John Wick: Characters and Actors–Keanu Reeves and Michael Nyqvis

Intense, charismatic and bound by honor, John Wick is also a ruthless hit man, skilled in dozens of ways of killing, and completely without remorse.

How, the filmmakers asked themselves, could a man like that gain the sympathy of the audience?

“The character is extremely hard-edged,” says Stahelski. “Rather than presenting him as a stereotypical badass assassin on a rampage, we wanted to emphasize that he’s a man who has suffered loss after loss. Keanu brings an emotional side to every role he plays. He’s never hard as nails. As John, he goes through a full range of emotions: depression, anger, sorrow and hope and, ultimately, when he goes into rampage mode, he still communicates his humanity.”

After a prolonged absence from Hollywood, Reeves’ return in John Wick marks an exciting emotional transition for the actor that the filmmakers underscore with signature visual elements. “We gave Keanu longer hair, a beard, a suit,” says Leitch. “He is not the Keanu of The Matrix, he is the Keanu of John Wick.

“He becomes the boogie man personified,” Leitch adds. “But the way Keanu plays him, you never lose that empathy for his mission, no matter how scary or ruthless he is.”

By the time production began, Reeves felt he had the character squarely in his sights. “I think John’s a good man,” the actor says. “He’s not a psychopath. He isn’t out there killing innocent people. Everyone he kills in the film is trying to kill him.”

Kolstad’s spare and economical dialogue gave Reeves the first clues to John’s essence. “There’s sharpness in Derek’s writing, as well as a kind of beauty,” Reeves says. “The script deals with fate and the dark side in all of us in a way that is compelling. It speaks to the life that we hope to lead and the life that we’ve actually led.”

An essential part of John is that he has sought to change his course. “When we first see him, he’s a guy grieving for his lost wife,” Reeves says. “But it turns out he has lived lives in two worlds: one in which he’s a happily married man and one in which he’s an assassin. He has tried to bury his past, but without his wife, he is lost.”

With everything he cares about gone, John reverts to his earlier self. In the workroom where he used to restore classic books, John unearths his abandoned treasure chest, a trove of weaponry, gold coins and an iconic suit. “In a way it’s almost like the costume and tools of his trade that he’s hidden,” says Reeves. “He thought it was something he would never go back to. But he kept it, didn’t he?

“John thought he was stronger than he is, when really he’d been drawing that strength from his wife, Helen,” continues Reeves. “He thought he was in control, but the switch flips and there’s no turning back. I always thought of it as being a kind of Old Testament revenge story. When someone takes the things he cherishes, violence erupts and John can’t temper it.”

Michael Nyqvist

To play Viggo, John’s former colleague and current nemesis, the filmmakers were determined to bypass the stereotypical Russian mobster. They cast a wide net, eventually landing on Michael Nyqvist, star of the original Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series of films. “We went through so many meetings to cast that role,” says Stahelski. “But Michael brought something very odd and interesting. He came at it from a really different angle. His quirkiness is a good match for Keanu’s stoicism.”

The direction Nyqvist was given was simple: Viggo doesn’t know he’s the villain in this movie. “We wanted an actor who would be believable as this ultra-bad guy, but was still very, very charming,” says Iwanyk. “He had to be a little older than Keanu, but still have physical confidence about him. Michael brought the character a kind of humanity. His no-good son screws up, and he’s on the spot.”

Viggo is, in fact, a vicious sociopath who has mercilessly eliminated his competition to unite the warring crime clans under one umbrella—his. When the film begins, he is attempting to turn his business interests legitimate. “He’s finally able to wash his hands of the crooked stuff he’s done,” says Leitch. “But his son messes with John Wick. Now everyone is finally going to have to do penance for their past.”

A street brawler raised in the slums of Kiev, Viggo has worked his way up the underworld food chain. Now, he is in the process of transitioning to respectability. “His mantra is to be civilized,” says Nyqvist. “But things happen that send him back to his roots.”

Long ago, John Wick asked Viggo to allow him to step out of that world so he could marry Helen. Instead of saying no, Viggo agreed to grant his request under the condition that John complete an impossible task. And John accomplished it.

“I found the relationship between John and Viggo to be interesting,” says Nyqvist. “Viggo has always liked John because he was brilliant at his job. They have the kind of love and respect you might see between a father and son, but it breaks down when John comes for Iosef.”

The director and producer gave Viggo a signature style of fighting, based on a brutal Russian system of combat called Sambo. “I started stunt training in Stockholm, where I live,” says Nyqvist. “When I came to New York, I met the stunt group and what impressed me was that they use the work to help build the character.”

John Wick is packed with familiar faces, including some of the film industry’s most sought-after character actors. “It was really important to surround Keanu with other terrific actors,” says Iwanyk. “Most of the characters have very showy scenes but not many of them. We wanted actors who would steal the few scenes they were in, unforgettable people that represent this hyper-real world. So we got actors with amazing faces, like Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane. And we got the most beautiful women, like Adrianne Palicki and Bridget Moynahan.”

“The casting ensures that each character stands out,” says Stahelski. “Even though you may not know every actor’s name, you will recognize them