Keanu Reeves is back. But he is now a hardcore alcoholic and a chain-smoking dude. He is suicidal and sees evil things. Sounds like your neighbour's swearing husband? In this L.A. Exclusive, Royston Loh talks to the man, not your neighbour's husband, but The One…
Keanu Reeves does not look like Neo, or like what's-his-name from Speed either. In fact, he is dressed like Danny Ocean and his hairdo mirrors Harry Potter's, just messier. His two week old stubble is threatening to boycott his famous pretty face by growing in every direction possible. There are some slight pinkish rash on his normally pale skin, and it is threatening to make him look like a drunkard. A bit too early to finish up the mini-bar this time of the afternoon?
But we are only at the presidential suite of the posh Beverly Wilshire Hotel in a hip part of Beverly Hills, not a movie set. He will look his best when the time comes. We are here to discuss Reeves' new starring role in Constantine.
Based on the DC/Vertigo comic book Hellblazer, Constantine tells the story of chain-smoking, hard-drinking and irreverent supernatural detective John Constantine (Reeves), who has literally been to hell and back. When Constantine was hired by policewoman Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) to solve the mysterious suicide of her twin sister (also played by Weisz), their investigation takes them through the world of demons and angels that exists just beneath the streets of modern Los Angeles. Caught in a catastrophic series of otherworldly events, the two become inextricably involved and seek to find their own peace at whatever cost.
Director Francis Lawrence, who is also present in the suite, but looking more groomed, has been working on this movie for two years. Being a non-fan boy, he did not know the comic existed. "I didn't know the comic or the character at all until after I got the script and when I started doing thorough research on the project for my presentation to the studios."
For those who thought you knew Lawrence from somewhere, you are right. No, he is not your neighbour's husband. Yes, he was the director responsible for numerous award-winning music videos of some of the world's most well known musicians like Aerosmith, Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lopez, Will Smith, Janet Jackson and Britney Spears. This movie marks Lawrence's first directorial effort in a feature film.
So if this movie is based on the comic, it will have Constantine battling with devils and demons and it will have angels and scenes of Hell and Heaven. It also means that this is a project that will rely heavily on special effects. So it seems like Reeves is getting himself into another big effects laden feature following last summer's Matrix Revolutions and Matrix Reloaded. Is he not worried? Has he not done his fair share of it?
"Well, in the effects films that I did, I always felt they were story driven, and the directors and the people involved in the project, especially with Francis, it was always about the characters in the story. The idea of special effects is to be able to create something that can't be done without, that is to bring another element to the story telling," Reeves says, his hands telling their own story as well. "The impact that Francis wanted in terms of these elements, these fantastic elements are always connected to the characters of the story. It is not just spectacles for spectacles, the marriage of these special effects in this event can't happen any other way and they are married together to hopefully have a visceral and emotive connection to the story."
Reeves' works have been wide and varied since he first flashed his face on national television in 1982, when he was just 18. But of course not many critics have kind things to say about his acting methods. But there is no doubt that he does make some very bright decisions. Many would have remembered his cool demeanour sans acting skills in blockbusters like 1994's Speed and last year's Matrix. Some might also remember his rich brat turned gay hustler swagger in 1991's My Own Private Idaho. But it is with 1992's Dracula and 1997's The Devil's Advocate, which incidentally had him playing young lawyers in both, that sees him closest to the role of John Constantine. But this time, he is no longer a young, innocent and ambitious lad. He is your neighbour's husband, just kidding. He is a tortured world-wearied soul who has seen too much of the world and who actually wants to die.
"When I read the script, I just related to this man. I felt the writing was great, I felt it was fun. I thought the idea of it, the idea of a man who doesn't quite like the rules of the world, someone who has a great cynicism and yet a kind of hope... a man fighting for his life," recalls Reeves. "The dialogue was hard-boiled and the story itself was entertaining and was attractive to me."
Constantine had some special skills; he was blessed with the ability to see angels but unfortunately, he is also cursed with the ability to see demons. Because of the depressing nature of the latter ability, he took the easy way out and committed suicide. But of course, he is sent back from Hell by some almighty forces to work and find his way back to Heaven. Newly empowered with demonising skills, his new f**king job is to rid the scums off our world. Still smoking and drinking as hard and literally dying to get out of his misery, he has now become an anti-hero kind of hero. Voldemort had better think twice about ever terrorising Harry Potter again.
In preparation for his role, Reeves had to work with exorcists, priests, and even an oncologist "because my character is suffering from terminal lung cancer," explains Reeves. But just how does one work with an exorcist? "I just wanted to figure out what he had to do. I didn't need to know everything, but we talk about how to keep contact, how you have to be forceful, how to protect yourself, that kind of things," says Reeves, clenching his fists.
A believer of the supernatural, Reeves had his own experiences and there were even several incidences on the set. "I believe. I have seen ghosts and I have walked into rooms and felt really bad and that weird temperature change in places where you don't really want to go. We have that on the sound stage..."
At this point, Lawrence was quick to add, "It'll be like that to everybody no matter how religious or non-religious; you are superstitious or not superstitious. Everybody is just a little sensitive to it because of the subject matter. Everybody has heard stories of working on the Exorcist movies, working on Poltergeist, through all this kind of movies and we were always really careful to never get into this sort of real stuff."
Recalling a day on the set, Lawrence deadpans, "I remember there was a day where we were rehearsing, the electric chair scene with Keanu and Djimon [Hounsou] and we brought Djimon in and this was stuff that wasn't in the script, but we were coming up with this prayer that Djimon would say when he gets to the electric chair. Djimon sort of brings in some of this voodoo background that he has because he is African and French, so he sort of brings in this African voodoo into the scene. And he said, 'You know what, I need this bottle of gin and I'll take a swig' and he'll spit it out over his feet and started talking and we were like, Keanu and I were both like yelling. 'Stop! No voodoo, man!'"
In an earlier preview of the movie, there is a scene where Reeves' character was exorcising a girl with a mirror and the demon that was in the girl was literally trying to rip the poor girl apart. It is just amazing and certainly pleases the lucky few of us that were present at the private screening room. This is cool stuff and certainly not for the faint-hearted.
In fact, prior to this, fan boys out there questioned the authenticity of the adaptation and were less than happy about the location and casting of the comic book adaptation. The comic depicted John Constantine as a British blond which Reeves is certainly not, and the comic is set in England which became Los Angeles in Lawrence's version.
"Comics are relatively new to me, so that meant the fan boys are relatively new to me and the Internet fan boys seem relatively new to me," Lawrence comments. "What Keanu and I fought is to keep the heart of the character intact, which is what appealed to me in the first place. That's what attracted me to the script, that's what I think makes John who John is."
"He's a conman, he's a magician, he puts his friend out on the line, that's John Constantine. To me, other things are surface. You know what? Hardcore fans are going to be pissed off because he's not blond, he's not British, he's not in the other colour trench coat, Chad is younger than Chad is in the comic. But to me, that's surface, it's an adaptation. I think Keanu did a fantastic Constantine. For being relocated, that sort of shocked me because Hellboy has been all over the world," Lawrence deadpans. "To me, Constantine can happen anywhere in the planet."
Reeves and Lawrence may just have the last laugh. During a test screening where a lucky group of fan boys were invited to see for themselves a 20-minute clip, the response had been short of overwhelming. There was this opening scene where something seemingly normal and mundane took such a sudden and tragic turn that some people in the audience were seen cheering upon recovering from their initial shock.
With the issue of fan boys settled for the time being, the question of religion comes into the picture. I might be doing a spoiler here, so stop reading now if you do not want to know more... Here goes: The demonic forces of Hell are starting to break a pact between Satan and God, and demons are now popping up like pimples on your neighbour's teenage daughter, on Earth. There are angels; devils, questions of faith, of morality, of human nature and most importantly, questions of salvation. Of course, it's up to John Constantine to investigate and battle the forces of evil and Hell. But is there an inner message to all this?
"I am not a particularly religious person." says Lawrence, "but my parents were more religious than I was, their parents were more religious, so I still sort of have that in my blood, in my system. I was still around it. I still know some of the rules, there were always questions on how the universe works." Lawrence further prods some interesting questions, "Is it really a Catholic world, is it a Muslim world, or a universe? I really don't know. But you really question it and this movie works on a lot of levels and I think it works for people who weren't religious as well. You don't have to be Catholic to get this movie and that's one of the reasons I really liked it."
Having had his fair share of religious stuff and having played Siddhartha in the 1994's Little Buddha, Reeves adds, "My character commits suicide when he was a young man, he's gone to Hell already, he's come back. For him, there's no religiosity, for him it's like the rules of the world; it's like Heaven and Hell, you can make these choices and this is the game that they are playing and were stuck in it." With another deep breath, he continues, "and how that impacts whether you are a better person or worse person, that is an aspect, a dialogue of religiosity, for a part like being the birth of compassion, the birth of love. And if you have the love of self and the love for others, that gets you to Heaven or Nirvana or a crossover. All of those aspects, there is a part of that in this story. There is a sacrifice of self, but at the same time, you know, John Constantine is out for himself."
Having lived through a series of not so pleasant life events, the Beirut born Reeves has indeed gained enough experiences to emotionalise Constantine's character. Born Keanu Charles Reeves to a Chinese/Hawaiian geologist father and an English showgirl mother, the now 1.85 metre tall lad had to live through his parent's separation as a kid to witness three more stepfathers. He dropped out of school at 17, got arrested for drunk driving at 29, had a still born baby with girlfriend Jennifer Syme at 35 and had Syme dying on him in a car accident two years later in 2001. He had to also bear the burden of his sister, Kim's leukaemia news which has taken a turn for the worse in late 2002.
"Those contradictions, those sufferings in question, it is serious stuff," says Reeves of his character. "Being trapped, you know, he's trapped; he does not want to go to Hell, but he knows he's going to Hell when he dies. So he has to do things that he doesn't want to do. He knows things he doesn't want to know. And that's fun, that's fun to play. His humour, his gallows humour, his cynicism, in an odd way, he's just playing a powerful character. He's playing a character who's in control and totally out of control. And for a performer, that's gold."
Religion, suicide, smoking, lung cancer... these all seem like taboo subjects to talk about, much less made into a movie. Just how did the studio green light this project in the first place?
"The studio surprisingly has been very, very supportive of this movie all the way through," Lawrence professes, "they didn't really understand it, the studios didn't really get it and we kept saying, 'Wait you'll see', 'Wait you'll see...' and it wasn't until we had this very rough version of the 20 minutes you guys saw that we showed the studio just before Christmas break that they finally go, 'Oh ok, I get it'. But we have to fight and fight for that tone but they have been very supportive of the story all the way through."
It seems Reeves has been through some tough times in life, but when it comes to work, it sure is smooth sailing with projects after projects in the pipeline. After Constantine, there is comedy Thumbsucker, action sci-fi A Scanner Darkly and Spike Lee's thriller, A Night Watchman, to look forward to. When asked how he keeps up with all these time sapping projects, he pauses thoughtfully and replies, "I love acting."
So just what else can be tough for this tough man?
"I don't mind tough days. A tough day for me is when you can't, or when you don't agree with what you are trying to do, or if you can't get what you are trying to do. That's a tough day," concludes Reeves, still deep in thought.
Guess that's all in a day's job for Reeves and certainly this is one perfectionist whom we just did not take seriously enough in the past, and he's certainly not like your neighbour's good for nothing husband. I shall refrain from using the word "drunk" in this instance. In fact, I am craving for a cigarette and a beer myself, and I wonder if his mini-bar is really empty.