Ryan Reynolds is an outstanding actor. In case you can’t yet see it, watch a scene from “The Voices,” his new film in which he plays a mentally unstable factory worker who debates morality with his talking pets. Then check out a clip from his horror thriller “Buried,” a film made up almost entirely of Reynolds trapped in an underground coffin. The range on display is enough to justify the accolades, as Reynolds provides the former film’s lead character with a lethal combination of manic glee and suppressed guilt. He’s not an angry individual, even if his character in “Buried” most certainly is, if for good reason. Paul Conroy was unjustly buried alive, after all, and his intensity throughout the 95-minute feature is what holds it all together.
While his skill is not in question, his judgement very well may be. Reynolds has made some clunkers over the years, box office and critical disappointments leading many to label him as a curse or box office poison. Reynolds told Indiewire in a recent interview, “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’m as responsible for the failures I’ve had in this industry as anyone, if not more.”
Sadly, the “failure” label has stuck with Reynolds longer than it does his films. It’s a problem the actor has faced again and again — low box office returns despite loads of potential prior to the film’s release. Between his inspired independent work and multi-genre studio films, Reynolds has checked off every box necessary to be considered one of today’s finest working actors, except for that pesky stand-alone, breakout blockbuster. What’s a talented-but-unlucky actor to do these days?
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Head to television. Again.
The Early Years
Reynolds’ career began in TV, with his first credit being the short-lived Canadian-American teen drama “Fifteen,” which Reynolds starred in when he was just 14 years old. From there, he landed roles in a few more TV projects, including “The X-Files,” “The Outer Limits” and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” (the TV movie), and even scored the lead in the feature film “Ordinary Magic.” But it was on television where he received his breakout role. “Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place” lasted just four seasons on ABC, but those 81 episodes were enough to attract the attention of Hollywood power players and viewers nationwide. Reynolds was a good-looking up-and-comer with plenty of on-set experience under his belt. His best years were still in front of him, and while his affable personality, comedy chops and proven romantic appeal were all established on a 4:3 screen, he was ready for a wider canvas.
In 2001, the pinnacle of an actor’s career would be to star (or at least get consistent work) in feature films. TV was looked down on as a secondary medium, in part because the revolution had not yet been televised. Alec Baldwin on “30 Rock” had yet to make it okay for movie stars to be series regulars on TV and “Mad Men” had not yet revolutionized the cable networks. “The Sopranos” was just starting its groundbreaking run, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the series would break through Hollywood’s industry barriers to win Best Drama Series at the Emmys. In short, it wasn’t a time when a young actor would want to stay in television. He “should” have been aiming for film roles, and that’s exactly what Reynolds did.
It wasn’t long after “Two Guys and a Girl” (as it had been retitled after Season 2) wrapped that Reynolds would land the role he’s still often associated with: “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder.” Though the raunchy college comedy only grossed $21 million domestically, it made back more than five times its meager budget and saw its popularity grow exponentially on DVD. It spawned a sequel and a prequel, both of which Reynolds wisely avoided in favor of more challenging, diversifying roles. He tried out his hand as an action hero in “Smokin’ Aces” and “Blade: Trinity” (which would later help him land a role in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and then the upcoming “Deadpool” spinoff — his end goal all along). He segued into rom-coms with “Just Friends” and “Definitely Maybe,” both of which helped him land opposite Sandra Bullock in his most “successful” film to date, “The Proposal.” But it was his choice to dig into indie film that showed Reynolds’ true colors, as well as some of his best acting.
Introduction to Indies
“The Nines” marked his first staring role in an independent feature. Directed by John August, the twisty fantasy film unveiled its mystery at Sundance in 2007, earning enough buzz to land a release in August that same year. Despite mostly positive reviews and a consensus regarding Reynolds’ “strong” performance, the film could only pull together $130,000 in six weeks of theatrical release. Reynolds wasn’t quite the bankable movie star many expected him to be, and the trend would continue: with every minor studio hit came an underperforming indie. Rather than boost the prospects of less accessible projects — as most movie stars tend to do for indies — Reynolds’ films faced antipathy in theaters. The success of “Definitely Maybe” didn’t translate to an uptick in profits for “Chaos Theory.” “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “The Proposal” failed to spur audiences to check out “Paper Man” or, most notably, “Buried.”
Five years ago, “Buried” premiered to rapturous reviews at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Many thought it would be a horror hit thanks to its unique premise, effective capturing of claustrophobia and Reynolds’ impressive turn. The actor was coming off the two biggest films of his career, but after Lionsgate bought “Buried” for a reported $3.2 million, the thriller grossed less than a third of that figure domestically. Despite the glowing reviews and pre-Halloween release timing, Reynolds’ all-out performance never expanded past 107 theaters. It was labeled a bust by box office prognosticators everywhere, and another failed star vehicle for its leading lad.
Now, he’s trying to do it again. “The Voices” debuted at the same festival and was purchased by the same company. Only this time, there are two key differences. Reynolds hasn’t made an indie film since “Buried” — instead knocking out big budget films one after the other, from “Green Lantern” to “Turbo” to “R.I.P.D.” — and Lionsgate will be utilizing indie film’s new favorite monetary outlet, VOD, in an effort to recoup more of its investment. Don’t be surprised if “The Voices” remains in very limited release — it hit 10 theaters on February 6 — even if Reynolds’ years of exposure have lead to many new fans. As most cinephiles have come to learn, VOD is a cheaper and easier way to distribute a risky film than pushing it out nationwide in theaters.
A Return to Television?
Why? Among other reasons, people feel more comfortable gambling on an edgy new program in the comfort of their own homes. If they like it, they saved a few bucks in gas and extra tickets for whoever else watched with them. If they hate it, they can switch over to something else without losing as much of their time. Plus, VOD has the added attraction of being accessible to the oft-overlooked market of Middle America, where access to indie movies in theaters has always been limited. It’s helping to create a thriving market for originality, establishing a demand for what independent filmmakers have always been more than willing to create.
It’s also directly related to television. Though iTunes, Amazon and other online retailers offer streaming options for feature films, VOD is primarily run through cable and even the aforementioned services are often viewed via TV’s. The relatively new distribution outlet has created an almost literal bridge between film and television, just as directors, writers, actors and creators of all kinds flood toward the latter medium. With constantly growing opportunities through new original content hosts (networks from AMC to Netflix to OWN to Playstation), TV has made a 180 degree turn since Reynolds last appeared as a series regular. It’s no longer what young actors need to escape from: it’s where all actors want to be.
“I’ve had some offers,” Reynolds said to Indiewire. “Not in traditional network television type things, that’s not something I’d be that interested in. But I’ve had some come my way from via some of the more interesting [networks].”
Despite reading some scripts from places like “HBO and Netflix,” Reynolds hasn’t pulled the trigger. He won’t go back to anything similar to “Two Guys and a Girl,” flatly saying, “I’d never do a sitcom again,” after admitting it was still “one of the best jobs of my life.”
“It’s just tough,” he said. “I’m not an old guy but I’ve been doing this for 24 years professionally. […] It’s not something I’d be closed off to, it’s just I’ve been nomadic for so long it would be tough to say , ‘Okay, I’m gonna do this for two full seasons.” So for two years I’ll be living in this place and doing this every day.”
A Writer’s — and Director’s — Medium
Yet if Reynolds is as focused as he claims on finding proven, respectable directors to work with, TV might be his inevitable next frontier.
“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.”
“As much as possible” may be the key words in that sentence. Reynolds has done well of late to stick and move through talented directors, including “The Voices” helmer Marjane Satrapi (who previously co-directed “Persepolis”), as well as Atom Egoyan (“The Captive”), Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (“Mississippi Grind”), Tarsem Singh (“Selfless”) and Ariel Vroman (“Criminal”).
“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 — God is the director,” Reynolds said. “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.”
The writer may still be king in TV, but that hasn’t stopped prominent indie film directors from flooding television right now. From Steven Soderbergh to Woody Allen, many directors searching for professional creative outlets have found a home in the new era of scripted television, and Reynolds is more than open to joining them.
“Television shows, half the time, are better than anything being released in theaters,” he said. “If I find something that creates this great arc or I get to do something really interesting or ground breaking — that [would be] amazing. But I personally haven’t found that project. […] If Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck said to me they’re going to do ‘Mississippi Grind’ as a limited series, I’d do that in a heartbeat because I had more fun doing that movie than I can remember. It was just a really beautiful experience.”
Don’t be surprised if they do. There’s no evidence the recent Sundance entrants will be heading to TV next, but their audience — the one hungry for something different — are already there. If Reynolds can find the right script, the right director, the right project to join them, then he may find the success he’s been chasing all along — and ironically, right back where he started.