Action with soul: Keanu Reeves talks John Wick
by Mark Hanson
Who is the enigma that is Keanu Reeves? This question rattled around in my head as I made my way over to the luxury Trump Hotel for an interview with the man himself. Well, my major thought was more like, 'Oh my god, I'm about to talk to KEANU F—KING REEVES. In person. What the hell am doing?' But pushing up against that was the whole enigma question.
Despite being one of the most recognizable A-list Hollywood celebrities of our time, Reeves has carefully built an aura of mystery around himself. He may be simultaneously revered and sometimes unfairly mocked, yet you can never quite pin him down. Plus he's played some near-mythical parts in some of the biggest action blockbusters of the past 25 years. And now I was about to converse with him about his return to that world in what is shaping up to be one of the bigger surprises of this fall season, John Wick.
So after meeting him, I can confirm that he has every bit the Zen attitude that is often associated with his persona. He was kind, attentive, laid back and, above all, really excited to be talking about his new project. And he should be. John Wick is a hugely fun and action-packed flick about a former hitman, the titular character, who goes on a warpath of vengeance against his former employers after some thugs steal his car and kill his dog. It also casts Reeves in arguably his most badass role since The Matrix (although I admit I'm partial to his turns in Constantine and, yes, Street Kings).
"It's nice playing a full-blooded rich character," says Reeves about the role. "I liked the emotion of John, I liked in the opening where we see his grief and how that grief turns into a kind of determination. I had a lot to chew on and it's kind of what you look forward to. I mean, the film's an action movie but it feels like one that has a lot of soul to it and has a lot of fun."
Throughout his career, Reeves has always been generous participating in projects from novice directors, and John Wick is another example. It's helmed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, longtime stuntmen who have worked with Reeves in the past, making their directing debut. "I met Chad in 1998 on the first Matrix and then Dave on the second two," Reeves explains."I worked with Chad over the years on different films and Chad and Dave started an action design company – a stunt company. Then they started doing second unit and the past couple years I saw them developing stories. So I sent them the script at first to do the action but I was secretly hoping they would like it and want to direct it."
"I didn’t really think of them as first time directors," he continues. "They had such a physical production side and they'd been taking other people's visions and putting them on-screen as the responsibility of a second unit director. It felt to me that they were ready for this next step and with the vision that they pitched it was really exciting."
Reeves has long been a pro when it comes to hand-to-hand combat but the fight scenes in this film are a little messier than what he’s done in the past. "I wanted John Wick to have a grace and a 'rough around the edges' grit," he relates. "I like how he suffers. He gets beat up." And at 50 years old, Reeves still looks like he did 20 years ago, due to his commitment to training and doing as much action as he can himself. "They set me up with some great instruction and I worked for about three months and when we were filming, still doing it," he recalls. "The directors wanted long takes and not a lot of cutting so you had to be there and you had to do it. Great collaborations, the dance of it, with all of the other people in the scene, you have to get all the timing right and then with the camera. So I got to learn new things, you know, the judo, the jiu-jitsu, the driving. But I am pretty familiar with what it takes to do those kinds of action sequences so that gives you a bit of efficiency."
I suggest that the film has a bit broader of a scope and mythology than a lot of other straight action films that you see these days and Reeves agrees. "Yeah, everybody has these mysterious pasts and connections. It all feels organic to it. There’s a lot of synthesizing going on through the lens of Chad and Dave and the writer and then with the cinematographer, Jonathan Sela. There's definitely a kind of imagistic cross-talk going on with graphic novel, anime, and all sorts of different kinds of cinema, meaning the camera angles and then the palates that they chose. I think it has its own John Wick-ian voice to it and it's fun."
That type of stylization applies to the identity of the character of John as well. "I think it's a very handsome movie. The costuming, the production design is really great. And in terms of John's suit and shirts and tie, for me I thought of it as his armor, you know, so he's putting on this costume of death."
"There is the fantasy element, you know, you go into a room and you shoot a lot of people and you don't die," he elaborates. "You're almost kind of this immortal person who doesn't know they're immortal. So from the performance standpoint, there's a lot of pleasure there. You know, the audience gets to go on that ride too. There is something good about that focus, that kind of directional juggernaut. It's clean."
By the end of the interview, it's clear that Reeves just had a blast making this movie. And yet, like so many of the characters he plays, he's intrigued by the larger existential themes.
"I love this genre. I love when action can go into character and new worlds and have something to say. John Wick is intelligently quiet about the layers that it has – in terms of causality, fate, past, present… all that fun stuff."