Full speed ahead
Keanu Reeves gets a 'Gift' -- chance to be 'mean and angry and nasty'
by Dennis Hunt
BEVERLY HILLS -- With that boyishly handsome face, Keanu Reeves is the ideal, clean-cut movie hero. When he's on screen, it's hard to imagine him harboring any evil or randy thoughts.
"I've played a lot of brave, nice, capable leading men," says Reeves, referring to his staple character since his breakout-as-a-star smash "Speed" (1994), in such movies as "A Walk in the Clouds" (1995), "Chain Reaction" (1996), the box-office blockbuster "The Matrix" (1999) and last summer's "The Replacements."
But Reeves is looking to prove that he can do more than play likable heroes. "I've been pigeonholed, put in a box -- and I want to show that I can handle a variety of roles," declares the actor, looking very intent and pensive perched on the edge of a sofa in his hotel suite.
Part of that campaign to diversify his screen image is taking the bad guy role in Paramount Classic's "The Gift," featuring Cate Blanchett and Greg Kinnear, which opens Friday. They don't come more rotten than Reeves' character -- a sour, wife-beating, womanizing redneck. He's a key figure in the murder trial that's at the center of director Sam Raimi's eerie thriller about a small-town Southern psychic (Blanchett) who, because of her powers, gets sucked into the mess.
"Actors love working for Sam, because he gets good scripts and does some smaller movies and has great roles that allow actors to stretch and do things they often can't do in bigger-budget movies," explains Reeves about Raimi who, in 1998, did the taut drama about greed, "A Simple Plan," that earned Billy Bob Thornton an Oscar nomination.
Reeves' role in "The Gift," shot last year in Savannah, Ga., is small, just like the parts played by other stars -- Oscar-winner Hilary Swank ("Boys Don't Cry"), Giovanni Ribisi and Katie Holmes -- you normally see in much bigger roles.
"I know it's not a big part, but it's really meaty and explosive, and it appealed to the actor in me," says Reeves, who looks much younger than 36, particularly with his youthful, spiked hairdo and his outfit -- a rumpled dark suit over a T-shirt. "It's a different direction, a chance to do a kind of acting I rarely get to do. I had to tap different resources. I get to be mean and angry and nasty. This is a side of me audiences don't get to see too often."
This isn't Reeves' first foray into villainy. He was clearly trying to broaden his range when he took the role as the bad guy in "The Watcher," a thriller that came out last year in late summer. It didn't do great business, though, and the critics weren't crazy about it. And Reeves wasn't too thrilled with it either.
"I hate 'The Watcher,'" rants Reeves, who refused to promote it. He wanted to elaborate but couldn't, claiming that, at the time of the interview, he was contractually obligated not to talk about it for a few more weeks.
"The Watcher" didn't do much for his career, but neither did another movie that came out around the same time last year, "The Replacements," with Reeves playing a has-been quarterback who gets a second chance leading a team of replacement players assembled during a pro-football strike.
Choosing his words carefully, Reeves, clearly not a fan of the film, was careful not to trash the cast, which includes co-star Gene Hackman. But he couldn't hide his overall disappointment in the project.
"The final film wasn't the film I originally agreed to do," he says. "The script kept changing. The people around me didn't want to make the film I originally agreed to do. That happens all the time. You fight for things but sometimes there are all these changes and you ultimately can't do anything about it. So the movie is too cliched, too formulaic -- especially the second half. The early script had a real edge to it, but that was lost along the way."
Reeves has no strong complaints about his upcoming film, the romantic "Sweet November," co-starring Charlize Theron and directed by Pat O'Connor, about a workaholic ad executive whose life is turned around by love. But there's one thing he does have reservations about:
"It started out as an R but it was edited down to a PG-13," he says. "I guess it's a business decision, so the movie can play to younger audiences. They took out some of the nudity but they also lose some of the carnality, which is part of my character -- who's very carnal, very aggressive. The character changes a bit. I liked the carnality."
But these movies are all small potatoes when it comes to his role in the continuation of "The Matrix," the big-budget franchise that could become the bedrock of his career. "I just started four months of training," he says. "This is grueling, athletic stuff. You've got to be in good shape and be able the handle all the physical sequences."
Scheduled to be shot on different locations, including California and Australia, this project, which features other original cast members Carrie-Anne Moss and Laurence Fishburne -- isn't just one movie.
"They're shooting two sequels at the same time -- Part Two and Part Three," Reeves explains. "That's no surprise, because it was written as a trilogy. But it's so expensive and complicated to do these movies, with so much pre-production and post-production involved, that it's cheaper to make two at a time."
For Reeves, the project may have a heavy upside but its downside is that it's very time-consuming. "I'll be working on it for 18 months," he says. "I'm not going to have a lot of time for other things."
But you can bet he'll find time for his pet project, his rock band Dogstar, which he's been in for about six years.
"It's a great creative outlet for me," he explains. "We do anywhere between 30 and 80 shows a year. I may have six months between films, if I can't find one I really want to do. So this gives me something to do between movies that I really love doing."
Make no mistake about it, though, Dogstar is just something to keep Reeves occupied between film projects. "I'm an actor," he insists. "That's my real business. I'm a musician second. I'd never give up movies for music."