Interview: Keanu Reeves
by Andrew Parker
Keanu Reeves looks like he could be a hitman. Or maybe it’s just that his latest character, the titular assassin John Wick (in theatres this Friday), looks a lot like Keanu Reeves. Dressed in a slim lined black suit and tie, he exudes class and blends it with a sense of boyish enthusiasm for being able to promote a film he clearly had a lot of fun making. At first when he speaks of the process behind making his latest action thriller, Reeves speaks intelligently and thoughtfully about the film’s blending of character and action, but once we get into specifics, he seems like a kid in the candy store, often acting out some of his favourite fights in the film and how they came together.
Reeves has plenty to be excited about. The veteran actor has had his share of high profile roles in comedies, romances, and serious films, but action is undoubtedly the genre that made him into a star between Point Break, Speed, and the Matrix trilogy, and with John Wick he has added another potentially iconic performance in a fun movie to his resume.
He stars a contract killer who left his old life behind in hopes of settling down with his wife. After his wife passes away from illness, Wick discovers she has posthumously arranged for a puppy to be delivered to John to remind him that he’s loved. However, the idiotic, entitled, hot headed son (Alfie Allen) of a Russian mob boss (Michael Nyqvist) decides he wants to steal John’s vintage GTO, kill the dog, and merely beat the hell out of Wick. Not knowing who John used to be, the young man doesn’t realized the sleeping giant he has awoken, and John sets out on a quest through the New York underworld to get revenge and come back to a place of peace.
Reeves chatted with us yesterday during a brief stop in Toronto to promote the film and talked about Wick as a character, the film’s meticulous design and discipline, his all star cast of co-stars, and how the film’s action sequences came together.
John Wick is a badass, but he isn’t invincible. He’s capable, but extremely vulnerable. Was that something that appealed to you about the film?
Keanu Reeves: Yeah. I like that aspect to it. It’s nice to play a full-blooded, rich character. I love the emotion of his grief that we catch in that opening scene and how that grief turns into a determination. It was a fun role to play. I had a lot to chew on, and that’s what you look forward to.
I mean, the film’s an action movie, but it’s one that has a lot of soul to it and has a lot of fun.
I guess it starts with the script and the character in the script, and what’s the story. For me it goes characters, story, who’s doing it and who’s involved. That’s just your own taste. How do you feel about things? How do you feel about what you’re looking at? For John Wick I just really like the central character of John Wick and I love the different tones. There’s this real world and then this underworld of “criminals,” let’s call them. I loved the rules and the codes. There was something fresh about it.
Now, you pushed for Chad Stahelski and David Leitch to direct the movie, right? You worked with them in the past, so what skills did you see in them that made you want to fight for them to make the movie their way and what sort of role did you play in getting the film made their way?
KR: I met Chad in 1998 on the first Matrix and then met Dave on the second two. We continued to stay in touch and work together. Chad and Dave started an action design company, a stunt company, of sorts. Then they started doing second unit directing, and after that they started developing some stories. I had met with them about a few stories before, so I sent them the script as soon as I got it with hopes they would at least do the action. I was secretly hoping, though, that they would direct it. Then they shared with me and our producer, Basil Iwanyk, and they all together just had a great take on it and vision for the film, not only in terms of the action, but the world that they created.
They’re such fans, but they have such love for creating worlds and not just action, and they have a love for literature, character, storytelling. Chad really knows everything there is to know about “the hero journey” in all of its incarnations in literature and cinema. They had their instruments and they were working in their craft. I never thought of them as first time directors. They had such a physical side of the production here, and they had previously been working on helping to bring other people’s visions to the screen as second unit and stunt directors. I knew they were ready for the next step, and with the vision that they pitched, it was exciting.
They were really collaborative with the script and the character, the whole thing. I’ve had some experience making movies, so (laughs)… I just wanted to help them out to fully realize their version of the script. So I was around. Doin’ stuff. (laughs)
I don’t know if you know this or not, but I’ve been acting. (laughs) But I certainly didn’t JUST wear the actor hat on this one. But the idea of playing John and being able to concentrate on the focus and his will and purpose was key. I mean, this film is personal in ways that a lot of films like this aren’t. I go way back with these fellas, so there’s a real “let’s go team” feeling that makes it more personal for me in ways that films often aren’t.
And I love this genre. I love when action films can show a lot of character. I love when they can go into different worlds and find something new to say. I think John Wick is intelligently quiet with everything it has to say about causality, the past, the present, revenge, all that fun stuff.
You have been in some of my favourite fight scenes in film history, but I was wondering about the kind of discipline it takes to portray a character as cool and professional as John Wick. He’s great at his job, but he often has to fight really dirty fights. It’s well choreographed stuff, but there’s an edge to it, weapons training, and it’s not really standard kinds of fighting.
KR: I mean, for me that’s the fun of it. He’s a mythical assassin, so he has to have a certain kind of efficiency that I liked. And the guys, the directors, are all very detail oriented and focus on specific techniques, so if that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for – how does he have time to reload, the judo, some of the transitions into Ju-jitsu. Even if you’re a car person, there’s some cool and specific stuff going on. And I had some great teachers. They set me up with some great instructors. We worked ahead of time for about three months, and we were still learning as we went along. I love to learn. I love when character can be… what is it that Harrison Ford says? “Physical acting!” (laughs) But you take that physicality and put that back into the character.
The directors wanted to do long takes and not a lot of cutting, so you had to be there and you had to be able to do it. It was such a great collaboration being able to work out the dance of it all. You have to have all the settings right, the timing right, then be able to do that with the camera. I learned a lot of new things, especially the Ju-jitsu and the driving. I’m pretty familiar with what it takes to do those kinds of action sequences, though, so that gives you a better efficiency.
And thanks, man. I wanted John Wick to have a grace, but still stay rough around the edges. I like how he suffers. He gets beat up. A lot.
Yeah, every fight he gets into he gets really pummelled. And considering the long takes, how many times on average did you guys have to go through and shoot these fights?
KR: Well, we had about 40-some-odd days to film the picture and we probably shot about 18 days that were action days. I’ll just say this: there’s an Australian company called iCool, and they make these tubs that chill water. I had one of those in my apartment. It was set at 17 degrees Celsius. During the action stuff I would be sitting in that when I got done and almost never come out just to try and recuperate.
You guys also didn’t really have a ton of time to prepare these action sequences ahead of time, did you? Or at least not as much as what you’re probably used to.
KR: Yeah. The directors knew that they always wanted to shoot in New York because the film is based in New York, and they knew they wanted long takes and not a lot of cutting, and they wanted me to do as much as I physically could. I was, like, “YES!,” but then to make that work to bring character and action together in the right mix, time sometimes becomes one of the things that gets sacrificed.
For this I did three months of training with the different techniques, but I did that because I had to know it right away on set. Comparatively, the scene in the second Matrix film where Neo fights all of the Smiths has over 500 moves, and I trained with the same stuntmen for six weeks from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon to be able to do that for just one scene.
For this they would have me train with certain moves, certain throws, and how to be thrown. So I gained what they call a toolbox, and I added to that because I got to work with an Army special ops guy who showed me different techniques, so Wick has a lot of different techniques.
Often times because we didn’t always know what a set would be like and because we were under a time crunch, I would get to know about a fight maybe the weekend before. The fight I have with Adrianne Palicki I learned maybe two hours before we shot it. The scene when I first come into the nightclub was like that, too. A lot of it was learning through walkthroughs. It was pretty intense.
That sounds like “action improv”
KR: (laughs) It definitely was “action improv,” yeah. But that’s where the directors’ experience comes in and knowing who to play off of and hiring the right people for the job. A couple of these guys I had worked with before. Daniel Bernhardt, who I do the renovation fight with and who throws me over the balcony, played one of the Smiths in that Matrix fight, so we already had a fighting history. It’s just shorthand and trust. We could work things out fast, but it’s intense. It’s a high wire act to a certain extent because you only have so much time. But that’s what gives the film both its formalism and grace – because he’s good at what he does – and this improvisational immediacy that I think really comes off the screen in different ways. John has to register in the middle of a fight, “Oh, fuck! That’s happening!”
The character of John Wick is interesting because he has a mythology about him that we don’t even totally know, and he lives in this criminal underworld full of people that have similar stories that we know just as much about. How much did you guys discuss the creation of the world that John moves within and how he fits into it? Was there anything that got left out or anything you wanted to explore more?
KR: That really comes mostly from the writer, Derek Kolstad, and he had it all pretty well fleshed out. In going through conversations with Chad and Dave, they wanted to highlight the idea of fate and certainly the perspective of the villain, Viggo, that rose more than a little bit. It was great because Derek kept doing drafts when the directors came on board, so it was continually developing.
In terms of what got cut out, you know, the first screening of the movie that I saw was almost two hours and forty minutes, and you know, ehhhhhhh…. (laughs). So I think it’s a version of making things different rather than compromising here. It’s just about getting super specific. That’s what I think gives the film its edge, and certainly it’s momentum. You know, for me, I can’t speak about missing what isn’t there, but I’m really happy with how the film has turned out.
Everyone has this mysterious past and connections to each other. It all feels connected to each other and set in the same world. You know, the gold talismans, the push button land lines, the costuming. It’s modern, futuristic, and retro. There’s a lot of synthesizing going on through the lens of Chad, Dave, and Derek, and the cinematographer, Jonathan Sela. There’s a kind of imagistic crosstalk that can be had here with graphic novels, anime, and all kinds of cinema. The camera angles and the palates that they chose created its own John Wick-ian voice to it. And that’s fun to watch even after you make it.
The character of John Wick isn’t a bad guy, but he’s a REALLY bad guy…
KR: (laughs) Yeah! The bad guy who isn’t the bad guy but is really bad. I like to think about that because that goes back to thinking about the history of these characters and how they set their moral compasses. What was John’s history? What was the history of Willem Dafoe’s character’s history? Was he a mentor of John’s? Maybe John was some kind of orphaned kid who went into the military, got into special ops, went in deep, deep, deep, deep, got trained, got a connection to Winston, got in with the underworld, and became this mythological guy.
I always thought of John as someone who was just good at his job. I never thought of John as someone who would be killing innocents. He wasn’t THAT guy. He was the cleaner, or the job that had to get done, and that’s still terrible, but those are his choices. The thing that’s enjoyable to watch about that is not only is he physically and emotionally suffering, but he has a kind of power and determination. There is the fantasy element of walking into a room where you get to shoot a lot of people, get shot at, and you don’t die, and you feel like this immortal person who doesn’t realize he’s very mortal. From a performance standpoint, there’s a lot of pleasure in there, and I think the audience gets to go along for that ride. I think there’s something great in that kind of focus and directional juggernaut. [smiles maniacally and taps his fingers] It’s clean! (laughs)
Did John’s choice of suits and desire to be well dressed when he sets off on his mission affect your performance?
KR: Yeah. There’s a nice, sartorial perspective to the picture. It’s a very handsome movie, you know? All of the characters are like that. I think the design of everything and the look of it is great. In terms of John’s suits and shirts and tie, I thought of that as his armour. He’s putting on this costume of death. And that’s interesting because that’s in the tradition of the storytelling that surrounds those kinds of characters. How do they dress? What do they do with it? What is their world like? For me, putting on the Wick suit was great for that. He double knots his shoes, ties his tie in a half-windsor. Those things certainly inform the formalism of the character. The ritual of putting it together and having that control shows the control he needs to navigate his world.
When the film moves to The Continental – this place where assassins can hang out with immunity and not kill each other – there are a lot of other great characters that get introduced. Do you think there’s potential there for a spin off with one of the other characters where John Wick might pop up in a smaller role? Maybe not a sequel, but a side story?
KR: Yeah! The world really lends itself to that. Certainly the way we watch stories now, we certainly consider that. That’s not something new, but it’s around now. And that’s great because all of that excites curiosity. We’re excepted about these other people and other places. That shows how well everything’s achieved and realized.
I know Derek had some interests about what John Wick does and what he’ll do, but when we were making the film we didn’t talk too much about it. Actually, no. We spoke a lot about the “impossible mission” that Michael Nyqvist’s character speaks about. [in Nyqvist’s voice] “So I gave him an impossible task.” So what was that?!? (laughs) It was a night of death. What was that? We spoke about that, so in terms of exploring that further, I love the part, but that’s up to the audience if that’s what they want.
That scene where you have your backstory explained – that “impossible mission” speech – is one of those really great genre scenes where it gets cut together with your character coming out of retirement. Now when you read the script, you must not know how that’s going to look, and I think it’s a great scene, so what’s it like as a fan of these kinds of movies to see your character revealed once and for all as an ultimate badass? Do you still get a charge out of seeing how scenes like that turn out?
KR: OH YEAH! Yeah! That was something that actually came out of the collaborations between the directors and the writer; this whole idea of how Wick comes down into his basement with a sledgehammer. I just said, “What if symbolically he had all this stuff in his house, still, and he never got rid of it, but he BURIED IT?” And then everyone was like, “YEAH! And we’ll shoot it like this!” The directors brought that cross cutting. There were a couple of other sequences that were like that, too.
But man, to me, that stuff is just a whole bunch of fun! Yeah. That was really fun. And how can you not have fun on a movie when you come into work for a driving scene, and someone says something to you, like, “You’re going to stop and do a 180 and you’re going to hit someone and they’re going to go flying over the car and while they’re flying through the air, you’re going to shoot them.” (laughs) And then I just add to that and ask [excitedly], “Can I shoot at them while I’m driving, too?” “YEAH!” (laughs) So you’re just there driving and shooting. There was a lot of fun stuff like that.
Those moments are the ones where you secretly start to see that even though John put his old job behind him, he still kind of loves it. The scene where you get to shout out and exclaim that you’re back is kind of like that, too.
KR: Yeah, and that was another one of those scenes that came together through our collaborations. I was feeling like we needed to hear from John because everyone around him has been saying through the whole film things like “It’s just a car.” Or “It’s just a dog.” I thought we needed Wick to be as pissed off as possible to tell us what it was. We got to have that moment where John just sees his old voice come out and have everyone else be, like, “Woah, okay, dude.” (laughs) But even the fight in that scene kept getting degrees of difficulty added to it, like making him fight handcuffed with a plastic bag over his head. (laughs) It was almost designed to obstruct. But yeah, that was so intense and fun.
It was fun in a way to get to say and do those things because there’s such a big set up. It’s guttural and unabashed and so full of feeling.
We know it’s John’s story, but you get to work with an amazing cast. We talked about Michael Nyqvist, but there’s also John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick…
KR: I fucking love Lance Reddick, man. “Welcome back, Mr. Wick.” (laughs) We just attracted such great talent, and I really had no idea who was coming on some of the time. I would just start to go, “We got Ian McShane to play Winston? ALRIGHT!” (laughs) The script had an allure to it, and when people meet Chad and Dave it helped because they could communicate a clear vision and how it would look and what they wanted to do and how they wanted to work. I got to sit down with Willem, and Ian, and even with John even though we only had the one scene. That was the first time we see the history of the past. And I also wanted to say that Alfie Allen is just great in this.
And no one is one dimensional. It doesn’t feel like these people are there to serve one specific plot element. It’s just like the plot interrupted them, you know what I mean? They are in their world and Wick interrupts everything. Then you get the information and you see that all of these characters by and large have this affection for John Wick. He IS that bad-good guy. He must have the most honour amongst thieves.