By Danny Peary
An action-revenge thriller with a high body count, John Wick opens theatrically this Friday, and the advance word is good. For the Australian magazine FilmInk, I went on a set-visit in Brooklyn last winter with five other international journalists. Filming took place outside, in a large parking lot next to an abandoned bank. It was freezing, causing all of us to huddle around a space heaters between takes. When we could brave the cold, we stood to the side and watched a shoot-out amidst several parked cars, a meticulously choreographed scene that took two days to film. There was a lot of gunfire and well-dressed thugs fell dying into the mud, ruining their suits, and clearly the victor was the title character played by Keanu Reeves. Afterward Reeves, in a dark suit and tie and with slick hair that was parted down the middle, sat in a tent getting his makeup reapplied. He wasn’t made up to look handsome. He emerged with his face covered with scratches, cuts, and blood. That’s how he looked when we did the following, very informal roundtable at a square table in the unheated building. I note my questions as I represented FilmInk.
Q: What are you shooting today?
Keanu Reeves: My character is trying to get to a Russian crime lord, Viggo, played by Michael Nyqvist. To find out where he is, he first goes after Viggo’s son Iosef [Alfie Allen] and he has to kill his henchmen.
Q: Talk about your character.
KR: John Wick is a former assassin who worked for Viggo but fell in love and got married and kind of put his past behind him. He literally buried his past, his guns, in his basement. His wife [Bridget Monahan] passes away from an illness and she gives him her dog. She tells him, you need someone or something to love. John Wick has been robbed of his ability to grieve and to have this kind of hope, but he got this gift from his wife. The son has two henchmen with him and they steal John’s car and kill the dog. So he seeks revenge. The film plays with worlds. There’s the normal world he has lived in and the underground world from his past that he goes back into.
Q: You’re the protagonist in this, and you’re a cold-blooded killer.
KR: Yeah, it’s pretty Old-Testament. It’s not a New Testament story until, maybe, the final scenes. The journey starts off, he wants revenge–maybe not revenge, but reclaiming. Someone’s taken something from him, and instead of saying, Q: You’re the protagonist in this, and you’re a cold-blooded killer.
KR: Okay, I’ll deal with that loss and move on, he’s the kind of person who’ll say, No, you can’t take that from me. John Wick is a little extreme. Viggo describes John as someone you would send after the bogeyman.
Danny Peary: The most dangerous revenge characters are those who have nothing to lose. Does your character at this point have anything to lose?
KR: I guess the deepest and easiest answer is yes, his soul. It’s the good part of him. When this switch goes on with John, I don’t think he reflects a lot about the dark side that he goes into, but I guess if he doesn’t do what he does in the film and he doesn’t reclaim his good side, he’ll be lost in the dark side of death.
DP: With your character, there’s resurrection, but how can he allow his dark nature to take over in order to defeat all these people and still get redemption?
KR: I think it’s because when we first see John, we see the good side of him. He’s with his wife and he’s loved. He restores old books. He’s a nice guy. I think of him as an orphan who went into the military and kind of got pulled out of the military. That backstory is not spoken about, but hopefully I can transmit that he’s not a monster. Because I feel like he’s relatable. When things that we love are taken away, I think we all strive to protect and reclaim them, so I think in terms of relating to this character and what he does, there’s some wish fulfillment. If they did that to me, that would be my way of dealing with it! [Laughter] An impulse, a basic impulse.
DP: It’s like peaceful Viggo Mortensen being forced to resort to his old ways in The History of Violence.
KR: Yes. I don’t know, I sympathize with the guy.
Q: What was your weapons training for this?
KR: It’s been fun. I’ve had some movie gun training in the past, so some of the techniques I was familiar with, but each character I play requires something different so I worked for a while with a gentleman from LAPD SWAT. I also worked with a guy from the army, because I would be doing different kinds of weapon and tactical techniques. So it was basically reacquainting myself with weapons and techniques while training new things on the job and trying to get it right under the circumstances. One thing I needed to get right was a tricky holster!
Q: What about training for hand-to-hand combat?
KR: I worked with some very accomplished jujitsu and judo practitioners. I’m very much a beginner, but when I can focus on certain techniques, I can hopefully get pretty good at them. I hasn’t been easy, and my knees aren’t as fresh as they were ten years ago, but with experience comes efficiency–and I’m a lot more efficient.
Q: When you do something like this, is there an adrenaline rush or something that elevates your excitement levels?
KR: Yeah, this film gives me a lot of opportunities to do action. They wanted me to not do everything. The way that they’re filming, they’re doing some inserts but they’re very long takes, and you’re seeing it happen. They want me to do a couple of throws, jujitsu and some judo. Some neat things that I haven’t really haven’t had the chance to do much of before. So I was excited by that. There are fight sequences when it’s Action!, and you have to go for it. And there is an adrenaline rush. But even the scene you saw today, it’s movie fighting.
Q: After months of training and the end of the shoot now, are you exhausted?
KR: I really love this project. You know, you go into a project with lots of hopes. We’ve been filming for a couple of months now and the directors, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, have really realized all that I could hope for. We have a wonderful cinematographer, Jonathan Sela, a great cast, and the right tone for the film, so it’s going to be a unique genre picture.
DP: What do you mean by right tone?
KR: It has a real tone but it’s a hyper-reality. It’s really hard-boiled. And I like that. It depends on your sense of fun, but for me it’s fun.
Q: Has directing given you a different perspective on the set, as an actor?
KR: Absolutely, and not only on the set. While it’s definitely everything on the floor in terms of the camera and shooting, I also see things differently in regard to pre-production and post-production, and try to support the directors with everything involved with the picture.
Q: What is your relationship with the directors?
KR: I first worked with Chad when he was a stunt double on The Matrix. That’s where I met him. We did the Matrix trilogy together. After that, I also worked on pictures with David. They went on to create a company called 8711, which is action design. They did a lot of second unit filming for some really big Hollywood movies. I’d seen their work so on the action side of it, I was really confident and excited about what they could do with the opportunity to direct. Working with them on the script and my character, I felt that they were so creative and understood the material really well. They’re really collaborative, they pay attention to detail, they know what they want, they accept my help. For me, it’s everything that I could look for in an actor-director relationship.
Q: What about a sequel for this?
KR: I don’t know, it depends on how they end this version, if I die or not. There’s a question about whether or not John Wick survives. We’ve shot different versions of the ending. John Wick, the Beginning! Yeah, I mean if they wanted to do something like that, I’d be game, hopefully with the same directors. I really enjoyed playing the character. I still love acting, because every role has variety. Each role, including John Wick, has its puzzle and its journey. I really enjoy figuring it out and going on that journey.