Constantine Interview: Keanu Reeves
Neo goes to hell.
by Jeff Otto
Ask most anyone who has worked with Keanu Reeves and they will tell you he is one of the hardest working actors in the business. His dedication to his craft, however, hasn't kept him from often being the butt of many critics' jokes. Reeves just keeps plugging away, taking more challenging roles and little by little, breaking down the preconceived notions regarding the range of his abilities.
His latest role, as the titular character in Constantine, may be his most aptly suited role to date. Comparisons have been made between the John Constantine character and the Neo character portrayed by Reeves in the three Matrix films. Both wear black trench coats and both are "chosen ones" of sorts. All I can tell you is that the differences end there. Constantine is a visually charged ride through the furthest depths of Hell. John Constantine is a troubled soul bound for Hell and fighting for a very slim shot at redemption and, perhaps, Heaven.
As I headed through the lobby of the Four Seasons in Los Angeles, I checked out the "events" list to find out where I needed to go for the Keanu Reeves interview. I got the info and waited for the elevator. A few people mingled in the hallway waiting, and then I noticed a dark figure leaning against the wall in the corner. As the elevator made that "ding" sound, the figure leaned forward and moved into the light. Dressed in an all black suit and black shirt was Keanu Reeves. He smiled politely as he passed me and we both boarded the elevator.
As the elevator made the climb to the 12th floor, another journalist complimented Reeves on the film, saying that he had really enjoyed the prior night's screening. Reeves shyly thanked the man and stared straight ahead, wearing a nervous smile and a thick dark beard. We finally made it to the 12th floor, which had been decked out to resemble Midnight's (Djimon Hounsou's character from the film) layer in the film. Reeves looked around at the decorations and laughed slightly. Walking out of the elevator ahead of the crowd, he let out a "Woooooo" sound in jest at the spooky look and red lights in the hall.
A little while later I saw Reeves again as we got set to do a press conference interview with the rest of the press. Again, Reeves seemed in good spirits, smiling and joking as he walked into the room.
KEANU REEVES: [English accent] I want a bigger chair…
Q: You could have done this with an English accent.
REEVES: [accented] Yes, I could have. Exactly like that. Now that I have you all in a room I have something... Good afternoon. [Non-accented] Oh Jesus. (Laughs)
Q: Your character smokes a lot in the film.
REEVES: Too much… I guess it's a character trait that the character has, and I guess he's dealing with a lot and it's a kind of tool to help him numb himself.
Q: Do you smoke?
REEVES: Yeah, I do. - Warner Bros.
Q: How familiar were you with the Hellblazer comic and what are your feelings about the change from U.K. to U.S.?
REEVES: I wasn't familiar with the character before I read the script, and when the script came to me, that aspect of the character, being based in London and being English, had changed already. So I wasn't aware of that. When I read the script and then familiarized myself with the work, I saw that what was important was really the essence of Constantine, and we worked really hard to keep that aspect of it, because it's really what it's all about; that kind of hard-edged, hard-boiled, world; weary, cynical, fatalistic, nihilistic, self-interested… With a heart. (Laughs). And I think we did. I mean I hope so. I hope that fans of the comic don't feel that we sabotaged something that is so well loved.
Q: You've played spiritual characters before.
REEVES: Like The Gift (Laughs)
Q: Some of the actors we've talked to about your preparation have said that you kept a lot of journals about various sides of spirituality. Can you talk about that research?
REEVES: They have no idea what they're talking about… I mean it's just, you know, in the process for me, it's writing things down, thoughts… for 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 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 for his kinda, learning about this kind of curse that was given to him as a kid. "A gift," another character says, but Constantine doesn't see it quite like that. I think part of the journey is Constantine's 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.
Q: You've been Little Buddha and Neo the Messiah. You've been pitted against Satan and now this one seems to have dug deepest into established religious tradition, all kinds of vocabularies and rituals. How much of that for you is make believe, means something to other people, and does this spiritual conflict resonate with you?
REEVES: To answer your question, I'll start with Constantine. The aspect for me, 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, human souls, fighting for those… But I find that the piece itself, Constantine, because of the fact that he knows, and I was hoping that these concepts could become a platform that are humanistic, that the journey of this particular hero is hopefully relatable to; even though they're such fantastic characters and situations, that it's still a man trying to figure it out. In terms of the other roles, I hope ultimately, not only are they interesting, I think that those kinds of journeys, a hero journey, or Siddhartha, these are all kind of seeking aspects of hopefully, that has something of value in terms of, to our lives, that we can take with us... And hopefully in the works that are entertaining and, these kinds of journeys that I think all of us, especially in western traditions, relate to. I think these motifs of seekers, messiahs, 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… I think they're worthwhile, and if we can make them all kinds of stories, story-telling, that is always couched in this kind of engaging entertaining manner, whether it is a shadow play, a circle, a storyteller, our literature... The mediums that we communicate these things often times.
Q: What do you get from acting at this point?
REEVES: I really love it. It's my craft. When I was 15, I went up to my mother and said, 'Is it okay if I'm an actor?' She was like, 'Whatever you want, dear.' In three weeks I was enrolled in an acting class doing Uta Hagen's "Respect for Acting." And acting itself, I think of it as kind of like, and I've heard Anthony Hopkins say this, you learn about doing it, and it's like painting, I would imagine. The craft of it, the skill of it, the way that you work the paint, 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, expression, is a hoot. I love it. I love it. And hopefully it will continue.
Q: John Constantine seems to be seeking redemption in the wrong way, trying to earn forgiveness, trying to buy off God. Do you think repentance is something he needs to do?
REEVES: Repentance. I think the aspect of repentance is born and expressed in his final act when he asks from, as he calls Lucifer, Lou, that's his repentance, and I think any sacrifice and what goes on there, I think that's what gives him the shot of going upstairs. But there's also the Constantinian twist of, make the sacrifice so that he can go to heaven, or does he really mean it? But he does. Ultimately he does, so the man upstairs knows. He's just like Santa Claus… (Laughs)
Q: At what point did you feel you knew the character?
REEVES: I really enjoyed the character, but in terms of embodying it, when seeking a costume, I went to the costumer and she had a rack of clothes and choices and shoes and stuff, and I was just trying things on. There was a concept for the piece. What clothes fit? It was like trying on the hat, it's this one. And I found that moment, I remember putting on the jacket and the shoes and I felt a certain way. Yeah, this is the Constantine. So going to rehearsal, you wear your wardrobe and eventually I find that not only do I have a feel but it seems that, they seem kind of connected naturally… When that happens it's great… So I kind of knew his core, but in terms of embodying the character, I worked on, I lowered my register a little bit, working on the way he spoke, I was guided by Francis Lawrence the director in terms of wanting a kind of hardboiled… [Being guided] by the comic itself, a kind of noir aspect. And that has certain traditions in it that I wanted to utilize, especially with his humor, that kind of deadpan humor. When did I know? It kind of happened a couple of days before I shot. The exorcism was the first scene and that helped a lot too. When I walked from the window and got on the bed, how do I get on this bed? And when Constantine stands up and walks over, it's like he's trying to walk over a puddle. I was like, 'Okay, I've got it.'
Q: Can you talk about the non-kissing scenes with Rachel?
REEVES: It's more fun. It's one of those things that 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. So there's a bit of a filmmaker having, there's a bit of a 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, like when the car hits the man who finds the spear of destiny, hopefully it's enjoyable and it's something that I think is in the relationship. There's something with what they're going through… Actually, I'm not going to go there, but yeah… It's there. They can't kiss, they want to kiss but they can't kiss, so they kind of don't kiss but they wanna 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.
Q: How do you feel about the possibility of another franchise, risking a sequel not living up to expectations?
REEVES: Well, we better not do that because that would suck. You know, my contract didn't have a second film, but myself and some of the producers and Francis Lawrence, the director, and I certainly would, because we fell in love with the guy. I fell in love with the guy. I had one of the best times I'd ever had working on a film working on this particular project. So, we would talk about what could we do? What happens to Constantine? He's a heroin addict in Morocco. He's got a spell, he's killing people and he's trying not to kill people so he's knocking himself out. Then Akiva Goldsman was like, 'No, he wants to stop Revelations.' So we would do these kinds of things and ultimately it is up to the audience because that would mean that the studio would have resources to go forward with it. But I would love to play Constantine again as long as I worked with the same people. I mean, definitely Francis Lawrence and Akiva Goldsman and everyone involved in this project because I could not imagine doing this without everyone involved. But I love playing the guy.
Q: Could it be a trilogy?
REEVES: Trilogy, why stop there? We could have Son of Constantine. And I'll play him too. CGI. No, but it's a character just as how it exists in the graphic novel, so I would love to play him again. Who knows? I mean, February 18th, probably by the 30th we'll know. But also, I'm sure Francis Lawrence after this film – because he did such a remarkable job – we're not going to be able to hire that guy. He's gone. He's gone.
Q: Why were you attracted to Constantine?
REEVES: Well, I first came across the script when I was working on The Matrix in Sydney, Australia. I was working on working, so the script came to me and I read it and really enjoyed it. It took, I guess from my first reading to principal photography, it was over a year and a half. So, and in terms of making choices again, it's like what I said earlier, it's trying to have a kind of variety of genre and character. But I said yes to it while I was making The Matrix because I didn't feel that I was repeating myself… Constantine's a very extroverted role. And so much about it is very different to me than the experience I was having in Constantine, but it was still a great script and a great idea and a great character.
Q: Did you have input into the spirituality of the character? Francis said nine months on the script.
REEVES: Yeah, I had some great time. He's a wonderful collaborator. And I worked with Akiva Goldsman as well, who's producing and writing, and met with Frank a couple of times in Sydney. 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 a very humanistic… But it's more flesh and blood somehow than spiritual. I feel like some kind of flesh and blood aspect of it. My impact in terms of what it was and what it became, one of the expressions is in the end of the film, he's like, 'I guess there's a plan for all of us. I had to die twice just to figure that out. Like the book says, he works his works in mysterious ways. Some people like it, some people don't,' is mine. That's mine. And that to me was the ground for where Constantine ends up. And there's still that ambivalence of some people like it and some people don't, but there's an acknowledgement and in that acknowledgement 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. [He] comes back from hell, he has no idea why. And I think that search of his trying to orient like, [looks up] 'Hey, fella, I'm doin' all this work, what are you doing to me?' and with people. So that was how I felt, so that was my impact. I don't know if that's, it's not spiritual, but it's flesh and blood.
Q: Any tough physical stunt work you did yourself instead of stuntmen or CGI?
REEVES: I don't think there are any CGI Constantines in this one. What did I have to do? I had to, when Constantine gets punched by the demon and he goes flying backwards, I got to do that. Chad Stahelski, a man I've worked with through The Matrix on stunts, he was helping me coordinate it. He's my double. He was just like, 'When you land, taco.' I said, 'What do you mean?' He goes, 'Relax, don't fight it.' So when I launched, I almost went out of frame. I don't know, if you see the film again, I almost go out of frame because I pushed off really. And I'm glad he gave me that information because I was just like "woosh." But the stuff was pretty, I mean, there was some wirework. [I] did that roll in the street when the car is coming, dove and stuff like that, but it's all pretty basic things. Nothing too like, it wasn't like a triple sidekick or a wire deal. But it was fun. I like fake fights and doing all that kind of stuff…
Q: Was the bathtub scene a challenge?
REEVES: Well, it was a challenge for Rachel. I just got to sit outside the tub and hold her down. You know what I mean? But she's a fighter.
Q: But it wasn't easy for you?
REEVES: Well, she's a strong girl. No, Rachel had to do the heavy lifting in that. We shot the scene, we re-shot the scene, we continued to shoot the scene. It was another angle. I mean, she really had to like, you know, she was in the water all day. And I was just there to support her and help her which was great.
Q: And drown her?
REEVES: Yeah, I was supporting her. I was helping her, by drowning her.
Q: Do you know what you are doing next?
REEVES: Yeah, hopefully I am working with Sandra Bullock on a film called…
Q: Speed 3?
REEVES: (Laughs) Don't laugh, we might make that! Um, what would that be? Sped.
REEVES: No, yeah hopefully working with Sandra Bullock. It's an adaptation of Il Mare and it is with Alejandro Agresti and it is just straight out romance. Well the titles are changing, it is not going to be Il Mare, the script that I, the last draft that I read it was called The Lake House.
Q: You touched on this briefly before, but did you have concerns about the similarities with The Matrix?
REEVES: No I didn't. I look at that as a part of a universal myth, and so I am not the only one. But it's umm… I didn't, I didn't and if I, when I think about it now, I don't mind it. I don't mind it.
Q: So it doesn't get in the way, you put on a black suit and people say Matrix rather than the character that you are portraying?
REEVES: Do they? I hope, I mean you know I think the film is so, I mean for me when I saw the film, I was transported by the film and hopefully the film was engaging enough for the whole two hours and six minutes that you are not going, 'He is wearing a black coat, he is wearing a black coat... He is wearing a black coat!' You know, I am sorry, I don't mean to be flippant… Um, but hopefully they are not.
Q: Can I ask you about religion?
REEVES: Please don't.
REEVES: Really, please… No, please don't, please! I mean it's a really, it's something I think very personal and it's something that is private.
Q: Does it inspire you, does it awaken anything in you?
REEVES: [enunciating slower] It's personal and private… But I also like flesh and blood aspect of the character, 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, I would rather not touch upon it personally, thank you.
Q: Just to follow up on what you said about Francis earlier that you didn't want a video director per se working on the film. What changed your mind about that in your initial talks with him?
REEVES: Yeah that came out in a kinda uneducated bias, in the sense that when it first came to me and the production was looking for a director I, I wanted, I felt that the film had such a narrative... Sometimes when I heard video directors my experience has… I was, I was… wary… And then I, then I saw a few reels and I saw Francis's reel and I thought that he had kinda… he had a classicism, a kind of narrative impulse, the way he treated his characters, his performers in those videos was very like a, like a, narrative impulse, you always wanted to, they were telling a story, really revealing something about that character, what they offered and I know all videos do that, demonstrate something, but I felt something beyond spectacle, a quick cut and when I met him... He had basically walls of his concepts and I spent about two hours talking about his process and his ideas for the film and walked out of there… [I was] eager to work with him.