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Ryan Reynolds: from college dropout to Deadpool

He's one of Hollywood's biggest stars today, but the road to success wasn't exactly smooth for Ryan Reynolds. He's the first to admit that there's been "nothing meteoric" about his career, which has progressed "an inch at a time" since he left Vancouver for Los Angeles against the advice of everyone around him, including his own family. Being the youngest of four brothers, the affable actor felt as though he was disappointing his parents just by being male. "They thought, 'Wow, it'd be great if we could keep trying and have a daughter,'" he told GQ in 2010. "They got an actor."

A lot has changed for Reynolds since then, but believe it or not, he was already preparing to play Marvel's foul-mouthed mutant Deadpool at that time. "For me, the saga starts in 2005, when I was first introduced to Deadpool and kind of officially committed to doing it," he told the Los Angeles Times. The next decade became a "roller-coaster ride of stagnation" as Fox continually flapped about making an R-rated superhero movie. Little did they know that it would become the highest-grossing X-Men movie of all time.

The huge box office returns and rave reviews were long-awaited justification, but his crusade to bring Deadpool to the big screen took its toll. From his early struggles in Vancouver to making movies that even he never watched, this is how Ryan Reynolds went from college dropout to becoming Deadpool.

His dad had a 'short fuse'

Growing up in a family of creatives is a huge head start for aspiring actors, but this wasn't the case for Reynolds, whose family were "as far from a stage family as you could ever possibly find." His father Jim (a former boxer and policeman who passed away in 2015 after a 20-year battle with Parkinson's disease) wasn't an easy man to live with, imposing strict regimes on the household. "There was a very short fuse," Reynolds told GQ. "Sometimes it felt a little like a military barracks. You know, get the fold exactly right on the bed, make sure there's no speck of lint anywhere."

The fear of disappointing his father turned Reynolds into "a really nervous kid," but it also helped him to develop skills that would serve him well in later life. "I was extremely sensitive [and] incredibly perceptive," he said. "I hope this doesn't come off as corny, but it really helped me be an actor… I was so aware of everything around me… It was so acute that I really was able to jump into other people's skin."

In 2008, Reynolds ran the New York Marathon to raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, whose mission is to find a cure for Parkinson's. His dad's disease prevented Reynolds from ever fully making amends, but he later told the same magazine that he did have one "epic moment" with Jim before he passed in which they "closed the loop" as best they could.

He witnessed 'borderline abuse'

According to Reynolds, his father would turn up for his high school football games come rain or shine, but he never supported his acting. "The acting world, that whole stuff was just so foreign to him," he told GQ. "He would never come to that stuff." Because of his family's lack of interest, Reynolds was worried they would put the blocks on his first acting gig. He was one of 13 kids plucked from a group of 4,000 by Nickelodeon for their teen soap opera Fifteen, but he hadn't told his parents about the audition before attending.

"That was nerve-racking," he admitted. "I was scared they wouldn't let me go. I think I basically sold my parents this bill of goods that it was going to be some kind of Christian reform camp that happened to be a television show." His dad liked the fact that he'd beat out so many other kids and eventually relented, though it didn't turn out to be the dream job Reynolds imagined. He told Variety that he was paid between "$200 to $300 a week" while working on Fifteen, but he saw things on the set that he's never forgotten.

"I learned a lot about preparation, not holding things up, but for some of the kids it was tough," he revealed during his interview with The Guardian. "When they got it wrong they would get belittled. You saw their self-esteem being rocked. I thought that was borderline abuse."

He dropped out of college after just 45 minutes

After he graduated high school, the acting gigs dried up and Reynolds worked two jobs simultaneously to make ends meet, tending a bar during the day and doing the midnight shift at his local Safeway store. Dissatisfied with the way his life was going, he enrolled on a criminology course at Kwantlen College, but he instantly knew it wasn't for him. He lasted less than an hour. "I'm not being facetious," Reynolds told Variety. "I spent 45 minutes in college, and I turned around and said, 'I'm going to drive to L.A. and try to get into the Groundlings.'"

Just as he was preparing to make the move to California, he landed a role as high school jock Jay De Boom in an episode of The X-Files that was being shot in Vancouver, though it did little for his confidence going forward. The episode's director, Rob Bowman, told the aspiring comedian that he was bound to fail if he went south of the border and that he would be better off staying in Canada.

"He told me never to go to Hollywood because I'd never make it there, first and foremost," Reynolds said. "And secondly, that I could have a very small yet profitable career here in Vancouver doing small parts, being hung by the neck by twin witches." Being told to "stay small" was a "crushing moment" for Reynolds, but Bowman's discouraging words only made him all the more determined to move to Hollywood.

He arrived in Hollywood during the great El Niño

In 1997, Reynolds took the plunge and left Vancouver behind for Hollywood, but he did so without telling his parents. When he finally let his family in on where he was and what he'd been doing, the reaction wasn't good. "I called them from a pay phone," he recalled during his first interview with GQ. "I remember it very distinctly. And I told them I was in Los Angeles. I told my father I'd been there for two months. He hung up on me." A lack of support from his family was just the tip of the iceberg at that stage, however.

Things really didn't go as planned for Reynolds when he first arrived in L.A. He didn't get into Groundlings, and to make matters worse, his Jeep was stolen from the parking lot of the motel he was living in. "I found it a couple blocks away with no doors and the stereo gone," he told Variety. "I went through pilot season with no doors on my car. It was the year of El Niño."

Reynolds arrived during the year of "the great El Niño," which battered California with the most extreme rainfall since records began. "For starters I had a van with a missing door," the actor told The Guardian. "Every day was this deluge of rain. I'd have to drive to auditions with a set of clothes in a plastic bag, as everything in the van would get soaked."

Two Guys, a Girl and a Drug Dealer

Reynolds' big break came the following year when he won the part of mischievous medical student Michael "Berg" Bergen in ABC sitcom Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place (1998-2001)In 2016, he told Watch What Happens Live host Andy Cohen (via Entertainment Weekly) that he would sign up for a reunion "in a heartbeat" because he had so much fun making the show, which he credits with giving him the confidence he would need to make it as a movie star.

Two Guys and a Girl (as it was renamed after two seasons) lasted for four years, providing Reynolds with a steady income, lots of experience and summers off. Every year when the show wrapped, he would stuff his backpack and jet off to Europe; sometimes with his friends, and sometimes alone. On one such trip he visited Amsterdam, though his time in the Dutch capital came to a violent end — the 21-year-old actor got into a nasty confrontation with a large Moroccan man after he refused to buy a bag of cocaine from him on a street corner.

After telling the persistent drug dealer to "f*** off," Reynolds was kicked by the man. "I said, 'If you kick me again, I'll break your nose,'" Reynolds recalled. "He kicked me again, and I broke his nose." He had to skip town pretty quickly after the altercation, as the dealer's associates showed up with weapons and chased him through the streets.

He hates the words 'Van Wilder'

After Two Guys and a Girl came to an end, Reynolds took on the title role in the college romp National Lampoon's Van Wilder. The film was hammered by critics but became a cult favorite; it has a critic rating of 19 percent versus an audience score of 73 percent on Rotten TomatoesVan Wilder put Reynolds on the movie map and led to numerous offers, but most of them were in the same vein, which didn't sit well with him.  

"For years after that, I was Van Wilder," he said. "It made me the party guy. I would walk into a bar and people would start lining up the shots. You could sum up my career at that point as a free shot at a bar." He told GQ that he watched a rough cut of Van Wilder before it was released, but hasn't actually seen the theatrical cut. "I know it affected me more than I'm revealing, because I know that I went years without even saying the words 'Van Wilder.' Even now, when I say it, it's a bit of a big moment for me."

Reynolds made a habit of not watching his movies early on in his career, when all he really cared about was getting work. "My objectives were very low when I started," he told The Guardian. "I just wanted to be a working actor, pretend and get paid sometimes… I think my attitude is what's prevented me from becoming a colossal a**hole."

He's had to overcome anxiety

In his 2018 interview with The New York Times, Reynolds revealed that the anxiety he's been dealing with from a very young age still plagues him today. With two Deadpool movies under his belt and an X-Force feature on the way, he's currently at the top of his game, but that doesn't stop him from wanting to throw up when he has to promote them. "I have anxiety, I've always had anxiety," he said. "Both in the lighthearted, 'I'm anxious about this' kind of thing, and I've been to the depths of the darker end of the spectrum, which is not fun."

When he was in his mid-20s, the anxiety got so bad that he needed the help of a therapist to get it under control. His split from his former fiancée Alanis Morissette sent him into one of his dark places, though he eventually came to realize that he wasn't alone. "I think a lot of people reach these kind of psychic speed bumps. I just couldn't see the forest for the trees." After years of taking a "hard-knock" approach to his problem, he decided he needed to change or get swallowed up by it.

"I realized it was time to just effectively light a match to my life and walk away," he said. "And I did that. It's the best thing I ever did." Today, he keeps his anxieties in check using the meditation app Headspace and sometimes does interviews in character, a "great self-defense mechanism."

He isn't naturally muscular

Anyone old enough to remember the Van Wilder poster probably thinks Reynolds has always been stacked, but this isn't the case. A double was used to make him look like he was in great shape, but Reynolds' natural body type is actually pretty slim. He didn't start packing on muscle until he won the part of Hannibal King in Blade: Trinity, the third film and final film in the Wesley Snipes-led vampire trilogy. "It was like a project," Reynolds (who worked out for six solid months in advance) told GQ. "I just did everything they told me to."

The body he built for Blade: Trinity slowly disappeared, but he found that getting there again was a lot easier after that. "It was a strange sort of sleight-of-hand trick I learned," he said. "I could do it again if I needed to and get there faster if I needed to. I have a discipline that has served me very well in my career and in my personal life, and that's gotten stronger as I've gotten older."

The actor was fast approaching his 40s when Deadpool finally got the greenlight, however, and for the first time he felt his body fighting back — he put his back out on the very first day of training. "I'm lying on the floor, it's 6am, the gym's empty and I haven't even got my phone," he said. "I couldn't move, so I literally crawled on all fours, two blocks home."

Green Lantern made him 'unhirable'

Reynolds' fortunes were hit-and-miss in the years following Blade: Trinity. He won acclaim for his work in The Nines, Definitely Maybe and Buried, but for every success, there was a stinker to counter it, with The Amityville Horror, Just Friends, and Smokin' Aces doing little to help his reputation. When Green Lantern came around in 2011, he really needed a big hit to establish himself as a genuine A-list star, though what he got instead was a big mess. "I represented the death of the superhero for a while," Reynolds told Taraji P. Henson as part of Variety's Actors on Actors series (via The Independent). "After Green Lantern, I was pretty much unhirable."

When he was asked what went wrong with the DC adaptation by Yahoo!, Reynolds blamed the script — or lack of it. "Nobody auditioning for the role of Green Lantern was given the opportunity to read the script, because the script didn't exist. I'm not complaining about it. It was an opportunity of a lifetime, and if I were to go back and retrace my steps, I would probably do everything the exact same way."

Reynolds has mocked the movie on several occasions in the years since, both on talk shows and on social media. He didn't pull any punches when it came to poking fun at Green Lantern as Deadpool, either.

Leaked Deadpool footage saved his career

He might have lobbied hard for a decade, but it wasn't actually Reynolds that convinced Fox to move forward with Deadpool — it was the fans. The film only got the green light after test footage leaked online and social media users went nuts. "When the leaked footage got around the internet, it created this enormous groundswell," he told Variety. "I credit Twitter users, Facebook users, and Instagram users for getting this movie made."

He acknowledged that his involvement in the project certainly wasn't helping matters. The failure of Green Lantern was still fresh in the memory, and Fox were hesitant to fund a superhero movie fronted by Reynolds. "Part of the reason Deadpool wasn't greenlit right away was certainly because of me," he said. "If Robert Downey Jr. was playing it, I don't know how much greener a light you can get to make a movie."

So, who actually leaked the footage? For the longest time Reynolds suspected that director Tim Miller was behind it, but he's now convinced that an unknown Fox employee got the ball rolling. "In quiet moments when [Miller] was beyond the point of being penalized by anybody, he said that he really didn't do it," Reynolds told Yahoo!. "The initial [leak] came from Fox, they think — someone recorded the footage on their iPhone and then released it. And then once that happened, somebody hacked into Blur Studios and got the original footage in high-res and put it online."