Ryan Reynolds makes no pretenses about being a Pokémon scholar. Despite being the face, or at least the sardonic voice, of Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, Reynolds was only broadly familiar with the world of pocket monsters before being offered the chance to portray an amnesic Pikachu in a deerstalker cap. Complete charm and Canadian politeness when we sat down with him in Tokyo, he also reflects that the approach was less about becoming Pikachu than the furry yellow guy becoming him.
“I’m not taking the deepest dive here,” Reynolds laughs, “but for the most part, the mandate going in was just kind of be Ryan Reynolds. So I was like, ‘Alright, I can do that.’” Even so, Reynolds is acutely aware of the importance of Pokémon, and its most beloved mascot, which has been going strong for more than 20 years since its creation. “There’s a culture behind it that’s very specific and probably very discerning. So the first thing I did was, ‘Am I the right guy to play Pikachu?’ Because I don’t have any skin in the game, my feedback to the studio is, ‘Is there someone else who’s supposed to be playing Detective Pikachu and I shouldn’t?’”
The results to that query are fascinating. Detective Pikachu itself has always been a distinct property separate from Pokémon Proper. While the original Pokémon games and most subsequent installments, including the popular animated series, center on the concept of Pokémon Trainers capturing and training cute, super-powered creatures to duel each other like some sort of kid-friendly cockfight, Detective Pikachu was originally a Nintendo 3DS video game from 2016 where Pikachu could talk and was one of the world’s great detectives (in all other games and cartoons, Pikachu is like most Pokémon who can only say their names and/or fractional syllables of it). This led to a unique experiment by the filmmakers tasked with bringing the property to life.
“What I found out is they paired a sort of fully rendered CGI version of Pikachu to a bunch of different actors’ voices,” Reynolds says. “And somehow mine was the one they liked the best. So they sent me that, and I said, ‘Oh, it kind of works!’ So I thought why not infuse a grumpy, acerbic man into this adorable little yellow guy?”
While other voices as varied as Danny DeVito, Mark Wahlberg, and Dwayne Johnson were paired to Pikachu animation, director Rob Letterman tells us in a separate interview that the experiment virtually narrowed their choice to a field of one.
Says Letterman, “We wanted a big personality to come out of a small, adorable yellow thing. We needed somebody who’s incredibly funny but could be grounded and dramatic, and have the combination of irreverence and heart, and that narrows it down. It really does. [They needed to] love to improv, and Ryan’s so good at that.”
The result was a performance Reynolds committed to far more than casual audiences might expect. In addition to playing the voice of Detective Pikachu, he was also on set in London for much of the early production to build a rhythm with co-stars Justice Smith and Kathryn Newton, who play two humans ensnared in Pikachu’s investigation of a seedy Rhyme City scandal that’s led to his loss memory and the disappearance of his partner. It also served as the basis for Reynolds’ chance to improv off Smith on a different motion-capture soundstage where the Deadpool actor wore a new kind of formfitting costume while becoming an over-caffeinated electric rodent.
“I sort of did a bunch of passes at it,” Reynolds says. “One of the great lessons of film, for me at least, is you have to listen to your movie. So things change and things alter, and you want to sort of shuck and jive with it all, so I started on set, just to understand what Justice was doing and what Kathryn was doing, to feel what our chemistry would feel like. And then the rest of my job was just in a dark room with motion-capture and performance-capture.”
Admitting it was a lot of improv while in isolation by the end of the production, Reynolds adds with a bit of a twinkle that he hopes more of his performances will be recorded in a suit of dots.
Says the actor, “It’s like put yourself in this little chamber and just play, it’s so much fun. I wish I could do every film like this. I probably can in the future, because that technology—I mean this movie you would never know some of it’s CGI.”
In that vein, while the film is very CGI-heavy, all the filmmakers are noticeably proud of the fact the picture was shot on 35mm instead of digital. Calling himself a film nerd, Reynolds has been in the industry long enough to see how in the last decade the process went from shooting most Hollywood productions on celluloid to it being a rare luxury usually explored by auteurs. And indie cinema, where Reynolds has deep roots of pushing boundaries, is nearly exclusively digital.
“To not shoot on digital gives it a real sort of texture and something really special, to create the situation in which all the Pokémon feel really, truly photorealistic, because film has inherent flaws,” Reynolds says. It also forced him to adjust a rhythm he’s become very comfortable with on the Deadpool films where he leans into extended improvised takes.
Says Reynolds, “It also takes a count. When you’re shooting a film practically, you know film’s expensive; it’s limited; it runs out. It’s not like a chip that just runs for 30, 40 minutes at a time. So when you’re used to doing these continuous takes, you can’t really do that. So suddenly everything becomes a little more thought out, a little better executed, and I think it shows.”
Letterman also hopes this aesthetical choice may be why audiences are responding so well to the sight of digital Pokémon interacting with humans in the trailers. “For me, CGI gets too perfect, and then it’s less real.” Consequently, when on set, he avoided using blue or green screen. Instead he emphasized building London soundstages that evoked Pokémon’s Japanese roots as much as what North American audiences usually expect.
“I grew up in Hawaii, and it’s sort of an east meets west world for me from my childhood,” Letterman says. “Because Pokémon is from Japan and it’s a worldwide phenomenon, it just made a lot of sense to bridge the two. So we shot in London, and the idea is to make Rhyme City a mashup of London and New York and Tokyo, and just this kind of multicultural melting pot… we just tried to get the gritty look of it.”
The result is a video game adaptation not quite like any we’ve seen before, with eastern and Western sensibilities and expensive CGI, yet an emphasis on analogue technology and practical locations. That and Ryan Reynolds’ unique vocal sensibilities.
After our interview, I’m halfway out the door when I mention the film might be a spiritual sequel to The Voices, the indie he did with Marjane Satrapi where he plays a young man, plus the voices he imagines belong to his cat and dog, who are in a spiritual war over his soul like angels and demons.
“Oh yeah,” Reynolds says lighting up to the idea. “That’s a deep pull.” He then adds he hadn’t thought of it going that weird before. Perhaps for the even grittier sequel?
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu opens Friday, May 10.