Argonne lab goes Hollywood with Keanu Reeves and Morgan Freeman
by Marcia Boruchi
Water roils inside a huge, bullet-shaped glass tank, while outside steam hisses, its vapor tinted an otherworldly blue by a light reflecting from behind the tank. Scientists in lab coats scurry about, carrying clipboards. Others bend over computers. Just another day at southwest suburban Argonne National Laboratory?
Not quite. Though this activity takes place in a building once used by the government's now-defunct Star Wars program, the celestial connection is a bit different this time around: Stars of the Hollywood variety have taken over the ultra-high-security Argonne structure, near Lemont, for the filming of 20th Century Fox's big-budget action thriller, Chain Reaction.
Featuring Keanu Reeves as a would-be physicist and Morgan Freeman as a gone-astray philanthropist, the movie is directed by Chicago native Andy Davis (The Fugitive) and continues filming here until mid-April.
The film centers, according to Fox, on the "theft of an incredible new technology which could change the world's reliance on fossil fuels." (This "new technology" actually is the already-discovered but immensely cost-prohibitive process of nuclear fusion.) In it, Reeves plays Eddie Kasalivich, a University of Chicago undergraduate who works as a technician in a physics lab affiliated with the school. He's part of the scientific team that has discovered this technology and wishes to preserve its use for the good of mankind. Several federal and at least one private agency have other ideas, and this, presumably, is where the thrills and action come in.
Freeman portrays Paul Shannon, the director of a scientific foundation who acts as a mentor to Eddie -- and who outwardly shares his egalitarian energy views but who secretly is in cahoots with those forces with less humanitarian goals. And newcomer Rachel Weisz is cast as Lily Sinclair, a scientist on Eddie's side who goes on the lam with him when both are framed for murder and sabotage.
In addition to Argonne, filming has taken place on and around the Michigan Avenue Bridge, where manmade snow was used when nature proved uncooperative. The University of Chicago and surrounding Hyde Park, and Inland Steel in East Chicago, Ind., also were used as locations.
Besides fusion experiments run amok at Argonne, Chain Reaction producer Arne Schmidt promises a car chase down the Magnificent Mile and an explosion that levels eight city blocks (created, luckily for us, in Los Angeles using miniatures). An altercation in Washington's Smithsonian Institution, depicted in the film using both the Museum of Science and Industry and the Field Museum as sets, also is part of the action ride.
A Walk in the Lab
In the scene shooting this mid-February day at Argonne, Reeves' character, hunting for the kidnapped Lily, has just stumbled upon a duplicate lab and learns the other side is attempting to re-create his team's discovery.
Faced scratched and hair askew, wearing baggy green coveralls and looking more like Eddie the full-service mechanic than Eddie the egghead, Reeves is forced onto the laboratory set by two menacing thug types. There he is threatened by the silk-scarf-and-fedora-wearing Freeman and his associate, the gun-wielding Lyman Collier (British actor Brian Cox).
Reeves is longer-haired and less angular than in his last three pictures -- A Walk in the Clouds, Johnny Mnemonic and Speed -- and softer and less haggard-looking than the promotional shots for his upcoming film Feeling Minnesota, which will be released later this month. During a break in the filming, Reeves, 31, who's receiving a reported $7 million for Chain Reaction, describes Eddie as "a kind of a intuitive machinist." "I don't have a physics degree or anything like that," Reeves says of his character, "but I'm able to make apparatuses to meet certain physical parameters.
"Did you see the chamber that was built and the regulator?" he asks, referring to the oblong tank of water where the fusion occurs. "I would have helped manifest and build it. I would have shaped the metal, would have helped put together the crystal chamber, would have helped aim the lasers, would have helped with the design of the regulator."
"The 'back story'", he says, filling in the unscripted aspects of Eddie, "is that I grew up in the steel mills working with my father, who was working tending the mill. He is the kind of a guy who had to fix everything, to maintain everything, and I grew up around that. My formal education is a little behind my practical education."
Reeves scoffs at the notion that a machinist who works with his dad in the steel mills and whose formal education is lagging yet who manages to be physicist-in-training at the U. of C. might be a shade, uh, unrealistic.
"What we are saying," he explains, "is that I am being sponsored (at school) by my father's union and I've been hired by Shannon, the Morgan Freeman character, because I have worked on other experiments with him."
Though he has shown versatility and range (Prince Siddhartha in Little Buddha, a bisexual hustler in My Own Private Idaho) and loads of daring (the overly scowly, unwittingly amusing Don John in Much Ado About Nothing), Reeves still can't seem to shake the image of Ted, the spacy, air-guitar-playing goofball of the Bill and Ted movies.
And the multidimensional Reeves -- he's the bassist for the band Dogstar, which is performing in Chicago Sunday and Monday -- may be well aware that there are those out there snickering about his playing a science geek. Initially articulate and thoughtful, Reeves grows indignant and terse when asked if he would describe Eddie as a more intellectual role than most of his others. "I don't know what you mean by that.... I'm not playing a journalist," he all but sneers.
To prepare for his role, Reeves says he "spent some time with some physicists." He also met with a CIA agent and "read a bit about Buckminster Fuller," whose book "Critical Path" was an impetus for "Chain Reaction."
Unlike Reeves, co-star Morgan Freeman eschewed the research. Freeman, 59, a three-time Academy Award nominee most recently critically hailed for his portrayal of Detective William Somerset in "Seven," says he prepared for the role of "Chain Reaction's" Shannon by getting "fitted for the costume."
Rakish and urbane in his character's fashionable duds, a toothpick incongruously bobbing in his mouth, Freeman describes Shannon as "a very wealthy patron of science with a murky, shadowy background. He's kind of mysterious."
'We form a strong bond'
In direct contrast to the cosmopolitan Shannon -- he lives at Chicago's Four Seasons Hotel -- is Lily, Rachel Weisz's young British physicist.
"She's an intellectual person who is very unsophisticated," says Weisz, 24, a wide-eyed, dark-haired British actress who completed her first film, Bernardo Bertolucci's upcoming Stealing Beauty, last year.
"[Lily] is completely unaware, unaffected, unmannered. Her femininity is not important to her at all," Weisz says, looking somewhat saucy in Lily's short burgundy dress, ripped black tights and knee-high black leather boots. "She is very innocent; she has never had anything bad happen in her life, so this is an extraordinary thing for her to go through."
"This," we learn, is being framed for the murder of one of the chief scientists. "This" also means fleeing the city with the FBI and the CIA in pursuit, and being imprisoned in a ready-to-explode laboratory with Eddie.
And "this" may or may not involve any lip-locking with Reeves -- although the filmmakers certainly must be aware of the box-office boost Speed got from Reeves' adrenaline-fueled on-screen romance with Sandra Bullock.
Weisz and Reeves say they don't know if their characters become romantically entwined. The "script sort of gets rewritten all the time," Weisz explains.
"It's primarily not a love story," she says. "Our relationship is we get thrown together; we don't know each other at all in the beginning.... I've only been in the country for six months. "We're very different. I'm very English and he is very Chicago. We come from very different cultural backgrounds, but... we form a strong bond."
Reeves speculates the two become involved, "at the end... probably," and producer Schmidt insists any love scenes will be "overshadowed by the action."
The picture is expected to be released in late July, Schmidt says.