Ryan Reynolds goes for the gold as an unlikely heroic attorney

March 25, 2015

During a break from shooting his upcoming X-Men spinoff, “Deadpool,” Ryan Reynolds — once dubbed People magazine’s “sexiest man alive” and called “ridiculously handsome” by The Hollywood Reporter — recalled how he came to star in Simon Curtis’ Holocaust-themed film, “Woman in Gold.”

“I was shooting ‘Mississippi Grind’ in Alabama about a year ago, when I got a call from Harvey Weinstein,” the 38-year-old actor said in a telephone interview from New York. “He said, ‘Hey, Reynolds, it’s yah lucky day,” Reynolds recalled, perfectly mimicking Weinstein’s gravelly New York accent.  

Weinstein went on to make Reynolds an offer he couldn’t refuse: to star in “Woman in Gold” as Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, the descendant of Austrian Jews, in the true story of how the neophyte lawyer risked everything to help the Viennese Holocaust survivor Maria Altmann retrieve five Klimt paintings that had been stolen from her family by the Nazis.  “I did realize it was my lucky day,” said Reynolds, who soon signed on to the project.

Around that time, the actor had come off of a string of box office flops, including the superhero flick “Green Lantern” and the comedy “The Change-Up”; he also was determined to change the course of his career.

“I developed a bit of a personal mandate, which was to do projects and stories that I wanted to do, rather than things I felt like I should do,” he said. “It was no longer going to be, ‘I should do this movie because it’s big.’ ”

While continuing to make studio films, he also accepted intriguing roles in independent films such as “The Voices” and now “Woman in Gold,” in which he eschews his pretty-boy image to portray the bookish, bespectacled Schoenberg — prompting one reporter to label the actor’s transformation as “geek chic.”

“This film is not a vanity project,” Reynolds said. “It’s not about me. It’s about telling an important story, because there are very few movies out there that have such a painfully clear theme of justice.”

At a press conference at the Berlin International Film Festival, where “Woman in Gold” premiered earlier this year, a participant reportedly asked Reynolds, essentially, how it felt to portray a character who possesses neither superpowers nor his by now expected trademark hunkiness. “I never approach a role where I’ve thought, ‘How am I going to come across sexy?’ ” Reynolds said in our interview. “But I’ve played superheroes who are less powerful than Randy Schoenberg. A character who can fly around the Earth or stop a speeding train is part of a fantastic and unrealistic world. But a guy who can apply every cell in his body to an almost unattainable [real-world] objective and achieve it like Randy did — that’s a true superpower. … Randy is a person who feels greatly, but at the same time, he’s a warrior — a quieter warrior, but that’s exactly what he is.”

Yet the actor said he deliberately did not meet Schoenberg in advance of the shoot, in part “because he’s not a ubiquitous character in the popular culture, and I have a horrible habit of mimicry. And also because I wanted to really listen to the story as told in the script.”

In the film, the character of Schoenberg is depicted as being somewhat disconnected from his Jewish roots and his family’s tragic fate in the Shoah; the change comes after the fictional Schoenberg visits the Holocaust memorial in Vienna.  “He reaches critical mass in that moment — it sucker-punches him in a way he did not expect,” Reynolds said. “He suddenly feels the place where his great-grandparents were murdered and the emotion comes over him like a tidal wave.”

Reynolds’ “Woman in Gold” character is the first Jewish role the Catholic-reared actor has undertaken, and, he said, “I hope it won’t be my last.” Even so, at least two critics so far have questioned his casting by remarking that the actor hardly looks Jewish (one went so far as to say he looks like a “goy”).

Reynolds bristled at the observations. “Those sorts of remarks, especially when you’re applying them to a film, are ignorant,” he said. “What does a Jewish person look like? I personally don’t walk around the world, run into a person and think, they’re definitely Jewish or gentile. … To me, that’s just a trivial thing to take on.”

The actor prefers to focus on the fictional Schoenberg’s spiritual odyssey:  “Randy gets in touch with his history and his roots in a very real way that at first overwhelms him,” Reynolds said. “At the beginning of his journey, the character thinks, ‘If I can just win this case, I’ll get a lot of money and it will change my life.’ But the money aspect becomes insignificant; the case becomes about so much more than that.” 

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