February 08, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST

They say there are no second acts in American lives. But Canada must have worked out a different deal, because 31-year-old Vancouver native Ryan Reynolds is at least on Act 4. He’s been a teen actor (”softly weeping with ex-soap stars” in TV movies) and a sitcom star (Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place). He’s led the frat-dude revolution (Van Wilder, Waiting…) and bathed his abs in blood as an action-schlock hero (The Amityville Horror, Smokin’ Aces). It’s a list of credits that lacks an obvious through-line, unless you count the fact that everyone agrees Reynolds is genuinely charismatic in most things — and most things haven’t been all that good.

But in the past year, a new chapter of Reynolds’ career has begun, one in which he plays the simplest of parts: a grown-up. For last fall’s The Nines — a mesmerizing Sundance indie now on DVD — Reynolds tackled three complex characters, thus planting the seed that, hey, Van Wilder can act. And on Valentine’s Day, he’ll fertilize that notion with Definitely, Maybe, a romantic comedy in which he stars as a New York City divorcé explaining to his daughter (Abigail Breslin) how he met her mother. The story features Rachel Weisz, Isla Fisher, and Elizabeth Banks as the possible candidates; Reynolds’ repartee with each woman could charm the pants off an Eskimo in winter. Suddenly, he’s poised for the wide commercial and critical breakout everyone assumed he’d have ages ago. ”I think Ryan took advantage of these last two years to find some roles that demonstrate he’s quite a good actor,” says Nines writer-director John August. Now, he says, ”it’s the question of ‘Oh, which will finally be the movie that makes a gazillion dollars?”’

To pinpoint where Reynolds found his focus, flag his 30th birthday. ”My entire world turned upside down,” he says. ”It was like I lit a match to my life and walked away.” From a personal perspective, that meant ending his two-and-a-half-year engagement to Alanis Morissette — but it also provoked a sea change in his career choices. ”I don’t regret anything that I’ve done, but I feel like I have a responsibility to myself now that I didn’t before,” Reynolds says. ”I don’t feel like I have get-out-of-jail-free cards.” An indicator of what’s to come? After circling the Justice League franchise, Reynolds now says he won’t be involved. (”It wasn’t for me.”) Instead, his upcoming movies include Adventureland, from Superbad director Greg Mottola, and Fireflies in the Garden, which Reynolds describes as ”a sweet, small movie that happens to have international superstar Julia Roberts in it.” And this spring, he’ll shoot The Proposal, alongside good friend Sandra Bullock. ”He’s an incredibly smart guy, and it was hard for me to reconcile that with some things he’s been in,” confesses Definitely writer-director Adam Brooks, who now makes Tom Hanks comparisons when talking about his star. ”This is the new thing for him: being funny…in a real way.”

Turns out letting some vulnerability seep in was just what Reynolds needed. ”It’s easy to go for a big joke, but sometimes it’s at the cost of your character. I’m learning to not do that.” He didn’t have to go far for the sensitive stuff: ”He has this huge heart,” reports Definitely costar Banks. ”If you’d dated him in high school, he would have gotten you that necklace that said ‘LOVE’ that split in half where he took the ‘LO’ and you took the ‘VE.’ That’s Ryan Reynolds in a nutshell.” Lest you think the dude is home playing with My Little Ponies, bear in mind Reynolds is also a die-hard Philip Roth fan with a talent for conversational profanity who’s ridden his motorcycle across two continents. So, renaissance man, what’s been the best chapter of your life? ”I would be so sad if my answer was anything but the now…. With each movement forward, I’m not losing something from the past, I’m just gaining something else.”

Act 5 starts now.

The opinionated actor shares the commandments by which he lives

1. Keep it in the booth
Reynolds is in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen, mostly so he can vote. Still, the Obama supporter believes, ”When it comes to politics, I think the best medicine is for most celebrities to have a steaming-hot bowl of shut the f— up.”

2. Do a little good
Last summer, he and John August repaired an orphanage in Malawi, a trip that had a profound effect on his snark levels. ”Celebrities going off to the Third World with a photo crew following them around? Great. I don’t care what their motives are. Make people aware of it. Just go.”

3. Always tape up
An avid runner, Reynolds loves watching marathoners compete — except for one thing. ”There really is nothing worse than the men that don’t tape their nipples. I’d rather see a severed torso than see a guy with two circles of blood dripping down his shirt.”

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