As the cyberboy wonder caught in a virtual web of intrigue, Keanu Reeves has gone from 'critics' whipping-boy' to the toast of Tinseltown. He may be reverting to action-hero type, but 'The Matrix' has worked a treat on US audiences and looks set to net big box-office bucks over here.
by Lesley O'Toole
Keanu Reeves is famous for many things: the devotion of his internet worship sites, scurrilous rumours with which his good name has been besmirched, and uttering 'Whoah' at an opportune point of every movie he stars in. He is also famous in press circles for giving poor interviews, in as much as he rarely proffers any real information about his enigmatic self.
How strange, then, that Reeves - who famously once called himself 'the critics' whipping-boy' - finds himself currently something of a critics' darling, thanks to his starring role in 'The Matrix'. America's first critical and commercial blockbuster of 1999, the cyberfantasy which utilises special effects to propel the story, rather than vice versa, attained the magic $100 million mark within four weeks of its April release. Nevertheless, Reeves did few American interviews to promote it.
So this is a rare Keanu one-to-one, though it is by phone - the overly protective LA publicist's favourite form of 'exclusive' these days. Predictably, he seems high on life and his audience's response to the film. 'Carrie Ann Moss [his co-star in the film] and I call ourselves Matrix-sick. We need to go to some kind of help programme. I've seen the film four times now and when you come out, you're just energised. You're, like, "YES!" You go, "Damn, that was entertaining."'
Reeves is aggrieved at the suggestion that the film heralds his comeback. 'I think that's kind of an empty remark. "The Devils Advocate" was out only a year-and-a-half ago, and it took me a year to make this. I guess if you didn't see that film, or didn't like it, you might say: "Where'd he go? I haven't seen him since I showed my kids 'Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure'." Well, I certainly didn't feel I'd gone anywhere.' But he cannot dispute that 'The Matrix' has re-ignited his career.
Though his two most successful films to date ('Speed' and 'The Matrix') are both action movies, Reeves cannot fairly be pigeonholed as an 'action hero'. The likelihood of him replacing Schwarzenegger, should Arnie tire of the reportedly reactivated 'Terminator' franchise, is about the same as his chances of avoiding a critical drubbing for his next dramatic outing. Reeves concurs, breathing a long sigh of relief. 'I agree, and thank you for that. In the storytelling aspect of this film, I played the hero part and I like doing these kinds of films once in a while, but I also liked acting in "The Last Time I Committed Suicide" [last year's super-low-budget Beat poet-inspired indie].'
As fresh and innovative as it seems, 'The Matrix' spent years in gestation at Warner Brothers. Former Marvel Comics staff writers Andy and Larry Wachowski submitted their script in 1994, when it was promptly snapped up by the studio for producer Joel Silver, who knows a thing or two about shaping blockbusters (most notably 'Lethal Weapon'). Though desperate to direct the first instalment of what they envisaged as a trilogy, the Wachowskis had only one film under their directorial belts - 1997's lesbian caper romp, 'Bound'.
After protracted negotiations, and an agreement to film in Sydney rather than the US (slashing the budget), the siblings were given the go-ahead. In best studio PR tradition, the pair insist they always had Reeves in mind as Neo, the hacker-turned-virtual world neophyte, though it is difficult to imagine him top of Warners' list. Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Will Smith reportedly flirted with Neo, though not as brazenly as Reeves. 'It wasn't like I had to stalk them. I didn't start showing up when they were getting out of their car somewhere going, "Hi guys!" I don't know who else they met and it doesn't matter really.'
Keanu's excellent adventure
Reeves chose 'The Matrix' after some momentary soul-searching about the physical demands of the piece. As long-standing fans of Hong Kong kung-fu movies, the Wachowskis wanted to hire the most advanced martial artist/stunt trainer in the field, Yuen Wo Ping, Their expert had a couple of daunting stipulations: 'The Matrix' cast would have to perform their own stunts and they'd need to start training three months before filming to learn kung-fu and wire-stunts. The time constraint wasn't even a consideration for Reeves, a star much less motivated by money than most of his peers, as demonstrated by his turning down the woeful 'Speed 2'.
'It was very intense,' says Reeves of the film's physical aspects. 'We started three months before filming, in Los Angeles, and once we flew to Sydney, we filmed five days a week and trained on the sixth. But I loved the discipline.'
The Wachowskis compare their filming process to the Olympics. 'It was certainly like that,' agrees Reeves. 'A shot would take four hours to set up - the one in the government lobby, for example. I'd go off to practise and make sure my moves were smooth. Then we'd do it and I'd be running down the hall shooting guns and flipping along the ground. There were sirens going off and five cameras getting all the action. It was very exciting. But if you fucked up in the middle of a take...' Did he ever fuck up? There's a long pause, before he says, not entirely convincingly, 'No, I didn't.'
Along with an intensive exercise regime and strict diet, the film required Reeves to shave off all his hair. Scenes set in an Orwellian creature-creating laboratory required Reeves to depilate from top to toe. He elected to do it himself. 'In the bath. But there were a couple of hairs I couldn't reach.'
Was the worst part when the hairs started to grow back, particularly in a certain area? 'Ah yes, but luckily you only see me lying on my front! 'I don't know why, 'he continues, without further prompting, 'but I really enjoyed it. It's so odd to look in a mirror and to feel the same on the inside yet all semblance of your physical outward self is removed. I noticed people would shy away from me and I'd start wondering: What did I say? What did I do? It's interesting to learn what your own relationship really is to the outside!'
Naturally the clue-seeking media were hung up on Neo's black trench coat and menacing weaponry in the days after the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado. I ask Reeves if the correlation alarmed him. 'How can you equate something like that with a film? How far do you take it? The visual and entertainment aspects can't be absolved of effect, of course, but to put them in the place of responsibility is foolish!'
Should blame not be levelled at the entirely unregulated internet? 'Certainly. You could have the same safeguards that are put in with pornography. Do I think it should be regulated? Well, our phone call isn't, and I'd rather the internet wasn't, but there should be some safeguards in the same way that parents can take the phone away or turn the TV off.'
Generally a more philosophical thinker than he is a talker, Reeves was keen to make 'The Matrix' for reasons other than its fascinating artistic sensibilities. His friend Sandra Bullock recently decided to take a year off from acting - for her 'mental health', she explained - and I wonder if Reeves, conversely, felt he needed to make 'The Matrix' for the sake of his own sanity? 'I wasn't at that point of crisis. But that whole idea of questioning where you are and why you are is something I go through all the time. You know when you're one step forward, but you're really two steps back? I mean, in life. Just when you think you've got it, it throws you upside down.'
At the age of 34, Reeves is currently living back at home with his family in LA after years of leading a solitary existence at the Chateau Marmont Hotel. He's also spending a lot of time with 'The Matrix' cast, describing making the movie as 'one of the best times of my life'.
Rumours that he's dating co-star Carrie Ann Moss are met with denial, despite the fact that she toured with Reeves and his band, Dogstar, around Australia and went to India with him. 'We're good friends, but the whole cast is pretty tight. We have dinners and get together frequently.'
Reasons to be cheerful - 1, 2,3
Reeves is not averse to signing on for the remaining two thirds of 'The Matrix' trilogy. 'I don't mind sequels if there's a reason for them. And there are stories to tell here because Larry and Andy set up a fertile ground. But I'm not signed for them and I really know nothing. I've only heard rumour. Though I know the plan is to do two films at once, so they'll take a year to write and prep, a year to shoot and a year to do post-production.'
Next up for Reeves is 'The Replacements', a 'football comedy', for his new alma mater Warner Brothers. And then he might start thinking about his plans for the millennium. 'I don't know yet what I'm doing, but I just hope that people in this country go dancing in the streets as opposed to freaking out and fighting. We should all go out dancing and drink a helluva lot of champagne.'