The Dark Side of Keanu Reeves
Speed and the Matrix trilogy turned Keanu Reeves into Hollywood's No. 1 action star and now he's playing comic book hero Constantine. Typecasting? No, he tells Brad Gretz, it's something deeper than that
"I fell in love with the guy," Keanu Reeves enthuses, with an exuberance he rarely shows in interviews. "I had one of the best times I'd ever had working on a film." And it shows in his portrayal of supernatural detective John Constantine, hero of the comic book Hellblazer, and now brought to the screen in Constantine, the debut movie by music video director Francis Lawrence.
Ardent fans of the graphic novels might be forgiven for being sceptical about the casting of Reeves. Unlike the comic book character, the star is neither blond nor British. He is, however, a bass player - a small but intriguing parallel given that Constantine's look was originally based on one of our most famous bass players, Sting. Lawrence, best known for directing Avril Lavigne's Sk8er Boi and Gwen Stefani's What You Waiting For?, didn't see a problem in casting a dark-haired Canadian. "Constantine has a hard-boiled detective edge and a punk Sid Vicious attitude," he says. "He smokes, he drinks and is sarcastic and wry. He's not a blond Englishman. But the heart of the character - the attitude and the period he invokes - is intact, as this was the most important thing for me to maintain."
By the time the film script reached Reeves, on location in Sydney filming the second and third parts of the Matrix trilogy, Constantine had undergone a metamorphosis. It was no longer called Hellblazer (too similar to cult classic movie Hellraiser) and the main character's look was modelled on Reeves, whom Warner Bros were hell-bent on securing for the role.
The Matrix had reignited Reeves' career, imbuing him with a credibility he had previously lacked - and, of course, had made scads of cash for him and Warners alike. Like The Matrix, Constantine looks like a surefire franchise for its star and distributor, especially given that it earned $30 million in the US in its opening weekend, beating The Matrix's $27 million.
In every other sense, the character remained the same. John Constantine possesses a gift (as others see it) or a curse (from his perspective) which allows him to see the half-breeds who walk the Earth, superficially human in appearance, otherworldly in substance. (One such half-breed, Balthazar, is played with surprising panache by Stefani's rock-singer husband, Gavin Rossdale.) As a teenager, Constantine attempted suicide and came so close to death that he spent two minutes in Hell. Since his miraculous resuscitation, Constantine has traversed Hell and Earth, a state of affairs he views as his own hell on earth. Now diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Constantine is dispatching creatures belonging in Hell back to where they belong in the hope of ensuring his own passage to Heaven.
Immersed though he was in the Matrix trilogy, Reeves read the script and was hooked. "I loved his essence," he says. "He's hard-edged, hard-boiled, world-weary, cynical, fatalistic, nihilistic and self-interested, with a heart that may not be golden. He's not the nicest guy all the time. I loved his anger and his wry sense of humour about the kind of awfulness of the world. He's like a warrior in this world of s***."
Reeves is an actor who looks for the bigger picture in his films - and he found an arresting one in Constantine. "I think all of these aspects - motifs of seekers, messiahs, of anti-heroes and heroes - are journeys that deal with things we deal with in our day-to-day lives."
In that sense, Constantine does share some parallels with the Matrix trilogy. Constantine and Neo are both "chosen ones", and although The Matrix is not based on a comic, it relies on comic-land's signature themes: good against evil, and supernatural powers. "But I really didn't feel that I was repeating myself," Reeves insists. "Constantine's a very extroverted role and so much about it seemed different to me than The Matrix."
Mention to Reeves the fact that both Constantine and Neo wear black trench coats and he reverts to his habitual interview persona - sighing, frustrated, funny and a bit of a smart alec. "When I saw the film, I was transported, and hopefully it's engaging enough for the whole two hours six minutes that you're not going, 'He's wearing a black coat, he's wearing a black coat, he's wearing a black coat!' Sorry, I don't mean to be flippant."
Well, he can afford to be. Constantine is his best role in aeons, more colourful and multilayered than Neo, and much more like the real Reeves than The Matrix's overly serious hero. Constantine, like Reeves, has the capacity not to take himself too seriously. Never suggest, though, that Reeves is anything but conscientious when it comes to his work.
At the age of 15, he had already picked acting for a career and enrolled himself in a Toronto class to learn Uta Hagen's Respect For Acting method. It's no coincidence that his stepfather Paul Aaron was a local theatre director. "I've heard Anthony Hopkins say this, but acting really is like painting - the craft and skill of it. The way that you act is a lot like the way you work the paint, and the more you do it, the more you know it. That's what I love. A good day on the set - creating the work, the piece - is a hoot."
His co-stars cite the journals Reeves brings on set, overflowing with drawings, research and his own thoughts, as evidence not merely of hard work but of his spirituality. "They have no idea what they're talking about," he guffaws, reticent as ever to get too personal in an interview. "But it's just my process - writing things down, my thoughts on a role. I wasn't carrying The Way Of The Peaceful Warrior [Dan Milkman's seminal American self-help book] or anything. I think it's just that Constantine reaches an understanding of his life and circumstances and comes to an ambivalent peace of sorts."
Immersing himself in Constantine any way he could, he met with an exorcist (to better understand Constantine's supernatural side), an oncologist (for information about his cancer) and a Zippo lighter coach (for Constantine's nippy tricks with his lighter).
Constantine, until thawed by his meeting with detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), is a loner - not unlike Reeves himself. "I do tend to isolate a lot with my work. I find it helps me and it's a good way to keep a consistency. I can try and sit like him, kind of just wear him, so that when I do play him, the character is fully embodied."
Constantine is a chain smoker and Reeves smoked a lot by his own standards. Lawrence admits: "Keanu smoked so many cigarettes some days he looked green." Lawrence also recounts that his star got "skinnier and skinnier" as filming progressed, on course with Constantine as cancer ravaged his body.
Didn't Constantine make Reeves assess his own health? "Oh yes," he laughs. "I smoke far too much and it's a terrible habit." He doesn't make any mention of planning to quit but then Reeves is not averse to life-threatening habits. A lover of dangerously high speeds on two wheels, Reeves' horrific chest scar from a near-fatal motorbike accident in 1991 is clearly on display in the film.
In most other capacities, Reeves is thoroughly sensible, erudite and mature. Yet he is rarely described in those terms, and often quite the opposite. In fact, few actors' performances have met with as much derision as Reeves. He has never been allowed to forget that he made "dumb" films like Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. And he has never received credit for daring to stretch in films as eclectic as Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha in 1993 or Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991).
His detractors do have a point with Bram Stoker's Dracula, in which he was wooden and had an appalling English accent. But he did turn down a huge pay cheque to appear in the abysmal Speed 2. It was, of course, Speed, a little over a decade ago, that turned Reeves into a bona-fide Hollywood A-lister shortly before his 30th birthday. In September he turned 40, a landmark which barely registered a blip on the celebrity media radar. That is just the way this notoriously private dude likes it, although he admits the birthday was of huge personal significance.
"It wasn't just another birthday for me. It carried quite a wallop. I have the classic symptoms. Reflection. Where am I now? Where have I come from?"
Weeks before he turned 40, reports circulated that an engagement announcement was imminent. It didn't sound like his style. He has never spoken of girlfriends, nor indeed confirmed Autumn Macintosh as his current one.
Unsurprisingly, then, even those most entrenched in Hollywood seem not to know much of Reeves or his life. Lauren Shuler Donner, Constantine's veteran producer, calls her title character "a guy who's had a very hard life and yet he's smart enough to have a sense of humour about it. We wanted Keanu Reeves because we knew he could pull that off." Shuler Donner might have been describing Reeves rather than a character of fiction. He has in many ways had a hard life, elements of which he would certainly have traded his money and fame to reverse.
His half-Hawaiian, half-Chinese father, Samuel - with whom Reeves reportedly has no relationship - received a 10-year jail sentence for drug possession. His sister Kim has been battling leukaemia for years. In 1999, his girlfriend Jennifer Syme gave birth to the couple's stillborn daughter. Two years later, after they had broken up, Syme was killed in a car crash.
That Reeves continues to work in films which explore and exploit the darker side of life is a mystery as complex as he is himself. Again, that's just how he likes it. "It's not that I decided to be mysterious," he says, "but I think I just intuited that was the way to go. I obviously like to keep my personal life private, and I think also it's better that way for the work I do."
He says he understands the media's fascination with celebrities - "I get it, I want to know things about people" - but not with the minutiae of their lives.
Only recently did Reeves even acquire a place he could call home. For years he lived at the Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset Boulevard, before finally paying several million for a mansion nearby, where his neighbours include Leonardo DiCaprio.
He has also given up his alternative life as a rocker, first with the band Dogstar and more recently with an outfit called Becky.
Reeves is also famously generous. Having made a fortune from the three Matrix films, he gave away some of his share of the profit to crew members. He also gave many of them Harley Davidsons.
Reeves is far too classy to discuss his altruism but is less reticent on the subject of his comic book loves. "When I read Ronin by Frank Miller, I was like, 'Oh my God! What is this?' And then I loved Dark Knight and X -Men and the Wolverine series."
So is Reeves signed up for another trilogy? "Trilogy! Why stop there? We could have Son Of Constantine and I'll play him, too. Who knows?"
He may not be signed up for any more sequels, but expect all that to change...
Constantine is released on March 18.