‘Free Guy’: Joe Keery talks about the heart of this action-packed movie

Utkarsh Ambudkar plays Mouser and Joe Keery stars as Keys in ‘Free Guy.’
Alan Markfield

It’s been a long time coming for the Shawn Levy-directed, action-packed video game film, ‘Free Guy.’

After a delay from the pandemic, audiences will  finally get to see the story unfold in theaters and follow Ryan Reynolds alongside a stellar cast—including Joe Keery. ‘Free Guy’ transports viewers inside the world of Free City, a video game that’s part ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ part ‘Sims’ (if the game involved robbing banks and punching NPCs for points) where he plays a background personality or a “Non-Player Character” inside the game.

Guy (Reynolds) starts to question if there’s more to this world, which he thinks is real. He wakes up every day, he says good morning to his goldfish, he works at the bank, he drinks beers with his buddy (Lil Rel Howery) on the beach after work, and up until the movie starts, that’s all he’s known. His world changes however when he runs into Millie (Jodie Comer), aka Molotov Girl in the game. Comer’s Millie is on a hunt for some information that would help with a lawsuit against the game’s publisher, Antoine (Taika Watiti), who she claims has stolen her code, which was also created by her former best friend and partner Keys (Joe Keery.) It’s that interaction that kickstarts Guy’s transformation from an NPC to a hero by being the “good guy” in a game full of criminals.

Jodie Comer as Milly and Joe Keery as Keys in 20th Century Studios’ ‘Free Guy.’ Alan Markfield

“This is ‘Ready Player One,’ ‘Fortnite’ and ‘The Truman Show’—kind of a combo of all of these movies,” says Keery. “I know Shawn and in all of the projects he’s been involved in, they’ve always had this really nice heart…it’s a combo of the comedy, the action, the romance and the attention to detail with the characters. I was really interested and intrigued with the idea of this one and I just knew Shawn was the right guy to do it.”

Aside from Shawn, who Keery has worked with before on ‘Stranger Things,’ it was the character of Keys that also drew the actor in.

“In the beginning of the movie, he’s kind of in this bad place,” he explains. “He’s disappointed and discouraged and going through these emotions in his life. That felt like a really fun place to start with this character and a really nice springboard for creating a really nice arc. That’s something I’ve always been excited to see, this character really starts in one place and goes [somewhere else]—it gives you a lot of work to do.”

Keys and Millie partnered up to create a video game where the characters would grow and advance, much like human beings. Technically, it’s the first sign of AI life. Millie is set on the fact that since their promising game was bought and shelved by Antoine, he secretly stole their code without giving proper credit and it’s hidden somewhere in ‘Free City.’ Keys at the beginning of the film is working for Antoine’s company and has his reservations about that fact, but through his re-growing relationship with Millie, that fact becomes the driving force behind finding himself again.

“I think it just grounds things,” Keery says when talking about his relationship with Comer’s Millie in the film. “There’s a lot of crazy stuff going on in the game and it’s nice at the center of this plot you have a backbone of this really great friendship between these two characters. Something I didn’t really notice until I ended up watching the film, the leg work that Ryan and Jodie’s relationship does— there is a payoff with Keys and Millie’s character as well. So, it’s kind of cool to make the realization at the end of the day, what it’s all been leading too.”

Alan Markfield

The film is packed full of action, a great soundtrack (be sure to listen for Comer’s rendition of ‘Fantasy’ at the end) and plenty of elements that will hold the audience’s attention. But, it’s the heart of the story, the humanity that really drives it all home. It’s interesting to take a look at a film set in a digital world that deals with some “real-world” problems so successfully. Keery brings up the fact that it was already quite insightful despite being a video game, and the pandemic has fueled that idea even more.

“Sometimes it’s nice have a little bit of distance to criticize what’s going on in the world. I will say, I think going through the pandemic also changed the way that I saw the movie, ” Keery says. “The stuff that Guy is doing—it’s similar. He lives in this crazy world and he’s just a normal person trying to make the right choices…we live in a pretty tumultuous world as well and it’s easy to feel helpless, [like] there is no hope. But, what I liked about the movie is that it has a hopeful take on that story.”

Ultimately, the film brings the world of a video game to life, and the creators wanted it to look as real as possible. To do just that, some of the effects you see aren’t all CGI, some were implemented into filming to make this fantastical story more grounded.

“Doing that sort of stuff requires a lot of imagination and it’s also shot in these little tiny segments and really put together in the edit. It was also my first day really working with Ryan,” says Keery.

In one sequence, he and Utkarsh Ambudkar’s character, Mouser, go into Free City to chase Reynolds, who they believe is a hacker.

“It’s me in this stripper cop outfit and Karsh in his big rabbit outfit shooting oozies and chasing Ryan. There was for sure a part of me questioning: How did I get here…who let me do this? How am I in this movie? But it was a really fun sequence to shoot. I really enjoy the filmmaking process and putting something together. I think it’s a fascinating process and having worked with Shawn before, it was really fun to ask him a bunch of questions: How are we doing this, why are we doing this, what’s the reason we’re doing this? Just to learn as you’re doing it because it is so unique.”

Overall, ‘Free Guy’ shines as an action flick, a romantic comedy, and also a look at humanity itself. That was the plan all along though, and after a pandemic—and while still in the midst of the after effects—it’s more comforting than ever to see.

“I was talking to Ryan and he said ‘Free Guy’ is about video games the same way that ‘Titanic’ is about boating. It’s just a vehicle for the plot at the end of the day. That’s why I think people who aren’t heavily submerged in video games can enjoy it. It’s about relatable characters at the end of the day,” says Keery. “They decided it had to be more about video games…but they had to do it right.”

‘Free Guy’ opens in theaters Aug. 13.