Where does the character stop and the man behind him start? On the location in Savannah, Georgia for his latest film, Keanu Reeves remains as elusive as ever
by Damon Wise
'Hey ya'll. Is this the parole office?' A podgy little man with a bumfluff beard and glasses, wearing baggy shorts and a purple, tie-dyed T-shirt, is standing in the doorway, peering in at the people inside, trying to find a familiar face. They laugh. In fact, they're tempted to play along with the joke and tell him, in a parody of his Southern accent: 'Yes, suh - and we're setting y'all free!' But the laughter just makes him all the more confused and suddenly the penny drops. This is not a member of the visiting film crew playing a prank on the others - he's a real-life criminal, checking in.
What used to be the parole office is now a makeshift workstation for the cast and crew of The Gift, a supernatural thriller directed by Sam Raimi and being shot on location in Savannah, Georgia. Raimi is a maverick whose exhilarating camerawork came to prominence in the dizzying, bloody Evil Dead series. But like his 1997 thriller, A Simple Plan, The Gift is a much more muted affair, resting on a grounded performance by Oscar nominee Cate Blanchett, herself taking a break from more serious projects. But while the star is Blanchett, the revelation is Keanu Reeves. He plays Donnie Barksdale, six snarling feet of redneck fury and the abusive husband of Valerie (Hilary Swank), turning his clean-cut Matrix messiah boy image on its head.
Reeves is anxious not to be typecast. In the same week The Gift is released here, we'll also see him in The Watcher, in which he plays Griffin, a serial killer who teases the FBI by staging elaborate murders and laying false trails. But where Griffin is a cold, elusive psychopath, whose good looks seem actually superfluous to the role, Barksdale is a physically intimidating bully who, in one especially well-crafted scene, bursts into Annie's house and drags his screaming wife out by the hair.
It's all very far from the Gen-X clown capers of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure or the high-cheekbone heroics of Speed and the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix. And when he makes his entrance, taking a break between shots, Reeves is an impressive presence. He looks much bigger - taller and wider - than his usual, lean self and his new bulk is squeezed into a cheap, polyester WalMart suit. Although not technically in character, he's adopted some of Donnie Barksdale's mannerisms for the time being, lolling back in his chair and making strong, assertive gestures with his arms and shoulders. Taking the guise of a good ol' boy, just sitting there, hanging out, like a regular Joe. But his eyes seem nervous and distant, as though someone else is inside, working the machinery.
Today, they're filming a courtroom scene, with Keanu in the dock, and because it requires some concentration he will be conducting the interview in a Southern accent. Thankfully, this has improved somewhat since his turn in the awful horror thriller, The Devil's Advocate. His hair straggles at his shirt collar and a weird, angular beard, grows in clumps on his chin. 'Sam wanted me to be less recognisable and it just started to grow,' he explains. 'So we decided not to cut it.'
Reeves has been working on this new 'look' for several weeks now. 'I didn't want to just play "a Southerner", you know?' he says. 'And in working with the dialect coach, all of us tried to find a certain region that our characters were from. And then, once we'd decided on a region, I found a county called Rankin and went there. No one could believe it. I'd come back to the set and people would be, like, "Rankin? What were you doing thar ?"'
There are several myths surrounding this 36-year-old actor. One is that he is inarticulate and moody. Indeed, before he finally appears, it is even suggested that he might not speak at all; he is, variously, 'tired', 'ill' and 'working on an intense scene'. Another is that, well, he's simply not an actor. But despite the oddness of talking to someone in character, Reeves gives a surprisingly good account of himself. He's not exactly a Method actor, but he's willing put his back into it.
'When I first got here,' he says, 'I just couldn't get it. Then I went out to a couple of bars and I met a couple of guys. Suddenly I was like, "Oh, right, that's what I gotta get". Because there's something about people from the South, they just exude where they're from. I wanted to get that down, so that if I just walked into a room, people would think, "Whoah, that's a redneck!"'
So he hired a souped-up pick-up truck, bought a hat and a pair of boots and checked out the local nightlife.
'A couple of times it's been good,' he says, 'but there's a certain style in Rankin that's just confrontational. They come up to you and sort of test you. They push you - like, "Where you from?" They might make fun of where you're from or what you look like. In a nice way, smiling. And then they see how you respond.
'I remember I went into Rankin once and this pick-up truck pulled up next to me and I got scared. This black truck, with black windows, a Confederate flag, a gun rack, antennae.'
His voice drops to an almost conspiratorial level and his shoulders snap back, as if he's about to reveal that something bad happened. But nothing did happen; the truck (presumably) drove away. And for the first time, it's possible to see a glimpse of the real Keanu Reeves beneath Donnie Barksdale's bravado, the unshaven, grungy figure who turned up at the Glastonbury festival two years back with his ropey band, Dogstar, wearing a grubby black suit and woolly hat jammed down over his ears. The Keanu Reeves who literally answered the first three questions of a press conference there with the following, unforgettable answers: 'No', 'No' and 'Uh, we just got here.'
Donnie Barksdale seems to be getting under his skin and the result, he says, is his temper is closer to the surface. 'I call it my Donnie,' he chuckles. 'Like, "I gotta get my Donnie on", you know?'
Is it difficult juggling these personalities?
'Sometimes, it can take a while to get back,' he nods. 'It means, if it's been very intense, some of the habits and ways of being kind of come with you back home and you kind of have to readjust to your life. For me sometimes, it's so great to have change. When you get back, sometimes, it's like your relationships and where you're at kind of puts you back into the rhythm of how you were before you left. Sometimes, I find myself trying not to do that. But then there's other times when I miss how I was, or am. So there's always a kind of schism.'
Reeves's commitment will be put to the test in his next two films, which for 16 months will take him to Australia and plunge him back into the world of The Matrix. Reeves is saying nothing except that he has the scripts, which he's very pleased with, although internet rumours suggest that his character, Neo, will develop new superpowers and do battle with a new crew of supervillains who weave in and out of the storyline. 'They're going to film two films, but not in order,' he says.
So how much training will that require?
'Basic training is four months, and my first fight after that won't be for another month and a half. So it's more like five months.'
Is there much pressure to deliver two more hits?
'I'm sure there is, especially for the directors. But I like that pressure. I know when I made The Matrix it was important for me to be there every day and be ready. I had this vision of a mountain, like, "OK, do what you have to do but get there". I enjoyed that, I think because I'm just part of the film. It's not like I'm carrying the film the way Mel Gibson carried the Lethal Weapon series. I'm part of The Matrix.'
And what can we expect this time round?
'What they're doing with some of the digital aspects that are available now is amazing; technology has been developed that will allow the brothers, Andy and Larry, to move the camera around sequences that have never been done before. They want the actors to do more, and we're gonna be using even more weapons this time.'
Before this, Keanu will be concentrating on a couple of smaller movies, starting with a weepie called Sweet November, with Charlize Theron. Is he ever disappointed by the scripts he gets? Does he ever feel typecast as an action bimbo?
'I find it...'
(Suddenly, the familiar, hesitant Keanu emerges and it becomes apparent that he's struggling to keep up the façade. Though he's trying to be sociable and outgoing, it just doesn't seem to come naturally and his eyes maintain a definite aversion strategy. Beneath the Donnie Barksdale persona is still the reluctant star who feels uncomfortable with attention and who reacts with abrupt defensiveness. And it quickly becomes apparent that Reeves is perhaps even marginalised in his own profession. He isn't merely an actor, he's a movie star and desperately needs to be taken seriously, hence the deep-cover research, the accent, the 'Donnie'.)
'I find it mixed,' he decides. 'You see a lot of clichés, you see a lot of people following other people who've broken ground, then you get scripts you can relate to - like, "Wow, that's the truth! That's good". But those movies are few and far between. It seems like with American movies it's hard to get, not day to day stuff, but stuff like [Todd Solondz's] Happiness. Or even American Beauty, where you have a simple storyline and people are able to just "be real" and tell the story through that. On the surface, that doesn't seem to be interesting and yet those are the films that people remember. Those are the films that are hard to find, those simple stories that are as big as life, as opposed to spectacle.'
And at that moment, the publicist appears, ready to whisk him back to the set.
"I appreciate it,' he drawls, before shaking hands. 'Have a good day, man.'
Keanu Reeves: the real thing
Born 2 September 1964, Beirut, Lebanon. His father, Samuel Nowlin Reeves, was a geologist; his mother, Patricia, was a showgirl.
Name Means 'cool breeze over the mountains' in Hawaiian.
Significant other None.
Nickname 'The Wall', a reference to his high school days as an ice hockey goalie.
Big Break Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989). The time-travelling goofball became his signature role.
Hits Point Break (1991), Speed (1994), The Matrix (1999).
Misses Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), Chain Reaction, Feeling Minnesota (1996).
Film fact He turned down a role opposite Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat to play Hamlet in Winnipeg, Canada.
Current fee $15 million.
Other career Bass player in rock band Dogstar. They played Glastonbury in 1999, where unimpressed revellers pelted them with fruit.
On Keanu: 'You cannot get close to him, he is somehow unattainable. That makes him very, very attractive' - Kenneth Branagh.
Keanu says: 'I don't want to live a stupid life. I know I'm doomed. I'm a dog. But I'm trying to shake the dog, y'know?' The Gift and The Watcher open 2 March