Keanu Reeves is an actor with a distinctive name, and even more distinctive are the names of the characters with whom he has become so widely and belovedly associated: Johnny Utah, John Constantine, Neo. Next month, the world will come to add another moniker to the indellible cannon of Reeves: John Wick.
During Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, we got the chance to sit down with Keanu and discuss this brutal, and yet deeply emotional crime actioner. His insights were as sharp as the blades and broken bottles that dispatched so many of his character's enemies.
Keanu first broke down for us the appeal of playing hitmen on screen.
They’re fun. I haven’t played that many hitmen, but with John Wick, I was attracted to his grief. I liked the intensity of his emotion; the connection that he felt to the life that he was living and leaving the past behind. Then, once his life and honor is violated, the unleashing of this Old Testament, Greek mythological force. There’s something about his power. I like the vulnerability and then the power to do something about it. I think that’s what the audience reacts to as well. We enjoy seeing someone being capable of overcoming odds or to reclaim something that’s been lost.
I then asked about his suit, and whether his threads (his own Jean-Pierre Melville-like armor) helped him drop into the character.
Absolutely. It was a big part of the preproduction and creative process with the directors and the wardrobe designer. What is he going to wear? What does that suit look like? And then it turned into the hair, the beard; length of hair, beard or no beard? How does this suit fit? What does it all mean, this armor, this character, this transformation? It was fun to put that together. The filmmakers had a real definite feeling they wanted to convey. When they saw the silhouette of John, it was there. When you put it on, it felt right. Also, when he looks at his own reflection, he has a reticence. There’s an ambivalence to it, but he’s also gonna do it. It’s there.
What about its action scheme sets John Wick apart from other action films?
I’m a Raid 2 guy. I like dramatic and emotional action as opposed to spectacle action. I like when there’s a story, and that’s often achieved by being able to put the character in the world. I got really lucky with who I worked with on Point Break, and on Speed, and then with the Wachowskis. To be working with people who were able to put in me in places where normally you couldn’t go; whether it was under a bus or on a surfboard or doing a certain kind of gunfight. With John Wick, we had longer takes. Not necessarily cutting to close-ups and then cutting wide or jittery camera, they wanted to do a different style. I like that. I like that you can connect with the performer and the story because you’re there and you believe that that’s happening. It’s a different kind of wind, and I’m a fan.
If you are impressed by the action sequences, but find yourself assuming that all the heavy lifting was done by stunt doubles, we discovered that not only did Reeves do his own stunts, but he wasn't exactly given oodles of time to rehearse.
The filmmakers come from a stunt background. I met them on The Matrix trilogy and they’ve done second unit directing for films like Hunger Games, The Expendables, 300, and a lot of Statham movies. They raised the bar really high. They wanted to do long takes, and not so many cuts. They wanted to integrate pistol work with judo and jujitsu. They introduced me to some professionals to teach me those different skills. In this film, I didn’t get to do two months of training with choreography. I was learning choreography the weekend before we shot it or two nights before we were doing it. The fight with Adrianne Palicki, I learned the day we shot it. They tried to give me a skill set and then they said, “ok Keanu, we’ve built you this room and we have a bunch of things for you to do. And everybody else around you has been practicing…go!” I liked that challenge, but it was new territory for me.
We were curious about the specific underworld created by the film, and its intricate set of rules and honor codes.
The breaking of rules, that’s sort of the architecture of storytelling, and almost the architecture of how we mature. “Don’t do this, do this.” How you interact culturally. When you go into a story, those lines are delineated and investigated. I like the idea of fate. I like the idea of the underworld having an honor to it. I think of John Wick as an emissary; he’s almost an emissary for himself. Chad [Stahelski] spoke about the Greek myth aspect of it: the talismans, the gatekeepers, the Zeus in charge, the Charons crossing in different places with different powers.
We wondered how critical Reeves was of his own performance once he saw it with an audience.
I’m pretty critical of my own work before the audience gets there. If I’m in an environment with an audience, I hope they like it. I’ve had a couple of moments in screenings, when the audience connects to the material; you can hear that and feel that. For me, that’s part of that wanting to tell the story. Then the private dialogue sometimes intrudes, “we got that, cool, that was ok” etc. Also, as a performer, you’re looking at other people’s choices. You’re looking at the editorial decisions, if what you’d hope for in preproduction got realized. Like the suit! You hope that works.
So, paraphrasing the title of your well-known indie film, you engage in your own private dialogue?
Oh my god! There’s the headline! John Wick in his own private dialogue!
[John Wick](movie:1116115) is in theaters on October 24th.