’

Editor’s Note: Indiewire has partnered with DIRECTV to present the VOD premiere of “Mississippi Grind,” which is available now, exclusively on DIRECTV. Convinced that his newfound friend (Ryan Reynolds) is a good-luck charm, a gambling addict (Ben Mendelsohn) takes the man on a road trip to a high-stakes poker game in New Orleans. Find our more and how to watch “Mississippi Grind” here.

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