Ian McShane still can’t believe that the John Wick franchise has grown into what it is today.
The legendary character actor, who plays Winston, manager of New York’s premier hitman hotel The Continental, was reflecting on the history of the films as he caught up with Zavvi ahead of the premiere of John Wick: Chapter 4, which director Chad Stahelski is currently billing as the conclusion to John’s epic vengeance mission.
He said: “I was attracted to the [original] movie as it was a well-written film noir with great characters, but it was such a tiny production – I enjoyed working with Chad [Stahelski] and Keanu [Reeves], but after making it, I thought that was it.
“A year later, I remember I was in Atlanta shooting another movie just as John Wick opened. I went to a screening and within 10 minutes, I just felt comfortable in this world – I think that’s all because of Chad.
“Thank God he’s directed all four, he’s a big reason why these films have been so successful – he has such an inherent knowledge of how the story should expand and incorporates all kinds of martial arts. These movies wouldn’t be the same without that commitment and passion.”
In Chapter 4, we pick up with Winston shortly after the turbulent events of the previous film. He may have shot John, but the High Table still consider him an associate of the wanted hitman – they of course retaliate by blowing up The Continental, a reminder that he will never be safe whilst Wick is still alive.
As McShane sees it, that dramatic change of allegiances in Chapter 3 isn’t exactly what it seems: “People look at me sceptically for saying this, but I do think he only shot John because he knew he had a bulletproof vest on and was going to survive.
“This episode starts off with the knowledge that the Bowery King [Laurence Fishburne] has been helping John, which kicks off something personal that affects my character’s life.
“Suddenly, the whole John Wick affair becomes his burden to bear and he soon gets back on John’s side again – but that relationship is far more complicated than it seems…”
The relationship between Winston and Wick has evolved throughout the franchise, keeping McShane constantly on his toes. Even though the actor has penned an extensive backstory for his character, that surrogate father-son relationship remains the one mysterious factor in it.
“I worked out my character’s background and his relationship with Charon [Lance Reddick’s unflappable hotel concierge], figuring out that
their bond with John Wick is that he’s their favourite assassin.
“But as John says to Winston, ‘you always have an angle, don’t you?’ – and his angle to that relationship is usually just to save his own skin, much like John always does.
“I think Winston sees John and Charon as the two sons he never had – he’s known them both since they were young and has a paternalistic relationship to them. Let’s not forget that he warned John about dipping his toes back into this world!”
Joining this universe for the first time is singer Rina Sawayama, here making her big screen debut as Akira, the concierge at the Tokyo Continental.
She’s brought headfirst into Wick’s ongoing rampage when he shows up looking for sanctuary, leaving her with no choice but to become an ally to the ex-communicated assassin.
It’s a very physically demanding role, with Sawayama taking centre stage in the middle of a bruising fight that sees her take down several men twice her size.
And it’s made even more impressive considering that the star has no background in martial arts, having trained specifically for this role.
“I’ve always wanted to do movies and I’ve been doing self-tapes in the background for years”, she told Zavvi. “I absolutely hate doing that – it’s the worst thing ever, the singer equivalent would be if I had to sing acapella into a camera to prove that I could do it.
“I’ve read some incredible scripts over the years, but I’ve never had time in my schedule where I could clear three months to shoot a film.
“I ended up in this weird creative spot where I finished my album [Hold The Girl] in two months and got this email from Chad, who had seen my video for Bad Friend where I do some stunt fighting – two days later, I was in Berlin.”
Immediately Sawayama was thrown into “hardcore” preparation, taking on several hours of training five times a week over the course of a month.
This opened with 30 minutes of strength training, followed by two hours of stunt training, a break for lunch, and then a repeat of the morning: we’re knackered just reading her schedule.
“And nothing prepares you for the fact you’re shooting this at night, because in this world, it’s always night-time. So, you’re trying to pull off everything you learned at 12pm when it’s 3am, you’re in an uncomfortable costume, and everybody around you is acting like this is completely normal!
“The big fight scene was tough to shoot as there wasn’t any device holding me whilst I fought a man three times my size – I had to use my own strength and really grip him with my legs, using all my lower body muscles to hold him.
“And after every take, me and the crew burst into laughter, because it’s ridiculous – but that’s what I love about the John Wick movies, the humour is told through the stunt choreography.
“The stakes of stunt choreography are so much higher than with dancing, and I don’t even think of myself as a dancer – I learnt to dance when I was 25 because I thought I should include some dancing in my shows!
“I’m in awe of the lack of fear that stunt performers have, and the trickiest part of making this movie was trying to get into that mindset.
“I knew safety wise, there are crash pads and all the knives are fake, but that doesn’t stop your brain getting scared from being in that situation – there’s a lot of mental hurdles you need to get over to make a movie like this.”
After being thrown into a bloody fight, Akira has plenty of reasons to want revenge, with the film leaving the door open for her potential return.
And despite the challenges of shooting a John Wick movie, Sawayama hopes to get a chance to return and explore her character further.
“I feel like she has an entire backstory that’s unexplained and I want to explore her history, how she ended up at the Continental – does she enjoy working there or is it just family obligation?
“I didn’t realise I’d be given so much freedom to create this character, but the challenge is trying to understand her from my own experience – this isn’t a character you can just melt into, so I had to bring in my own motivations.
“That’s why I tried to give her a rebellious streak and leave it for the audience to decide whether or not she enjoys this life.”
With Sawayama eager to return and a franchise spin-off (Ballerina) already filmed, it looks like the future of the John Wick Cinematic Universe is secured, even as Chapter 4 concludes its central storyline.
McShane would also love to keep returning as Winston as often as he can – he’s previously said that he could see this franchise continuing for another ten years but knows that it’s all down to his leading man.
“These movies take a hell of a toll on Keanu every time, literally four or five months of him doing action, plus all the preparation. And none of us are getting any younger!
“The martial arts get more complicated each time and we get more extraordinary people joining as we explore these worlds within worlds that all have their unique fighting styles. It’s always a joy to watch – but I’m glad I’m not the one who must do all the training!”