Keanu Reeves endures football boot camp for 'The Replacements'
by Jim Beckerman
The eyelids are heavy, the beard is a patchy six-day growth, and the hair stands on end, even though Keanu Reeves keeps periodically pushing it back with his hand.
Press junket burnout? A hangover? Or just the Keanu "look"?
It could be any of those things, but it could also reflect the punishing turn his career has taken. Anyone might look exhausted after what Reeves went through preparing for "The Replacements," opening Friday.
For the sports comedy, Reeves endured three weeks of football boot camp to be convincing as an ex-quarterback who gets a second chance at the big time.
"It was important for me to be believable," said Reeves, appearing for interviews in a New York hotel suite.
Or perhaps his weary look is simply Reeves looking ahead to his year and a half of non-stop work on two sequels to the smash cyber-thriller "The Matrix." The film shoot begins in November.
In a radical move with few precedents (the original "Superman," the in-production "Lord of the Rings" trilogy), the two "Matrix" sequels will be shot simultaneously, over a two-year period. Reeves will have to put his career, and life, on hold for 17 months -- including four months of training -- to do his second and third go-rounds as Neo, the kick-boxing savior out to rescue the human race from a cyber-dominated future.
"I'm looking forward to playing the part again," he says, adding that the appeal of "The Matrix" went beyond its stunningly choreographed action scenes and its amazing visuals. The real hook, he believes, was the human drama. "It had an ambition to create a cinema that's never really been seen before in that form, but was recognizable in anime, or graphic arts, or cartoons.
"What is interesting about 'The Matrix' is that for all of its new-feeling cinema, you'll notice that after the first action sequence, you have drama and scenes for almost 20 minutes [where] ideas and dialogue and communication are going on. It isn't just quick cuts and it isn't just iconographic, it's about a discussion and relationships unfolding."
The enormous success of "The Matrix," last summer, was something that took Reeves -- as well as almost everyone else -- by surprise.
"I had no expectations," Reeves says, looking back on what proved to be a major turning point in his career. "I didn't know how it was going to be received. When I saw it, I thought, 'It's better than the film I thought I'd made.'"
Now that "The Matrix" seems destined to be the kind of long-term franchise for Reeves that James Bond was for Sean Connery, he's taking time out to change his pace while he can.
He'll be seen as a wife abuser in the upcoming "The Gift," opposite Hilary Swank, and he'll appear with Charlize Theron in a remake of the old Sandy Dennis weeper "Sweet November."
"I don't want to be one kind of actor playing one kind of part," he says.
In "The Replacements," his first release since "The Matrix," the onetime college ice hockey player gets to once again show off his physical side as Shane Falco, a has-been football player who gets one more shot at the big time when a major league team goes on strike.
Gene Hackman is the maverick coach who recruits a Dirty Dozen assortment of characters to play on his scab team, including a sprinter (Orlando Jones), a violence-prone L.A. cop (Jon Favreau), a chain-smoking Welsh soccer player (Rhys Ifans), a convict (Michael Jace), and a sumo wrestler (Ace Yonamine).
Brooke Langton, Jack Warden, and football commentators John Madden and Pat Summerall also appear in the film, directed by Howard Deutch ("Pretty in Pink").
The 35-year-old Reeves, who was born in Beirut and grew up in Canada, didn't play football as a youth, but he did watch it on TV. "The Replacements" gave him a chance to indulge in hero-worship by patterning his Falco character on his favorite player, legendary retired Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway.
"John Elway is the king," Reeves says. "He's one of the kings of the game. I always liked him as a player. I always thought, 'You never beat John Elway, you beat his team.'"
For "The Replacements," Reeves blended certain elements of the Elway voice and swagger with characteristics of other players he studied on tape.
"I kind of did a pastiche," Reeves says. "I kind of got as many of those NFL films as I could -- I think I got about 32 of them. 'The Hundred Greatest Comebacks.' 'The Best Quarterbacks of All Time.' I looked at a lot of tape."
But Reeves had to do more than just talk the talk. For "The Replacements," he and his fellow actors went through three weeks of football training supervised by stunt coordinator Allan Graf, who did similar work with the actors in Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday."
The film, which takes off from events surrounding the 1987 NFL players strike, is about the good sportsmanship that seems to be vanishing from an increasingly money-driven game.
"Egalite," Reeves says. "That was the spirit of the film, with all the actors coming together."
And there was a payoff. The high point of "The Replacements" shoot was a 9 1/2-minute stretch where Reeves and the other actors played football in front of a cheering stadium crowd of 65,000. It was during halftime at a Baltimore Ravens game, when key moments of the film's climax were hurriedly shot.
"That was really exciting," Reeves recalled. "That was the closest I came to playing football. We had to go on the field and execute [nine plays]. If we didn't, I didn't get a Take 2 -- they had to move on to another play. So that was the closest I came, and it was a lot of fun."