If you’re asking, Ryan Reynolds is a dog person. “But I’m only a dog person because they can be controlled,” he tells us. “Cats hate me.” That’s a light way to start talking about his new film, “The Voices,” in which he plays Jerry, a disturbed Midwesterner who’s off his meds, and as such converses with his dog and his cat (both voiced by him). Soon enough, and purely by accident, he’s racked up a body count. Combining dark comedy with horror and a serious side is a challenge both for him and his director, Marjane Satrapi, who herself is changing gears from the Iran-set “Perepolis” and “Chicken with Plums” to stake a bloody American debut.
You had to chase this one down and talk with Satrapi about casting you. How did you convince her?
I knew there were two other actors who had their hands up for it, who I would argue are much more critically acclaimed than I am. So I really had to get my s— together. I met with Marjane and gave her my take on the guy. One of the things I said was: if there’s even one look of menace on Jerry’s face, we lose the audience. She seemed to really latch onto that idea, that we have to trust him, we have to follow him and ostensibly care for him. Somehow she, I don’t know, found me creepy enough to do the role.
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What do you think she brings to this project that other directors perhaps wouldn’t have?
She brings a European sensibility, even though she does not originate from Europe. And she brings a sense of unending whimsy to a subject matter that is a little intense. As I’ve gotten older — I wish I’d learned this earlier, but films are all about the director. It’s their medium.
There’s something shockingly sweet-natured about the film. For one thing the actual gore tends to be off-screen or obscured in the shots.
That’s funny — some people find it gory. I think it’s offset by Jerry’s innocence and arrested development. He was traumatized at 10 or 11 years old, and he’s still 10 or 11 years old when we meet him. It’s also offset by the fact that there’s this asexuality to him. That’s important, especially since we’re dealing with women in this movie. If there was a sexual component, the movie would be wholly unpleasant in every way shape or form, and it would never see the light of day. He’s the nicest serial killer you’ll ever meet.
Jerry’s definitely not a sexual predator.
Marjane did certain things, like when Anna Kendrick’s character [a coworker with a crush on him] kisses Jerry. Anna’s tiny and I’m not, and she had us do it near a staircase, so she could have Anna up high, so she’d be in control. She pulls Jerry in for a kiss instead of Jerry coming to her.
It’s hard to classify how you portray Jerry: The film is semi-realistic but at the same there’s a heightened, comedic quality to it.
But you can’t think of it like that on-set. I was trying to create someone who is three-dimensional and not this menacing, scary psychopath, because that’s not what he is at all. For me it just brings out those ideas about heroes and villains. They’re given such a raw deal, villains, in movies, because they’re always twisting some kind of mustache, figuratively. No villain on earth does that. They don’t have a compulsion for evil; what they have is an opposing conviction that you don’t agree with. That’s interesting to me. I wanted to bring as much empathy to Jerry as possible. But he’s a villain, to some degree. He’s the guy you read about in the news and say, “Glad I didn’t run into that freak.” At the same time, we read those things in the news and there’s a narrative we fill in our own minds. We get to show who that guy is.
The film really takes pains to understand the twisted place he’s coming from.
I think if he could take back any of the things he did, he would. But he can’t. He can’t wrestle with this demon that’s inside of him.
Some reviews have compared him to Norman Bates: he’s also a nice murderer.
I never get the Norman Bates thing. He’s a nice guy, but Norman Bates always freaked me out, from the moment he shows up on camera.
How have other viewers reacted to it?
I’ve heard everything, from people saying they rooted for him to people saying they just wanted him to die. Whether you like the movie or don’t like the movie, I think films like this need to exist, because they disrupt the status quo a little bit.
This was one of those screenplays that was on the “Blacklist”: the round-up of unproduced screenplays that were seen as too original.
When you get a script from the Blacklist — if you’re lucky to get a script from the Blacklist — it’s a great read, because you know it’s incredibly thoughtful and well-written, but it’s also going to have some component to it that makes it impossible. I’ve done three movies off the Blacklist [Ed. “Safe House” and “Buried” are the others], and it’s always been a ride. This was no different. I loved reading this and thinking, “Of course, how could you make a story about an empathetic serial killer? It’s not possible, it’s not right.” But why isn’t it? It should be.
Like “Buried,” you spend a lot of the film acting by yourself, though here you’re talking to animals.
The hardest part of that was on set the crew thought I was nuts. I would do a technical rehearsal for the crew and I would act the dog and cat. But then when we shot it I would only hear the dog and cat lines in my mind, and I would react to it. So if you walked on set for the first time, you would see a guy talking to himself in the middle of a living room and then yelling at things that aren’t there. It was off-putting for some.
It’s kind of like a one-man show, in a way.
One of the things Marjane and I clicked over was neither of us likes to rehearse. That was nice. Because I always think, just go be it. If I’m a good enough actor I can show up to set ready. We clicked on this “f— rehearsal” thing. We just dove right in. I remember on “Buried” I was asked to rehearse for two weeks. I just said, “On what? Lying down on a coffee table in a room? Can we just shoot the f—ing thing? I don’t want to pretend I’m in a coffin, doing some Marcel Marceau bit. Let’s just go!”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge