With a business card that reads “Exorcist, Demonologist and Master of the Dark Arts,” John Constantine is definitely not your typical do-gooder or roadside trickster. Based on the mystical character’s not-for-kids “Hellblazer” title, NBC’s “Constantine” finds trench coat-sporting cynic John Constantine hunting down demons across the United States to atone for his past sins, including losing 8-year-old Astra to the malevolent Nergal.
Leading man Matt Ryan spoke to CBR News about the one-time Vertigo headliner’s quest for redemption, touching on the actor’s “Hellblazer” fan bonafides, the promise of more stories making the leap from page to TV and John’s ongoing relationship with voodoo practitioner/crime lord Papa Midnite (Michael James Shaw). We also discuss digging up old skeletons with John’s Newcastle friends, the impending debut of Detective Jim Corrigan — better known to DC Comics readers as the magical hero Doctor Fate — and his reaction to fan criticism over the aspects of the character that haven’t made it to the television screen.
CBR News: What, specifically, did you take away from the comic books when developing your version of John Constantine?
Matt Ryan: Everything, really. I just tried to get as much as possible about the history, the dark sense of humor and his tormented, twisted soul. I just tried to get all those layers together. It wasn’t one specific thing. It was letting the whole thing seep into me.
As you know, there are lots of different writers that have written him, and lots of different artists that have drawn him. It’s interesting to flip between the bunch of them. You get different colors. What I do sometimes is dip into a comic for a specific episode to inspire me.
In previous interviews, you’ve referenced the comic book arc “Dangerous Habits” as one of your favorites. What makes that one stand out?
It’s what John goes through and it’s the height of his trickery, the way he tricks the Devil. There’s that, then there’s this man who is in a desperate human situation. In the comics, I think it was in “The Family Man” run, where John says, “Demons. Devils. I can deal with those. But people…” There’s something about the reality of everyday human problems that John isn’t connected to. That really interests me about him. He can go off and fight a demon, but if somebody has cancer, it freaks him out. It’s a tragic human story with all the demons and devils still in it. That’s the thing I liked.
Did you ever imagine you would be raked over the coals about Constantine’s chain smoking or sexuality?
With such an iconic character, you are going to get scrutinized. I’ve been surprised by the in-depth knowledge of the fans about the character. I kind of expected the feedback, really. Then I thought, “It’s my job to get under his skin as much as possible, so I could do the best portrayal.”
Four episodes into the season, do you consider John a hero or an anti-hero?
Oh, he’s a working class anti-hero. He’s a man’s man. I definitely see him as an anti-hero.
How does Astra’s hellish fate continue to haunt and drive John?
There’s a big theme of redemption. In the pilot, Manny (Harold Perrineau) gives John the glimmer of hope that there might be a chance to save his soul. Through everything we’ve been doing so far, redemption is a huge driving force. It’s the reason he’s pursuing these things and going after The Rising Darkness. That scar on him from Astra will always be with him. That’s such a reminder for him.
John crossed paths with Papa Midnite in last week’s episode, “The Devil’s Vinyl.” What makes the voodoo practitioner a good foil for John?
What I liked about it is Papa Midnite is very specific to voodoo magic. Constantine is a street magician, so he uses what he wants, when he wants, to get what he wants. In an upcoming episode, Papa Midnite has this great line where he says, “What are you doing? You are just messing around with your father’s spellbook.” But what’s great is Papa Midnite is very specific and very good at the magic he does in terms of what he uses and when. John takes what he likes. That gets on Papa’s nerves, and John uses that against him. The fact that Papa is a big crime overlord makes him a good adversary. They really are uneasy allies. They both need each other more than they let on.
Tonight’s episode, “A Feast of Friends,” introduces one of John’s NEwcastle aquaintances Gary Lester (Jonjo O’Neill). What brings Gary to town?
Gary Lester comes to town because he has a problem that he needs John to solve. This is a great character from the comic books, and it’s one of my favorite episodes. Gary is a junkie. He’s somebody with a problem, himself. John grates him, and doesn’t know if he’s telling the truth. There’s a lot of conflict and history in that relationship. What viewers will see is this great “Hellblazer” story pulled directly from the comics and transposed onto the screen.
What does Gary’s presence reveal about John?
It stirs up a lot of the emotions over Astra. It brings out the incident to the forefront with Zed (Angelica Celaya), even though John doesn’t go into detail with Zed about the Newcastle event. She does get some information from Gary. That’s the main thing — here’s this past relationship from back in the day that turns up on John’s doorstep. All those old emotions are whipped up again, and John is John. He just jumps to it, pushes through and gets on with the job.
Do you feel Zed will see John in a different light after this case?
I think so. She realizes the lengths that John is willing to go to get the job done. At the same time, even though Zed has a different moral compass, there’s something in her that realizes he’s right in a way. The world needs people like him. That’s a really interesting development in their relationship.
Viewers have been eagerly awaiting Jim Corrigan/The Spectre’s appearance, which is fast approaching. How do John and Jim bump into each other, and what’s their dynamic?
John and Jim are very similar, but they have a different approach to things. Jim is somebody who seeks justice and will go to any lengths to get it. Whereas, John isn’t someone who seeks justice. He needs to make sure that humanity survives. He will go to any length to do that.
At this point, Jim also doesn’t believe in the supernatural world we’ve been introduced to on “Constantine.” That’s a revelation for him as well.
We’re introduced to Jim because there’s a murder that Jim witnesses and can’t explain. John and his team come across the murder, and Jim, as well. Jim is then thrust into this world of craziness. Papa Midnite is going to be in that episode, too.
What else has you excited about where “Constantine” is heading and the mythology being built by the series?
There’s so much potential for this show, with all the comics and source material we have. The whole world is just an open book. It’s so exciting to know where we’re going week-to-week. I really loved “A Feast of Friends”. Jonjo O’Neill is a really good friend of mine. We worked at The Royal Shakespeare Company ten years ago. When I knew he was up for the part, I was blown away. I was like, “Please let it be him,” because he’s such an awesome actor.
Apart from “A Feast of Friends,” the episodes just get better and better. Sometimes you can have a really good pilot and then the show can’t keep up. I really feel like we’ve gotten to a place where the world is getting bigger. The stories are amazing. Episodes 8 and 9 are my favorites. It’s a two-parter. Even now as I am saying that, I’m thinking, “Well, what about episode 7 or episode 6? Or what about the episode we’re filming now?”
It’s really exciting to know this world is expanding. I’m learning about the mythology, how it all works and the mechanics of it. There’s a deepening of the characters and strengthening of the relationships over the season as well.
Whether it’s with Jim Corrigan or an Easter egg such as Doctor Fate’s helmet, are you one of those guys anxious to see where those storylines are going?
Yeah, I am. I pick up a script, and the writers have dropped Easter eggs for us. We’re like, “Does that mean we’re going in this direction now?” In the script we have now, they dropped a big Easter egg. I called the writer and was like, “So, does this mean we are going to be doing that arc in the comics?” He was like, “Well, you know…” They keep you guessing.
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