Despite the insistent sunlight, it was a chilly morning as Warner Brothers pictures took over at least three floors of the prestigious Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills to host the freaks and geeks of the media, covering “Hellblazer,” the big screen Vertigo adaptation. This afforded the Comic Reel a chance to sit in on roundtables with many of the cast and makers of the film. The following is part three of the summary of that wild day of pork-laden craft services and overpowering air conditioning.
Near the end of the media circus, all the reporters were dragged into one room to hear Keanu Reeves speak to the assembled media. With a full beard and a quick wit, he bantered and chatted with reporters, and the following is the result.
Q: 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 British to American?
KEANU: 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. 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.
Q: Several roles you’ve played have had a very spiritual side to them?
KEANU: Like “The Gift”? (laughter)
Q: 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?
KEANU: They have no idea what they’re talking about. 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 — 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.
Q: You were in “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?
KEANU: 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 my 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.
Q: You’ve been Buddha, you’ve been Neo the Messiah, you’ve been “Johnny Mnemonic,” the Messiah, you’ve been pitted against Satan (Al Pacino) … This one seems to have dug deepest into established religious tradition, all kinds of vocabularies & rituals. 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?
KEANU: 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 icons 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 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.
Q: What do you get from acting at this point?
KEANU: 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.
Q: 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?
KEANU: Repentance. I think the aspect of repentance is born and expressed in his final act when he asks from — as he calls Lucifer “Lu” — 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. He’s just like Santa Claus.
Q: At what point did you feel you knew the character?
KEANU: 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 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 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 hard boiled … 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.
Q: Talk about the non-kissing scenes with Rachel?
KEANU: 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 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, 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 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.
Q: How do you feel about the possibility of another franchise, risking a sequel not living up to expectations?
KEANU: 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, “No, 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.
Q: A trilogy?
KEANU: 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.
Q: He’ll want to protect his baby.
Q: Are you more attracted to something serious? Why attracted to “Constantine?”
KEANU: 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.
Q: Did you have input into the spirituality of the character?
KEANU: 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 approach 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” — 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 acknowledgment and in that acknowledgment 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] ‘Hey, 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 spiritual — but it’s flesh and blood.
Q: Are you trying to affect the world in a positive way?
KEANU: In my art. I’m making up for what I do in life. That’s my penance.
Q: Tell us about that.
KEANU: Oh yes, do tell. See, no one cares about heaven, they just want the dirt. Because we can relate to that.
Q: Is acting a vehicle to affect the world?
KEANU: 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 f***ed 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.
Q: Any tough physical stunt work you did yourself instead of stuntmen or CGI?
KEANU: 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.
Q: You asked your mom at 15 if you could do this?
KEANU: I was a good boy. It wouldn’t have mattered what she said by the way, but you know.
Q: What inspired you to want to be an actor?
KEANU: I had an experience once in second grade. You know how people often talk about how they see a fireman or — often times it’s mostly firemen or policemen. They see a fireman 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.
Q: You must have enjoyed them being there.
KEANU: I don’t remember that part. My stepfather, I remember he’s a director and I went to a couple of rehearsals when I was younger. I was a production assistant on a production he was doing. I was bringing soda to Lilian Gish when Star Wars was coming out. She’s like, “Cinema these days.” And I had read a book about D.W. Griffith when I was 14 so I was like, “I know what you mean.” It was a great honor for me. She was a lovely, lovely lady. So I was always around it. I was going to theaters and rehearsals with my stepfather when I was a kid. So I guess it’s probably my tradition.
Q: Did you go to movies all the time?
KEANU: Yeah, I did. Sometimes instead of school.
Q: Instead of school?
KEANU: Shhh. Yeah, but also the Toronto Film Festival, the first year I went was in 1983 when Blood Simple was there. That was the year I went. I remember I would write down all the films I saw that year and I think it was like 76 films.
Q: You missed school that week.
KEANU: Well I was going to films and that, and I remember like, you know, there’s a beautiful, wonderful cinema in Toronto called the Bloor Street Cinema. And I remember like, summer nights just like riding my bike and just going, getting, locking my bike up and going into a movie — I didn’t even know what it was! But I would just go and they had salty good popcorn and I’d just chill out.
Q: 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.
KEANU: The adversarial scenes are good clean fun. You know, I like how Gavin had such an enjoyment, he’s such a, you 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 know. But in terms of terms of us acting them, it was like, I love that constant thing where you just can’t. He’s like “Aarrrrggg,” and when you come close he’d be just like “I’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.
Q: Did you “jam?”
KEANU: Pardon me?
Q: Did you “jam?”
KEANU: No, no, no.
Q: Did you play guitars at all?
Q: Does Dogstar still exist?
KEANU: No, it doesn’t.
Q: Do you know what you are doing next?
KEANU: Yeah, hopefully I am working with Sandra Bullock on a film called …
Q: “Speed 3?”
KEANU: Well it’s um.. (laugh) don’t laugh, we might make that! Um.. what would that be? “Sped.” Yep, there it is! Ummm, Darn it … aarrrggghhh.
Q: You got a role?
KEANU: No, yeah hopefully working with Sandra Bullock, it’s an adaptation of “Il Mare” and it is with Alejandro Agresti and it is just straight out romance.
Q: What is it called?
KEANU: Well the titles are changing, it is not going to be “Il Mare,” the script that I, the last draft that I read it was called “The Lake House.”
Q: You mentioned before the ambivalent peace that you admire that he was able to seek.
Q: The gift that he was given, there seems like there is a parallel with what you have to deal with. To find some sort of ambivalent peace with all of the fame and success versus the artistic work that you want to do.
KEANU: No I don’t think that those are two separate things … I mean those are not disconnected. I mean if I have any kind of success, per se, it comes from the work that I do or am involved in, um. and so that, that is connected and in terms of the other aspects, I did “Constantine” with Warner Brothers, but they hired me and I don’t know if they would have hired me to do this, if I, they hadn’t had any success with a project that I was involved in, you know with “Matrix” or “The Devil’s Advocate,” the studios have shown, they have been a great supporter of the work I do and want to do. That aspect of star and fame is a by-product of you know, work that I have done or been involved in and people have enjoyed hopefully.
Q: So it doesn’t get in the way, you put on a black suit and people say “Matrix” rather than the character that you are premiering?
KEANU: Do they? I mean for me when I saw the film I was transported by the film and hopefully the film was engaging enough for the whole two hours and six minutes that you are not going he is wearing a black coat, he is wearing a black coat … he is wearing a black coat. You know I am sorry I don’t mean to be flippant, but hopefully they are not. You know what I mean … and um, you know — wasn’t he wearing a stethoscope before? And there is an aspect to it that I don’t want to be personally. You now in that sense, you know a lot of people say why are you guarded. I’m not, I just want the character to be able to exist of the screen and trappings and anything things that I can not bring to that is, to just have the character to exist is my aim and hope and you know if they both wake up searching for worlds and or if they both have a similarity in costume that hopefully it does not get in the way of them getting engaged in the piece and enjoying it, you know.
Q: Keanu, the purpose of film is to connect with other people, obviously one of the major purposes, your character John Constantine seems very alienated both from other people and also from God …
KEANU: No he is very connected with God, he just doesn’t understand what is happening. He is very connected, his whole life is intertwined with God.
Q: But there is a sense of in terms of he can’t seem to get there and do what God wants him to do to get to heaven.
Q: How do you see this resonating in an alienated culture, how do you expect your audiences to connect with your character?
KEANU: Well this is an alienated character in an alienated culture. I don’t know what else to say and a part of that journey is about connecting, and he does connect, and so hopefully part of the film is about the worthwhile offering it can bring.
Q: What is the period like between when you finish your job on set and then go and have to wait for the first cut are you often surprised by what you see is it something and then you put it aside?
KEANU: I tend to like to see things as soon as I can , but, like on this experience you know, you wait for the director’s cut, you know, you might say Francis when are you cutting it? He like, he’ll see. It is always a developing process and Francis worked extremely and everyone involved worked extremely hard in editing this film and ah, and finding it. we did additional shooting, we did um, finding the character of it and working on it and ultimately we made the best film, Francis made the best film we could make and which I thank him for. Yeah I mean in the past there has been a couple of times that I saw a cut and I called the director up and I said can we meet but that has only happened a couple of times, in the past seven years before that, I remember this one film that I did called Young Blood and I played French and I played this character and I am like I’m gonna go see the movie, come on let’s go see the movie and then I’m like where is my scenes? And that never goes away you know.
Q: But now you have the power to sort of influence how the final cut is going to be?
KEANU: No, no, no, no, at least now they pretend to listen, before I couldn’t even get into the room, but now, that is nonsense, you it depends, you know with who I am collaborating with you know it depends.
Q: How open they are to it?
KEANU: No not how open they are to it, it is a process I would never presume to, you know like on a film like “Thumbsucker,” I have a small role, I am a character player in the piece and I would never presume to walk in the room, but in a film, where I am, where it is a lead character I might. I think that is in the relationship, you know.