Reeves Scores with Football Flick
by Megan Turner
Keanu Reeves is in an excellent mood, making self-deprecating quips about being a high school dropout, speaking magnanimously of the hit boy bands who've eclipsed his own group, Dogstar, and joking about his fear of the dark.
This ebullience is worth noting only because the enigmatic 35-year-old actor is as famous for his reticence in interviews as he is for his deadpan acting style.
But today, looking casually chic in a black Byblos suit jacket and olive-green T-shirt, he's happy and - for him - almost loquacious.
And why not? His career, historically spiked with critical barbs and box-office disasters ("Johnny Mnemonic," anyone?), has been firing on all cylinders since last year's smash "The Matrix," for which he received some of the best reviews of his career.
"The Replacements," in which he plays a soulful scab quarterback for an NFL team, opens Friday. He's wrapped "The Gift" with Hilary Swank, "Sweet November" with Charlize Theron and "The Watcher" with Marisa Tomei and James Spader.
And he's just headed to Chicago to film "Hardball," in which he plays an aimless young man who agrees to coach a Little League team from the projects.
Come November, he'll start training for a punishing schedule of filmmaking, shooting two "Matrix" sequels simultaneously.
Has the laid-back Reeves - so often seen as the slacker dude he played in 1989's "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" - turned workaholic?
"This past year has been busy, but before that I made two films in two years," Reeves says in the unhurried baritone that has been interpreted as a mark of either Zen-like cool or a lack of intelligence.
"I love acting, and I love it more and more, so it's great to have the opportunity to do it. And I got to have some really great acting experiences this past year, like working with Mr. Hackman."
In "The Replacements," Gene Hackman stars as a veteran football coach who is coaxed out of retirement to recruit a team of replacements after the regulars of the fictitious Washington Sentinels go on strike.
To prepare for his role as Shane Falco, a disgraced quarterback, Reeves packed on 27 pounds and spent two months learning the game.
"I'd never played football," says Reeves, who earned the nickname "The Wall" playing goalie for his high school hockey team. "[But] I really wanted everyone watching the film to believe that Shane Falco was a quarterback.
"To go to training camp was a way for me to learn my character. I started to learn the dynamics of the team - who sits where, how you go to the field, who gets taped up, how people get warmed up, what the dynamics are between all the different players."
Asked to compare his football training regime with the arduous four months he spent learning kung fu moves for "The Matrix," he says: "There were different kinds of pain.
"[During the 'Replacements' training] I had six ice packs in my freezer. At the end of the day, I'd sit down and wrap my arm, my knees, sometimes my feet. I had 240-pound linesmen in cleats stepping on me."
Reeves admits the film's underdogs-make-good plot is a familiar one, but he says he accepted the role because it offered something more.
"I thought that all the characters in this film had heart; these people felt real," he says. "They all felt like they came from a situation of loss. They had a reality to them that I related to.
"So even though it jumps into cliche‚ - like, there's the underdog team, the misfits, there's a bar fight, the girl and the guy looking at each other and falling in love, with the swooning - when I was watching everyone do their performances, I didn't think they were just effects.
"I felt like each one was a person, and that the comedy was coming out of the humanity."
He says he particularly responded to Shane Falco: "[He's] a hard-luck guy who gets a second chance to put his life back together."
The $12 million that Reeves reportedly snagged for the role may also have been part of its allure.
Yet to hear Reeves tell it, being one of the highest-paid actors of his generation - he received $10 million for "The Matrix" and will pocket $30 million for its two sequels - is no big deal.
"For me, I guess I don't connect the enjoyment and the money," he says. "I work on a part and hopefully realize a part, and make good films. Some of the successes I've had I'm grateful for, because it creates other opportunities. [The way] I look at it is, I get to act again."
This non-materialistic philosophy is reflected in his footloose lifestyle - he rides a motorcycle, plays bass in the struggling indie band Dogstar and lives out of hotels: "I'd like to have a home with my belongings in it, but it hasn't quite worked out yet."
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, and raised primarily in Toronto, the actor - whose first name means "cool breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian - is philosophical about his detractors.
"I've never felt underestimated by my peers," he says. "By critics, sometimes. I try not to [read reviews], but I'm just such a sucker for that. It's the bane of the actor: You've got to check in with what's going on around you. It's just the nature of the beast."
As if he's revealed too much by responding to what he complains is a "deep" question, Reeves quickly recovers his man-of-mystery aura by finishing up with a cryptic non sequitur.
"In grade 12, I was picked by the science class to be class president - as a joke." He pauses. "But you know what? I was a good class president."