I contacted Chad Stahelski, the director of the John Wick movies, because I wanted to know what it was like working with 7-foot-4 Dallas Mavericks center (and first-time actor) Boban Marjanovic, who plays a contract killer named Ernest in the third installment. And I wanted to know that because I was working on a profile of the Big Friendly Giant for our May issue. (You can read that here. It is online today. Ed. Note: And it’s a total joy.)
Unfortunately, when I finally got Stahelski on the phone, I had already finished the story. In fact, we were sending it to the printer that day. But I did have just enough time to carve out a bit of space to fit a couple of his quotes in there.
I knew that the full story of how Boban came to be in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum deserved a little more than that. So here is Stahelski’s unedited, uninterrupted, 1,533-word answer to my question, “So, were you looking for a super-tall assassin or what?”
“After I write the scripts and stuff, I look up at my stunt idea board. And I like to change characters around, so not everybody looks like the same 5-foot-10, blonde hair, blue-eyed stunt guy. [laughs] I like finding interesting body types of people or characters to play the different types of adversaries that I put Keanu against. And Keanu’s already 6 feet, you know, very talented and stuff. When we design something, we kind of use the subversion thing. I love the New York Public Library. I knew I wanted to do something in there, so we wrote the scene around that. And then when I went to the stacks, it’s so tight in there. Even Keanu and I, we’re both 6 feet tall, we’re like, ‘Ah, this is real hard.’ And I was like, ‘Well, let’s see: we can either give you a really, really short, small guy or a really, really, really tall guy,’ so we went with the really, really tall guy. I know literally nothing of professional sports—baseball, football, basketball—other than a few team names, and I know you’ve got to get the ball in the hole or hit the ball with the bat. I’m completely inept with professional sports, which is terrible to say. If you’re a sports writer, sorry. I was always either shooting things, riding things, throwing knives, or kicking people in the head when I was a kid, so a very different upbringing.
“But my producer, Basil Iwanyk, who runs Thunder Road Entertainment and who owns the rights to John Wick, is a gigantic basketball fan. Huge. And he just happened to be on location scouting. I’m like, ‘OK, good. What I need to find is a 7- to 8-foot-tall guy, and he’s going to be’—and he’s like, ‘Well, get a basketball player.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeeaaaah, I don’t know. That’s cool. We should try to find a stunt guy first,’ whatever, and we kind of left it alone. A couple days later, Basil comes running into my office going, ‘Hey, I got the guy. You’ve got to see this guy.’ And it was Boban, and he had been doing some—they were kind of funny commercials in his native land. He was kind of funny and he had this little character, and he had this cool little head tilt and he had great facials, and he looked really, really athletic. And I find out he was only 27 at the time.
“I’m like, ‘OK. Wow, OK. I’m impressed. How tall is he?’ And I think he was, like, 7’2”, 7’3”. I’m like, great, good size. And he’s got this really cool Eastern European kind of look, and from what I hear he has a lot of personality—from all his interviews, from what the other people had told me. So, I kind of conceded and I said, ‘OK. Let’s try to get ahold of him,’ and literally 24 hours later, I got on the phone with Boban. [laughs] He was a really funny guy. He’s sitting there cracking jokes, going, ‘No, I’m a big fan,’ and doing his shtick. I was like, ‘OK, hold on. Let’s Skype.’ So, we Skyped, and he was super cool on Skype with me. And again, he was just a charming guy. All the guys in John Wick, I just didn’t want badass or tough-looking. They all have to have a little bit of personality. You almost feel bad for anybody John fights. You know what I mean?
“They’re all kind of in this brotherhood, and we never want anybody to be a bad bad guy. But they’ve all kind of got this code, so what’s another night and how would we do it? And we kind of tell Boban the amount of training we’d need and like, ‘Look, I know it’s your first time, but I’d work with you on acting. How do you feel about it?’ He’s like, ‘Look, I haven’t done a lot of acting but it’s something I’m interested in. I feel good in front of the camera and I really love your other movies. I’d love to at least try.’ I was like, ‘OK, great. Why don’t we fly you to New York and I’ll have my stunt team do a little assessment?’ And literally, two weeks later, he flew into New York, where we were all prepping, to meet my stunt team, who are all these little martial art guys, to soul bond for three or four hours. They came back to me in the office and I was like, ‘So, how’d it go?’ And he’s like, ‘No, this guy is super cool, great guy, great personality, super into learning, and he’s got this little, you know, everybody likes him. He’s just got that little vibe.’
“So, we brought him into the office, and we had Keanu go with him, and try this little fight scene. And Keanu came back, and I looked at [Boban] going, ‘So, how do you feel?’ And he’s like, [approximating Boban’s accent] ‘I feel great!’ And we’re like, ‘OK, this is the energy I want on set.’ Cut to the two weeks of training later, we get him on set—and, again, it’s hard for people to understand how much work goes into even the most basic of fight scenes on film. There’s the memory thing: you have to learn it, you have to do your acting, you have to do facials, you have to act like you’re in pain. And you have to do all these moves at a high-performance level without hurting the other guy, which usually takes a lot more skill than you think.
“On top of that, Keanu had—like most cast members, we all have stunt doubles that we can help line up with and at least do the rehearsals for the cameraman with. Boban—ehhhhhhh, we don’t have a stunt double for. [laughs] When Keanu has a chance to sit down and rest—and it’s very minimal. There are only a couple minutes here, a couple minutes there, because Keanu does 99 percent of his own stunts as well. ‘Boban, you’re the bad guy. You’re going to die. You’re going to have to fall down.’ And he’s like, ‘OK, I’m good.’ I’m like, ‘OK, but I don’t have a double for you, so you’re going to have to do this more than a couple times.’ And, you know, he’s a professional athlete, he gets it. And, god, when we were shooting in the New York Public Library, I think by the time we started shooting it was midnight, so we shot midnight to 6 a.m.
“Yeah, and it’s just nonstop—rep after rep after rep after rep after rep after rep. Acting-wise, he did great. I mean, you could see it in the movie. He’s empathic. He’s funny. He’s got a little bit of character. We get a big laugh out of his death, which is great. The acting stuff, we worked on his lines, as like, ‘Look, I’m happy to subtitle this if you don’t think English is comfortable for you,’ and he’s like, ‘No, I want to try it in English.’ It’s not like—I mean, I’m having him read out of Dante. So, it’s not the easiest way to break somebody in. What we were trying to do with Dante’s Inferno was the meaning behind it. And if you don’t understand the words, it’s hard to teach the meaning and get the subtext. And me being still—even after three or four films—a newer director, it just took a little bit.
“I tried a different approach other than just teaching him the words. I was like, ‘This is what we’re trying to say. This is the meaning of what it is.’ As soon as I did that, Bo was, ‘Oh, I totally get it now. How about I say it like this and find the rhythm?’ And it all worked out good. That’s always the hardest part for most new people, the acting part. It’s like, oooh, it’s not something I’ve really been practicing.’ But literally, within an hour of working with Boban, did all the dialogue, did all the facials, did all the acting stuff, and he was great. As he was perfect for the opening of the film, perfect guy. He was the first fight scene in John Wick 3, so he was great.
“You know when we say natural? No one’s truly a natural. What gives it to you—when we usually refer to someone being a natural, they have the attributes and the attitude that allows things to penetrate everyone else’s ego or fear. In that way, yes. I mean, he’s a professional athlete. He’s someone that’s used to being in front of crowds. He is confident in his abilities, yet he’s also confident enough to know what he doesn’t know and allow that to be taught to him and to absorb it. So, if you look at it that way, yes, he’s a natural at progressing his own life and learning new skills. And that’s what he did, and he did it in record time, I thought. And for what time we had with him, he did an outstanding job.”