'Replacements' Star is Familiar with Underdog Role
by Amy Longsdorf
In 'The Replacements,' Keanu Reeves plays a retired NFL quarterback who is continually underestimated. Wary of success, he has to be coaxed back to the game. When he returns, he's mocked by some of the players -- at least until he throws one touchdown after another.
Reeves knows the feeling.
Even before he played a space case in the 'Bill and Ted' movies, he was the occasional object of ridicule. "I was picked to be the president of our senior class as a joke," he recalls, "but I was a great class president."
Reeves is turning out to be a great movie star, too. Sure, there are some critics who think he projects nothing but a "serene blankness" on screen. But there's no denying the way he aced very different roles in "My Own Private Idaho," "Speed" and "The Matrix."
"Am I underestimated?" he ponders as he sips a tall glass of ice water decorated with a half-dozen lemon slices. "I don't believe I've been underestimated by my peers. Sometimes by critics. I try not to read reviews, but I'm such a sucker. It's the bane of the actor. I have to check them out, and sometimes it's tough to read what reviewers have to say."
As he touts "The Replacements," which will open Friday in area theaters, Reeves projects an earnestness that makes him seem younger than his 35 years. The man who was grunge before grunge was cool is dressed in a black Byblos suit, foam-green T-shirt and battered hiking boots. Even though he's on record as saying he detests interviews, he is never less than polite.
It's been a tough couple of years for Reeves. Last December, he and his girlfriend, actress Jennifer Syme, lost a child. The baby arrived stillborn on Christmas Eve. And the actor's sister, Kim, has been diagnosed with leukemia. (Reeves just returned from Italy where he and his sister enjoyed a vacation together).
With an air of melancholy, he admits he often feels like dropping off the face of the Earth. "I tend to retreat just to cope and figure things out," he offers quietly. "I like to sit on my couch and stare out the window."
Reeves hasn't been doing much sitting and staring lately. This year alone, he will have five films in release, including September's 'The Watcher,' in which he plays a serial killer being tracked down by James Spader; "Sweet November," a romantic drama co-starring Charlize Theron; 'The Gift,' the tale of a crime-solving psychic that co-stars Cate Blanchett, Hilary Swank, Katie Holmes, Giovanni Ribisi and Greg Kinnear, and 'Hardball,' a drama about a gambler who is persuaded to teach Little League baseball as a way of paying off his debts.
'I still get such incredible joy out of acting,' says Reeves. 'I love it more and more. It's been a busy year, but I've had great experiences with Gene Hackman, Charlize Theron, Hilary Swank and ('Sweet November' director ) Pat O'Connor.'
In between shooting movies, Reeves found time to record a CD with his band, Dogstar. 'Happy Ending,' which features a number of songs co-written by the bass-playing actor, was released in July by Ultimatum Music. To support the disc, the band played a handful of live shows in New York, Boston and Japan, where Dogstar produces as much hysteria as 'N Sync or the Backstreet Boys.
'In Japan, we had people singing along to our lyrics,' he enthuses. 'We get underwear and bras thrown onstage, but never hotel keys. I think only Tom Jones gets keys.'
This fall, Reeves begins training for back-to-back 'Matrix' sequels, which will be shot simultaneously in Australia next March. Reeves is reportedly being paid $30 million plus 15 percent of the gross.
'Are we going to talk about money now?' he responds gloomily when asked for a confirmation of his 'Matrix' salary. 'I don't even think about it. I don't connect the money with the movies. I work on a part. I hopefully realize the part as best as I can. I try and make good films. That's it.'
As for the closely guarded plots of the 'Matrix' sequels, Reeves also is keeping mum. He promises that cast mates Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss will be back and that the special effects 'will raise the bar' for other sci-fi films.
'The (directors ) would kill me if I said anything more,' he explains. 'At the beginning of the second sequel, we get to Zion and then the story unfolds from there.'
Reeves understands why 'The Matrix' struck a chord with filmgoers. Though he admits to seeing the mind-teaser only once and says he hasn't watched the extras-laden DVD edition, he's a fan of the Wachowski brothers, who wrote and directed the sci-fi spectacle.
'I think the character in the film is looking for answers, which is admirable,' says Reeves. 'The movie poses some good questions about our lives. Do you want to stay in the rabbit hole or get out? Do we want to go to sleep or wake up?'
In 'The Replacements,' which co-stars Gene Hackman and Jon Favreau, Reeves receives a different kind of wake-up call. He plays Shane Falco, a quarterback who is working as a barnacle-scraping boat hand when he is given the opportunity to lead a replacement team to the playoffs. The story about underdogs getting a second chance was loosely inspired by the real pro-football strike of 1987.
'I enjoyed the script,' notes Reeves. 'I thought it was funny and had a lot of heart. I really responded to Shane Falco. I responded to all of the characters, in fact. They all come from a situation of loss, and the comedy comes out of that reality. Sure, it is cliched in parts. When the girl and the boy look at each other, they swoon. But I believed it. I believed the characters.'
Before filming the movie, Reeves bulked up, adding more than 15 pounds to his 6-foot-2-inch frame. The Beirut-born, Toronto-reared actor grew up playing soccer and hockey, but he had never touched a football before. To familiarize himself with the game, he spent two months in training. But all the exercise in the world couldn't prepare Reeves for playing football with real football players.
'At night, you'd just ache,' he says. 'I had six icepacks in my freezer at all times. I'd put them on my shoulders, legs, arms and back. And my feet were always hurting. If you don't come out of the center quickly enough, you get stepped on. It's called the washing-machine effect. So every day I'd have a 240-pound lineman stomping on my feet.'
After Reeves finishes 'The Matrix' sequels, he is considering a return to a less-demanding role. He says he and his 'Bill and Ted' co-star Alex Winter have seriously discussed the possibility of bringing the airhead duo back for one more adventure.
'Alex and I always wanted do another 'Bill and Ted' when we turned 40,' says Reeves. 'We always talk about where those guys would be now. I think they'd be on the periphery of Vegas. They'd be in a Vegas hotel bar, strumming two guitars. And they'd be drunk and fat.'
And where will Reeves be at 40?
'I don't know, but I hope he's doing well. He's certainly doing well now. He just got to work with some great people.'