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Ryan Reynolds, Shawn Levy talk up the Canadianness of ‘Free Guy’ and Alex Trebek’s cameo

Vancouver-born actor taps into “earnest Canadian optimism for role as unwitting video game character
Ryan Reynolds is shown as Guy in 20th Century Studios’ “Free Guy” in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Alan Markfield

Ryan Reynolds admits he’s not always as chipper in the morning as his character in the new comedy film “Free Guy,” about an uber-positive bank teller who discovers he’s actually a background player in a violent video game.

“Usually I’m woken up by, like, a stiff punch in the face from one of my kids,” the Vancouver-raised star, who has three daughters with actor-wife Blake Lively, said in a recent interview.

“They tend to sneak into the bed at night, so I get a lot of high kicks and heels to the face and that kind of stuff. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

To channel the unfailingly happy outlook of Guy, the “Deadpool” star said he found inspiration in simple-minded characters, including Peter Sellers’ gardener in 1979’s “Being There” and Will Ferrell’s Santa helper in 2003’s “Elf.”

And he tapped into some “earnest Canadian optimism,” on the suggestion of the film’s Montreal-born director, Shawn Levy.

“My earliest direction to Ryan was, ‘You need to play this like your most Canadian self. This is not Wade Wilson in ‘Deadpool.’ This is “Ryan, the Canadian.” Just friendly, open, civil,’” said Levy, who got an Oscar nomination for producing the film “Arrival” and is executive producer/director on the Netflix series “Stranger Things.”

Another homegrown element to “Free Guy”: Alex Trebek.

As seen in a trailer, the late Canadian “Jeopardy!” host, who died last November of cancer, is among several celebrities who make cameos in the film, which was shot in and around Boston in 2019.

“It was no surprise that he said yes, because I think we all know how stalwart and wonderful a human being he is, and there’s a reason he’s a national treasure and a global treasure,” said Reynolds. “But having him in the movie was really special.

“He worked right up until the very end. He called me out of the blue to take part in a charity event that he was doing. This was just weeks, if not months before he passed. I have so much respect for Alex and what he built, and we’re really privileged and lucky to have had him in the film.”

In theatres Friday, “Free Guy” stars Reynolds as Guy, an artificially intelligent, non-playable character (NPC) who wakes up every morning declaring it’s going to be a “great day” despite living in a video-game world filled with destruction.

“Killing Eve” star Jodie Comer co-stars as a real-world programmer who plays the “Free City” game and helps Guy realize he’s not a human being. Other cast members include Oscar-nominated actor-director Taika Waititi as the nefarious head of the gaming company.

Guy’s “Ted Lasso”-esque idealism is juxtaposed with player characters who are allowed to cause as much mayhem as they want, and Levy says that opened an opportunity to touch on brutal and misogynist elements of some games.

“It was quite an interesting challenge to make a movie that’s authentic to the gaming culture, that acknowledges the ways in which it’s wildly imperfect and — rather than just doing a two-hour polemic where we’re wagging our fingers — maybe positing another approach … that is kinder, more empathetic, more equitable and inclusive,” said Levy, who directed the “Night at the Museum” movie series.

The film marks the beginning of a great Canadian collaboration between Reynolds and Levy, who are now in post-production on Netflix’s upcoming time-travel adventure feature “The Adam Project.”

“Obviously we were both born on separate ends of Canada but we share a lot of the same kind of core values,” said Reynolds. “I think we share a work ethic that sometimes is also our Achilles heel, because it’s a little too intense sometimes. But I think there’s something about being from the same place that’s meaningful.”

Levy said he and Reynolds share “a certain value system as far as civility, an attempt at empathy in all interactions, an ability to take the piss out of yourself and not take yourself and whatever it is you’re doing too seriously.”

“Also, between us, we have seven daughters,” he added. “There’s a real focus on being a good family dad and husband that we also share in our personal lives that I also think is just part of good moral grounding that came from being raised in Canada and away from all this noise down here in the States.”

Of course, Reynolds has always been deeply connected to Canada, often donating to various homegrown charities and using his social media to draw attention to local causes.

“I look at Canada as a sort of a third parent to me, in the things that it instilled in me and as a culture and the value system,” he said. “As imperfect as the country is, like a lot of countries, I still am grateful for what it’s given me.”

—Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

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