Say Hello to the Hellblazer
A Shivers interview by Judy Slone
Keanu Reeves talks to Shivers about taking a role of world-weary demon hunter John Constantine
Keanu Reeves never seemed like an ideal choice to take on the mantle of John Constantine, the bleached-blond, cynical, chain-smoking anti-hero of the British Hellblazer comics. Constantine first appeared in June 1985 as an unlikely sidekick to Swamp Thing and created by Alan Moore (the genius behind Watchmen, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Constantine graduated to a comic book of his own, Hellblazer, in January 1988.
Fans of the comic book may not recognise Constantine's new dark-haired look, or American accent, but Keanu Reeves insists that they have stayed true to the character.
"I wasn't familiar with him before I read the script," says Reeves of John Constantine. "When the script came to me, the original aspects of the character, who is English and based in London, had changed already so I wasn't aware of that. When I read the script and familiarized myself with the work, I saw that what was important was really the essence of Constantine. We worked really hard to keep that aspect of it, because that's really what it's all about. He's hard-edged, hard-boiled, world-weary cynical, fatalistic, nihilistic, self-interested - with a heart. And I think we kept that. I mean I hope so! I hope that fans of the comic don't feel that we sabotaged something that is so well-loved."
Several of Reeves' roles have had a spiritual dimension. Did he look for a path to enlightenment in Constantine? "I think the film speaks for itself. The character takes a journey, learning about this curse that was given to him as a kid - another character calls it a gift, but Constantine doesn't see it quite like that. I think part of the journey is Constantine understanding his life and his circumstances, and he eventually comes to a kind of peace."
After appearing in the low-budget Thumbsucker at the Sundance Film Festival, is Reeves trying to balance blockbuster films with small intense, acting-heavy ones?
"I've been fortunate to be able to do different kinds of films in different scales," he says. "Different genres, different kinds of roles, and that is important to me. Sometimes, you don't want to play the hero. You want to play another kind of character in another genre, and it's been something I've been trying to do if I can and it's something I hope to continue. There's a certain joy for me in the diversity of roles."
The film involves exorcism and the concepts of heaven and hell, so is Constantine a religious film? "There is a kind of secular religiosity," says Reeves. "The piece itself is using icons as a platform for a kind of heaven-and-hell, God-and-the-Devil fight for human souls. But I was hoping that these concepts could become a background for the human journey of this hero. Even though they're such enormous characters and situations, it's still only a man trying to figure it out."
So is Constantine seeking repentance? "The aspect of repentance is expressed in his final act. There is a sacrifice and what is given to him is a shot of going upstairs. Constantine makes a sacrifice so that he can go to heaven, but does he really mean it? I think he does. Ultimately he does, so the man upstairs knows."
At what point did Reeves feel he knew the character? "In terms of embodying it, I went to the costume designer and she had a rack of clothes and shoes and stuff, and I was just trying things on. There was a concept for the piece. What clothes fit? I remember putting on the jacket and the shoes and I felt a certain way: 'Yeah, this is Constantine'. I knew his core. 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 aspect. That was 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 humour, that kind of deadpan humour.
"The first scene I shot was the exorcism. When I walked from the window and got on the bed, I was asking myself, how do I get on this bed? When Constantine stands up and walks over, it's like he's trying to walk over a puddle. At that point I though 'Okay, I've got it.'"
Was Reeves involved in any physical stunt work or CGI?
"I don't think there are any CGI Constantines in this one! What did I have to do? 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 on The Matrix stunts, was helping me co-ordinate it. He's my double. He said 'When you land, relax, don't fight it.' I pushed off really hard, and I'm glad he gave me that information. There was some wirework. I did a roll in the street when the car is coming, it's all pretty basic stuff. It wasn't like a triple side-kick or a wire deal."
The film concerns Constantine's relationship with Detective Angela Dodson (played by Rachel Weisz) but there is an interesting inhibition. "They can't kiss!" explains Reeves. "They want to kiss but they can't kiss so they don't kiss but they want to. And at the end of the film they say that they want to see each other again, so it's romantic in that sense."
Will there be another Constantine movie? "My contract didn't include a second film, but myself and some of the producers and Francis Lawrence, the director 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 next 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 said, 'No... he wants to stop the Revelation.' So we went through these kinds of things with the story.
"Ultimately it is up to the audience, because we would need the resources to go forward with it. But I really would love to play Constantine again as long as I worked with the same people. I mean Francis and Akiva Goldsman and everyone involved in this project because I could not imagine doing this with everyone involved."
Perhaps a trilogy?
"A trilogy?" Reeves laughs. "Why stop there? We could have 'Son of Constantine'. And I'll play him too, with 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 think Francis did such a remarkable job on this film that I don't think we're going to be able to hire the guy again. He's gone!"
It is reported that Reeves had some input in the script, is this true?
"Yes. I wanted to bring out the human side of him. At the end of the film, he says "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 in mysterious ways. Some people like it, some people don't..." That was my line. And that for me was the ground for where Constantine ends up. There's still that ambivalence but there's an acknowledgement."
Does Reeves see acting as a form of repentance? "Oh yes," he says. "In my art, I'm making up for what I do in life. That's my penance."
Penance? Hang on... tell us more about that! "Oh yes, do tell!, " he smiles. "You see! No one cares about heaven, they just want the dirt. Because we can all relate to that!"