Movie of the week
Pros and Constantine
by Fred Topel
Keanu Reeves has been fighting typecasts ever since he found success with the Bill and Ted franchise. No matter how many dramatic roles he plays, everyone always thinks of him as an excellent dude. The typecast doesn't phase him. In past interviews, he has said he loves the Bill and Ted legacy. He just continues to search for challenging parts to hone his craft.
"I think of it as, and I've heard Anthony Hopkins say this, you learn it by doing it," Reeves said. "It's like painting, I would imaging. The craft of it, the skill of it, the way that you work the pain [is like] the way that you can act. The more you do it, the more you know it, and for me, it's what I love. A good day on the set, creating the work, the piece, the collaboration, expressions, is a hoot. I love it. I love it. And hopefully it will continue."
Reeves' Constantine director, Francis Lawrence, was baffled that Reeves could now carry two typecasts, Bill and Ted and The Matrix, when those roles were so diametrically opposed. "I think a lot of of actors carry the baggage of past roles with them, but because he was so strong in a sense in Bill and Ted's, he just carries that with him," Lawrence said. "And he became that guy. He became Neo. They are nothing alike. You carry that with you and I think that's part of it, but I have no idea why that happens. The reaction to him is so sort of polarized it's just amazing."
Costar Shia LaBeouf was most impressed when his misconceptions about Reeves were disproved on the set of Constantine. "I had preconceived notions when I walked in the door," LaBeouf said. "He's just the whoa guy or the guy in Speed. But the truth is he has one of the most elaborate resumes and has worked with the best actors in this business. When I first met him, the reason my whole notion changed was that I have never seen anyone prepare like Keanu in my life. Jon Voight is my mentor and doesn't prepare like Keanu. Keanu really, really prepared. We sat down at rehearsals and there were four or five journals and you're thinking they are the writer's journals and then Keanu sits there and opens them all up and each one is labeled, Cancer Book, Latin, Philosophy, Spirituality. He researches everything and he is so prepared. Also very hard on himself and a really intense actor he's so un-jaded for a person who is in so many films he still works on films like it's his first movie."
Reeves himself downplayed the research aspects of his preparation. "In the process for me, it's writing things down, thoughts for working on the role," Reeves said. "I wasn't carrying around The Path of the Peaceful Warrior in that sense. I think the film speaks for itself in a way, and that's really what I was working on. If I had anything that was like that, it was a script called Constantine and the journey that character takes, learning about this kind of curse that was given to him as a kind. 'A gift', another character says, but Constantine doesn't see it quite like that. I think part of the journey is Constantine understanding his life and the circumstances, and he comes to a kind of ambivalent peace of sorts. So really in a way it was the script, and we were all part of that."
If Constantine does not resonate with you the way Superman or Spider-Man do, don't worry. Even star Keanu Reeves was not familiar with the comic book character. The film is based on the Hellblazer series and named after the lead character, John Constantine. Reeves plays the supernatural detective who can see demons and angels. He exorcizes those that try to cross over into our world, all the while trying to buy himself a place in heaven.
"When I read the script and then familiarized myself with the work, I saw that what was important was really the essence of Constantine," Reeves said. "That kind of hard-edged, hard-boiled, world-weary, cynical, fatalistic, nihilistic, self-interested [guy] with a heart. And I think we did. I hope so. I hope that fans of the comic don't feel that we sabotaged something that is so well loved."
The script arrived on Reeves' slate while he was filming the Matrix sequels in Sydney, Australia. After he agreed to the project, it was still more than a year and a half before shooting began. During that time, Reeves worked with director Francis Lawrence and producer Akiva Goldsman on the script's portrayal of spirituality.
"In terms of my impact, the spirituality is a word that I really don't feel is something to apply to Constantine. And if it is, then it's very humanistic, more flesh and blood somehow than spiritual. I feel like some kind of flesh and blood aspect of it... I feel that you're watching the character who's dealing with something that happened to him that he didn't understand. He was given this curse or this gift to be able to see the world beyond the world. And in despair as a young man overwhelmed, he takes his own life and he goes to hell, comes back from hell, he has no idea why. And I think that search of his trying to orient like, [looks up to God] 'Hey fella, I'm doin' all this world, what are you doing to me?' and with people."
Many of Reeves' films have had religious themes, as overt as Little Buddha and as metaphorical as The Matrix. With John Constantine representing another saviour of mankind, Reeves still down-plays the religious aspects of the story.
"I think of it as a kind of secular religiosity. The piece itself is using icons and a platform in a kind of catholic heaven-and-hell, God-and-the-devil, fighting for human souls [story]. but I find that the piece itself, Constantine is still a man trying to figure it out. In terms of the other roles, I think that those kinds of journeys, a hero journey, these are all kind of seeking aspects of that hopefully have something of value to our lives, that we can take with us. And hopefully, the works are entertaining and are journeys that I think all of us, especially in western traditions, relate to. I think these motifs of seeker, messiah, of anti-heroes, heroes... all of these aspects are journeys that I think deal with things that we deal with in our day-to-day in a way, and are entertaining. They offer up [questions of] where do you come from, what are you fighting for?"
When asked about his own religious beliefs, Reeves preferred not to discuss. "It's something I think very personal and it's something that is private. Like I said earlier, it is something obviously that is to my taste, but in terms of any specific denominational aspect of that I would rather not touch upon it personally, thank you."
The romantic side of Constantine emerges when he helps Angela Dodson [Rachel Weisz] solve her twin sister's suicide. Only he can help her see the cosmic forces that drove her sister insane. Because of those forces and their places in the balance, Constantine and Dodson can never quite connect, though they try.
"It's one of those things you can see in the couple that it can be there, and yet it can't be there because it's not the time or place," Reeves said. "So there's a bit of a filmmaker conceit to it, but I think it's part of the enjoyment of the piece, I hope. It's almost like the same thing as an editing choice. Hopefully, it's enjoyable and it's something that I think is in the relationship. They can't kiss so they kind of don't kiss but they want to kiss. And at the end of the film they do say that they have an interest in seeing each other again, so it's romantic in that sense."
It may be hard to get snuggley when you're being drowned by your love interest. Weisz is on the receiving end of a bathtub struggle in a scene where Constantine is taking Dodson to the edge of death so that she can get a glimpse into hell.
"That was quite scary," Weisz said. "That wasn't CGI. That was me under the bath and the water being held down. The director wanted it to look as real as possible so he told Keanu, in front of me. 'Don't go easy on her,' So it was scary. I mean. I had a signal which I think was tap him on the arm, but it was very hard for him to tell because I was thrashing about so much what was tapping and what was thrashing. I think he just knew when it was enough and I had to come. After like a minute and a half, no one's doing too well without breathing."
Dodson has some undeveloped psychic powers of her own, and to research that aspect of the character, Weisz met a real life psychic. Or at least, a practicing psychic. "I actually met her through somebody I know here in LA who's quite deep into that culture. I believe that she believes that she's psychic, this woman that I met. I don't know. I can't prove it. In doing research, if you meet someone who really is who you're pretending to be, I steal. I just steal from them so I ask them questions about their childhood and about what it feels like to have a vision, what it feels like to have sight and how it's a burden, how it's a blessing and what it's like to have a boyfriend and you can read their mind. I just ask them all the question. Somehow I just steal from them, so when I'm playing the character, I've just gotten stolen good from somebody else and it's research. Like detective work. So did I believe? I believed that that was her reality. A ghost has never revealed itself to me. I'm pretty in tune with people. I can normally get a sense of what the vibes are in the room, but I can't read somebody's mind."
Since her character is also a police officer, Weisz did double research. "I trained with this ex-SEAL and amongst the LAPD he was a hero. I mean, we'd walk into police stations and the whole room would just stand up and applaud him. He was the man. He's now training people in movies and doing personal security for really big Hollywood stars, but he gave me kind of a crash course in being a copy and introduced me to a lot of female officer, like I met a few days with a female homicide detective. He took me to the LA County Morgue. I spend an evening there which was very intense and a very new experience. I'd never seen dead bodies before and I saw hundreds that night. And he took me in police cars at night and taught me to fire a gun at the firing range, yeah. I love to do all that stuff. I got to do cops and psychics in this. It was a complete research fest."
LaBeouf plays Constantine's driver, Chas. Chas just waits in the car while Constantine exorcises the demons, but La Beouf was happy to play a sidekick as a stepping stone into more serious work. "It's different than I'm used to," he said. "It's a rated R film which is different for me. I don't know if a lot of my audience will be able to see it which I don't understand why because most of my audience are young, but they go home and play Grand Theft Auto until six in the morning anyways. It doesn't make any sense... I don't think I'm pushing my audience away at all."
With no powers of his own, Chas represents the film's audience. "He's not the narrator, but he is definitely the most human of all the people in the film. He's the only one that doesn't have this power connection with the other world. So yeah, he feels very human. I definitely think a lot of people, kids and adults will connect with Chas because they don't have that power or connection with the other world, so I definitely feel that he is an inclusive character.