Scarlett Johansson is hard to ignore. Under the warm Los Angeles sun, she sits on the terrace of the fabled Chateau Marmont, lunching with Sin City co-director Frank Miller and looking perfect. But Ryan Reynolds – bearded, wearing a wool tam, khakis, trek shoes and a soft cloth sweater over an unmatched T-shirt – sips a latte on the other side of the lawn, undistracted. Reynolds and Johansson’s courtship is all over the tabloids but, for now, they don’t acknowledge each other’s presence.

Reynolds lights what he calls “a horrible little cigarette,” grimacing with self-contempt. “I had quit,” he says, “but then I had to smoke in my last two movies.” He intends to quit again soon, part of his training for the Boston Marathon next spring. A lean 6’ 2”, Reynolds’ 30-year-old body is sculpted by a fitness regimen begun three years ago for his role in the superhero thriller Blade: Trinity and mostly maintained since. Those abs and pipes are fundamental to the Ryan Reynolds we know, whether he’s shirtless and chopping wood in 2005’s The Amityville Horror or shedding his awkward teenage pounds and emerging as a toned music producer in the romantic comedy Just Friends.

For Reynolds, perhaps best known as the victory-lapping goofball from Van Wilder, his physicality figures centrally because he has always played some variation of himself. And so, it is his essential qualities – his body, his smirk, his beard (or lack thereof) – that we remember. This, coupled with the fact that he’s consistently given strong performances in not-so-strong films, has led to an unusual phenomenon: Reynolds the star is much bigger than Reynolds the actor. In other words, he’s more famous than his films. This is partly due to his incessant genre jumping, giving his relationship with fans breadth but not depth. The press, too, has played a role, focusing on his recently ended engagement to Canadian singer Alanis Morissette and his liaison with Johansson. But Reynolds also outshines his achievements because he hasn’t yet found the right part: a sophisticated, multidimensional role that consumes him, where Ryan Reynolds fades out of sight and the character he’s playing is all we see.

That role may have come in The Nines, an ambitious indie film, co-starring Hope Davis and Melissa McCarthy, in theatres this month. The film, directed by John August, who wrote Charlie’s Angels and Big Fish, is built around three divergent story lines that unite into a single narrative. Each star plays three distinct characters; Reynolds is Gary, a TV actor, Gavin, a documentary writer, and Gabriel, a video-game designer. August cast him on the basis of a single lunch meeting. “I saw Ryan in The Amityville Horror,” says August. “Though the film was not fantastic, I could tell he was dedicated to the role. You could see him working his ass off.” The two forged a relationship that allowed August to draw out what may be Reynolds’ best performance yet. (He reportedly did The Nines for scale – about $2,200 per week.)

The Nines premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January to an enthusiastic reception. Though critics have described the film as too complex for mainstream audiences, Reynolds has received high praise, with Variety reviewer Dennis Harvey calling his performance “sensational.” He wrote, “Since it’s long been clear he can do comedy, and it seems his dramatic range is broad as well, the question now isn’t when he’ll become an A-list star, but rather what kind he’ll turn out to be.”

Harvey aptly describes the Nines roles as “a chance like he’s never had before.” What’s remarkable is Reynolds’ choice to seize this chance, eschewing lucrative genre pictures for character-based work. He has a small tattoo on his left wrist that says, “Know Thyself” – “It was about disappointing my parents,” Reynolds says of the nine-year-old decoration – and it’s this self-knowledge that has led him to pursue richer creative dividends than previous films offered. He confides that in several instances he didn’t bother to see the final cuts of some of his movies. He turned down more money than he’d ever seen to appear in the Van Wilder sequel. And whether or not the studios find financing for The Flash, the comic book adaptation to which his name was once attached, Reynolds has lost interest. “I have no desire to wear a red leotard for three pictures over 10 years.”

That move is shrewd, too. By stepping out of himself, he’s likely ensuring the longevity of his career. His celebrity has come easily. Recently named one of People magazine’s Hottest Bachelors and now linked with Hollywood’s hottest babe, Reynolds as Reynolds – as the hero – is far more bankable than Reynolds as a challenging character in a film. But as he ages and his pecs soften, it’s his acting chops that will sustain him. Not that he’s heading down the same path as, say, Steve Buscemi or J.T. Walsh, whose films we remember but whose names we often forget. He is more likely following Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, versatile actors whose ability to play characters made them movie stars. Granted, Reynolds is starting off as a movie star, not an unknown playing a naive college grad in The Graduate or a small-time Mafioso in Mean Streets. Only now, number-crunching studios prefer safer bets like Reynolds, who come with box office credentials and broad appeal. August provides a more contemporary comparison: George Clooney. “I can see Ryan doing what George is doing, moving between both comedy and drama and, at the same time, taking a bigger creative role. But I don’t know if he knows that yet.”

What Reynolds does know is that it’s the process that matters. “I don’t want to invest too much in the outcome,” he says of his upcoming movies. “For me, the crux of the experience is doing the film.” Which is why he can’t lose. There might be a narcissistic or wilful element to some stars’ ascendance, but his climb will have nothing to do with crude ambition; he just wants his day job to be interesting.

If all goes according to plan, this transformation will unfold over the next year. In addition to The Nines, he will feature prominently in three films, all of which stretch his acting ligaments. This fall, he stars in Chaos Theory as an anally retentive husband who discovers that his best friend has fathered his daughter. Then on Valentine’s Day comes Definitely, Maybe, a comedy-drama with Rachel Weisz and Kevin Kline, in which Reynolds plays a political consultant involved in an ugly divorce. Later next year is Fireflies in the Garden, a drama co-starring Julia Roberts and Willem Dafoe, in which Reynolds plays a man reuniting with his estranged father.

“What I really loved about the [Fireflies] script was that nothing was black and white,” Reynolds says, sipping a bowl of pea soup. “It’s complicated. It’s very easy to shuffle the blame one way, but in any strained relationship, responsibility is fifty-fifty.” Fireflies echoes Reynolds’ once troubled relationship with his own father, Jim. “I consider him one of my best friends now,” says Reynolds. “But as a young man, there were definitely moments.”