We love categories. When you meet a person, shake their hand and make pleasantries, the brain races to label them so we can understand what’s going on. Rich/poor, liberal/conservative, cat/dog person—as if first impressions are ever spot on. There’s really no escaping this rigid, ridiculous, routine. Then along comes Ryan Reynolds, smiling broadly, smiling slyly, genuinely lippy.
He’s been rinsed in red-carpet camera flash and submerged in screenwriter’s mire (for 11 years, when no studio wanted to pick up Deadpool). Now raising his family in a swish up-state New York farmhold, he still recalls his first night in LA, at a scummy motel where his Jeep was stolen. “I found it a couple of blocks away with no doors and the stereo gone. I spent an entire season in LA with no doors on my car. It was the year of El Niño.” He’s also courageously pursued every gig from romantic lead to superhero movie to indie nuggets like Buried and The Voices, a dark comedy about mental illness and talking pets.
He wears all the hats. Writer, actor, marketer, editor, producer… anything he needs to get where’s he wants to go. Like when he forced Deadpool into theatres. There’s some grapevine spiel about how Reynolds and co-writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick released a version of the Deadpool trailer online and unannounced to Fox executives and relevant bean counters, just to prove how big a fan base the red-spandexed hero actually had. A gamble with a lawsuit on one extreme, and what has turned out to be the first live-action comic-book movie to score a best-picture nomination in the 74-year history of the Golden Globes on the other. Good odds by any standard.
Now he’s back with a new movie called Life. As a huge fan of science fiction, Reynolds reckons knows he’s got what it takes to create a movie that provides thought-provoking entertainment and, at the same time, scare its audience with the unexpected. Life, he promises, will deliver—and then some.
What can the audience expect? Is Life going to be scary?
(laughs) I think the audience is going to be terrified and intrigued with Life. It’s one of those things that for a great film to work really well, and to fire on all cylinders, I think you have to have both of those things. It’s one thing to make an audience terrified but you also need to make them really lean into the screen because they are so intrigued by what’s going on and we get to do both of those things with Life.
Are you a fan of the science fiction genre?
Yeah, I am fan of science fiction. I am when it feels authentic and it feels kind of messy, as life often is. I like it when it draws you in and all the characters aren’t typical and you really get to experience and invest in this family up there, which is what they are in our movie, and that pulls you in. I love science fiction all the way back to Alien and I just watched 2001: A Space Odyssey again and that is such a mind ****. So yeah, this is a genre that I’m a huge fan of. I can’t think of many movies in this genre that I don’t end up going to the movies to see.
It’s an ensemble cast playing an ISS crew who have spent a lot of time together in space. Was it important that you build up camaraderie amongst the cast?
Yes, and that’s something you can’t really manufacture. But right off the bat when we got there we all clicked and it’s the best case scenario when you are dealing with an ensemble cast and people that you don’t necessarily know that well. I knew Jake (Gyllenhaal) a little bit but he was the only one I knew. Everybody on this cast is very good at just being kind of off the cuff and zeroing in on the intent of the scene and we got to do that in ways that were incredibly organic. There’s something I love about movies like this where you are dealing with people who are living under extraordinary circumstances, in an extraordinary situation, and yet there is a kind of mundanity to their familial aspect, they feel like they have spent a lot of time together—almost too much time together—and that was something that was evident on the first day that we were able to create. So when circumstances turn somewhat tragic and intense you get to see that huge paradigm shift with this entire group. It pivots on a dime and that’s pretty amazing to see.
And a huge part of the story is the psychological impact on the group when things begin to go wrong?
Yes, there’s a psychological shift within the group. It’s one thing to be on the ISS doing your job, everybody getting along, and then it’s another thing when you tap into something, or discover something, that is revolutionary and it’s about how everybody interprets that information and how everybody sees it in a different way and how everybody feels about it. And it’s under those stressful circumstances that all of that comes out and you start to see the push/pull dynamic between each cast member and you start to see each person have a very clear and different idea and take on what’s important and how they can handle the situation. And that’s what you want out of any ensemble cast, dealing with something like that, and it really felt like that, at least to me, from the moment I first set foot on set.
If you were describing the film to somebody who knew nothing about it, what would you say?
I would say it’s a story about survival in the truest context. And most stories about survival pit two opposing forces against each other and typically there’s a light cast on each, one is good, one is bad, but I think what I loved about Life is that there’s an interesting shade of grey cast on everything. Half way through the film I don’t think we have any idea about who is good and who is bad, including the life form we have discovered. That life form is simply utilising every aspect of its being in order to survive. And you know, what’s more dangerous on this planet than a bunch of human beings. So there’s an interesting moral complexity that imbues itself into the story quite quickly and I think that’s what makes for an interesting film. I don’t want to just see a bunch of intermittently jaw clenching astronauts who are heroic trying to fight this bad, evil thing from another planet. It’s much more complex than that and I think the audience is really going to have a chance to decide how they feel about it and how they would attack this situation or how they would react. It’s very cool.
So it was that psychological aspect of the story that really interested you? The way the group dynamic changes and makes them react in extreme ways?
Yes, absolutely, that’s exactly it.
Let’s talk about your character, Rory Adams. What’s his role and why is he up on the ISS?
Rory’s job sounds a little more glamorous than it is. He’s a space walker, the guy that does the space walk. He goes out and fixes anything on the ship. He’s basically a mechanic and the ISS needs a mechanic just like a car does. He’s like a handyman, the guy who fixes everything. He doesn’t have an incredibly important role in terms of being one of the doctors or the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) guys or the commander. He’s a utility crew member and he is there for one reason alone which is the make sure the ship is running.
But you’d want the guy who can fix things to be in the crew wouldn’t you?
You’d think but he’s also not necessarily the guy who is reacting from an emotional place. He’s probably reacting a little bit more from a logical place, which is ‘how do I fix this?’ ‘How do I put this back together?’ So in a certain sense his skills aren’t necessarily pitch perfect for the situation at hand.
Do we know how long they have been together as a group? Did you guys discuss that as part of the backstory?
Rebecca Ferguson’s character is CDC and she is relatively new. The others, it was intimated to me, have been up there for over a year. So there’s a close quarters family vibe that they have but I don’t know exactly how long they have been up there.
And so the premise is that this alien life form is discovered on Mars and brought back to the ISS for examination in a controlled environment?
Yes, that’s exactly right. We’ve managed to pick this thing up. My character, Rory, catches the Rover in space using what you might call a space arm and brings it in and they are able to bring it in through the various firewalls and study it in a very controlled environment and really see what they have. And part of the spike and exhilaration in the film comes with just that—the fact that this is the first time we have ever had the opportunity to investigate life beyond our own planet. It’s just a single cell organism when they find it and it’s incredibly thought provoking and obviously the movie takes an incredible tonal shift shortly after that.
Let’s talk about what it was like to make for you.
For me it was a bit an athletic event. The movie takes place on the ISS and they recreated the ISS in mind-boggling detail on this gigantic sound stage in London. My character is very active, the guy is racing to and fro and trying to deal with so many different elements all at once, so there was a real physical aspect, which I wasn’t expecting. They had all these guys there to help us, you know, chiropractors and guys like that. At first I was like ‘why are all these people here?’ And I quickly realised why because we are at zero gravity for the entire film. It was almost like doing an entire film while holding a plank in position so you are kind of beat up at the end of the day. So I was a little surprised by that. But it’s amazing how expansive they could make the ISS look. It felt like a whole universe inside there and it was fascinating.
What does that give you as an actor? Working on real sets as opposed to using a lot of green screen?
You know the detail on those sets was incredible. The production designer (Nigel Phelps) really spent painstaking hours—he probably never slept—and recreated the ISS on that set. So the ISS isn’t this futuristic perfectly groomed ship; there are elements of it that are a little junky. The crew is very international but so is the ISS because different parts of it have been built by different countries at different times so you will go through one capsule and you’ll feel like you are in the early ‘90s and you’ll zip into another one and you’ll feel like it’s 2030, so it was really interesting to move around that environment and see how those different environments affected mood and all the different things you want your cast to experience when you are up there.
You’ve got very successful connections with the filmmakers on Life. You worked with Daniel Espinosa on Safe House and the writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, on Deadpool. Did you talk about working with Daniel again when you made Safe House?
I had such a great experience with Daniel (on Safe House). I can’t think of any time that I’ve had a bad experience with any director but it’s not often that you get to a double header with a director. With Daniel in particular we had always looked for something to do along the line together. And you know, I’m a producer as well—not on this film but I produce other movies—and I was always trying to find some way to put us together again. And you know, chemistry with a director is not unlike chemistry with a great actor, you click and understand each other and Daniel and I can convey ideas using very few words, and that to me speaks of chemistry. And you know, Rhett and Paul, I’ve been working with and writing with and playing with in the Hollywood sandbox for close to nine years now and that just felt like a great fit. I remember when they were writing it there was no idea that I would be in it. But I remember them telling me about it and I was fascinated and I thought it was fantastic and then when Daniel signed on, everything just aligned perfectly with my schedule and theirs and we got to do it.
The producers have talked about the idea of this story being rooted in a ‘what if’ reality. It’s set in the ‘near future’ and as you have said authenticity was one of the watchwords. How important was keeping it real for you?
The realism is really highlighted by the familial bonds that these guys have. The fact that these guys have known each other for so long, there isn’t the need to dispense exposition in ways that you see, particularly in science fiction films, where you are having to explain constantly to the audience what is happening. We are allowing the audience to see it as we are seeing it, which I think is a great way to tell the story and we certainly give the audience the emotional investment and the reaction you want as opposed to giving them what they are seeing and what they are feeling. The audience is on the ride with us—they are not just watching us, they are discovering things as we are discovering them. We don’t go into great detail about every little thing we are seeing, we let the audience discover that for themselves. And that’s something that I think that Daniel brought to the process.
And you had experts on set—for example you had a movement coach, Alex Reynolds, to give advice on how to move in zero gravity—how important was that to give authenticity to your performance?
You want it to feel immersive and you want it to feel like the audience is experiencing something they don’t quite understand and one of those things is being in zero gravity and weightless throughout the entire film. I can’t think of too many movies that have ever been done in zero gravity from start to finish but this is definitely one of them. And we had a lot of people there to help us to make sure that was as immersive and real as possible.
Let’s talk about your fellow cast members. We’ve talked about how it was important to bond off screen to capture that familial nature of the crew on screen. What was it like working with Jake, Rebecca and the rest of the team?
It was amazing. I can’t remember ever having this much fun on a set. I find that sets that have a comedic tone are typically quite serious because you are focused on manufacturing a reaction in the audience and with movies like this I find, you spend a lot more time laughing simply because you’re trying to not focus too much on all of the information that you need. I think Jake and I collectively wasted probably a good million dollars of the bosses’ money just laughing. He and I would be on the ISS at a 90-degree angle laughing so hard that we couldn’t breathe. And there’s something pretty great about that. And Rebecca is such an incomparable actress in what she is able to say and convey. Her character has a real conflict that she is dealing with throughout the entire film. I would say that the central female character is really the heartbeat of the whole film. She really has to carry a whole burden that none of the other cast members have to carry. And she is so good; she is such an intelligent, emotional and smart actress. It was really a pleasure to watch her work. She does these simple, subtle movements and moments and she just tells everybody everything they need to hear in the most emotional way possible. She is really quite a gifted performer.
Could you sum up the experience of making Life?
I can’t think of a time when I had more fun shooting a film than Life. It was a built in family for me—I had a director that I knew already and worked with in the past and writers that are like my brothers and then Jake, who has become one of my closest friends since shooting. And getting to be there with those guys was a complete pleasure through and through.