'Constantine' Star Matt Ryan: "He's Not Afraid to Stick the Middle Finger to the Devil"

A new creative direction prompted a swap in female leads: "More conflict" for the characters "can be more interesting"
Quantrell Colbert/NBC

NBC's Constantine, the fourth DC Comics property to hit TV, has seen dramatic changes in the months leading up to its premiere. In July, two months after getting ordered to series, executive producers David Goyer and Daniel Cerone announced that Angelica Celaya would be replacing Lucy Griffiths as the show's female lead. Celaya will portray the powerful Zed, a foil for occult detective John Constantine.

"We wanted a more dynamic relationship, as opposed to someone who is a teacher/mentor and a student," explained Cerone back in July. "It just didn't feel as fertile and rich of an area as just a strong man and a strong woman who are both very different." It's those drastic shifts that can threaten to derail a show, but Welsh actor Matt Ryan (Criminal Minds), who dons the trench coat as the titular character, isn't rattled by the changes.

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"First of all, Lucy's great. I had worked with her before on Collision for ITV in the U.K. and we played boyfriend-girlfriend. She did a great job on the pilot, but it was just a creative choice to bring in Zed," he tells The Hollywood Reporter rather diplomatically (Griffiths remains a guest star in the first episode). "Angelica is awesome. Out of all the girls we read, it was like, 'Please get her!' "

Zed's presence will shake up the characters' dynamics on the show, something Goyer and Cerone felt Griffiths' younger and more naive Liv couldn't do. In comic lore, Zed and John are romantically involved, which, naturally, heightens the stakes. "It'll be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out," Ryan says of John and Zed's relationship, adding, "From reading with [Angelica], there's a lot of spark and an energy there. She's someone who can get into John's face, whereas Liv's character is someone who could be more submissive and easier for John to manipulate. That creates more conflict, which can be more interesting."

When the opportunity to audition for the role came, Ryan was admittedly unfamiliar with the property. Not an avid comic book reader, he turned to a friend for advice on how to prepare.

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"A friend of mine, who's a big comic book fan, was always talking about John Constantine. I'd seen the [2005] movie [with Keanu Reeves] and liked it, but I didn't know too much about the [Hellblazer] comics," Ryan said. "But as soon as I set the audition, he sent me the Dangerous Habits comics. He was like, 'Read it.' "

At the time, Ryan had been doing a Shakespeare play in London and had long hair and a beard — "the complete opposite" of John. Initially worried that his physical appearance might affect his chances of landing the role, he'd later find out through Cerone that Goyer's first impression was a good one: "We like Sasquatch," Ryan recalled.

Ryan connected almost instantly with John's "tormented soul and his dry, cynical wit, that old sense of British humor."

"He's someone who doesn't take himself too seriously. He's a really flawed character; I like to think of him as a working-class antihero. He's an everyday bloke's bloke, and I like the way he handles people. He's not afraid to stick the middle finger to the devil."

Though Ryan shares some qualities with his character, namely the dry sense of humor — "I'd like to think I'm not as much of a bastard as John is," he deadpans — there isn't much else connecting the two. "We're quite far apart," Ryan admits. "He's got a lot of stuff going on down there. Often with people with a lot of problems and deep-rooted issues, they counteract that with wit or hide it with some kind of humor. That's exactly what John's doing.

"He walks around with guilt every day and he carries the world on his shoulders. He's a humanist, so as much as he'd like to tell everyone to piss off, he can't because ultimately he's for the man, so he's sacrificing himself as well," he says.

If there are any nerves about taking on a crucial DC character, Ryan is hoping to do the fans — and the franchise — justice.

"With this kind of thing, there's always a lot of pressure," Ryan says, referencing the decades-long comic history. "There are so many die-hard fans out there, and now I'm one of those fans as well. Having read some of the comics, I really want to stay true to the character. That's why I want to play the part. I don't want to veer away from that."

Ryan, whose favorite DC arc remains the six-issue Dangerous Habits, hopes to play that storyline out in the near future on Constantine. "It would be great to play out when John tricks the devil and they get to cure his lung cancer," he said. "I don't know if that's something we'll get to do but that'd be a great storyline to play out."

Constantine premieres 10 p.m. Friday on NBC.

Email: Philiana.Ng@THR.com
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