Constantine: An Interview with Keanu Reeves
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By Todd Gilchrist
Keanu Reeves has been working in Hollywood for more than twenty years, but it seems like he still isn't satisfied with his career. After a glut of comedies branded him a brainless leading man, he rebounded with arty fare, action movies, and finally independent (or at least independent-minded) pictures. Somewhere along the way, he became one of the world's biggest stars, but the critical credibility he yearns for still eludes him; with "Constantine", he hopes that it will finally arrive. Reeves recently spoke to blackfilm.com to discuss his latest role, the challenges of anchoring, well, anything after the immeasurable success of "The Matrix" films, and keeping his head on straight in an industry that's notoriously shaky.
WE HEAR YOU GUYS HAD SOME MEAN PING PONG GAMES GOING ON BEHIND THE SCENES.
Keanu Reeves: Yes, we had one remarkable afternoon of ping pong.
KR: Francis Lawrence as a gift gave me a ping pong table that had Constantine written on it, and while we were on the soundstages at Warner Brothers, Djimon was saying that he had some game, and he did.
WHAT OTHER ACTIVITIES WITH CAST MEMBERS?
KR: Ah, that was it for frivolity. But we all got along really well and there was a great enthusiasm in the piece from the crew to the cast, which I think is just a testament to the work that we were working on.
IN THIS MOVIE YOUR CHARACTER SMOKES A LOT. HOW MANY TOBACCO DID YOU SMOKE?
KR: Too much. Yeah, it's kind of a I guess it's a character trait that the character has, and I guess he's dealing with a lot and it's a kind of tool to help him numb himself.
DO YOU SMOKE?
KR: Yeah, I do.
WHAT WAS YOUR FAMILIARITY WITH THE COMIC BOOKS AND WHAT DID YOU FEEL ABOUT SOME OF THE CHANGES SUCH AS THE FACT HE WAS CHANGED FROM U.K. TO U.S.?
KR: I wasn't familiar with the character before I read the script, and when the script came to me, that aspect of the character being based in London and being English had changed already. So I wasn't aware of that. When I read the script and then familiarized myself with the work, I saw that what was important was really the essence of Constantine, and we worked really hard to keep that aspect of it, because it's really what it's all about. That kind of hard-edged, hard-boiled, world-weary cynical, fatalistic, nihilistic, self-interested with a heart. (laughter). And I think we did. 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 ROLES YOU'VE PLAYED HAVE HAD A VERY SPIRITUAL SIDE TO THEM.
KR: Like "The Gift"? (laughter)
AND SOME OF THE ACTORS WE TALKED TO TALKED ABOUT YOUR PREPARATION AND SAID THAT YOU KEPT A LOT OF JOURNALS ABOUT VARIOUS SIDES OF SPIRITUALITY. CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE RESEARCH?
KR: They have no idea what they're talking about. I think (coughs) Excuse me. I mean it's just you know in the process for me it's writing things down, thoughts . . . for working on the role. In terms of I wasn't keeping I wasn't carrying around the Path of the Peaceful Warrior in that sense. I think the film speaks for itself in a way, and that's really what I was working on. If I had anything that was like that, it was a script called Constantine and the journey that character takes for his kinda learning about this kind of curse that was given to him as a kid. "A gift," another character says, but Constantine doesn't see it quite like that. I think part of the journey is Constantine understanding his life and the circumstances, and he comes to a kind of ambivalent peace of sorts. So really in a way it was the script, and we were all part of that.
REGARDING "THUMBSUCKER" AT SUNDANCE, AND I WAS WONDERING WHETHER OR NOT IT'S IMPORTANT OF YOU TO TRY TO MIX AND MATCH . . . GOING FROM A VERY SMALL MOVIE LIKE THAT TO A BIG ONE . . .
KR: I've been really fortunate to be able to do different kinds of films in different scales 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 in the career so far, and it's something I hope to continue because it's interesting to me and you know, you get to do different things as an actor. There's a certain for me joy in the diversity of roles. It's something I like to do if I can.
YOU'VE BEEN BUDDHA, YOU'VE BEEN NEO THE MESSIAH, YOU'VE BEEN JOHNNY MNEMOC THE MESSIAH, YOU'VE BEEN PITTED AGAINST SATAN (AL PACINO) . . . THIS ONE SEEMS TO HAVE DUG DEEEPEST INTO ESTABLISHED RELIGIOUS TRADITION, ALL KINDS OF VOCABULARIES . . . RITUALS . . .
KR: And a little Buddha as well.
I'M WONDERING HOW MUCH OF THAT FOR YOU IS MAKE BELIEVE, MEANS SOMETHING TO OTHER PEOPLE, AND HOW DEEPLY THIS SPIRITUAL CONFLICT . . . RESONATES WITH YOU, IF AT ALL.
KR: (Pause) . . . To answer your question I'll start with Constantine. The aspect for me I think of it as a kind of secular religiosity. The piece itself is using ikons and a platform in a kind of catholic heaven-and-hell, god-and-the-devil, human souls, fighting for those. But I find that the piece itself Constantine because of the fact that he knows and I was hoping that these concepts could become a platform that are humanistic, that the journey of this particular hero is hopefully relatable to even though they're such fantastic characters and situations that it's still a man trying to figure it out. In terms of the other roles, I hope ultimately not only are they interesting I think that those kinds of journeys, a hero journey, or Siddartha these are all kind of seeking aspects of hopefully that have something of value in terms of to our lives that we can take with us and hopefully in the works that are entertaining and these kinds of journeys that I think all of us especially in western traditions relate to. I think these motifs of seekers, messiahs, of anti-heroes, heroes all of these aspects are journeys that I think deal with things that we deal with in our day-to-day in a way, and are entertaining. They offer up coming from where do you come from, what are you fighting for . . . and coming into a kind of I don't mean it in a facile way but into a kind of life. I think they're worthwhile, and if we can make them all kinds of stories, story-telling, that is always couched in this kind of engaging entertaining manner, whether it is a shadow play, a circle, a storyteller, our literature . . . the mediums that we communicate these things often times.
WHAT DO YOU GET FROM ACTING AT THIS POINT?
KR: I really love it. it's my craft. When I was 15, I went up to my mother and said, is it okay if I'm an actor? She was like whatever you want, dear. In three weeks I was enrolled in an acting class doing Uta Hagen's Respect For Acting. And acting itself. I think of it as kind of like and I've heard Anthony Hopkins say this you learn about doing it, and it's like painting, I would imagine. The craft of it, the skill of it, the way that you work the paint, the way that you can act. The more you do it, the more you know it, and for me, it's what I love. A good day on the set, creating the work, the piece, the collaboration, expression, is a hoot. I love it. I love it. And hopefully it will continue.
John Constantine seems to be seeking redemption in the wrong way, trying to earn forgiveness, trying to buy off God. Do you think repentance is something he needs to do?
KR: Repentance. I think the aspect of repentance is born and expressed in his final act when he asks from as he calls Lucifer Lou that's his repentance, and I think any sacrifice and what goes on there I think that's what gives him the shot of going upstairs. But there's also the Constantinian twist of make the sacrifice so that he can go to heaven, or does he really mean it? But he does. Ultimately he does, so the man upstairs knows.
AT WHAT POINT DID YOU FEEL YOU KNEW THE CHARACTER?
KR: I really enjoyed the character, but in terms of embodying it when seeking a costume, I went to the costumer and she had a rack of clothes and choices and shoes and stuff, and I was just trying things on. There was a concept for the piece. What clothes fit? It was like trying on the hat it's this one. And I found that moment I remember putting on the jacket and the shoes and I felt a certain way: Yeah, this is the Constantine. So going to rehearsal, you wear your wardrobe and eventually I find that not only do I have a feel but it seems that . . . they seem kind of connected natural . . . when that happens it's great and So I kind of knew his core but in terms of embodying the character I worked on 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 . . (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 humor, that kind of deadpan humor . . . When did I know . . . yeah, it kind of happened a couple of days before I shot. The exorcism was the first scene and that helped a lot too. When I walked from the window and got on the bed how to I get on this bed? And when Constantine stands up and walks over, it's like he's trying to walk over a puddle. I was like okay, I've got it.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE NON KISSING SCENES WITH RACHEL?
KR: It's more fun. It's one of those things that you can see that in the couple that it can be there, and yet it can't be there because it's not the time or place. So there's a bit of a filmmaker having- - there's a bit of a conceit to it, but I think it's part of the enjoyment of the piece, I hope. It's almost like the same thing as an editing choice, like when the car hits the man who finds the spear of destiny, hopefully it's enjoyable and it's something that I think is in the relationship. There's something with what they're going through or some- - actually, I'm not going to go there, but yeah, I think it's just for- - it's there. It's there. They can't kiss, they want to kiss but they can't kiss so they kind of don't kiss but they wanna kiss. And at the end of the film they do say that they have an interest in seeing each other again, so it's romantic in that sense.
How do you feel about the possibility of another franchise, risking a sequel not living up to expectations?
KR: Well, we better not do that because that would suck. You know, my contract didn't have a second film, but myself and some of the producers and Francis Lawrence, the director, and I 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 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 was like, ŚNo, he wants to stop Revelations.' So we would do these kinds of things and ultimately it is up to the audience because that would mean that the studio would have resources to go forward with it. But I would love to play Constantine again as long as I worked with the same people. I mean, definitely Francis Lawrence and Akiva Goldsman and everyone involved in this project because I could not imagine doing this with everyone involved. But I love playing the guy.
DO YOU SEE A TRILOGY WITH THIS FILM?
KR: Trilogy, why stop there? We could have Son of Constantine. And I'll play him too. 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 mean, February 18th, probably by the 30th we'll know. But also, I'm sure Francis Lawrence after this film, because he did such a remarkable job, we're not going to be able to hire that guy. He's gone. He's gone.
ARE YOU MORE ATTRACTED TO SOMETHING SERIOUS? WHAT LED YOU TO TAKE ON CONSTANTINE?
KR: Well, I first came across the script when I was working on The Matrix in Sydney, Australia. I was working on working, so the script came to me and I read it and really enjoyed it. It took, I guess from my first reading to principal photography, it was over a year and a half. So, and in terms of making choices again, it's like what I said earlier, it's trying to have a kind of variety of genre and character. But I said yes to it while I was making The Matrix because I didn't feel that I was repeating myself. I didn't feel like- - Constantine's a very extroverted role. And so much about it is very different to me than the experience I was having in Constantine but it was still a great script and a great idea and a great character.
DID YOU HAVE ANY INPUT INTO THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE CHARACTER? FRANCIS SAID 9 MONTHS ON THE SCRIPT..
KR: Yeah, I had some great time. He's a wonderful collaborator. And I worked with Akiva Goldsman as well who's producing and writing, and met with Frank a couple of times in Sydney. In terms of my impact, the spirituality is a word that I really don't feel is something to apply to Constantine. And if it is, then it's a very humanistic a- - as it always is obviously, but it's more flesh and blood somehow than spiritual. I feel like some kind of flesh and blood aspect of it. My impact in terms of what it was and what it became, one of the expressions is in the end of the film, he's like, "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 his works in mysterious ways. Some people like it, some people don't" is mine. That's mine. And that to me was the ground for where Constantine ends up. And there's still that ambivalence of some people like it and some people don't, but there's an acknowledgement and in that acknowledgement I feel that you're watching the character who's dealing with something that happened to him that he didn't understand. He was given this curse or this gift to be able to see the world beyond the world. And in despair as a young man overwhelmed, he takes his own life and he goes to hell. Comes back from hell, he has no idea why. And I think that search of his trying to orient like, [looks up] ŚHey, fella, I'm doin' all this work, what are you doing to me?' and with people. So that was how I felt, so that was my impact. I don't know if that's- - it's not sp[iritual]- - but it's flesh and blood.
ARE YOU TRYING TO AFFECT THE WORLD IN A POSITIVE WAY?
KR: In my art. I'm making up for what I do in life. That's my penance.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT?
KR: Oh yes, do tell. See, no one cares about heaven, they just want the dirt. Because we can relate to that.
IS ACTING A VEHICLE TO AFFECT THE WORLD?
KR: I think for me personally, I like that aspect in the work that I do because it's what I enjoy in art. I think to go watch a film and spend two hours, to go out or to be entertained, and this doesn't necessarily- - I don't mind showing a negative side as well, like working in a film like The Gift. I didn't play- - that's not a redeemer, that character. But it was part of a story that was about grief and about dealing with grief. So but that film had that element to it. So it's something that I don't want to go to a movie and not have something that I can come away with, that I can either think about that adds to something because if I don't, then it's like why do I want to spend my time for two hours with assholes? It's just like come on, man. Thanks. Thanks for the pedophilia. It's like, "Yeah, I know, we're fucked up, great." Unless of course it's like really good, like kind of anime, but even at the end of that they have transformation, big shooting light. But yeah, if it doesn't have that element to it, I don't really- - it doesn't usually attract my interest. I might look at it and think of it as pornography and it's like oh, great. But it's not worthwhile enough for me to try. Unless of course I'm broke.
Any tough physical stunt work you did yourself instead of stuntmen or CGI?
KR: I don't think there are any CGI Constantines in this one. What did I have to do? I had to, 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 through The Matrix on stunts, he was helping me coordinate it. He's my double. He was just like, "When you land, taco." I said, "What do you mean?" He goes, "Relax, don't fight it." So when I launched, I almost went out of frame. I don't know if you see the film again, I almost go out of frame because I pushed off really. And I'm glad he gave me that information because I was just like [woosh]. But the stuff was pretty- - I mean, there was some wirework. Did that roll in the street when the car is coming, dove and stuff like that, but it's all pretty basic things. Nothing too like- - it wasn't like a triple side kick or a wire deal. But it was fun. I like fake fights and doing all that kind of stuff because it's [UNINTELLIGIBLE].
What inspired you to want to be an actor?
KR: I had an experience once in second grade. You know how people often talk about how they see a fireman or- - oftentimes it's mostly firemen or policemen. They see a fireman and they go- - or a fighter pilot or something like that and they go, "Oh, I want to be that" and they don't know why. I remember this teacher and these two actors came from high school and they came to do a class with the second graders just to do improv's and theater games. And I remember I was looking up at them and I was like, "I want to do that." I have no idea what that means. Was it their bohemia? I don't know. Maybe. I mean, I'm sure I'm obviously reacting with my eyes but I don't know what it was about them.
Keanu, as both you and Gavin are musicians, I was wondering if you guys talked shop and what it was like to do such adversarial scenes with him.
KR: The adversarial scenes are good clean fun. You know, I like how Gavin had such an enjoyment, he's such aŠyou know, he's such a, he's one of those guys who you'd love to hate but you can't. You know, but he is such a gentleman in person and he's, you knowŠ But in terms of terms of us acting them, it was like, I love that constant thing where you just can't Š and he's like Aarrrrggg, and when you come close he'd be just like ŚI'm going to stinkin' kill you'. So we had good, we had fun. It was really enjoyable and he was working on his album, that I believe he is almost finished, my god, I mean he is still making a recording, you know , we spoke a little bit about that and, but umm, umm, yeah.
Just to follow up on what you said about Francis earlier that you didn't want a video director per say working on the film. What changed your mind about that in your initial talks with him?
KR: Yeah that came out in a kinda uneducated bias, in the sense that when it first came to me and the production was looking for a director, I, I wanted, I felt that the film had such a narrative and I didn't want to sometimes when I heard video directors my experience hasŠ I was, I wasŠ waryŠand then I, then I saw a few reels and I saw Francis's reel and I thought that he had kindaŠ he had a classicism a kind of narrative impulse, the way he treated his characters, his performers in those videos was very like a, like a, narrative impulse, you always wanted to, they were telling a story, really revealing something about that character, what they offered and I know all videos do that, demonstrate something, but I felt something beyond spectacle, a quick cut and when I met himŠ he had basically walls of his concepts and I spent about two hours talking about his process and his ideas for the film and walked out of thereŠ um eager to work with him.
Working with Alejandro Agresti
KR: When I went to meet him I had seen only one of his films, ValentinŠ and ah, um I really loved the way that he treated his characters in his cinemaŠ and those choices that those characters made and when I met him, he is just such an interesting man he collects Russian first editions, he makes his own electronics for audio, he makes, he buys tubes, he has made eighteen filmsŠ he, ah his, um, his interest in cinema is his passion and speaking specifically about the piece he had, he conveyed to me such a vision and he such enthusiasm that I was, and I am, he umŠ he would make a really good romance, a really good film. I trust him, I trust his vision, I trust his cinema, I can't wait to see, to work with him, cause he is you know, such a cool cat and very talented so I look forward to working with him.
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