John Wick is the archetypal retired hitman, dragged back into the underworld by the murder of his dog, where he proceeds to bust heads with gun-fu flair. By rights, he shouldn’t be a very sympathetic character but people love him, mostly because he’s played by Keanu Reeves. He’s the man who gave us half of ‘Bill & Ted’ and he can’t eat a sandwich without launching a thousand memes, but he still manages to bring a quiet, deadly gravitas to John Wick, while demonstrating he’s still got the action hero moves.
RSNG spoke with the actor to find out why ice baths rule, how it feels to still be acting alongside his friend and ‘Matrix’ co-star Laurence Fishburne, and if riding his motorbike fast down the PCH is still his happy place…
RSNG How did it feel to come back to this character again?
KR ‘It felt so good to put the suit back on, haha! That's a nice suit, so that was like wrapping yourself in a warm emphatic memory. He's a lot of fun to work on. And I love when [a movie] reaches and goes beyond the intended audience. I love when it works.’
RSNG Why do people fall for John Wick?
KR ‘I think he's the ultimate, 'root for', kind of guy. He loves his wife, he loved his dog. Because once you kill a man's dog, what he does after that is entirely forgivable. These aren't innocent people. They had it coming, haha!’
‘Yeah, he might have killed 84 people, which technically should make him a bad guy, but the guy is fighting for his life, they're all coming after him. This is a guy who wants to be left alone to mourn his loss and have a normal life, but these guys, these assassins from a meta underworld, which I love, they keep coming after him.’
‘We sort of ramped up the action in the second one because what John does and how his actions react in the first one was a direct effect of what happened to him. Now, everything that happens after that, is because he is John Wick.’
‘And Chad's [Stahelski, the director] idea of opening up the underworld, that was so tantalising to me, the layers and levels, the world of the Continental, the High Table, the Bowery King with Laurence Fishburne, which was an immense privilege – he's reprising his role as another subterranean level of the underworld from the second film.’
‘The pain brings a realism, it helps you live the part and the struggle – pain is informative’
RSNG How did Laurence become involved?
KR ‘He and I created a really strong relationship after that experience [on The Matrix], it's been an enduring friendship, we see each other every couple of months to make peace with the world. So, I had an idea, that maybe possibly might be interested in a part in this movie because I know he liked the first. And he said, “send me the script,” and miraculously, he said yes.’
RSNG You have some serious fight scenes again, which look effortless. But is it getting harder as you get into your fifties, now?
KR ‘I love movie fighting, I think it's great. Isn't it great? You can let out all your tension and your aggression and nobody gets hurt. Much. And I refer to myself when I say that. And actually, I like the pain, because it brings a realism, it helps you live the part and the struggle. Pain is informative.’
‘I think my joints are starting, well not even starting, they are tweaking a little bit more than they used to. I can't quite scale the heights that I once did, even running up the stairs calls for some serious training. No, not really, haha.’
‘But yeah, I like it. It takes a certain amount of preparation and I like the intensity of those scenes, I like intensity in my work. I love the opportunity of having action and storytelling in the sense of the intensity of it. For me, I hope to be able to do all of the action that I can, because it brings the connection with the character and the story for the audience. It’s like you are really doing it.’
‘With that comes the opportunity of being able to really do it. I started doing action films in the early 1990s and I guess that my first one was Point Break and that included running and jumping and The Matrix had a lot of effect on my neck, and I had some spinal fusion before shooting that movie.’
‘All before the training and everything that went with that, I was stuck in a neck brace and that was honestly a bit scary. However, what I learnt from the warm-downs after training in those films was having ice baths. After exerting yourself, ice becomes your friend. The John Wick films are having a bit of a toll on my knees with all of the martial arts, the running.’
‘I do feel great having the war wounds and as long as everybody is okay, but you have the bruises, the aches, the pains, you’re taped and bandaged up and then you get out of the ice bath and you have to go and do everything all over again. That makes me feel great!’
‘I've never tried to disappear from the world – I love being able to tell stories’
RSNG Not that you're looking in your age, which is pretty amazing?
KR ‘It's definitely down to my ancestors, I think the more mixed blood, the better for the exterior. I'm Chinese, Hawaiian and English, that combination must work nicely. But there's going to be a very drastic change overnight. I'll suddenly look 80 and then all I'll get is: “Woah! You got old.”’
RSNG You mention that you love it when the movies work. Is it important for your movies to succeed?
KR ‘Every time I do this, I go in with dreams and hopes, I want to do something good, something that will be remembered. Something that'll be treasured. And when it smashes on the rocks, it's disappointing. I want people to see the movie, I want it to make money. If there's no profit, then you're not going to get hired to make another.’
‘Or you'll find it harder to get financing for the next because you're not seen as a safe investment. It's called show business for a reason, it's a business. Popularity can lend itself to greater output.’
RSNG A couple of your movies have faced criticism over the years, how have you dealt with that?
KR ‘Who likes criticism? No one. It's not great, it hurts. You're working on something for months and then it gets trashed and beaten. I don't like it. I try to not let it affect me, most of the time I'm successful. The rest of the time have a drink and shake it off, haha. Or go for a ride, drive fast, kinda fast. Find a sunset which isn't hard on the PCH and just take it in. Breathe. Smell the roses, which I know is an old man expression but who am I kidding, I am an old man.’
RSNG It's your third time out as John Wick, and fans are crying out for a return to your other iconic roles. I mean, Neo, could it ever happen?
KR ‘I don't think there's any point in Neo, Thomas Anderson ever coming back. He's kind of done it all, he basically saved sentient mankind. I think he's done. I wouldn't want to sully that experience. You know, he's over. I'd love to work with the Wachowski's again, I love everything they've ever done. But as that character, no, that will never happen. For me, at least.’
RSNG Speed 2, we know the story, you turned it down, probably wisely, but was there any part of up that regretted it?
KR ‘No! It was about a cruise ship. And speed! Need I say more? I love Jan De Bont and Sandra, but cruise ship, speed, it didn't add up.’
RSNG How close are we to seeing a new Bill and Ted… movie?
KR ‘Well, we are trying. I love my character in the film and I also struck up a great friendship with Alex Winter who plays Bill S. Preston Esq. There is a script and there is a story to tell, you know, you can’t just do it – there has to be a reason. I think that the writers have a good reason to do that.’
‘So now, it’s just a case of trying to put it together and see if we could do it. But for me paying Ted at 50 years of age… that’s an interesting one. But I am sure that it will be fun.’
RSNG After 30 years in the business, what are your goals? What genres would you like to tap? What haven't you done before? A musical maybe?
KR ‘I'd like to do a musical, haha! I think I'm due a musical. I'd also love to do horror, something I've never done. I mean like supernatural, not the knifing kind. Musical and horror. Maybe a musical horror? I'd like to do more comedy too. I haven't done much since Henry's Crime and yeah, I get a kick out of that.’
RSNG Do you ever dream of an Oscar?
KR ‘Of winning? Would I like to win an Oscar? Yeah! Definitely. I'm an actor, it's my passion. And that's the ultimate acknowledgement.’
RSNG The ‘sad Keanu’ thing, how do you look back on it now – did it infuriate you?
KR ‘Can't get asked about that enough [laughs]. If I could find the guy who (a) took that photo, and then (b) turned it into that thing. Yeah, it got a little out of control.’
RSNG Because interviewers like me kept asking if you were sad?
KR ‘It was all pretty harmless. It was fun. I've just been careful not to sit on any park benches eating a sandwich since, haha.’
RSNG Some media observers have tried to draw parallels between John Wick and your own way of staying in the shadows and disappearing from the public eye?
KR ‘I don't know if that's really true. I don't even believe that John Wick is trying to hide from the world or disappear. He's dealing with his grief and trying to create a new life for himself where he's not a prisoner of his past or his suffering.’
‘I've never tried to disappear from the world. I love being able to tell stories and be very active these days. I feel very lucky to be able to have some success again with these films.'
‘Happiness is enjoying good food, good wine, and riding my motorcycle on Sunset Boulevard’
RSNG The public has long had this fascination with you and there are always these attempts to link you to some of your darker characters?
KR ‘I enjoy my life. I like having a good time. My idea of happiness is enjoying good food, good wine, and being able to ride my motorcycle on Sunset Boulevard.’
RSNG As a motorbike rider, would you ever like to play a motorcycle-riding character in a film?
KR ‘I don't know. If it was organic to the story, sure. I'm not actively trying to do that though or look for that kind of a story, although it would be interesting.’
RSNG Do you still like to race along Sunset Boulevard in L.A.?
KR ‘I live up the hill from Sunset and I actually do still like to ride my bike late at night on Sunset. I still love that sensation and feeling that it gives me, especially when it’s very quiet and there's very little traffic. I love doing that… But maybe not as fast as I used to!’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the trailer for John Wick 3, out in movie theatres on 16 May.