“The Voices” is anything but conventional. From the visions of “Persepolis” co-director Marjane Satrapi and horror writer Michael R. Perry comes the story of Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), a mentally disturbed factory worker who needs medication to keep the voices in his head at bay. What makes it hard for him to stay on the straight and arrow is that the voices are assigned to his two pets, a tabby cat named Mr. Whiskers and Bosco, a giant dog. When he takes the pills prescribed to him, he loses his friends and the world around him is no longer so bright and magical. Not wild enough for you? Throw in murder, a talking decapitated head and Reynolds voicing both animals and you’ve got yourself a script on the Black List, a 2014 Sundance premiere, and an R-rated black comedy hitting theaters and VOD this Friday. All of these elements appealed to Reynolds, who, at 38 years old, has more wildly inventive indies under his belt to create a festival all his own. Between “The Nines,” “Chaos Theory,” “Paper Man” and “Buried,” the former television star has done more than his due diligence in the indie world, even if none were the blockbuster hits many thought they could be. The Canadian native has had more than his fair share of high profile studio pictures, too, with many facing similarly disappointing results. As yet another risky film project hits theaters, Reynolds spoke with Indiewire about his career path, his new mission to work with only the best directors, and winning a role by impersonating Billy Bob Thornton.
Without implying too much from the film’s context, would you consider yourself a cat person or a dog person? [laughs] Definitely a dog person. I grew up with dogs. I grew up in a family of cops, so we had German Shepards around all the time who were working police dogs or police dogs standing on the precipice of retirement, we would get them for a while. And I have two dogs now. I’m much more a dog person. Cats are fine, but I just don’t think they really like me.
They definitely didn’t in this film, but what was it that drew you to this project?
Well to start, the filmmaker Marjane Satrapi is an incredible filmmaker. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of her other stuff — “Poulet aux prunes” [“Chicken with Plums”] and “Persepolis.” She just has a really unique voice and unique take. I’ve learned that the hard way, too— that filmmaking is a filmmaker’s medium, it’s a director’s medium through and through. So, I’ve just been really focusing on trying to find great directors or working as hard as I can to be surrounded by them. Whether it’s five lines in a movie or 200 lines in a movie, I don’t really care. I just love the idea of being around that as much as possible.
That was the first thing. The second thing is that I just found the script to be really interesting. You kind of walk this tightrope as the audience, having empathy for this character while he’s doing these unspeakable things. I like the idea that the audience is laughing from the beginning to the end of the movie, but at the same time we’ve created a character, Jerry, who still gets a great deal of empathy in the minds of the audience, as well. And I just thought that was really interesting. There’s something cool about that to try and bring it to life. I also get to spend how ever many months we did shooting the movie just in that state of vulnerability and taking away all that stuff that the modern male actor is supposed to strive for, which is like… that cool factor. Just taking away all that artifice and leaving you with this vulnerable raised-in-the-woods type character.
Can you expand on what you meant by learning “the hard way” when it came to choosing directors?
I don’t want to expand on it too much because I never want to throw anyone under the bus. I’m as responsible for the failures I’ve had in this industry as anyone, if not more. I’ve just noticed that in film — as compared to theater where it’s an actor’s medium or television where it’s a writer’s medium — in film, God is the director. They are the ones that are responsible for shaping the final product, be it a large film or a small film. Just working with them allows me the opportunity to a) take more chances and b) to stand back at the end of the day and be able to be proud of something that you’ve done. That, to me, is increasingly important to me as I’ve gotten older.
Looking over a lot of your independent films, or even some of the bigger projects you’ve done, they’re almost always excitingly original. Is that part of your process in choosing films, looking for something new and different? Would you sign onto a project blindly if a director was on board who was known for that sort of thing?
In some cases I would agree to work on something with the director regardless of the content because I find that I learn so much. I work with directors and the more I do, the more I realize I know nothing. In my 20s I thought I knew it all, but I was just a shithead. I knew nothing. I was as lost as the next guy. I think in the film world I’ve been lucky to find some of those projects, particularly the Black List ones. This was a Black List one. I think “Buried” was a Black List one. A couple other ones. They’re often great screenplays — that’s why they’re on the Black List — but they’re also incredible risky, or there’s something about them that makes them impossible to shoot.
So, I think I’ve just been lucky that guys who may have had their hands up who were in a better position to take that role didn’t. They walked away for whatever reason, and I got the shot. You can’t really go watch a modern movie these days and see anyone in it that was the first choice. [laughs] You know? You’d be amazed at how many great films have been shot and done with the actor that you think is the only person that could have played that, but in fact there were three or four other ones that were considered before this person. So I think I’ve just gotten lucky with some of these movies. “The Voices” is no exception. I don’t know who had their hand up before me. I’m just glad that I got in there when I got in there. I chased it. I haven’t done that much in my own career to my own detriment. Which is that I really chased something that held little to no financial gain for me, but was destined to be an incredible experience making it.
So did you think more about the salability of a project earlier in your career and now you’re just more concerned about the experience of making it?
Yes and no. When you do a movie that has a significant budget you’re beholden to try to have that studio make good on that budget, [that] they make that money back. In independent film, the budgets are smaller and therefore you’re given more flexibility and leeway to do what you want to do on screen, and I personally — not to say it doesn’t exist — but I personally have not had that experience in big budget studio [movie] making because in the big budget studio world you have to a have a director who is just a pure visionary, someone who can trump the studio in every way and someone that can push actors into places that aren’t conventional. And I just haven’t really worked in that world that much. And I find that I get that thing hit in the indie world. And that suits me just fine. Once these movies are acquired by a studio or a mini-major or whatever, they seem like they’re as much a studio movie as anything else because they’re marketed like that. In the end, it doesn’t really make that much of a difference.
One of the things I really loved about this movie was the voice work. I know you’ve done a lot of voice work before, but was different about this movie?
Thanks, I love doing that. They’re voices emanating bullies from Jerry’s fractured psyche, so I naturally I always believed they should be voiced by Jerry. They should be disguised as something different, which is why one of them has a sort of a menacing Scottish brogue and the other is sort of like Billy Bob Thornton. I auditioned for those roles. [laughs] They had a casting director out looking for those voices, and I just sent them an audition tape, basically. I just recorded a whole scene on my phone between Jerry, Bosco and Mr. Whiskers and sent it to them and the next call I got was, “You got the job. That’s perfect. That’s exactly what we want.” So I was really excited I got to do that, but technically speaking it was really tough because on the days we had to shoot I would show up to set and I would perform the whole scene with the voices so the director and the technical parts of our crew could keep the tempo and pace of the scene. And then I would perform the scenes without any of the cat and dog dialogue and I would just wait. I would recite their lines in my mind, and then I would respond. So if someone had come on the set who didn’t know what was going on, they would just seen a guy listening to nothing and talking to himself. It’s a very strange kind of world.
I hope those scenes are shown unaltered on the DVD.
I’m sure they will be. They have so much stuff. [laughs] They have so many outtakes of weird things that happened. I hope so, too.
You said that you wanted those voices to come directly from Jerry, but how did you decide on the Scottish brogue, how did you decide on the, as you called it, the Billy Bob Thornton impression?
I liked the idea that the Bosco character was sort of this Southern gentleman. Really naive, somewhat ignorant, thinks the world is black and white, kind of voice. I liked the idea that the Scottish cat sort of had this mercenary sensibility with lead pipe cruelty. A guy I still know, is a Scottish guy and he’s one of the most intimidating people I’ve ever met. He just genuinely talks like this. He just sounds like an evil motherfucker. I just channeled him and I’ve known him for 20 years, so it was very easy. I’ve been doing impressions of him to his face for a decade, so I was comfortable diving right into that, and I thought and I thought it was the perfect fit for this little tabby cat.
This was a Sundance premiere in 2014. What’s it like waiting to see how it’s going to come out, and what they’re going to do with it?
Well, the great thing about festivals — and I include the Toronto Film Festival because it also screened there — is that they’re the most narrowed perspective in terms of a test audience — in a good way. You get the cream of the crop watching your movie. You get other fascinating directors watching your movie, so seeing the response from from both Sundance and the Toronto film festivals are the things that made me think that we did something right. I guess I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you, Ben, if we didn’t do something right with this movie because these movies would just disappear if they don’t work. Just seeing that audience reaction is incredible and seeing how it sparked a spirited debate afterwards, because I think people felt strange they were laughing and felt empathy for and were rooting for a serial killer. That to me is interesting. The movie isn’t a documentary. We’re not trying to shine a light on mental illness in any one way or other, but for me it was just interesting that it created that conversation. I remember when I was just a young pup and I saw “Happiness” in the movie theater, and I remember walking out of the movie theater in Los Angeles, and everybody in the theater, myself included, were having conversations with perfect strangers about what they’d just seen. I just loved that. I love that “The Voices” inspired a bit of that — in a strange way. I’m certainly not comparing it to “Happiness,” but I think that’s one of the many reasons we do this.
“The Voices” opens in select theaters and VOD February 6.