Like, w'oh Dude
Phillip McCarthy finds that Keanu Reeves films might differ, but the boy remains the same
Something seems to have come over Keanu Reeves who, while indisputably easy on the eye, can be a little wooden on the screen and in life. But today Reeves is positively animated, poised. Thoughtful, even. He's in black, the colour that suited him so well in The Matrix, so the eye-candy effect is intact, but he's speaking complete sentences, he has dispensed with the cigarettes he usually uses as a diversion, and he's not calling anyone "dude" or "man". He also has a few clearly expressed thoughts about his last time in Sydney and hopes for his next extended stay later in the year when he films the next two installments of The Matrix.
Things are going well for Reeves, 36, at the moment artistically and financially. He shines in a rare dark performance in a new film opposite Cate Blanchett, The Gift, and the two new episodes of The Matrix are going to snag him $US30 million.
He certainly enjoyed his last time in Australia two years ago, filming the $US63 million first edition of The Matrix, which went on to make $US500 million worldwide and restored his waning movie-star lustre. But he hopes that the local media goes a little easier on the "Keanu- watch" style of coverage; he'd just prefer it if his dining or reading preferences didn't end up in the next day's newspaper.
"It was certainly more intense coverage than anything I had ever experienced before," he says. "I mean in LA it can be wacky but not as wacky as it got there. I mean there it was like, 'What books did you just buy?' or 'What did you just eat?' There was like a column of this really wacky, kooky stuff on, like, page 19 [on the back page, actually, in the Herald's now defunct Stay in Touch]. It's a big, sophisticated city so it seemed kind of strange. But I had a good time."
Work on the two new Matrix films, directed again by Larry and Andy Wachowski, is about to start in Los Angeles. Reeves is in training trimming down from his personas in his last two films, a grid iron player in The Replacements and a redneck in The Gift. Preliminary shooting for the twin blockbusters, due out in 2002 and 2003, starts in Los Angeles in March. In September the project moves to Australia where it will become the second big-budget movie franchise shooting multiple new installments. George Lucas's next two episodes of Star Wars, with Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman, are due to be completed in time for release in 2002 and 2005.
"I can't say much about the script," Reeves says. "But we're going to get even more sophisticated in the martial-arts sequences and instead of there just being one-on-one fights there will be sort of multiple fight scenes. Some of the technology that has developed just recently is going to allow the brothers to put the camera around sequences that have never been done before. It's gonna be very cool.
"The Matrix is a big ensemble piece, and I like that a lot, but always felt the pressure. It was important to me to be there every day and to be ready. I loved working with the Wachowskies, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving."
Certainly, the heightened scrutiny of his life Down Under seems to have made the legendarily peripatetic and homeless Reeves more appreciative of Los Angeles. The actor who famously has lived in hotels for more than 10 years - if he's not on location shooting, after all, he might be touring with his rock group, Dogstar - revealed that he recently bought a house in Hollywood although "the furniture is all rented". Reeves certainly didn't collect his going price for The Gift, which by Hollywood standards cost an extremely reasonable $US9 million. According to Blanchett, everyone on the movie worked for scale.
Reeves's performance in The Gift - a supernatural thriller that crosses The Sixth Sense with the murder mystery of Kiss the Girls - is one of the more startling features of the film. He holds his own with Blanchett in a high-voltage celluloid relationship.
Perhaps for the first time in his career he plays a bad guy, and a particularly menacing one at that, and pulls it off. His character, Donnie Barksdale, is a volatile wife-beating southern American redneck - complete with swarthy beard and Confederate flag on his number plate - who threatens Blanchett's character and her children for interfering with his spousal abuse. The film's director, Sam Raimi, said he never sought Reeves out for the role, tried to avoid giving him an audition and was finally blown away by his performance.
"When I was told he was interested, I thought, 'Oh no, this is not a Bill and Ted movie. He's not right for this,"' Raimi said. "So out of politeness I said I would speak to him and I was really dreading it because, you know, I don't want to tell a big star I am not interested in having him in my movie. And, you know what, he came in and first of all he was intelligent and secondly he gradually slipped into the role before my eyes."
Part of Reeve's more menacing persona in The Gift comes from putting on a lot of weight for the part to more closely approximate the girth of a good ol' boy. It's a very different look to the boyish, black leather-clad hero of The Matrix. He talks enthusiastically about how he found his character for The Gift - he spent a lot of time in southern towns where every truck has a gun rack - and is obviously buoyed by the strong reaction his performance in the movie has attracted.
"I'm already in transition back to Neo because I'm back in training," he says. "Sometimes going from one part to another can be complicated. If it has been very intense, as both this and the original Matrix both were, your habits and your ways of being come with you back home and you have to re-adjust. For me sometimes it is so great to have a change and have your relationships put you back into your old rhythm."
The Gift is expected to be released in Australia in March/April.