Fans of Matt Ryan probably have no problem picturing the actor as the ‘Hellblazer’ himself, John Constantine, since he first took on the role back in 2014. They might have a little more difficult time picturing him as a child starring in London’s West End production of ‘Les Misérables.’
Ryan, like Constantine, has a lot more underneath than you might expect. To better understand the character (or, at least, the actor’s choices for Constantine) it helps to know a little about the actor.
“I was 10 when I did ‘Les Mis,’” said Ryan, as he was preparing to leave his temporary home in Vancouver – where he’s filming the CW’s ‘DC’s Legends of Tomorrow’ – to fly back to Wales to spend the holidays with his family. “What’s interesting is that I’m from a small town outside of Swansea in South Wales called Gorseinon. It’s sort of a small, blue-collar, ex-mining town, and acting really wasn’t a thing there.”
Ryan’s mother was a dance teacher, while his father was a postman. During the weekends, while his father was busy with his job, Ryan and his brother would go to work with his mother. That’s when the performing bug bit him.
“My mum used to teach in these old church halls,” Ryan said. “My brother would be in the back of the room playing with all the toys and I would be the one running around trying to dance with the class. So, I started doing stuff when I was a kid and really loved it. That’s how I eventually got to do ‘Les Mis’.”
Too Cool for School
As Ryan grew up, he found out acting wasn’t the way you made friends. In short, the cool kids weren’t into acting.
“When I went to secondary school, it was very difficult,” Ryan said. “There was a lot of peer pressure. Acting wasn’t something you did, and I kind of caved into that peer pressure. I kind of backed off and said ‘I’m not going to do this.’ I wasn’t such a great student and I didn’t have the best schooling ever, but eventually I kind of lived as one of the lads.”
The time away from acting turned out to be a good thing for Ryan.
“If I had carried on acting from a child all the way through, I think I would have been different,” Ryan said. “But those five, six years where my parents let me run wild as a kid really put me in a good place because I came back to it, and I was ready for it then.”
Ryan knew, deep down, that he always wanted to be a performer of some sort, but he wasn’t sure if it would be acting, or music, or whatever. All he knew was that, thanks to his parents, it was in his blood.
“My parents, you know, they weren’t pushy. They didn’t try to push me into it and try to get me to do everything,” Ryan said. “They were really smart, I think, in going, ‘Well, let him go wild on the village green and ride his motorbike across the field,’ and all the things kids do at that age. Eventually, I came back to (acting) and that’s paid off.”
‘You See It and It’s Gone’
Even before taking on the role of John Constantine, Ryan was no stranger to movies and television. He had nine films and seven TV appearances under his belt before putting on the tie and tan trench coat, most notably playing Mick Rawson in ‘Criminal Minds’ and the spin-off, ‘Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior.’ While playing Constantine pays the bills these days, Ryan’s true passion is the stage.
“It’s probably the most important thing to me. I think I’ve done more theatre than I’ve done anything else,” Ryan said. “Theatre is so strange because you see it and it’s gone. It’s gone. I remember the last play I did at the Donmar Warehouse last year with a fantastic director, Yaël Farber, called ‘Knives in Hens,’ and we got into this (mental) space before our first performance that, once we speak these words, they’re gone. That performance is gone. It’s only in the memories of the audience and us.
“Then there’s this really eerie moment when you’re sitting in the theater and it’s silent and you’re surrounded by the ghosts of theatre and past performances that are stuck in the atmosphere of this theater.”
Ryan said that, given the opportunity, he would love to perform on stage all the time, but it’s just not something he can afford to do.
“Unfortunately, it’s really hard for theatre actors to sustain a living off of it because the pay is so bad and that’s such a shame because it’s such a wonderful medium,” Ryan said. “Still, I love it. I hope I’ll always be able to do theatre. It’s my first love.”
The Play’s the Thing
While there aren’t any musical roles he’s dying to play, (“Man, I still haven’t seen ‘Hamilton!’ Have you seen it? I still haven’t seen it and I want to see that!”), his love of Shakespeare has him chomping at the bit to tackle some of the Bard’s leading roles.
Ryan was Law’s understudy, but never got the chance to play Hamlet, one of the characters on his acting bucket list.
“It’s kind of been on my list for a while, like, I’ve got to play Hamlet. Even if it’s in a small, regional theater in the middle of nowhere, you know, it doesn’t have to be a big West End show,” Ryan said. “As an actor, it’s a part that I want to explore. Then, of course, there’s the Scottish play, ‘Macbeth’ – which I can say because I’m not in a theater – and then one day I want to play King Lear and Richard III.
“I know they’re all Shakespeare roles, but those are roles I’d love to play before I get too old.”
Ryan’s list of favorite Shakespearean tragedies aside, the actor actually enjoys comedic roles and would love the opportunity to play Benedick in ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ Unfortunately, Ryan said, as an actor you sometimes get typecast based on your looks.
“That’s the thing – I love comedy, man, and I’ve not really had a chance to do much of it in my career and it’s something I’d love to do more of,” Ryan said. “I get put up for leading men roles and half of them are boring. I wanna play the guy with a balding head and buckteeth, you know, or something like that. That’s just me. I always wanted to be a character actor when I was in drama school. That was my thing. When I actually got into the business, I was put up for all these young, leading roles because the business has a way of dictating to you where you fit in. But I’d really like to do some more comedy down the road sometime.”
NBC Sends Constantine to Hell
Before the show aired on NBC in 2014, the network did an all-out blitz campaign for their new show, ‘Constantine,’ which starred Ryan, Charles Halford, and Harold Perrineau, who was just a few years removed from starring in ‘Lost.’
During New York Comic Con that year, a giant Constantine banner greeted fans as they arrived at the Javits Center, and promotional 11×17 posters were also handed out. After 13 episodes, however, NBC decided to pull the plug on the show. Fans were devastated, as were members of the cast.
“I loved the character so much on the NBC show, and I was so disappointed when it got cancelled because I thought we were just getting the tone right,” Ryan said. “There are all of these great comic books, which I had been reading and reading and just gleaning from the comic books so many stories that I wanted to tell. I was like, ‘Shit, man, I’m just getting going here, you know?’”
During that same NYCC, ‘Arrow’ star Stephen Amell told a panel that, as far as he was concerned, he was the definitive Green Arrow in the DC Universe, and that the studio would have to pry the role out of his dead hands. While Ryan said he feels a very strong affiliation with his character, he doesn’t take ownership of him.
“To come back in all the different iterations of him, the different shows and animations, have been great but, you know what, you look at Batman, you look at Superman, you look at all those heroes, and I just feel it’s a fucking blast, man, to still be playing this character four years after my show got cancelled,” Ryan said. “Normally, as an actor, you just move on. But I got to explore this character in other areas which had never been explored before. I feel like there’s still so much more for me to bring to the character.”
The Legend of Constantine
Since the cancellation of ‘Constantine’ in 2014, Ryan and the character have gone on to appear in episodes of ‘Arrow,’ the CW web series/movie ‘Constantine: City of Demons,’ and the DC Animation film ‘Justice League Dark.’
One of the many things Constantine says to people who try to help him – at least, the one that’s not filled with profanity – is “I work alone.” While he’s always been a bit of a loner, he knows through painful experience that those who stick around him for too long end up getting hurt. So, Constantine works alone.
You can’t, however, join the Legends and still be a loner. Having to embrace that new dynamic, both as an actor and a character, has been a rather daunting challenge, Ryan said. However, working everyday with castmates Caity Lotz (Sarah Lance), Brandon Routh (Ray), and many others, has helped ease the transition.
“The interesting thing is that John is so brash and bold and doesn’t give a shit and will just walk into a room and kind of says whatever he wants to,” Ryan said. “There was still a little part of me on the first day going ‘Guys, I’m not like this, all right, but I’m going to be a dick. This is John.’ It’s funny because the first episode I did I’m winking at Wentworth Miller (Snart/Captain Cold). I mean, it’s the first scene and I’m walking in as this bourgeoisie slut streetwise magician, and everyone’s like ‘Who the hell is this guy?’
“It was fun to work with John in an ensemble as well, trying to figure out that dynamic and where he fits into it. The whole cast has just been so welcoming as well. It really does feel like a family. Everyone gets along and everyone is very different as characters and as actors. It really lends itself to the show and I love how the writers have embraced that.”
Adding to the Tapestry
According to Ryan, Constantine adds another element, another tool for the already rich palette of the show, but it works. John, he said, brings in a bit of conflict and keeps everyone on the show on their toes since they never know if he’s trying to pull a fast one on them.
“Doing Constantine on ‘Legends’ is almost like, you know, there are so many different comic book writers and artists, but it’s almost like another comic book,” Ryan said. “It’s a different comic book. A slightly different style. And my John, the DNA of John, fits into that, but that doesn’t mean he can’t go off and do something in the DC Universe, or go back to his own show, or he can stay on ‘Legends.’”
There are a lot of different avenues Ryan wants to explore with Constantine, including some of the “darker, darker stuff.” While ‘Legends’ has a bit of tongue-in-cheek/campiness to it, there are some serious moments. This season’s penultimate and midseason finale episodes proved just that.
Constantine Finally Comes Out On TV
Fans of the ‘Hellblazer’ comic books already know that Constantine is bisexual, although, not to put too fine a point on it, his sexuality is very fluid in that he’ll sleep with whomever (or whatever) he wants – and doesn’t care what anyone thinks.
But there’s a difference between sleeping with anything that moves and actually falling in love with someone. That’s not something a lot of people get to see with Constantine – a vulnerable person who is capable of loving someone (or something) more than himself.
In the last two episodes of ‘Legends’ before the midseason break, we finally saw Constantine in a loving, romantic relationship with a man, Desmond, … before having to banish him to hell, causing him to lose his mind and briefly break time trying to stop himself from killing the man he loved.
Ryan believes the episodes were great, not just for fans of the show, but for the LGBTQ community as well. It’s something he said he wanted to address on the NBC show, but didn’t have the time before it was cancelled.
“I think it’s been great that we’ve been able to explore it on this show, especially with a show that’s so diverse as well, I think it’s fucking great,” Ryan said. “To show that John is just so nonchalant and just doesn’t give a shit and that’s why we love him – he has this great charm and charisma and roguishness about him. But he’s also a human being and a blue-collar magician, a real person. To see him caring about someone so deeply, and it being a man, I think that it’s great how we’ve been able to explore that on this show.
“And who knows? He’ll probably be with a woman next, or a demon, a man, and a woman, who knows? He’ll just go wherever. The thing about those episodes, it wasn’t a bisexual fling. John really fell for someone and cared for someone and was emotionally attached. That, hopefully, brings the audience closer to him in terms of his humanity.”
Dealing With Constantine’s Raw Emotions
There was plenty of comic relief in the midseason finale, with each break in time causing disastrous results, such as the team being turned into puppets. That, however, didn’t take away from the fact that Constantine’s emotions, all of his emotions, were raw and laid bare for the first time for everyone to see.
At one point, Constantine has an emotional breakdown with ‘Legends’ teammate Zari, who has been turned into a cat (again, comic relief).
“At first, I was like, ‘Guys, it’s a cat. You can’t get cats to do stuff.’ I was thinking of a dog or some other animal that could be trained, just because of the time constraints with filming,” Ryan said. “There was a moment where the cat and I actually bonded. There’s that little bit where I went down on my knees and I was talking to it and I was making some of that stuff up, just talking to the cat, and the cat just started reacting to me and looking at me. It was one of those kinds of things that happened in the spirit of the moment and it was caught on camera and it was great. We did have our difficulties filming with the cat. As wonderfully trained as the cat was, it’s still a cat, and we all know cats will do what they want to do.”
The breakdown with the cat aside, there are several gut-wrenching moments where you feel the agony Constantine is feeling as the tears stream down his face. For Ryan, it’s all about the acting.
“As an actor, what I love about playing John is the comedy – the backhanded comments he has and the middle finger he gives to the devil and all that shit – and then to be able to play those really dark, twisted, and emotional scenes, I really relish that, man. I really enjoy it. That probably means something’s screwed up with me that I’m thinking that,” Ryan laughed. “It is emotionally draining because you think about your past relationships and you get into it. At the same time, it’s very satisfying as well to take a character to a place you haven’t been before and explore it.”
The Long Hiatus and The Future of Constantine
While Ryan and the rest of the cast of ‘Legends’ wrap shooting season 4 on January 25, fans of the show won’t see new episodes until April. According to Ryan, it’s just a scheduling thing with the CW and fans shouldn’t get worried.
“From what I’m hearing is that it’s all fine, it’s just scheduling issues they’re having for whatever reasons, which is above my pay grade and I don’t really know,” Ryan said. “But it seems that everyone at the studio loves the show and it looks like, hopefully, it’ll get picked up for season 5. I can’t see why it wouldn’t be.”
With DC’s foray into streaming services – DC Universe just finished airing the first season of ‘Titans’ – fans of the ‘Constantine’ show wonder if there’s a possibility the cancelled-too-soon NBC production could find a new home on the streaming service. Although Ryan hasn’t heard anyone (outside of fans at cons) mention the possibility, he insists he would be open to anything.
“I feel like there’s always a world in which we could bring back a Constantine show,” Ryan said. “There are so many unexplained questions as to what happened at the end of the NBC show, but that doesn’t mean we’d have to go back and pick straight up, but there’s ways of building that narrative from the show and also having had him been on ‘Legends.’ There’s so many different possibilities for this character to carry on and build in different ways and it’s something I hope I get to explore, man. But all of those things are out of my hands, really.”
What to Expect in the Second Half of the ‘Legends’ Season
The second half of the season promises to bring just as many zany, and rough, outings as you might expect. As much as Ryan would like to talk about it, he acknowledges he has been chewed out a few too many times for saying things he should say about things that haven’t happened yet.
“All I can say is that I just finished an episode now, which is Episode 14, and it was very difficult in terms of the hours and the schedule and the lines I had to work, but … argh … I don’t know what I can say,” Ryan said, exasperated. “The second half of the season surprised me even more than the first half of the season. There’s some really cool surprises, and I think what’s great about this season is that on top of all the comedy and the fluffiness and the wonderfulness of the show, there’s such an emotional kind of core going on, and there’s morals to these stories. The Legends end up in some precarious situations where they’ve got to make some really difficult decisions about some of their own members of the team …
“And I’m just gonna stop talking now because I don’t want to get myself in trouble. I’m on the verge of saying something … ha!”