EXCLUSIVE: Constantine's Matt Ryan: 'I'm not done with this character'

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Dec 11, 2014, 6:21 PM EST (Updated)

He plays one on TV, but Matt Ryan is not actually a chain-smoking, manipulative and promiscuous bastard who associates with demons. But he does believe in magic. Though the NBC series Constantine has been capped at a 13-episode first season, the eighth of which airs tomorrow, the actor thinks the show has cast enough of a spell on viewers that he will don that signature raincoat again for a second season.

Airing Fridays at 10 p.m., Constantine is based on both the long-running DC Comics-owned Vertigo Comics series Hellblazer and the New 52 series Constantine about dirty rotten -- but occasionally heroic -- scoundrel John Constantine as he wields magic and attempts to right some wrongs by being something of an occult detective. And over the course of the prior seven episodes, Ryan-as-Constantine has become a little more raw, smoked a little more and jumped out of the bed of a lover. 

The storylines themselves have slowly expanded beyond a “monster of the week” formula as the show develops its mythology, and the proceedings have become darker as more elements from the comics have crept on screen. And the comic influence on the show is increasing as well. In Friday's episode, John reunites with Anne-Marie, a former love from his Newcastle Crew (and from Hellblazer) who has become a nun and reluctantly summons him to investigate a demon's connection to the disappearance of an infant. Meanwhile, Zed (Angélica Celaya) gets caught up in a plotline that resembles the "Resurrection Crusade" story from the comics.

In other words, Constantine has become more fun to watch; it has hit a stride and has found more of a footing with its antihero, who can be roguish but overall likable. Despite that, the broadcast ratings have not been great for the show, which has a pretty lousy timeslot. But the DVR numbers have been strong, and while it may not translate into eyeballs tuning in, the hashtag #SaveConstantine has reliably trended on Twitter.

It is reasonable to assume that NBC isn’t anxious to can the con man, either. The series gives them a hand at the universe-building comic book hero table, and with that the potential for spinoffs and crossovers. Already the show has introduced Jim Corrigan, who will go on to become the Spectre, and hinted at Doctor Fate.

But talking to star Matt Ryan, and one gets the sense that no one wants Constantine to return as much as he does. A fan of the comic-book source material, Ryan gives the impression of an actor truly loving the world he’s working in and hell-bent on continuing his journey as the character. Quite simply, he said he wants to bring Hellblazer to life and explore popular storylines from the comics -- and he thinks the show is on its way.

Having just wrapped Episode 13 of the series last week, Ryan joined me for a deep-dive conversation about Constantine. In the interview below, we talk about the winter finale, part one of the two-part “The Saint of Last Resorts,” and how it connects to the Rising Darkness arc. Additionally, he teases the future of other DC Comics characters within the show. And because it’s John Constantine, we discuss smoking, drinking and the power of the real spells Ryan has had to learn.

So why are you confident that the show will return?

I am confident and I’m hopeful. There is a huge fanbase for the comics out there, and I don’t really read press myself, but I’m on Twitter, and the feedback we’ve been getting from the fans is the show is getting stronger, finding our feet, and moving forward. The show and what we have set up has such potential, and has such potential for Warner Bros. and DC and NBC. I’m a fan of the comics, and … I’m not done with this character. I don’t feel like I’ve fleshed him out completely yet. 

Has the show grown in your mind, and what are the highlights so far?

As with any show, there are so many different components to the machine that it takes a while for anyone to find their groove and to flesh out the tone. I think in “A Feast of Friends” we actually hit on a right tone to pursue. Playing John, I thought it felt right, the tone felt right. My favorite episodes are eight and nine. What I love about that, it is a two-parter and you get to go on this journey with everybody; it’s like a mini-movie. The key to the show is about the relationships, and when you start you have to establish those relationships, those characters, then you get to explore them. As we’ve gone on, we’ve explored different parts of John through these various characters. We see a much more vulnerable side of him through Anne-Marie [Claire van der Boom], and the relationship with Gary (Jonjo O'Neill) we got to see a certain side. Different characters that come get to be a sounding board for John.

Lately, we have seen more bastard moments, and more drinking and smoking -- which people complained about a lack of early on. Is this something you have pushed more for?

Yeah, it’s that thing, isn’t it, of finding what moves? What can we do, what can’t we do, how far can we push it? As we go further down the line, we see a lot more smoking and drinking. Also, in the comics, John is an absolute bastard. But if you start out like that … you have to let the new audience in a little bit. You can get there, but you have to progress the character as well, so it’s not something we wanted to hit hard with straightaway. We wanted to develop it and grow into. It is something to me, as well, of getting to know the life of the character -- and finding where to push. Fleshing that out is a process. Over the course of the season you see all the components of what Hellblazer is coming together.

Look, our objective from the beginning: We want to make Hellblazer, so how can we do it in this medium? It takes time to get there, I think. But we really get into our stride, and it shows the potential of where the show can go. But the people behind the show have that objective to get it as close to those comics as possible within the rules of the medium. We are all fans of the comics, and it is something we continue to push for. 

The Constantine of the comics right now is a little more toned down, and exists more in a superhero universe. So is it even possible to reach that objective, to get to the Constantine of those orginal Hellblazer comics?

I think so, and I hope so. It is never going to be like reading a comic, and it can’t be, but you can marry the two. We want it to be that dirty, quippy guy walking the streets of London with the ghosts of Margaret Thatcher everywhere. That is what we want the DNA to be. Then there is the world in which we exists. It is taking the DNA of the original, of the Hellblazer comics, and transform it into our version of it and getting as close as possible. I think we can do that, and in episodes eight and nine we show more of that as well. In Episode 13 we take it even further. It is about being ballsy and pushing the envelope on network television and trying to do something unique.

Towards the end of tomorrow’s episode, there is a moment where John is trying to acquire information from a demon, and makes pretty drastic threat against another life to do it. Did you play this as he was conning the demon or willing to go through with that?

That’s an interesting question, and something we talked about on the day as well. It is a funny one, because I think he is someone who has to be willing to go there. It is multiple things. He is someone willing to go there, but he is planning. Would he do it? When you play it, you play it as if he’s going to do it. I’m going to f---ing do it, but he’s hoping, “Don’t let me do this.” He doesn’t get there, and it was interesting to play it and for the audience to watch and try and figure out what his intentions are in that moment. You don’t really know and should land that way with John. Later on in the season we get to explore more of that darker side with him.

Do we reach some resolution this season?

What eight and nine do is we find out who has actually planned the Rising Darkness. That changes the game. It gives us a focus and catapults us into the next episodes leading to the finale. And in the finale, it’s not a resolution, but we find out some interesting stuff. Some stuff from early on comes back, in terms of what Papa Midnite [Michael James Shaw] communicated to John when he asked him to get on the hotline to hell. Papa Midnite said someone close to you will betray you. So we have moved on in episode eight and nine, and in Episode 13 we move on further. We do have an episode that brings our group to a conclusion, but also have an element that catapults us into the next part of the story, which is season two.

Is there anything in upcoming episodes you’re really looking forward to the fans seeing?

What’s great is that, in a show like this what you need to have, at the end of an episode, a character is changed, progressed, moved on. Relationships have changed, progressed, moved on. In Episode 13, it’s one of the biggest ones. What you get in nine, with what John is put through, there is something in him that has changed. In Episode 13, the relationship between Jim Corrigan [Emmett J. Scanlan, below] and John, there is a great, subtle moment. It is a great moment in terms of both John and Jim moving on individually, but also moving on together. You see that, and then you see the Manny [Harold Perrineau] and John relationship moving on; the Papa Midnite and John relationship moves on. Basically you have all these lines of emotional relationships taking a turn, and move into something else. One of the things I’m really excited about, beyond the end of that episode -- which is f---ing awesome, and I’m very excited about that -- is the Jim Corrigan and John Constantine relationship and how it progresses. And how the John and Zed relationship progresses as well. It is an episode that moves everyone on, and it is satisfying and gives the potential of what next season could be.

Speaking of Corrigan, we’ve been teased with the Spectre, and Doctor Fate’s Helm of Nabu is displayed in Constantine’s millhouse. Do you think those characters, or someone like Swamp Thing, might appear on the show in the future?

Yes, most definitely. Obviously the show originally was going to be 22 episodes, and what [executive producers David Goyer and Daniel Cerone] have planned is a lot of that stuff. There is not going to be much holding back in terms of bringing characters in, and where we go with them. The thing is, especially in the first season, you have to establish the main characters and build the relationship with the audience. Then you have to build the relationship with that character. Papa Midnite keeps coming back, Jim Corrigan comes back, Anne-Marie we see in the two parts -- and we see that relationship and get into more in the future. Also there is a plan to bring in Judith and other members of the Newcastle Crew. That is something we can explore down the line using flashbacks to what happened in Newcastle. That is just in John’s world. There is Felix Faust, who we have in Episode 10, and a bunch of other characters that will come into play. A universe is opened up to us; it’s just a matter of building the show in the right way.

Of course you heard a couple weeks back that Guillermo del Toro submitted a script for Justice League Dark, which would include John Constantine. He said he would consider meshing your show’s universe with his. What is your take on that news?

I heard about that, and Guillermo is one of my favorite directors. I love his films, even his earlier films Chronos and Devil’s Backbone. You know, it’s interesting, but you just focus on what you’re doing. Nobody has spoken to me about that, and you never know what people have planned. But no, it’s not something I’ve actively thought about. I’m just trying to concentrate on what is right in front of me.

Are there any story arcs you want to bring to life?

I really love "The Family Man." There is a great line when John says something like, and I’m not quoting directly, but “Demons I can handle -- this trouble's strictly human.” That is something interesting to explore, that relationship with him and the human part of things. And that story gets into a little bit of stuff with his dad. My favorite arc of all the comics is “Dangerous Habits” [where John learns he has inoperable lung cancer and engages with demons in a quest to cure himself]. I’ve spoken to Daniel and David about it, and if we are fortunate enough to stay on the air, it is somewhere we’ll all want to take the show eventually. Hopefully we’ll be stay there long enough and actually get to do that, because that’s my favorite of the comics.

I really dig the millhouse and want to pick up and play with stuff in there. Is there anything that you are just drawn to?

That millhouse just has so many things! Like the Pandora’s box. I actually … uh, I actually, I would say borrowed some things from the set that I’ve got in my bag. (We just finished filming Episode 13.) But there are so many interesting things, trinkets, easter eggs. And they’re all authentic as well. It is all the actual old grimoires and old spell books. I always love picking those up and reading them. In all the episodes we’ve filmed, there is always something else you spot that, as you said, you pick up and play around with. It never gets boring in there. 

That’s pretty cool you have actual grimoires in there. I am actually a fan of occult folklore and stories. Speaking of which, I notice your incantations seem to have this powerful intent behind them, and your voice changes. Did you receive guidance on that?

I did a lot of research into the occult, and watched a lot of stuff online. And it’s a lot of cheesy stuff online. But also went back to old classical texts of how people would do it with Latin, how priests would do things, and lots of stuff on exorcisms. With that research, you kind of put it into your mixing pot. It changes as well; some are a little more intense, some in the later episodes are little more personal, more inward-directed. That is a variation from some of the stuff I’ve been doing. What is interesting is the amount of languages I’ve learned. In one episode, I did Aramaic, Arabic, Latin and voodoo. I always kind of insisted on having a language coach and breaking things down phonetically, and knowing what the words mean. 

Do your coaches think you sound legit?

In Episode 13, I was speaking Tibetan and the professor of Tibetan culture of Georgia came in to work with me on how to do an authentic Tibetan incantation. He said that if you went to Tibet and said that to someone, they’d think you were a very wise man, a bit of a guru. I try to make it as effective as possible to be true to the material.

Have you heard from any practitioners of the occult, either with warnings or endorsements?

That’s one thing I have thought of a lot. We do have an occult specialist that works with the writers to make certain everything is authentic. You’re reading this stuff and you go, “What is this?” It helps you get your head in this world, because it’s real, it’s not pretend stuff. People still believe in it today, and hundreds of years ago, it was a very strong thing for people all over the world. Ultimately it can be scary, but that’s who the character is. It deepens everything.

Actually has there ever been anything freaky that took place after you performed one of these spells?

Well, when we were doing Episode 8, we were filming in a mausoleum. I don’t know if you saw it on Twitter, but I posted a picture of me next to a gravestone that said Constantine. That was real! We were shooting there and one of the ADs came up to me and showed me the picture. I thought someone from set decoration did it. She said come and have a look. It was the middle of the night, pitch black when we came up on it and took the picture. It was just freaky, because the font is kind of the same as what we use on the show. And when we were walking back to the set, there was this little whistling [which Ryan proceeds to make], and it just freaked me out a little bit. We walked quite fast to go back to set, and whilst we were in the mausoleum, we heard it again. It’s just one of those things, isn’t it? You’re working 12 hours, doing all these spells and incantations in a mausoleum with real dead bodies. I don’t know whether it is the mind playing tricks, but it did get quite freaky.

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