THE GIFT'S GUYS KEANU REEVES, GREG KINNEAR AND GIOVANNI RIBISI GIVE US THEIR VISION QUEST FOR STARRING IN THE NEW SAM RAIMI THRILLER
by Catherine Felty
In the Southern-set thriller THE GIFT, actress Cate Blanchett portrays Annie Wilson, a woman with three men dominating her life: one hates her, one loves her and one worships her -- and they all manage to make sure that she has a very difficult time dealing with them.
Keanu Reeves, Greg Kinnear and Giovanni Ribisi play the men in Annie's life, three men who might normally be found in any small town, anywhere in the country. The story focuses not only on Annie's ability to see into the past and future (her "gift") but also on the relationships of people in a small town.
Kinnear plays the love interest in the life of Annie, who has been widowed for about a year. His character, Wayne Collins, is a grade school principal who is engaged to marry a pretty town socialite, Jessia King, played by Katie Holmes, who somehow ends up dead. While the story involves the murder and the search for the killer, Kinnear, who was on set in Savannah, Georgia, for about six weeks, says that he never saw the thriller as a "who-done-it" film.
"It has 'who-done-it' qualities, absolutely," he admits. "But to me, this is not a big Hollywood movie. It's a small movie, a very small story. It's based on characters -- the people who populate this town, how they interact, and how each of them deals with the little bubble that they're in. It was for everybody a sense that this was an interesting script. I think Sam is a very engaging guy. It all starts with the director."
For Reeves' part of Donnie Barksdale, the man who hates Annie, it ended with director Sam Raimi. Raimi admits that he didn't initially think Reeves was right for the part of a wife-beating redneck -- but he also admits that after ten minutes he was convinced that THE MATRIX star could pull it off.
"One of the producers in the film got the idea of casting me in the part," Reeves recalls of meeting Raimi for the first time. "Then I read the script and wanted to play Donnie Barksdale. Then I went to a meeting to meet Sam. Then after that, I guess Sam thought I would be someone to play the part."
Reeves says that he was particularly attracted to the part because it was different than the roles that he usually sees.
"I'm interested in playing different kinds of parts and in different genres," he says. "It was just trying to have an authenticity for the character -- to embody it -- so that when you saw me in the film you'd be looking at Donnie Barksdale and believe that character's authenticity."
While trying to capture the character of Donnie was an important part of his role, Reeves says that the physical abuse was also difficult to master.
"Certainly the physical violence in the part of playing an abusive man was exciting to me as an actor," he says. "I'd investigated what that means. In the rehearsal process and in the filming process that was exciting to discover that 'Donnie' within."
To prepare for the role, Reeves went to Georgia three weeks before the shooting. He met with a couple who work with abusive men and learned about patterns of violent behavior and the circle of violence. He also began to learn Southern ways -- and he wanted to meet Donnie Barksdale.
"I got myself a pickup truck," he explains. "I met this one guy and he gave me a coat. He said, 'You can't walk around in that.' I said, 'You're right, I need a jacket,' so he gave me one."
He says he wanted to have a locality for his part, so he found a bar in a small town just outside of Savannah where he met men who reminded him of Donnie. To his relief, everyone treated him surprisingly well.
"In this one bar, well, sometimes the Southern ways are not so genteel," he explains. "This one guy, he says, 'I hear you're in pictures.' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Can I take a picture of you?' I was like, 'Yeah, if you buy me a beer.' He was like, 'All right!' There's a certain way of being -- that's what I got to learn. I was really on the hunt. I felt that if I could meet someone who I could see it and feel it from, then I would be able to embody it. And I met Donnie Barksdale."
If Reeves' character was the epitome of non-genteel behavior, Kinnear saw his character as just the opposite. He explains Wayne as a "nebbish" guy who just wants to marry the socialite, go to the country club on weekends and live out his life peacefully. But initially he had some questions about the character.
"This was obviously all new terrain," he says. "I really liked the idea that Sam had for the guy. It's just that there was no information, the way he dresses, his demeanor. Everything that he offers is kind of very little to hold onto. I was a little worried about this guy. The fact that there's nothing suspicious about him makes him suspicious. I don't think he's a murderer. I don't think he's an evil villain. It's that even scarier aspect that he's just very human. And like all of us, we have that gray matter line that is sometimes crossed."
Kinnear adds that he tries to play his part without looking too suspicious but adds that he's heard that he's on a lot of people's "top three list -- two or three -- one, two or three."
Ribisi has the interesting role of Buddy Cole, a man with a lot of emotional problems who looks up to Annie and seeks help from her "gift."
"The challenge with any sort of part is up to the imagination of the actor," he says. "So I think that anything is going to be that challenging. I want to challenge myself more and more each time out, but this definitely was challenging. What was intriguing about this was the idea of sort of having this parasite within this person that he just didn't know what it was. It seemed to be sort of growing inside of him. Ultimately it keeps growing and growing and represents itself as a monster towards the end -- almost as a cathartic thing coming out of him."
He says that he has seen such "monsters" in other people as well as himself and he wanted to try to represent that state.
To "train" for his part of Buddy, Ribisi also checked out the Georgian locals.
"I recorded conversations," he explains. "Sometimes secretively and sometimes just straightforward. I went to a bar just driving around. I was just driving around trying to get lost in the city and the little towns. There was this bar on this lonely highway. I think I had to use the bathroom and two people came pouring out of there drunk. I was taking pictures, and they were like, 'Take a picture of me, man!' OK, great. I went inside and they were gambling inside. I took pictures of the bathroom that they weren't closing the door to. They were having a ball at 2 o'clock in the afternoon."
Just because you work on a film about physic abilities doesn't mean you have to actually believe they exist, and Kinnear says that he's probably the cynic of the group, although he knows people who have had "some really weird bugga-bugga-type experiences."
"But it's never happened to me," he says. "I see Dionne Warwick and the Psychic Friends Network and I'm always amazed. They get on and say 'Do you know a Jim, Tom, Bill, Ed? There is an Ed? So you know an Ed.' And the person goes, 'Yes!' I'm like, 'What the heck is going on here?'"
Reeves, who began training in November for his 16 months of shooting for the upcoming THE MATRIX sequels (which he says will be shot "intermingling" not back to back), says he definitely believes in psychic abilities.
"Everyone has simple, everyday ones," he says, such as thinking about someone just before that person gives you a phone call. "Or if you have family and have dreams. I've met a couple of tarot readers and psychics who have been very specific with things."
Even before the filming of THE GIFT, Reeves says that he believed in such powers, although he says he's never got into the "hard line" of psychic abilities but believes instead in the beliefs in keeping it in one's perspective.
"Intuitively, even as a kid, I thought there was more than just animal [instincts]," he admits, but adds, "I haven't seen a ghost yet, and I haven't seen an object fly through the air."
The actors agree that the setting of Georgia for THE GIFT was a good choice to add to the spine-tingling, overall creepiness of the film.
"I had been to Georgia quite a few times but never Savannah," Kinnear says. "I had read MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL. But that was my only really relative understanding of the place. They are very colorful characters down there. The environment -- it's a beautiful city. A little creepy. I think it was a kind of seventh character in the movie. I think Sam used it effectively. There's kind of a creepy spirituality."
Kinnear even had a creepy experience with his dog in one of cemeteries in Savannah.
"One of the cemeteries in Savannah is also a dog park," he explains. "My wife and I had our dog down there. You go into the cemetery in the afternoon, like a bunch of locals, having a cocktail. You can walk in, close the gate behind you, unleash your dog, and they just take off. They just run amongst the dead."
Unfortunately, his dog Pads, a bearded collie, was chasing a Frisbee and went straight into a grave stone at 40 miles per hour. But fortunately for Pads, there was an emergency vet nearby and Pads recovered with no problems.
Since the movie isn't a typical happy-go-lucky movie about guys losing a car or a girl planning a wedding, there may be some question about how audiences will take to the movie with darker subject matter -- and perhaps about who the target audiences are for THE GIFT.
"I just don't know a lot about that," Kinnear says. "I know that Paramount is very good at marketing and maybe they'll certainly find whoever the audience is that wants to go see this, but who that is, I don't know. I think it's an adult movie. It has, oddly enough, as unsophisticated as this movie is in some ways, it's a very sophisticated movie. I think there'll be an audience for it. But I'm more often wrong at predicting those things than I am right. I hate to say -- I'll withdraw the prediction at this point."