"This is the most curious erection I've ever had," Ryan Reynolds e-mails from his approaching car. "Wear something sexy, we're going to a township," an earlier message advised. Then, as he arrived at my hotel: "We're two minutes away from the greatest interview I've ever given in South Africa."
It is a characteristically bright and beautiful April day in Cape Town, that vibrant dream city at the bottom of Africa, where Reynolds has been filming a CIA thriller called Safe House with Denzel Washington. If you want to talk with Reynolds these days, you go where he's working—and he has of late been a very busy man.
Last year he sweated out six months in Louisiana, sheathed in a heat-trapping motion-capture suit for the role of Hal Jordan in Green Lantern, this summer's $150 million blockbuster from DC Comics. That intensely physical shoot left the 34-year-old actor with a separated shoulder and in need of two operations. Back in Los Angeles, he joined Nicolas Cage and Emma Stone in voicing the 3-D animated comedy The Croods. Then down to Atlanta for the buddy-body-swap comedy The Change-Up with Jason Bateman, and finally to Africa, with the occasional red-eye break for a Green Lantern reshoot and a WonderCon appearance in San Francisco. In the midst of all this, he and his wife of two years, Scarlett Johansson, announced their divorce—a painful upending made more painful by the tabloid feeding frenzy it inevitably stirred up. "My face was on the cover of magazines I'd worked very hard to prevent being in," he says. He accepts the public scrutiny and media meddling as occupational hazards and does not sound indignant or petulant, just resigned to surviving something shitty and real.
Now Reynolds is in Cape Town, keeping busy doing what he likes to do and quietly repairing his lust-for-life mojo. "I have a blister on my hand from gripping the wheel," he says, giddily describing the car chases he's been filming. "I'm amazed that they let me do this stuff. In one chase I'm being choked to death while trying to drive the car into a wall to get the guy off me. It's a great job." It's not only the physical demands of the job that appeal to him. "I cried 26 times yesterday," he says, proud of his ability to well up for as many takes as Safe House director Daniel Espinosa demanded.
Always eager to throw himself into a role, yesterday he accidentally threw part of the role into himself, tossing a steel-legged table into his knees. "I had Denzel cuffed to an exposed pipe," Reynolds says. "My character is at a breaking point, so I throw this table across the room. I didn't account for the base of the table. It was that kind of pain where you're literally seeing red."
This is his first day off in weeks, and he's bummed we're not spending it doing something more exciting, like swimming with great white sharks. "Your employers wouldn't let us go shark diving," he says, "because they dislike adventure and good fellowship." (This is not quite true: My employers are pro-chumminess but anti-chum, which is what this fearful reporter was afraid of becoming.)
And the accidental kneecapping scuttled the backup plan to hike to the top of Lion's Head peak, overlooking the city and Table Bay. Instead we're with Pete (the bodyguard) and Wayne (the driver, who's big enough to bench-press Pete) in a black SUV speeding southeast toward the township Gugulethu to have lunch at Mzoli's, a combination butcher shop and braai (South African barbecue). Reynolds has heard good things about the place, including the fact that it's a bring-your-own-silverware joint.
I ask Reynolds whether the bodyguard-and-driver thing is a Cape Town-only arrangement or if this is how he rolls in L.A., too. "No! Why? Because I'm not P. Diddy," he says. "Also, I'm six foot two. If I need security around me, there's a problem. Then I'm really selling people a load of shit."
I should probably state here that Ryan Reynolds is not selling people a load of shit. The public and the private square up with uncanny precision. Yes, he is stupendously lucky and ridiculously handsome, but he wears his charms lightly, in a way that puts people at ease. "The Hollywood asshole is becoming a bit more of a dinosaur every day, thank God," Jason Bateman says. "But it's still not the norm to be as decent as Ryan is. Decent without being a boob. He's the World's Sexiest Man and all that shit, but he's still a real guy, not a noodle."
The two have been friends since growing up on sitcoms but hadn't found a project that worked for both of them before The Change-Up, directed by David Dobkin, of Wedding Crashers fame, and written by the duo behind The Hangover. What most impresses Bateman about his friend is the time Reynolds puts in honing his comic timing and acting chops. "The main ingredient to being funny," Bateman says, "is a willingness to be human, to show your flaws and risk your dignity."
Risk is not a trait we normally identify with rom-com leading men—or action stars, for that matter—but an eagerness to push himself and capture something real and human on camera is what drew Reynolds to Buried, a one-man, one-scene movie that takes place in a coffin. There's a moment in the film when Reynolds' character—Paul Conroy, a kidnapped civilian truck driver confined to a box somewhere under the Iraqi desert—is on the phone with one of his unseen captors. The voice on the line bitterly denounces the American military intervention.
"Stop! Just please, stop!" Conroy interrupts him, pleading forcefully, "I'm just a guy. . . . I'm nobody that makes decisions about anything."
That basic plea—I'm just a guy . . . —is a distilled version of what a lot of Reynolds' characters are saying. It's an Everyman cry. Sometimes played for comedy ("I'm just a guy. .
. . Why is my mean, hot boss proposing to me?"). Sometimes for dramatic effect ("I'm just a guy. . . . Why have Iraqi insurgents buried me alive?"). Sometimes for campy, comic-book wonder ("I'm just a guy. . . . Why have I been given a ring with special powers and zapped to the planet Oa to train with an alien army of Green Lanterns?").
And what's nice about Reynolds is that offscreen he is just a guy. A self-deprecating, dick-joke-making, guilelessly, legitimately, put-you-at-ease nice dude of a guy.
Right now, he's intent on putting himself at ease, too. Whatever you say about the shrinking smallness of the world, Cape Town feels very far away from everything, and Reynolds is enjoying a kind of working holiday here from the job of being Ryan Reynolds, movie star. Hiding in plain sight, as it were, getting lost in the work away from the tabloid press and taking his time to plan his next moves. "I don't really know what I'm going to do next," Reynolds says. "I'll meet with some directors via Skype. If the camera angle's just right, you can be ferociously masturbating and they have no idea."
• • •
We step up to the butcher case at Mzoli's—a not-very-refrigerated glass display containing beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and some parts you don't want to ask too many questions about. We pick out several slabs, which are piled in a bowl. I suggest we skip the poultry. "You're skipping the chicken?" Reynolds asks. "You wouldn't rather skip the gallbladder?"
While we're waiting at a picnic table for our meat to be incinerated, I try out a theory of mine on Reynolds. My theory, I tell him, is that it's time to declare a major. You've done funny, scary, dramatic, comic-book. You've done the CIA agent, the guy-in-a-coffin thing. It's time to . . .
"You want me to declare? I'm not declaring nothing, man! I'm getting away with something I'd like to continue getting away with."
Aggregate is a word Reynolds likes to use to describe his non-meteoric rise to the top of the Hollywood call sheet. It's a fair description of how he got here. Step one: Come out of nowhere (which is to say, Canada) and hustle your way into TV movies and a kids' series despite discouragement from your working-class Vancouver family. Step two: Make the jump to the big screen (1993's Ordinary Magic—he played Ganesh, a boy raised in India sent to live with family in Ontario. Sample dialogue: "They are not so very different, basketball and yoga"). Step three: Drive to L.A. from Vancouver "on the whimmiest of whims" in 1995 with an aspiring-actor friend and, after a few years, land a part on a sitcom (Two Guys and a Girl). And here's where the steps pile up and blend together, until finally, two decades later, you're People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive and the CGI-swaddled flying green lead of a summer blockbuster.
His long, meandering ascent has paid off, as Reynolds has become that scarce Hollywood commodity: the bankable generalist. "I'm really fucking lucky that I hit it late," he says. "None of this happened to me in my early twenties, so I didn't configure myself at an early age in the audience's mind as one guy."
On cue, a thirtyish South African guy ambles over, beer in hand, taps Reynolds on the shoulder, and says, "Excuse me, I've got to ask: Just one movie you were in? Was it a horror series or something? I see your face and I can see it."
Reynolds: "I've done a few different ones. I don't know which one you mean."
Guy what I'm trying to think of."
Reynolds: "I don't know . . . The Proposal?"
Guy: [blank stare]
Reynolds: "Buried? It's a little one . . ."
Reynolds: "Okay, let's not play this game. I'm terrible at it."
Accepting a stalemate, the guy seems happy to shake the unidentified actor's hand, and we're saved by the delivery of our bowl of mystery meat. Having no utensils, we pick up the char-grilled chops with our hands.
"I think this one," Reynolds says, gnawing at a bone, "is a tourist who was momentarily distracted."
• • •
"I out-cunted you on the drink order," Reynolds says proudly. He's asked the barkeep for a Macallan 18 to my bourbon on the rocks. Well played.
We've ditched driver and bodyguard and are back at his hotel, sitting at the outdoor bar overlooking the marina. Seagulls occasionally dip down and try to steal our potato chips. Reynolds warns that he could easily toss my tape recorder in the water if it captures something he regrets. Perhaps that's when his dark side comes out: once the interview is over. "You want to see what I'm like when we turn the tape recorder off?" he asks, affecting a very good quavering, crazy-person baritone. "I slit throats, that's what I do. I only drink panda tears. Do not bring me water. Do not bring me filtered water. I want the tears of a newborn panda, and I will have them—because I'm Ryan Reynolds!"
Sandra Bullock says her longtime friend and costar has a complexity beyond the friendly face that draws an audience in: "It makes you want to watch more of him to figure it out. As his friend, any dark secrets that I may or may not know are forever safe with me. Unless he doesn't do something I want him to do, like babysitting. When that day comes, I'll be sure to hold a press conference." The rest of his success she credits to his comic timing, height, and Canadian-ness. "He constantly talks of the healing powers of maple syrup," Bullock says. "I don't know if that's a Canadian trait, but it's always uncomfortable when it comes up."
"I love Canada," Reynolds says when I tell him Bullock's view of his nationality. "It makes a nice hat for America. When America runs out of water, it's the first place I'll go. I gotta go home. I haven't been there in a long, long time."
I suggest that announcing he has to go home and then marching off into the sunset would be an apt and dramatic turn for the story.
"Yes, like a zombie!" he says. "That would be a fucking fascinating ending. Can we say it happened? I just get up and cut a Ryan-size hole in the wall—in every wall until I get to Canada. Pete, Wayne, to the airport! Fetch my passport."
Instead, we settle in for another round. Reynolds is easygoing and jokey, and I feel a bit sheepish about asking him to talk about his life in grand, what-it-all-means terms. So what should the story of the well-adjusted generalist turned movie star be about?
"My divorce!" he says, laughing a little uncomfortably. Another of the benefits of not becoming insanely famous in his teens and twenties and before the age of TMZ and camera phones and instant everything is that Reynolds was allowed to do his youthful fucking up like the rest of us: without the world paying attention. As he's matured, he has built and maintained an utterly sane and relatively leakproof wall around the details of his romances and private life. His default approach is the politely disengaged "no comment."
"I'll say this: The media wasn't invited to my marriage, and they're definitely not invited into the divorce."
He will talk, in general terms, about the strangeness and pain of his separation. And as he does, many things about the private man become clear. He does not take any of this lightly. He has been using this time to heal, to make sense of things and figure out what comes next. "Anyone who gets divorced goes through a lot of pain," he says, "but you come out of it. I'm not out of it yet. At all. But I sense that as I do come through it, there's optimism. How can there not be? I don't think I want to get married again, but you always reevaluate these things. Any kind of crisis can be good. It wakes you up. I gotta say, I'm a different person than I was six months ago."
The downside to not talking to the press about your high-profile divorce is that in a vacuum without actual fact, they'll fill the void with rumors and falsehoods. "What was happening privately was the exact opposite of what was being reported," he says. "There was no story and no scandal, so the narrative was just created for me. That was the most disturbing part. I wasn't angry. I absolutely predicted every beat of it. There's an entire economy around this sort of thing—therefore it's gotta happen one way or another. There was a time, though, when looking at the Internet was a miracle cure for feeling good about myself."
He's not the self-pitying type, and frankly he knows better than to dwell on the negative. "I'm not an idiot," he says. "I know my station in life. It's not like I've got the chips stacked against me. I'm in a very lucky and fortunate place." What's striking when you talk to him isn't the humility but the sense of holy-shit wonder he's maintained through the recent massive uptick in his Hollywood standing. When he got the Safe House gig, he found himself wandering around the back lot at Universal with director Daniel Espinosa. "We're around the same age, which is sort of amazing," he says. "We've both had a couple moments where we scratched our heads and said, 'We get to do this, really?' I was just overwhelmed by the distance I'd traveled. I remembered walking down that very same street maybe 10 years ago, just shrouded in a sea of abject failure. I had, like, a stick with a handkerchief with some dry, stale bread in it and that was all. I got this vibe that Daniel was feeling something similar. We stopped and I just said, 'This is a moment in time worth remembering.' That can still happen, and I hope those moments happen when I'm 50 as well."
"Maybe you read only about his comedies," Espinosa says. "But he really surprised me with his intelligence and the depth of his thought process. You need to have that, you know? If there's no oil at the bottom, it doesn't matter how far you dig—you'll end up with sand."
In the interest of full disclosure, and because Reynolds and I are two guys drinking whiskey at a hotel bar half a world away from home, I tell Reynolds about my own marital meltdown. "Relationships ending move you from who you were to who you are at a much more accelerated rate than almost anything else on earth," Reynolds says, seemingly as much for my sake as about his own experience.
Being careful not to speak for Johansson, he is proud of how the two came through it. "Departing a relationship and still maintaining the idea that this is still the same person I married is a great luxury that I experienced. Thankfully I was in a relationship where two people chose to remain on the high road in every regard."
And yet there's no getting around the fact that it changes you, for better or for worse, and probably, truthfully, nobody knows what it all means.
"You've got walls up in a way you didn't before," he admits. "But you're also open to things in a way you weren't before. I have no interest in dating right now. It just seems so kind of alien to me at this point. I've been in relationships pretty much since high school. Some people look at that as a good thing. I think wiser people might see that as a house of cards."
Of course, there's the pretty German model he's been seen with around Cape Town. That's his business, but more to the point, he seems content to be his own man for a while and wait to see where the next adventure takes him.
"I'm very happy not to be in a relationship right now. That's okay. I didn't plan on it, that's for sure . . . but that's okay."
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