Interview with Constantine actor, Keanu Reeves
Reeves riffs on Heaven and Hell
by Staci Layne Wilson
Q: How familiar were you with the Hellraiser comic books and how did you feel about some of the changes like the change in setting from England to the U.S.?
KR: I wasn’t familiar with the character before I read the script. When the script came to me it had already changed to American so I didn’t know that. When I started doing research I found that out, but the important part is the essence of Constantine and we worked really hard to keep that aspect of it because that’s what it is all about. He is a hard-edged, hard-boiled, world weary, cynical, fatalistic, nihilistic, self-interested guy with a heart. I think we did it. I hope fans of the comic don’t feel we sabotaged something so well loved.
Q: Other cast members say you kept a lot of journals dealing with the spirituality, can you talk about some of your research?
KR: They have no idea what they are talking about. The process for me is just writing down thoughts and working on the role. I wasn’t carrying around the path of the peaceful warrior in that sense. I think the film speaks for itself and that is what I was working on. It was mainly about the script and the journey the character takes learning about the curse, or gift, he was given in his youth. Part of the journey is Constantine understanding his life and the circumstances and he comes to an ambivalent peace of sorts.
Q: Your character smokes a lot in the movie, how much did you actually smoke?
KR: Too much. It’s a character trait of the character. He’s dealing with a lot and it’s a tool to help numb himself. I smoke, myself.
Q: Is it important for you to mix and match big roles with small ones?
KR: I’ve been fortunate to be able to do different kinds of roles on different scales and that is important to me. Sometimes you don’t want to play the hero, you want to play something else in another genre. I’ve been trying to do that in my career and I hope to continue that. There is a joy in the diversity of roles.
Q: This seems to be your deepest foray into a religious themed film. How much does the religious theme of this resonate with you?
KR: With Constantine, I think of it as a secular religiousness. The piece uses icons in a Catholic platform with heaven and hell and god and the devil, but I was hoping these concepts could become more humanistic that are hopefully relatable. It’s a man trying to figure it out. With the other roles, I think the hero journey or Siddhartha is a seeking that has some value to our lives. I think all of us in western traditions relate to the seekers and messiahs and heroes and anti-heroes. We all deal with that day to day and they are entertaining. I think they are worthwhile. Myth telling and story telling is always couched in this kind of engaging, entertaining manner, whether it’s a shadow play or a circle and a story teller. It’s all the same.
Q: You have an amazing resume at this point. What do you get from acting now?
KR: I really love it. It’s my craft. When I was 15 I asked my mother if I could be an actor and she said whatever I want. Three weeks later I was in acting school. I heard Anthony Hopkins say this, you learn it by doing it. It’s like painting I imagine. The craft of it and skill of it, the more you do it the better you get. For me it’s a love. A good day on the set collaborating for me is a hoot. I love it and hopefully I will continue.
Q: You have that great line in the film where you tell another character you have to ask for forgiveness. Do you think repentance is something he needs to do?
KR: Repentance. I think the aspect of repentance is born and expressed in his final act when he calls Lucifer, Lou. That is his repentance and sacrifice and is what gives him the shot of going to heaven. There is also the twist where you wonder whether he means it, but he does, the man upstairs knows everything.
Q: At what point in your research did you feel you finally know the character?
KR: I really enjoyed the character, but in terms of embodying it I worked with costumers and we tried on things and there were options. I found a jacket and shoes and it felt right. Then you go to rehearsals in costumes and it starts to feel connected and natural. When it feels right it is great. I knew his core, but I had to work on it. I lowered my voice and worked with the director and looked at the comic book and his deadpan humor. It kind of happened just a couple of days before we shot. The exorcism was the first scene and that helped a lot. I had to walk over and get on the bed and when I figured that out I felt like I had it.
Q: Can you talk about your kissing scenes with Rachel and creating that sexy tension?
KR: It’s for fun. You can see that in the couple that it can be there and yet it can’t be there because it’s not the time or place. I think it’s part of the enjoyment off the piece, it’s like an editing choice like when the car hits the men and you see the spirit of destiny. They want to kiss, but they can’t kiss, and at the end of the film they do say they want to keep seeing each other.
Q: After the Matrix, how do you feel about this possibly becoming another franchise film?
KR: My contract didn’t have a second film in it, but we all fell in love with this thing and I had a great time so we were talking about what happens next, is he a heroin addict in Morocco? We had other ideas, but ultimately it’s up to the audience whether the studio would put up the money for another one. I would love to do another one as long as it’s the same crew. Trilogy? Why stop there? We can have Son of Constantine! We’ll know two weeks after it opens. We won’t be able to afford Francis next time though.
Q: What changed your mind about working with a video director originally?
KR: That came from an uneducated bias. When they first came to me I thought the film had such a strong narrative. In the past I have been weary of video directors, but then I saw a few reels and I saw Francis’ reel and he had a classicism to him and a narrative impulse in the way he treated the performers in his videos. They were telling a story or revealing something about their characters. When I met him he had his concepts and we spoke for two hours and walked out of there eager to work with him.
Q: What attracted you to this character that you’d give a year of your life for this?
KR: I first got the script when I was in Sydney working on the Matrix and I really enjoyed it. From my first reading of the script to shooting was over a year and a half. In terms of choices it’s good to have a variety, but I said yes while I was making the Matrix. I didn’t think I was repeating myself, it felt different. Constantine is a very extraverted role. It’s a great script and idea and character.
Q: Is it true you guys played ping-pong games between takes?
KR: It was just one. Francis Lawrence gave me a ping-pong table with Constantine written on it. Simon said he was really good at the game, and he was. That was the only real recreation we had as a cast though. We all got along really well and there was great enthusiasm from the crew to the cast, which I think is a testament to the material we were working on.
Q: Did you have input into the spirituality of the character?
KR: I had some great times working with Francis and Mr. Goldsman. Spirituality is a word I don’t think applies to Constantine, he is more humanistic. There is more of a flesh and blood aspect. There is a line, ‘I guess there is a plan for all of us and I had to die twice to figure that out, like the book says, he works his works in mysterious ways, some people like it, some people don’t.’ That is my line and that sums up where Constantine ends up. There is still that ambivalence, but there is that acknowledgement that he doesn’t understand it. He takes his life and he goes to hell, he comes back and he doesn’t know why.
Q: Do you think acting is a vehicle to affect the world in a positive way?
KR: (laughs) Yes, in my art! I am making up for what I do in life! I’d like that aspect in the work that I do because it’s what I enjoy in art. I think to go see a film and be entertained, and I don’t mind playing a negative part like in The Gift because it’s part of a story about grief and about dealing with it. I don’t want to go to a movie and watch assholes for two hours! Pedophilia? Thanks. I know we are fucked up, but I don’t want to see that, unless it’s something really cool like Anime, but even at the end of those they have transformation. If it doesn’t have a positive element to it, it won’t attract my interest and it’s not worthwhile for me.
Q: Did you have any big physical things you had to do instead of a stunt person?
KR: When Constantine gets punched by the demon and he goes flying backwards, I had to do that. My stunt double told me when I land to not fight it. When I launched I almost go out of frame and I’m glad he gave me that information. There was some wirework and I did that roll in the street. It was pretty basic stuff, but it was fun. I like fake fights because it’s part of the story. Rachel had to do the heavy work in her scene. We shot it over and over and she was in the water all day. I was just there to support her and help her.
Q: What inspired you as a youth to want to think outside the box and become an actor?
KR: When I was in the second grade, I had this experience. Usually kids see a fireman or policeman and they want to be that, but they don’t know why. This teacher and these two actors came from high school and they came to do a class with the second graders. I remember looking up at them and thinking I wanted to do that. I don’t know why. I don’t know what it was about them. Also, my stepfather was a director and I went to some rehearsals and I was a production assistant on something he was doing. I was bringing soda to Lillian Gish when Star Wars was coming out and she said, ‘Cinema these days!’ and I had read a book on D.W. Griffith when I was 14 so I said, ‘I know what you mean’ and it was a great honor for me. I was always around it. I was going to theaters and rehearsals with my stepfather when I was a kid. I guess it’s part of my tradition.
Q: Did you go to movies a lot as a kid?
KR: Yeah, sometimes instead of school. The first year I went to the Toronto Film Festival was 1983. I would write down all the films I saw in a year and I think that year it was 73 films. There is a great theater in Toronto. I remember summer nights just riding my bike there and locking it up and go into a movie I didn’t even know anything about and they had good, salty popcorn.
Q: You and Gavin are both musicians; did you talk sop? And, what was it like doing such adversarial scenes with him?
KR: The adversarial scenes were good, clean fun. I like how Gavin had such enjoyment. He’s a guy who you would love to hate him, but you can’t. He’s such a gentleman in person though. I love that Constantine can’t stand him. We had fun. He was working on his album that is almost finished. We spoke a little bit about that.
Q: Does Dogstar still exist?
KR: No. [the crowd groans] Really? You guys don’t mean that! (laughs) There was some good rock there, but the band I played in after called Becky was great. I played with them for about a year, but they needed to go on tour so I had to bow out. I don’t play anymore.
Q: What are you doing next?
KR: Hopefully I am working with Sandra Bullock on a film called Speed 3. Don’t laugh, we might make that. What would it be called? Sped? It’s called The Lake House, but it’s changing. It’s a straight romance.
Q: Can you touch on the similarities Constantine and the Matrix?
KR: I wasn’t concerned about the similarities. I look at that as a universal myth. When I think about it now I don’t mind it.
Q: Can I ask you about religion?
KR: Please don’t. I think it’s personal and private. I like the flesh and blood aspect like I said earlier.
Q: Do you think the ambivalent peace Constantine comes up with is similar to what you have to come up with as an actor?
KR: I don’t think those are two different things. Any success I might have it comes from the work I do or am involved with. That is connected. I did Constantine with Warner Brothers and they hired me. I don’t know if they would have hired me if I hadn’t already had success with them on other projects. They’ve been a great supporter of me. The aspect of star and fame is a byproduct of the work I have done, hopefully.
Q: If you put on a black suit people automatically think The Matrix, right?
KR: Do they? I hope not. I think the film stands up on its own and hopefully people don’t think during the film that I am wearing a black coat. People ask why I am guarded and I am not. I want the characters to exist on the screen and anything I can do to help the focus be on that is great. If they both wake up searching for worlds or have similar costumes hopefully it doesn’t keep people from enjoying it.
Q: Are you disappointed about the NHL lockout?
KR: It’s such a great game and it’s kind of weird. Where did hockey go? I still play with some friends and they had talked about this since last season, so it wasn’t too surprising. Hopefully they will work it out.
Q: Do you play in a league?
KR: I used to play in leagues, but not now.
Q: Your character seems very alienated with God, because he can’t get what he wants. How do you think this will resonate in an alienated culture?
KR: No, he’s very connected with God, but he doesn’t understand what is happening. His whole life is intertwined with God. If it’s an alienated character and an alienated culture I don’t know what else to say. Part of that journey is about connecting and he does connect. Hopefully part of the journey of the film shows that.
Q: What is the period like between finishing and seeing the first cut, are you often surprised?
KR: I like to see it very early, but you have to wait for the director’s cut. He told me I would have to wait. Everyone worked so hard and we did reshoots. Ultimately I think Francis made the best film we could make. There have been times in the past where I saw a film for the first time and I called the director and asked to meet, but that only happened in the last 7 years. I once did this film called Youngblood where I played this character and I went to see the movie and I was like ‘Where are my scenes?’ That never goes away.
Q: Do you now have the power to influence the final cut?
KR: No, but now they pretend to listen. Before I couldn’t even get into the room. It depends on who I am collaborating with. I would never presume to be involved in a film like Thumbsucker where I have a small role. If I am a lead character I feel I have relationship.
Q: Might you show up on TV this year, like Entourage?
KR: Like Survivor Hollywood? No.
Q: What made you want to work with Alejandro Agresti, the director of Il Mare?
KR: I had only seen one of his 18 films, Valentin. I really love the way he treated his characters and his cinema and the choices those characters made. He is an interesting guy. He collects first edition books and makes his own audio electronics from tubes and homemade parts. His passion in cinema is great and he conveyed to me a vision and enthusiasm that I thought he would make a really good romance and film. I trust him. I can’t wait to work with him. He’s a cool guy and very talented. [Il Mare is set for a 2006 release] [end]