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Feature Article

E3 2019: CD Projekt Red Thought It Would Be Impossible To Get Keanu Reeves For Cyberpunk 2077

A perfect fit.

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CD Projekt Red made one of the biggest splashes during E3 2019. During Microsoft's E3 press conference, the developer released a new trailer for its upcoming RPG Cyberpunk 2077. Said trailer ended with the reveal that the character Johnny Silverhand is voiced and mo-cap performed by Keanu Reeves. The acclaimed actor then came out on stage to confirm Reeves' involvement.

We sat down with Cyberpunk 2077 lead quest designer Paweł Sasko to talk about Keanu Reeves involvement in the game and how the character of Johnny Silverhand evolved through his involvement. Turns out Johnny is Cyberpunk 2077's second most important character, only following main protagonist, V. The full interview has been transcribed below, with edits made for coherency. Cyberpunk 2077 is scheduled to release for Xbox One, PS4, and PC on April 16, 2020.

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Why Keanu Reeves?

We already had the role of Johnny Silverhand created and prepared in the demo, in this story and we knew this character would be very important from the very beginning throughout the end of the game. And the thing is that throughout your interactions with Johnny Silverhand, you can actually craft this relationship in various different ways. Now we knew that, and we were looking for an actor that could actually play this role. And yeah, we had a few options, but very, very early, it was almost a year ago there was an idea to just try [for Keanu].

Because the thing is that Keanu's known for playing strong characters that are fighting for something. I think that's a key thing. Let's say, John Wick, right? There, he's fighting for survival. Before that, you have Matrix, where he was fighting to be freed, for freedom. And before that you had Johnny Mnemonic. So all those characters were always strong characters that were fighting for something. Thing is, Johnny Silverhand is very similar because he is a fighter for something, he's of a Samurai band. And the Samurai is this rock band, and [Johnny] is a very charismatic guy that just goes in and acts with a gun in hand.

And so we were looking for an actor that would fit that. And our business branch of CD Projekt Red, they suggested, "Okay, let's try [Keanu]." Because [he fit], but we said, "No, that will never work out. That's just impossible." But we decided to go for it. So our business branch contacted him and we started talking to him and we sent a few people to his office to show him what [Cyberpunk 2077] is, what the role of Johnny Silverhand is. We were actually surprised because he picked up on that character fairly quickly, and he even started suggesting, "Okay, maybe I could act like this or that." And we saw that he was getting into the role, really getting into it. So, of course, we nailed down all the details regarding contract and so on. Our business branch took care of it, thankfully, they managed to do that.

So we got Keanu on the set. We had him suit up. Put him into the animation studio just to see how he looks. We scanned him completely to recreate him in the game, and he approved the model of Johnny Silverhand--the one that we showed in the [E3 2019 trailer] and also the one that is in the [private E3 2019 demo]. In the longer version, you see the role that Johnny's playing in the game, because he's very important. He's actually the one that is leading V throughout many different encounters. He has his own agenda, he's not always really nice and he's not always your friend. He's this digital ghost, and you are seeing him while others are not.

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Johnny Silverhand was killed in 2020. He was killed by Adam Smasher in Arasaca Towers and suddenly he's appearing here [in 2077] and he has a very strong connection with the chip that V is trying to steal. That CGI trailer is a part of the game, actually. You can play it as a quest in the game. And [the trailer is] basically the relationship between V and Johnny throughout the game. Now when we started recording Keanu, he was getting into the character and we're like, "Wow, okay, he's already picking it up." And he was actually interested in how it works out. [Keanu is] not really a guy that is a gamer, but he's actually really interested in games. And he's super clever and very open. He's very humble. That's another thing that I can talk about in a moment, but he's very open, you know? And when we started talking about and looking for [Johnny's mannerisms] Keanu had a lot of suggestions for lines.

And then we gave him lines, and our adaptation director introduced him to the scene--explaining what happens like the director for a movie--Keanu started acting and said, "I would like to suggest this thing or that thing, or I would actually play it like this or that." And he's also the guy who can take feedback very well, you know, I think he's used to it, being directed, but also trying to look for his own vision for the character. And very, very often he was suggesting, "Okay, yeah we should change this because that sounds more natural, that will be better," and so on.

And so he was a really good asset in the team. So we recorded the lines and then put together the demo where you can actually see Johnny Silverhand with the body, with the voice, and it actually turned out really well. I mean, it wasn't perfect that first time and we had to do some tweaks on both his side and our side. But there were things that worked out almost instantly. And we started really liking this character. And the thing is, at the very beginning we had this vision for Johnny Silverhand, but it was a different vision. It was not completely different, but the Johnny Silverhand that we have in the game, it's the version that Keanu saw, or thought of, or felt that would fit.

So [Johnny] is a bit different than how we originally imagined, but it's great. I think it's just because [Keanu is] a good help for us. We appreciate all the Hollywood experience he has. Because it's a rare thing. Another thing is, all the other high key actors like this, they really are hard to work with. We worked with a lot of stars in the past for [some of the Witcher games] and for Cyberpunk, but working with Keanu is way better. Because he can take feedback. He's humble. He's not trying to be a star or be someone of a huge caliber. It's just really good to work with him.

I think he was interviewed by IGN and they asked him, if he anticipated such a reaction on the [E3 stage]. And one of the things he said was, "Nah, it's not me. It's CD Projekt and Cyberpunk. People love them." And I mean, I know that people like CD Projekt. I know that people like Cyberpunk and I really appreciate it, but he got that reaction. I think he's really the only human on the earth that can walk onto a stage and do absolutely nothing but look at the people and just make everyone absolutely lose their shit.

Honestly, I thought I would be the first guy that got up when he walked out on a stage, but I was probably the last one. The whole crowd was already standing.

Our office exploded during that moment. I don't know if you're willing to talk about it, but could you describe what about Johnny's characterization has transformed since Keanu's involvement?

I mean I could, but I probably shouldn't.

Totally fine. You spoke before about how Johnny is this digital ghost. So, is he along for the ride inside V? And is he there for the majority of the game, like from beginning to end, or is Johnny introduced closer to halfway through the story?

No, no, no, it's not halfway. [Johnny's introduction] happens at the end of the prologue--which is long. It's a substantial part of the game, but it is still very early. It's not right away, but it's after the events from the CGI trailer. Like that trailer is actually a part of the game. You actually play through it in first person and play through the events that lead to that moment when V wakes up in the landfill and see Johnny Silverhand in front of you saying, "Hey, wake up Samurai, we have a city to burn."

So Keanu is in a band. Johnny was a part of a band in Cyberpunk 2020. Are we going to hear Keanu sing in Cyberpunk 2077?

Oh, I can't talk about it at this point.

Figured I would try. Was it always the plan to have Keanu be a part of that E3 reveal?

Oh yeah. When we knew we had him in the game, we knew we were going to use him in a way that would really show how much we are investing in this project and its characters… So the [E3 idea] came about fairly early from our marketing team. Just have him walk on the stage with a really huge bang to just make a gigantic impression. And to be honest, our marketing team, they are wizards. Like, I don't know how they did it. I would not have come up with that idea.

And so there was this moment when we really had to be very careful, and make these details wouldn't slip to the press in any way because if they had leaked in any way, everybody would have just said, "Cool, it's Keanu. We already knew he was coming."

And you somehow kept it completely secret.

Yeah. We kept it for almost a year. And it was just at a conspiracy level for us.

Considering everything that did leak prior to E3 2019, it's impressive.

Yeah, we were using code names and all kinds of things to just make sure that nobody ever leaked it. We had strict rules in how to refer to him just to make sure that nobody heard about this, because it was just such a huge thing. And yeah, it actually worked out.

With Johnny in your head, Cyberpunk 2077 sort of feels like a few other games, like Portal with GLaDOS or Halo with Cortana. Is Johnny a static passenger who's only along for the ride or does he regularly interact with and evolve alongside V?

No. I understand from where these comparisons are coming from and they're probably justified, but in the game, John Silverhand plays a completely different role. He's a protagonist and antagonist at the same time. He has his own agenda. There are things he wants from life. Like he was a guy who was a freedom fighter, but from the perspective of the corporations in 2020 he is probably seen as a terrorist. And the fire in him, like the line that he says--"Wake up Samurai, we have a city to burn." Yeah. He's fucking serious. He is dedicated and he has his own goals and the thing is that he's not this passenger that is accompanying you, he tries to control you, he tries to impact you in very different ways and it's really the player's decision when it comes to what extent.

I don't want to say more here because I would have to spoil that main story and this is an extremely important bit of the game, but basically the way that V relates to Johnny, what they do together, what they decide on together, that's a really important part of the game and depending on your choices you'll have different consequences and this relationship will develop slightly differently. And at the end, the epilogue of the game, the outcome of your story depends on what you have done with [that relationship].

So because of that, I don't think the Cortana reference or the GLaDOS one is justified. I don't want to tell you more. I want to explain how Johnny is different, but then I would have to tell you exactly what happens. I'd destroy the fun of the game for you in two minutes.

I'd have to sign an NDA before I left here.

Exactly.

So is Johnny just another side character in V's story or something more?

Johnny Silverhand is one of the primary characters. I would say someone like Jackie is a secondary character in comparison to Johnny Silverhand. Johnny Silverhand is absolutely one of the biggest characters in the game. Like the only one bigger is V, the main character of the game. Like Johnny Silverhand is a second [main character], and the really important one. He is there throughout most of the game; visible and present and interacting with the player in a really meaningful way. So yeah, I think you guys will be surprised actually what we have done with [V and Johnny's] relationships. I'm really happy about it, because I'm working on the quests that are allowing the player to deepen the relationship between Johnny and V in some special ways.

So yeah, those are the quests that I designed and am implementing myself. I just loved them. So I just hope the players will be glad.

Is Johnny something that only V sees and interacts with or will we see Johnny having an outward effect on other characters and events in the game?

So, yes and no. The thing is that Johnny as a digital ghost is seen only by V. But it does not mean that he doesn't have an impact on other characters. But to tell you how, I would have to disclose the main storyline. So, yes, he's big in the game and he's important and he has an impact on the other characters and on the world around him, but that is as much as I can say. But yes, he is seen only by V. But through V he can do way more things and that's a part of their relationship. I would call it a play, they're each pushing the other, you know, creating a bit of conflict in their relationship. What you will do with that is up to you.

So like two psyches in one body, sort of way?

You could say so, yeah. But I don't want to say more.

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