Keanu Reeves - the wizard Q & A
by Todd Casey
'In his first post-'Matrix' action role, Keanu Reeves goes to hell and back to find the soul of John Constantine.
Dressed in a tar-black overcoat as the sardonic anti-hero John Constantine, Keanu Reeves stabs a cigarette into an overflowing ashtray and stalks towards the narrow passage leading out of the red glow and smoky air of Papa Midnite's barroom office.
After a pack and a half, a dozen or so feigned coughing fits and eight or nine takes from various angles, the veteran actor of over 30 films knows when it's time to take a break - a smoke break.
"We've got a few minutes," says the 39-year-old Reeves, as he breaks out of his Constantine character for the first time in a long morning of shooting this warm December day in Los Angeles. "Let's go."
Stepping out of the dreary, muted lights on set and into the sun-drenched Warner Brothers Studio lot, Reeves snaps out of the brooding Constantine and begins to chat excitedly about his love for Alan Moore's V For Vendetta as he makes his way to his trailer tucked between two immense sound stages.
Reeves trades in Neo's trademark pair of designer sunglasses for a plain shirt and tie - although he can't seem to shed the long coat - as he makes the transition from the ultimate superhero in "The Matrix" trilogy to the sarcastic, brusque anti-hero "Constantine", based on DC/Verigo's long-running Hellblazer series.
With the worldwide success of "The Matrix" trilogy, Reeves could have slipped into any action roll he wanted, so why go from clear-cut hero to gray, cancer-ridden loner?
As a cup of coffee warms in the microwave, Reeves plops down into a chair in his trailer and carefully draws a Camel Light from the pack lying on the table. After taking a slow, measured drag on the cigarette, he's ready to explain.
WIZARD: What makes John Constantine such a cool guy to play?
REEVES: I liked his anger. As an actor, it's fun to play someone who is wounded but fighting. I like his never-give-up attitude and I like his humor, kind of gallows humor.
In the comic, Constantine is a bit of a trickster/con man as well as a magician - is he a little more of one or the other in the film?
He has practical magic. He can cast out demons; he has certain powers that he can use. It has a hard-boiled side to it, there's a mystery afoot. He's definitely less of a trickster and more of a magician. And a con man? [Exhaling a large cloud of smoke] Yeah, he's trying to buy his way into heaven. Is he doing what he's doing because he's altruistic or is he doing what he's doing so he can hustle? You don't know. There's a bit of a con man in there.
So he's a hustler?
He's a hustler. He has an insight into the workings of the world and he just hates it. He hates the hypocrisy. He's also not the nicest guy in the world.
When it comes to hard-boiled, Reeves resembles anything but. Stepping off stage between takes to joke with director Francis Lawrence and various members of the film crew, Reeves' pleasant demeanor serves as a stark contrast to the abrasive recluse he plays in the film. Constantine loses friends by being self-centered and solitary, whereas Reeves' generosity makes him a favorite among those on set. During filming, Reeves picked up the bill to treat the entire cast and crew of "Constantine" to see a special screening of "The Matrix: Revolutions," complete with popcorn and soda. Needless to say, getting into the skin of what was essentially his evil twin took quite a bit of wiggling.
One of the things that you're known for is intense method preparation. What did you do to prepare for the role of John Constantine?
I didn't meet with any exorcists. [Laughs] The world that we've created is kind of a "secular religiousity" is what I call it. We have a kind of Catholic platform that we're using - heaven and hell, sin, possession, demons, half-breeds, God, Satan - but I feel like he's a hard-boiled detective. I was just trying to find the John Constantine within. He's trapped, trying to be free and deal with the consequences of what's happened to him and who he is. I was just trying to find mine and his coming together. I didn't do anything external except look at the architecture of the comic and how Constantine expresses himself, he looks out of the side of his eyes a lot, or has his head cocked sideways with a kind of "what are you doing?" look on his face. And the way he looks at the world, he can see things that other people can't and this guy is very alone. The "friends" he does have are dying every time he gets in contact with them. So it's hard for him to be intmate with anybody. I think he is a lone world character.
So how many cigarettes do you have to smoke in a given day? You lit up about 25 during shooting today.
There've been some days where there have been a lot of cigarettes. Definitely in the 30s and 40s.
You've got DC comics next to you - are you a comic fan?
I was in the past. In the late '80s I was really into X-Men. Wolverine was one of my favorite characters and I liked some of the New Mutants. I liked Daredevil as well. Dark Knight came out when I was reading and that was a revelation. Ronin was also a revelation to me. That really gave me a sense of, "Wow, that was a great comic book."
Did you read the Hellblazer storyline "Dangerous Habits," on which the filming script is loosely based?
[Thumbing through the book] I've read sections, but I looked more towards the script that I had. Most of what I've gotten has come from having a feeling of who Constantine is inside. If you look at some of the panels you can see how he's expressing himself and how he moves. [Cocks his head to the side as he lights up a cigarette, in unconsciously Constantinian fasion] I used the story in the script to work from there.
Aside from Constantine, what's your favorite comic movie?
[Takes a long, thoughtful pull off his cigarette] I don't think I have one. I remember as a kid liking the first "Superman," and then the Tim Burton Batman movies, there was something to them, but I didn't find them satisfying in terms of who I thought Batman was. I thought Val Kilmer was a decent Batman, very dark and twisted.
For such an amiable, good-natured person, Reeves definitely entertains a penchant for the dark and twisted when it comes to his taste in roles. From his parts in Sam Raimi's horror film "The Gift" and the unnerving thriller "The Devil's Advocate" to his role as a serial killer in "The Watcher," Reeves demonstrates his willingness to bring his darkness to light. Sitting amidst the bright white de'cor of his trailer and sipping a Coke, he hardly seems capable of any semblance of evil, but shrouded in a cloud of cigarette smoke on the dreary set of "Constantine," he's absolutely the last guy you'd want to ask for a light.
Constantine frequently walks the line between good and evil. Do you see him as more of a hero or anti-hero?
He's a heroic anti-hero. [Laughs] I think of him as a hero because he's fighting against all odds. I like that he just doesn't quit, he's just like "f--k you all!" One of the lines in the film is: "God has a plan for all of us. I had to die, twice, just to figure that out. Some people like it, some people don't." That, to me, is how I think of Constantine. He's a man who is trying to find his place in the world and come to terms with his life and the circumstances of it. "Some people like it and some people don't" - he's kind of ambivalent.
Will we sympathize with Constantine - or love to hate him?
Hopefully both. There are consequences where he's not the nicest guy. He makes a sacrifice in the end, so hopefully there is something redeeming about him. But he's a hard man to love.
How do you feel about playing a guy like that?
I really love playing him. Again, his humor, his energy, his anger, his ambivalence and the fact that he's trapped. He's hustling for his life, he's dying in the movie - dying of cancer - so he has a clock. He's at a point where he's thinking, "I've got to get into heaven, what do I have to do because I'm not going back to hell." In the story he commmitted suicide when he was a kid, so he's damned and he's trying to get his way out but he doesn't know how.
Is that when he starts to give a s--t? When he realizes he's slowly dying?
Yeah, he's giving more of a s--t. He has a line where he's talking to Gabriel and Gabriel says "you don't believe," and Constantine asks, "What does God want from me?" Gabriel responds, "Faith and belief," and Constantine says "I believe, for Christ's sake!" and Gabriel says, "No, you know." So he's trapped and he's just trying to do what he can do. I just cast a demon out of a little girl, who am I doing that for? He's saying, "Come on, I'm helping you out, can't you help me out?" He's not getting the help.
Reeves, on the other hand, doesn't need any divine intervention to get through the epic battle scenes in "Constantine." After having learned over 200 martial arts moves with hours of hand-to-hand combat for his role in "The Matrix" trilogy, his fighting skills more than qualify him to kick the demons back to hell with hardly a smudge of brimstone on his coat.
Have you beat the holy hell out of any demons?
A character called Balthazar [kills a friend of Constantine's]. Constantine wants revenge, so he puts together this "holy shotgun" made from arcane religious icons that fit together and fire bullets with crosses on them. Earlier, Constantine has been given gold brass knuckles. He confronts Balthazar and Balthazar is beating him up and John slips on the knuckles and starts punching him and punching him and punching him and grabbing him by his tie and he says, [Reeves gets on his feet to re-enact the scene] "Those [punch] were [punch] my [yanking his imaginary oppopent up by the tie] "friends!" And then he punches him bare-knuckled. That was a lot of fun. I just keep grabbing him by the tie and punching him with those holy brass knuckles. It was very "Constantine."
You'll probably never run into Balthazar on Hollywood Boulevard, but do you believe in the supernatural?
Even if I don't, I make sure I don't f--k with it. [Laughs] Better safe than sorry.
Staff writer Todd Casey smoked two packs a day in preperation for his role as Keanu Reeves' interviewer. He calls it 'method smoking'.