‘Constantine’: Matt Ryan plays demon hunter as flawed, tormented, angry

Oct. 24, 2014 | 4:40 a.m.
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Harold Perrineau as Manny and Matt Ryan as John Constantine in "Constantine." (Quantrell Colbert/NBC)

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Lucy Griffiths as Liv and Matt Ryan as John Constantine in "Constantine." (Quantrell Colbert/NBC)

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Harold Perrineau as Manny and Matt Ryan as John Constantine in "Constantine." (Quantrell Colbert/NBC)

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Harold Perrineau as Manny and Matt Ryan as John Constantine in "Constantine." (Quantrell Colbert/NBC)

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Lucy Griffiths as Liv and Matt Ryan as John Constantine in "Constantine." (Quantrell Colbert/NBC)

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Lucy Griffiths as Liv and Matt Ryan as John Constantine in "Constantine." (Quantrell Colbert/NBC)

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Lucy Griffiths as Liv and Matt Ryan as John Constantine in "Constantine." (Quantrell Colbert/NBC)

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Harold Perrineau as Manny, Matt Ryan as John Constantine, Angelica Celaya as Zed and Charles Halford as Chaz in "Constantine." (Paul Drinkwater/NBC)

Matt Ryan had just finished a run of “Henry V” in London’s West End, playing Fluellen to Jude Law’s commanding prince, when he flew to America earlier this year to meet with the producers of NBC’s “Constantine.”

Not three weeks later, he found himself wearing John Constantine’s signature trench coat, preparing to battle supernatural forces in the starring role in the new series, adapted from the long-running DC series “Hellblazer,” set to premiere Oct. 24.

“It was a bit of a whirlwind actually,” the Welsh actor said during a recent interview, speaking by phone from “Constantine’s” Atlanta set, where he was shooting the sixth episode of the show, created by executive producers Daniel Cerone (“Dexter”) and David S. Goyer.

But even in these early days, he seems to have found his footing with the character, last seen on screen in the 2005 film “Constantine,” which starred Keanu Reeves as the sardonic exorcist battling literal and metaphorical demons. (The hard-charging Liverpudlian character, first written by Alan Moore, made his official debut in “Swamp Thing” No. 37 in 1985.)

“I’m evolving with the character as well,” said Ryan, who hails from Swansea, Wales, and was once a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. “We’re kind of finding each other. I think with a part like this, it’s such an iconic role, you have to be true to the character but at the same time you want to bring a part of yourself to it. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.”

Hero Complex: Had you previously been familiar with John Constantine? Did you read “Hellblazer”?

Matt Ryan: I’d watched the movie years ago but didn’t equate it to the comic books — just saw it as a stand-alone movie, which I really enjoyed. A good friend of mine owns a comic book company, he’s a big comic book fan. He had been telling me about John Constantine and “Hellblazer” and how it’s his favorite comic book and comic book character. When I got the part, he sat me down on the phone just going through his history; I felt like I had my own encyclopedia on the character because this guy was like the No. 1 fan.

HC: Were you an avid reader of comic books growing up?

MR: I would have a little look. I was always into the comic book movies and the high-concept stuff, but it wasn’t something that was really on my doorstep, you know? I always loved Batman, the Michael Keaton “Batman,” I loved those films, and Superman, but I was never a real comic book geek. But I’ve got to say, since I started reading [“Hellblazer”], I want to start reading some other stuff as well, but I don’t really have time. I can’t dip into anything else because I’ll feel guilty about not paying this as much attention as it needs.

HC: You have an extensive theater background; are you able to draw from that skill set working in television?

MR: It’s always that thing as an actor, once you get into one medium, you do theater for a while, you get used to the stage element of it and you have to flip a switch in your head. It takes a bit of readjusting. I can remember the first day on set, the first scene, it was like, “Oh! There’s a camera there.” It took me one or two scenes to find my bearings. It’s always a strange transition, but it’s exciting as well. It keeps you fresh.

HC: Superheroes are driving popular culture these days. How do you see John Constantine fitting into the broader universe of comic book characters on screen?

MR: There’s lots of superheroes going around, and they’re great. What I love about John, though, is he’s a working-class antihero. He’s flawed, and he’s someone who goes about things in the wrong way. He makes mistakes, he screws people over. It was kind of that that attracted me to him. He’s flawed. You love him, but you hate him at the same time. He’s someone who’s tormented by guilt, and he’s got this deep anger and pain, but the way he deals with it, he’s quite light with it. He’s flippant and cynical, and he’s got this dry wit. That’s really fun to play, those two things — there’s a real conflict in the character.

HC: Has there been a signature moment for you where you’ve felt like you really understood the character, where you and John kind of became one?

MR: There was one moment where there was a big crane shot and I’m sitting on top of this truck and drinking a beer. There was a lot of stuff going on – John is just sitting on his own, having a beer, smoking a cigarette. It was like John Constantine out of the comics, one of those things that you could draw. That was a moment where I just went, Alright, yeah, OK. This is cool.

— Gina McIntyre |  @LATHeroComplex

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Gene Ha's poster for NBC's "Constantine" features features British actor Matt Ryan as the DC Comics' antihero John Constantine. (NBC / DC Comics)

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