“Let’s get those energy levels up guys… let’s just get this done!” Shawn Levy is in motivational mode. The Night At The Museum director is cajoling his crew via megaphone for another action-packed take on the set of his new movie, Free Guy—it’s nearly the end of the working day, and the finish line is in sight.
The scene is reset, and a worn-out Ryan Reynolds–looking decidedly un-badass in a pastel blue Henley t-shirt and beige chinos—psyches himself up for another highly choreographed fight sequence. His opponent? A very badass-looking stuntwoman in combat pants, leather jacket, and sunglasses, pistol at the ready.
As soon as Levy yells “Action!,” though, Reynolds flips the switch into action hero mode, throwing himself into some impressively complex—and lightning fast—gun-fu, before the weapons are tossed aside and the fists start flying. Appearances, it seems, can be deceptive.
It’s May 2019, and the action is unfolding on a wobbly monitor underneath Boston’s huge Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge (simply “the Lenny” to the locals), just beside the famous Charles River. Sure, it’s a picturesque spot, but—Reynolds’s presence aside—this feels more like the guerilla shoot of a modestly-budgeted actioner than a huge Hollywood production.
But again, things are not as they seem. This set-up is actually a tiny fragment of a much more ambitious canvas. Boston is doubling for Free City—a bustling open-world video game setting that’s home to Reynolds’s Guy, an increasingly self-aware non-player character (or NPC for the gamers among us).
“What you’re seeing today,” Levy enthusiastically explains, shouting to make himself heard over the almost gale-force spring breeze, “is Guy taking control of his life and fighting back against some of the people who are wreaking havoc and violence in his city.”
Guy’s burgeoning sentience is spurred on by the appearance of “Molotov Girl” (played by Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer), the captivating, tough-as-nails avatar of human programmer Milly. Before long, the two are fighting side-by-side to save Free City from being shut down for good by the real-life “bad guy”—obnoxious game publisher Antoine (Taika Waititi). “Guy realizes that he doesn’t necessarily need to just accept the world as it is presented to him,” Levy says. “He can actually have input on it. And that’s something I think we can all understand—the possibility of affecting the world around you is a powerful thing.”
“It feels like a five-year-old getting an accelerated education on life,” adds Reynolds, joining Levy quickly before another take. “There’s something sweet and child-like about this guy. I love that there’s this kind of wish fulfilment element to it, which I don’t see too often in modern films. It felt important and timely—I like playing an optimistic character right now.” (Little did he know at the time, that sentiment was to become even more relevant to Free Guy’s delayed release in a post-Covid world.)
A high concept often requires a high bar when it comes to onscreen action, especially in today’s post-Marvel blockbuster landscape (Free Guy, incidentally, was one of the last Fox films to be in production as the Disney takeover was completed). Judging by today’s on-set antics, Levy and Reynolds have that box ticked—and then some.
“It’s a video game, so anything is possible,” the actor says. “That’s just one of the greatest tools or gifts you can have as people who love creating stuff—it allows you to think outside the box.” When it comes to the stunts, Levy describes that “absence of rules” as “liberating;” for Reynolds, we imagine it’s pretty exhausting, too. “I mean, days like today I definitely feel 42 years old,” he laughs. “But no, it’s a ton of fun. I mean, I’m running around, doing choreography… I’m having the time of my life.”
Jodie Comer Q&A
You’re playing two versions of the same character in the film. How different are they?
They both have their strengths, but in very different departments. In the real word, Milly is a games programmer, and then Molotov Girl is this avatar she’s created within the world of Free City—she’s this badass chick who rides a motorcycle and is ridiculously cool.
What’s been the most challenging aspect of the role?
The physicality of Molotov Girl. I’m having to learn so much, because she’s very agile, super athletic, does everything very smoothly… and I’m not! It’s requiring a lot of physical training and an awareness of my own physicality. I did a scene the other day where she was even just walking away, and everything about her has to be otherworldly and fierce. Shawn was on the other end of the street and he was just like, “More Beyoncé!” And I was like, “OK! I know what that means.” [Laughs]
This is your first big Hollywood blockbuster. What was it about this project that really stood out for you?
There’s something very new about this script. This is a video game, but it’s live-action—and seeing how [the filmmakers] are getting those nuances in, whether it’s the speed or angle of the camera or the sets or what the costume and make-up departments are coming up with, is just brilliant. With games and film, I feel like a lot of it is becoming intertwined now, and this is a very fresh outlook on the gaming world and how it’s shown on film.
Are you much of a gamer yourself?
I don’t actually play a lot of video games, but I have been recently—I was like, if my character is a gamer, I should probably get into it… Spider-Man is my favorite at the minute. I tried Grand Theft Auto but it just gave me mild anxiety. I was coming away from that quite stressed. So I am sticking to Spider-Man—he’s my go-to guy!
Free Guy is set to be released on 21 May 2021