Martin Delaney on Playing Unsung Tech Visionary Robert Ryan in ‘The Man Who Saved the Internet With a Sunflower’: ‘It’s an Icarus Story’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Actor Martin Delaney has stepped into the shoes of a tech visionary in the new film “The Man Who Saved the Internet With a Sunflower.”

Delaney portrays Robert Ryan, the founder of Ascend Communications who played a crucial role in the early days of the internet. The film has already garnered critical acclaim, recently winning the Competition Features Audience Award at the Dances With Films festival.

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The film chronicles Ryan’s journey from humble beginnings to becoming a key player in Silicon Valley during the 1980s and ’90s. It focuses on Ryan’s development of the “pizza box” modem, which revolutionized internet access by offering faster speeds at half the price of competitors. This innovation allowed struggling internet service providers to stay afloat and ultimately led to Ascend’s meteoric rise in the tech industry, culminating in its sale to Lucent Technologies for $24 billion in 1999.

“I was intrigued by Rob’s story,” Delaney tells Variety. “I hadn’t heard about his exit from Ascend or how much the company sold for in the ’90s. I was flabbergasted that I had not heard about his story, and how integral he was to changing the tide, really, of how we use the internet and technology. It’s an Icarus story in a way — a man reaching for the sun and losing sight of those closest to him.”

To capture Ryan’s essence, Delaney conducted extensive research, including several Zoom calls with the real Ryan and listening to his podcast. “I wanted to capture his drive and passion for getting what he believed in over the line,” Delaney says. He also worked with a voice coach to nail Ryan’s New York accent, which becomes slightly more blue-collar in angry moments.

Physically, Delaney put on some weight and wore oversized ’80s and ’90s clothing to more closely resemble Ryan during that era. The actor also studied Ryan’s background, including his physics, math and philosophy education at Cornell, which informed the character’s unique problem-solving approach.

The film, directed by Emil Ben-Shimon and Ori Yardeni, explores the personal cost of Ryan’s ambition, and also his relationship with his partner Terry. Delaney notes, “The reality is, the real Rob, looking back on his career, was an incredible people manager. In our film, to raise the stakes, he’s a little bit more chaotic and clumsy. His drive sometimes came with a cost in the way he communicated with people.”

Delaney hopes audiences will be entertained while learning about an unsung figure in tech history. “There’s also a cautionary element about the unregulated world we’ve opened up with the internet,” he adds. “I hope people think about what it means now that we’ve opened this Pandora’s box into an accessible world that isn’t regulated or necessarily interested in protecting our youth.”

The actor’s career spans various notable projects. He appeared in Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers” and had a role in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty.” More recently, Delaney was part of the cast of “Catch-22,” the miniseries adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel, directed by George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Ellen Kuras.

“I’ve been blessed to work with some people over the years that I really admire,” Delaney says. He spoke highly of his experience on “Catch-22,” praising the directors’ succinct and charismatic approach. “They trusted us as performers but gave us that crucial direction at the right time.”

Delaney also mentions ongoing discussions about potentially rebooting “Renford Rejects,” the Nickelodeon football show that launched his career 25 years ago. The series, which became something of a cult classic, featured Delaney as the cocky captain of a youth football team and even included an early appearance by James Corden.

“That’d be quite fun to maybe revisit that in some way,” he says. “Who knows? I’m certainly open to the idea of it and I know that there’s a lot of discussion.”

“The Man Who Saved the Internet With a Sunflower” is preparing for a wider release.

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