BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Free Guy takes a concept we’ve seen before, the character who suddenly realizes he’s living in a simulation, but elevates this idea with the surprisingly nuanced how and the why of the narrative. The film stars wisecracking Ryan Reynolds as a Guy, an NPC or Non Playable Character, who works as a bank teller in a video game called Free City. The game is like Grand Theft Auto where gamers come and let loose whatever carnage they see fit on the city’s peaceful inhabitants, who have learned to blissfully accept this behavior of the players they have dubbed the “sunglasses people.” This is due to the special specs that facilitate the head up display in the game. When Guy falls for a mysterious sunglasses wearing woman (Jodie Comer) one day, this sends our naive NPC down a rabbit hole of enlightenment where he discovers he’s a character in a video game after pulling a pair of reality-shades from a fallen player.
Where things actually get interesting here is when we discover that the A.I. in the game, which is the reason for Guy’s awakening, was possibly stolen from a pair of estranged programmers. One of them is trying to prove their claim against the company who released Free City and the other one works for them. While the film delivers on the Ryan Renold’s PG-13 family friendly ad libbed raunch as you’d expect, it’s the story outside of the game of the pair of creators who are united by their creation that really drew me in. One of these devs is played by actor/musician Joe Keery, who is probably best known as Steve in Stranger Things. As Walter “Keys” McKeys in Free Guy he delivers a much more subdued character than we are used to, showing a new side of the young actor I didn’t expect. I really dug Free Guy and earlier this week I got to chat with Joe via Zoom, not only about this film and em>Stranger Things of course, but also his music and a little indie he did about a homicidal Uber driver in Spree.
PHAWKER: So you shot Free Guy two years ago. What was your 2020 like? I know you’ve been busy making music and I know you just finished a season of Stranger Things, as well.
JOE KEERY: Yeah, I mean, we were shooting season four of the show, right when everything had shut down. So we shot for about three months, took a break from about March to September and then kind of started shooting in September until we finished quite recently. So you know, I was really lucky to have something to do and some work to slip my mind towards, to do something in my downtime. I was just focused on doing music and trying to stay creative and kind of like everyone else doing a lot of cooking. I think like everybody else in the world I baked some bread.
PHAWKER: So your song “Keep Your Head Up” was a gift in 2020. I can’t wait for the rest of the new album, any update?
JOE KEERY: Yeah, no, I just finished obviously the show and so now I’m going to kind of shift focus to that, and hopefully sooner rather than later. It’s something that I really love to do and enjoy in my downtime and feel pretty lucky that people are down with it and into it. So I’ll keep cooking it if you guys keep listening to it, I guess.
PHAWKER: So I really dug both your previous films Spree and Slice, and I started to notice looking at your filmography you sort of pick these roles in films that have these social messages embedded in them. Even Free Guy. There’s interesting stuff underneath the veneer there for people that want to dig deeper. What do you look for as an actor when you’re reading scripts? Like what are you looking for that sort of your feelers go up where you’re like, I want to do this project?
JOE KEERY:That’s a really tough question. You know, I’m still pretty, pretty early on in my career. It’s kind of hard to say what really intrigues you. Usually it’s doing something that’s a lot different than the thing that I had just previously done and then it’s just kind of a gut gut feeling, really.
I remember reading Spree and thinking it was an amazing commentary and it was kind of risky, but then meeting Eugene, the director of that movie, I felt like he was the guy for the job and had the movie inside him. It’s really just about putting faith in the director that you’re working with every time it’s kind of a little bit of a roll of the dice, but that’s what makes doing these projects so fun. I guess the only thing that I’ve realized is that you have to do projects that you’re passionate about, and if you’re not passionate about it, you know, it’ll show. So luckily I’ve been able to work on things, like Free Guy, where I’m just really passionate about the story and the people that I’m working with.
PHAWKER: So what was it like switching the kind of the character dynamic up and playing a game designer who’s more in line with the lovelorn nerd Dustin in Stranger Things rather than Steve? Was it a different mindset or like, what was it like for you internally?
JOE KEERY:It’s a lot of fun, really just a different challenge. I think that’s something that I’m always looking for, job to job is just to do something that’s kind of different. I get to play this kind of aloof, confident, maybe not the brightest crayon in the box character on Stranger Things and to play a much more intelligent character, but somebody who doesn’t really have a lot of confidence was a fun challenge.
PHAWKER: Free Guy is all about video games. Are you a gamer at all?
JOE KEERY:I mean here and there. I mean, I played Pokemon as a kid. I played some in N64 as a kid, played a few here and there, not a ton of online gaming. So I had to do some work there. But I have a pretty good understanding of the video game community.
PHAWKER: Speaking of which, games and technology are things folks tend to be really passionate about, and getting something wrong can definitely impact how people perceive your performance. What kind of research did you do prior to shooting the film with your character Keys who’s a game designer?
JOE KEERY: The research I did was based more around the world building side, because I think that’s kind of what Keys is at the end of the day, he’s a world builder at heart. I really enjoyed how at the top of this movie, he had kind of gone through this heartbreak with him and Millie, who he had worked so hard with to create this game. They sell it to this company and to Antoine, played by Taika Waititi, and then the game is shelved and he ends up just working at this dead end job at Antoine’s company.He starts in this kind of depression, and then his character really kind of goes through this journey in parallel to Guy and that was something that was appealing to me about the character.
PHAWKER: Speaking of Waititi, what was it like filming your scenes with Taika? Because it seems like there was a bit of improv in his performance. Was the script the gospel, or was there more improv scene to scene?
JOE KEERY: He is a mad genius, man. I really was looking forward to working with him. He’s a writer, director, and actor. I love his movies, love his shows and that’s kind of what he does on set. I mean, he’s kind of directing, writing, acting all at the same time. Shawn (Levy) said out somewhere out there, there was like a 39-minute blooper reel of just only improv stuff that was not scripted. No, he doesn’t have any fear. He’s not afraid to fail. He’s just got a lot of confidence and that can be difficult as a performer when you’re on the spot, but it was amazing watching him work and being around and being able to do the scenes with him. Yeah, generally we would get what was on the page and then, yeah, Shawn would just let him run wild.
PHAWKER: Finally I have to ask, can you tell us what we can expect from the next season of Stranger Things
JOE KEERY: I can’t say much, but I can say that in the next season… [Joe acts like the sound is out on the Zoom Call as he mouths words without actually saying anything]
JOE KEERY: I just finished my own work for the season, so I’m officially wrapped after a very long shooting process, which was tough for everybody. Just given the circumstances of the world, obviously, but these guys, the Duffer brothers, have poured their hearts and their souls, their entire lives into this show. They do not take a break. They do not take a vacation. They are constantly either writing, editing, or directing this show for the past five years, since it came out and they’ve been working tirelessly to bring this new season to everybody. I just think that they are such visionary guys and I still can’t quite fathom how I got linked with these guys and in this show. So personally, this is the season I’m most looking forward to seeing just because it’s been such a long process and the script I think is pretty different and has a really large scope. So I believe it will be worth the wait, like I usually say, but not much more I can say.
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