A New Keanu
Hollywood nearly bid him adieu - until a reclusive Keanu Reeves stormed back in the Australian-made The Matrix.
by Kirsten Galliott
Many people have opinions about Keanu Reeves, even - perhaps particularly - if they've never met him. "Even before he arrived, there were assumptions about Keanu," says Hugo Weaving, his Australian co-star in the monster hit The Matrix. "One, he's stupid; two, he's a wooden actor; three, he plays in an appalling band; and four, he's incredibly good-looking." Wrong, wrong, wrong, and... "Well, he is incredibly good-looking, but the other three things are just assumptions people make because other people have made them," says Weaving. "He's actually a highly intelligent, very sensitive man."
And now, an even richer one. The Matrix, which has taken in more than $200 million worldwide, is the biggest movie to have been filmed entirely in Australia, and has almost certainly upped Reeves's asking price again. The film also heralds the return of the one-time It Boy who all but vanished. After having hitched a ride to the big time with Speed in 1994, Reeves has recently been sporting a decidedly non-heartthrob shaved-eyebrows-and-scalp look (thanks to his role as Matrix good guy Neo) and playing bass guitar with his rock band, Dogstar. Sure, there was one cinematic near-hit since Speed (The Devil's Advocate), but there were plenty of misses, too (anybody remember Johnny Mnemonic or Feeling Minnesota?). All of which made the laid-back actor not quite so laid-back. "This past year scared the s--t out of him," says a friend. "What scared him no end was that the business did move on, and he realised it. Keanu is extremely competitive." Even Reeves admits he was concerned, thinking, "'Oh my God, have I disappeared? Will a studio want to see me?' Every once in a while, that comes around. It sucks, [and] I go have a beer."
His special brand of dude-ness worked for The Matrix's writing-and-directing brother team Larry and Andy Wachowski, who were in search of the right leading man. It wasn't an easy task: few actors were willing to sign up for four months of the hard-core martial arts training that was crucial to the sci-fi action film, which features hundreds of whiz-bang special effects (including mid-air battles between the actors and a shot of Reeves moving faster than speeding bullets). Even fewer could understand the complicated plot (the hero must try to destroy a computer-generated world in which humans are enslaved). After getting nibbles from Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith and Brad Pitt, the Wachowskis met Reeves and felt they had found their guy. "We sat around discussing the philosophy and metaphors of the script," says Andy, 31. Adds Larry, 33, "We knew it would take a maniacal commitment from someone and Keanu was our maniac."
That kind of mania isn't apparent on the surface. Dressed in a smart grey suit for his Sydney interviews, Reeves seems low-key and sombre. But when he works, he's a dervish. "It's weird because he didn't take time off," says his manager of 17 years, Erwin Stoff, who adds that when his client takes a break from the screen, "he completely disappears from the public eye." Or tries to: during his seven-month stay in Sydney, where The Matrix was filmed last year, the 34-year-old couldn't tuck into a bowl of pasta without it being reported in the local press. "He couldn't go anywhere without people being stupid about it," says Weaving, who plays an evil agent in the film. "I'd open up The Sydney Morning Herald and there'd be something about Keanu. Keanu this, Keanu that. I found that totally unreal because it was unfair and puerile."
"It had no bearing on my life," maintains Reeves, who returned to Sydney to promote The Matrix last month. "I find it silly, that's all." In March last year, radio station 2Day FM, frustrated by their failure to talk to Reeves, took action by "hijacking" a busload of senior citizens and driving them around Sydney (presumably under 50 miles per hour) until Reeves agreed to a phone interview. Although Barrie Osborne, one of the film's executive producers, says Reeves "was very gracious about it," the star remembers it differently. "I thought that was really inappropriate," he says quietly, looking down at the floor in his Sydney hotel room. "I don't know if those people on the bus knew what they were in for." Concurs Carrie-Anne Moss: "That was a couple of hours out of our [kung-fu] training while he negotiated them off."
As well as having the media to contend with, the speculation about Reeves has extended to all kinds of rumours: he's married to music mogul David Geffen (way not true); he's romancing co-star Moss (also not true, he says); he parties too enthusiastically (maybe true); he rides his motorcycles too fast (probably true); he lives in hotels (definitely true). One thing is certain: with The Matrix, he's back on top. "I've watched the film with American audiences," says the film's Australian producer, Andrew Mason, "and they go wild when Keanu starts to kick butt."
And while Reeves "was a natural" at the kung-fu moves he perfected for the film, says executive producer Osborne ("I think he may have done some before"), it's no secret that he has always struggled with his acting. Although he once said, "I don't know anything, man," when asked about his craft, he now qualifies that: "I tend to hold on and be a little self-critical." And while filming The Matrix, "I learned to let it flow a little more. Just free the expression." That may be easier said than done. "I think sometimes he's his own worst enemy," says Weaving. "He's really hard on himself and if something wasn't working, he'd get very frustrated. Extremely frustrated. There's so much pressure on him. You feel like saying, 'Well, you've just got to lighten up.' But on the other hand - Hollywood hype. It is nonsense and you've just got to see it as that."
Hollywood is a long way from his surprising birthplace, Beirut, Lebanon, where his holidaying father, Sam Reeves, met his mother, Patricia, an English showgirl at a local club. Keanu (his name means "cool breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian) led a nomadic childhood, living in New York and shifting homes five times in Toronto, Canada, with his mother, his younger sister, Kim, now 33, and Patricia's string of boyfriends and husbands. He hasn't seen his half-Chinese, half-Hawaiian father, who is serving 10 years in prison for cocaine possession, since he was 13. "He isn't anyone I really know," Reeves said of his estranged father in 1995. "I come from a broken home. I had no choice about it and I'm not necessarily in favour of it. I've heard of families staying together for the good of the kids but that wasn't my situation."
Although he briefly considered a career in hockey, Reeves dropped out of high school in 1983 bent on pursuing acting. Three years later, he won raves as a troubled teen in his debut feature, River's Edge. But it was his turn as spaced-out Ted in the 1989 comedy Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure that attracted film executives - and legions of female fans. He shunned romance for work (Point Break, Bram Stoker's Dracula) and friendship with another up-and-comer, River Phoenix, who died of a drug over-dose in 1993. "I think of it as an accident," Reeves has said. "I can't make sense of it."
While still devastated by the loss of his friend, Reeves's career accelerated with Speed, giving him more fame than he bargained for. "I certainly don't want to be an action hero," he said five years ago when that movie was released, and wisely passed on Speed 2: Cruise Control (it really missed the box-office boat).
These days, Reeves is rethinking his career strategy. "There's certainly been a lot of comment in the US along the lines of 'Thank God Keanu's back in an action role,'" says producer Mason, "because everyone enjoys him in that role." Perhaps he learned to enjoy himself, too. Reeves describes The Matrix as the highlight of his career and "a rich experience " - one he will consider reliving if the Wachowski brothers have enough energy for a sequel. ("Right now," chuckles Andy, "we've got a date with a big bottle of booze.") Sequel or no, Reeves has never been one to follow the flock. "A friend of mine has a saying that when an actor plays a kind of character [over and over], he becomes 'That Guy,' " says Reeves thoughtfully. "I don't want 'That Guy' syndrome." Even so, some labels persist, and Reeves hasn't overcome all of the stereotypes. He still is incredibly good-looking.