The first time Laurence Fishburne watched the gonzo, mayhem-filled 2014 cult action film “John Wick,” he immediately knew he wanted be involved in any potential sequel. “I was like a kid,” the actor recalled recently. “I was laughing. I was giddy.”
Fortunately for him, he knows a guy: A long while back, “John Wick” star Keanu Reeves had shared the screen with Fishburne — and taken a certain red pill from his hand — in a little movie called “The Matrix.”
Now, two decades after that seminal 1999 sci-fi-action smash, the two are reunited in “John Wick: Chapter 2,” with Fishburne as a shadowy crime boss called the Bowery King who crosses paths with Reeves’ assassin as Wick attempts to free himself from the deadly business that has once again pulled him in.
On a late January afternoon in West Hollywood, Fishburne, 55, and Reeves, 52, talked with the easy rapport of old friends about their new film, what “The Matrix” means today and aging gracefully in Hollywood.
The first “John Wick” was basically about the main character’s quest to avenge his dead dog. You guys hadn’t initially banked on a sequel, so how did you crack what a second movie would be about? Obviously you couldn’t just kill John Wick’s dog again.
Reeves: Yeah, that was at the top of the list of what you couldn’t do. There are some films where it’s like, they’ve got your wife, they killed your family, they took your daughter. We did the dog, so we couldn’t do that again.
In this film, John Wick is fighting for his self-agency, but the more he tries to become free, the more he gets ensnared. One of the things [director] Chad [Stahelski] talked about is that there’s John Wick and then there’s just John, the person who is grieving and trying to heal and get out of the life. John Wick has to start fighting for John, and the more he fights for John, the further he gets away from actually being able to be John.
Laurence, this is a situation where you know you’re not going to have a huge amount of screen time but you need to make a big impact. How did you approach it?
Fishburne: It was really simple because of the way they set it up. You know, John Wick is not a guy that asks for help, so when he goes to somebody for help, whoever that is, you know he’s a serious cat. So I didn’t have to do much. All I had to do was put the clothes on. [laughs]
The other thing is that, with the Bowery King, we start to suddenly realize that there’s another layer to this world: “What, there’s an underground to the underworld?”
When you put it like that, it actually sounds a little “Matrix”-y.
Fishburne: Sure, it’s like, “I’m going to show you there’s a deeper level to this.” Being the character who opens that up for you is really kind of nice.
Reeves: But this wasn’t stunt casting or anything like that. It’s not a cynical thing that Laurence is here. It didn’t happen as a wink. It’s totally organic.
John Wick really takes a serious beating in this movie. Does this kind of hardcore action get harder to do as you get older?
Reeves: Yeah, sure, you feel it in the knees a little bit. I’m not quite leaping and bounding down the stairs. Now I get thrown down stairs. [laughs]
Chad takes great pleasure in really messing John Wick up: hit him with a car, throw him through windows, have him get shot. But I think that’s one of the reasons you root for the guy. Yeah, he’s got this huge myth and he’s ultra-dangerous, but he’s vulnerable. It’s not quite James Bond.
Fishburne: All that running and jumping and gun-fu — there are some younger cats than you that wouldn’t be down. But I think staying open is a wiser choice than limiting oneself by your age or whatever.
I’m occupying the grandpa chair now on [the ABC comedy series] “black-ish.” But I’ve embraced it. I’m not dyeing my hair and trying to pretend I’m 40. That’s not going to work for me. I’m embracing where I’m at and just trying to stay open for whatever’s out there.
“The Matrix” came out almost 20 years ago. When was the last time you guys watched it?
Fishburne: I haven’t watched it in a while.
Reeves: But it runs into you on the street.
Fishburne: Oh, all the time. People think my name is Morpheus. Many times people will say to me, “Morpheus!” and I will complete the sentence by saying, “is not my name!” [laughs]
The thing is, it changed a lot of people’s lives. It’s a huge blessing to know you’ve done something that has affected people the way “The Matrix” has. It’s like, there’s “Star Wars” and then there’s “The Matrix.” It’s cool to be a part of that.
It’s amazing to think that when “The Matrix” came out, the Internet was still a pretty new phenomenon and there were no smartphones and no social media.
Fishburne: Yeah, I got my first cellphone when we were doing the first one.
Reeves: I don’t think I got my first cellphone until after the second one.
How do you think the movie’s meaning has changed over time?
Reeves: It used to be like, “Is this the Matrix?” And now it’s like, “The Matrix is real!” Now the zeitgeist is kind of catching up to that question.
With VR and the integration of everything, we’re starting to be able to think that we can live in an artificial reality. Why go outside when you can put your haptic suit on and go traveling and fall in love with some AI? Forget global warming and everything — we’ll digitize and just be. Which maybe leads to more abuse in the real world.
Fishburne: “The Matrix” was also the first movie that really delivered on what comic books promised. It was basically a superhero movie.
Reeves: I never had superhero opportunities but I had actor envy. When the amazing Hugh Jackman got to play Wolverine, I was like, “Uck, I would have loved to do that. But dang, he’s really good.” [laughs]
Laurence, you’ve had experience in that superhero world, first as the voice of the Silver Surfer in “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” and, more recently, playing Daily Planet editor Perry White in “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman.” Are we going to see you pop up later this year in “Justice League”?
Fishburne: They asked me to come for a day, but I couldn’t work it out, schedule-wise. And really, what do you need the newspaperman in “Justice League” for? You want to see the Flash. You want to see Aquaman. You want to see Wonder Woman. You want to see the Lantern.
We’ve been waiting 35 years for these [characters] to show up on the screen. What were they doing over there? Marvel has been kicking their ass. This is the comic-book geek in me, who has a collection of comic books. I’ve been waiting to see these people on-screen forever.
As a comic-book geek, were you surprised at how quick fans and critics were to jump all over “Batman v Superman”?
Fishburne: Look, I love what Zack Snyder does. Jesse Eisenberg, this little nebbishy guy, as Lex Luthor? For me, that’s a genius move. And the whole thing with Martha Kent and Martha Wayne? I don’t know, man, I must be sentimental but that’s some heartwarming [stuff] to me. So I don’t get it.
It definitely shows how tough the expectations game can be when you’re working at that level.
Fishburne: It’s true. People always ask me, “Will there be another ‘Matrix’? Is there more?” If we were to ever do something like that, can you imagine the pressure we’d be under?
Reeves: [smiling] Yeah, it would be awesome! You’ve got to go into the fire!
Meantime, this movie is subtitled “Chapter 2,” which obviously implies a third chapter in the John Wick saga. I assume you’re game for that?
Reeves: I love the character. I love the world. We want to do it, but it’s really up to the audience. If we made a meal that people like, then we’d get to do it. It’s show business.