Keanu as nasty as can be
Nice guy Keanu Reeves plays a violent redneck in Sam Raimi's The Gift
by Bob Thompson
HOLLYWOOD -- Underestimating Keanu Reeves is an easy thing to do. Maybe it's because he's a little awkward, unsure of what he should say and how he should say it.
Maybe it's because he dropped out of high school as an ambitious and obsessive teenager hankering for a serious actor's life in L.A.
After 22 films and 19 years of playing parts good, bad and incomplete, the Toronto-raised Reeves still thrives on working at his craft as if it's some sort of high-minded adventure.
Sure, poster-boy movie images have defined him -- Bill & Ted's two adventures, Speed and The Matrix. But, whoa, that's not his fault.
Dogstar is. It's his group. He's the bass player, and they still tour.
"We played in San Francisco recently and in Santa Cruz, which was wild. So yeah, we're still playing," the 35-year-old Reeves says. "In Santa Cruz, we had about a thousand in the audience and in San Francisco, we played Slims, which I think was about 500."
The rock 'n' roll life.
"Yeah, we got bras on stage in San Francisco. I think that I actually saw her take it off, too, and I was like, 'Yeah. I guess that you really like the songs.' "
A rock star dream come true.
"No, not rock star," he says, anxiously correcting the perception. "It's just good, clean fun for a Friday night."
The two planned Matrix sequels (just named top-selling video for 2000 by Billboard), on the other hand, are big honkin' business where Reeves should earn more than $50 million, including side deals and gross profits to go with all that typecasting.
"Well, no, I'm just a part of that film. It's not something like Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapon series," says Reeves, who is already lifting weights and rehearsing martial arts moves for March, when he starts filming two sequels over a year's stretch.
Reeves has read the two scripts "and they're fantastic." He smiles, "but I don't think that they want me to give anything away."
And he doesn't, this reluctant multi-millionaire action hero and Friday-night rock star.
Perhaps that's why he chose to play an almost cameo role as an abusive southern redneck in the Sam Raimi's The Gift, which opens soon.
It's serious actor stuff with some acclaimed serious actors. Oscar winner Cate Blanchett is the lead in the horror thriller, portraying a murder-solving psychic. Also in the cast are Oscar-nominated actor Greg Kinnear and another Oscar winner, Hilary Swank.
When Reeves, serious by association, arrived three weeks early for the Georgia filming last February, the action hero-rock star pretensions were nowhere to be found.
"I had no idea he was going to be that involved in what he was doing," says director Raimi, who admits to being overwhelmed by Reeves' devotion to such a small role. "Keanu made the part much more than it was, and much more than I thought it could be."
To say that The Gift job is just as important to Reeves as his Matrix sequels explains as much as Reeves wants you to know about him.
Nothing personal, but Reeves doesn't talk about his sister battling cancer or his girlfriend's still-born birth of the child they were expecting last year. Or anything lifestyle like.
But ask him how he got so good at doing the southern-fried version of a nasty cap-wearing, truck-driving good ol' Georgia boy, and he flashes a sly grin.
"I went to Savannah about three weeks before I had to film," reports Reeves of his fact-finding sojourn. "I was trying to find a locality for my character. I got myself a pickup truck and started going out to redneck bars."
At first, he was this movie star slumming, but even the southern cynics started to believe he was for real, trying to do something honest. And he got to the point where he could walk the streets of a small town outside Savannah and be left alone -- sort of.
He also wanted to live in the skin of his character, this violent Donny Barksdale creep, a major departure for Reeves, who specializes in vulnerability of the likable kind.
"I liked his intensity, I liked the language and I was grateful to have the part," he says modestly. "It was a great break for me."
His gritty portrayal wasn't a fluke either. He talked to psychiatrists and discovered that abusive men tend to be alcoholics and had alcoholic parents, and that they had usually suffered some sort of molestation.
On the set, early in the shooting of The Gift, Reeves did some play-acting rehearsals with Hilary Swank, who plays his abused wife.
"It shook me up at first," he says. "That I could feel that rage so easily, but that's also one of the things that I love about acting.
"You learn about yourself, you learn about other people and it also, in an odd way, taught me something," he says almost apologetically. "I tend to be very polite, and sometimes, it doesn't behoove me to be polite to some people."
Reeves tends to accommodate rather confront. He's inclined to be courteous rather than abrupt.
"So, it was funny, but I remember a simple, little thing," he recalls. "I was in this bar and this woman turned to me and said, 'Hey you, come here and give me your autograph.'
"I had been working on Donny Barksdale, and what I called it was, 'I was going to go get my Donny on.'
"So I got my Donny on, and I went, 'What?' and I gave her this look and she said, 'Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be rude.' And then I dropped it, and I was like, 'That's okay.'
Reeves chuckles at the memory of the very un-Reeves-like moment.
"I was like the Incredible Hulk for a second, like Donny was coming out of my shirt," he says. "I was thinking later, like, 'Yeah, okay, speak up for yourself sometimes.' "
And sometimes, now, he does.