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SAN FRANCISCO—For Ryan Reynolds it’s a timing thing.


With the starring role in three major films this year - including “Definitely, Maybe” in theaters, Thursday - the 31-year-old Vancouver native says he’s happy to shift from playing the quirky funny guy to being a leading man.


Not that he was in any sort of hurry for the change, mind you.


Reynolds, relaxing over a bottled water in the bar inside San Francisco’s Four Seasons hotel, insists he wasn’t rushing toward this particular marquee moment.


“You see that happen to (some) guys - they wake up and one day they’re on the cover of GQ and then the expectations and the bar have been set so high,” Reynolds says. “I’m so glad this wasn’t an overnight success sort of thing.”


Later this year, filmgoers will see Reynolds in “Chaos Theory” with Emily Mortimer and “Fireflies in the Garden” with Julia Roberts. In 2009, he’ll star in “The Proposal” with Sandra Bullock.


Although Reynolds has acted for nearly two decades, playing everything from an FBI agent (“Smokin’ Aces”) to a murderous, possessed dad (“Amityville Horror,”), the actor says he tried not to rely on his experience for “Definitely, Maybe.”


Instead, he explains, his character needed to be vulnerable and naive.


“Definitely, Maybe” is the story of Will, a 30something political consultant on the verge of a divorce, who tries to explain to his 10-year-old daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) how he came to meet and marry her mother.


Told mostly in flashback, the film becomes something of a romantic whodunit as Maya tries to guess which of her father’s loves - played by Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Banks and Rachel Weisz - ended up as his soon-to-be ex-wife.


And because “romance is often a blood sport,” Reynolds decided to tap into his character’s youth and naivete.


“I saw Will as someone who was genuinely open, vulnerable - qualities I thought were really beautiful,” he says.


Still, Reynolds adds, the film’s romantic storyline is just part of “Definitely, Maybe’s” appeal.


“It’s also this love letter to broken homes,” he says. “I was so moved by the journey Will takes with his daughter - not just to heal himself but to prepare for what’s going to be a pretty rough road ahead. It brought me to tears when I was reading the script.”


Digging into Will and his motivations proved to be challenging in ways Reynolds says he never even expected.


“I have a tendency to want to play around a lot - to spin a line or throw in a funny jab,” he says. “But if I start doing that then suddenly (Will) seems incredibly knowing and sarcastic when he’s really supposed to be idealistic.


“I really just had to bite my tongue and allow myself to rely on a time when I was that naive.”


This exercise in restraint, he adds, allowed him to step out of the spotlight - for the better of the film.


“I’ll let the girls be funny,” he says. “Isla Fisher is hilarious - (she) can steal the movie, I’m just here to tell the story.”


Reynolds calls the Australian-born actress, best known as Vince Vaughn’s sex-crazed love interest in “Wedding Crashers” (and, perhaps, also as Sacha Baron Cohen’s real-life fiancee), “incredible” and a “joy to work with.”


“People think of her as just being this wacky and insane comedian but she’s so touching and there’s a depth to her that’s bottomless,” he says.


“I’d love to do every movie with her for the rest of my life - we just hit it off and it was like fireworks.”


Reynolds calls such chemistry “impossible” to fake. Whatever happens off screen carries over onto film, he says, and it’s better to work with it than against it.


That same philosophy applied to his relationship with Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”).


“I decided early on that whatever our dynamic was (off screen) would go into the film - even if that meant she loathed me.”


Luckily, Reynolds says, the pair got along just fine with a relationship built on a solid foundation of goofing off.


“There was always a subtle competition - Abigail loves to compete to see who can tell the best joke or who could win in a dance competition - it’s just totally adorable.”


Reynolds hopes to ignite onscreen chemistry in his upcoming films with Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock and Emily Mortimer.


Until then, he continues to wind through the movie publicity machine, for “Definitely, Maybe.”


It’s possible, Reynolds muses, that this Hollywood acting thing might finally stick - surely a relief after earlier, hardscrabble days when he lived in a cheap L.A. motel with a friend and drove his Jeep around town, doorless, after the car was stripped by thieves.


The actor, who’s admitted to nearly quitting the business out of penniless frustration, says he’s content with his current spot in the Hollywood star system.


“I feel like a newcomer again (but) it hit me the other day that I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he says.


Ultimately, he says, it’s not so much about marquee value or box office sales.


“I’m just ready for the challenge of taking on more dynamic roles,” he says. “If I surprise a viewer, fantastic - if I surprise myself, that’s even better.”

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