The Wild One
by Nui Te Koha
Some knew who he was, others didn't care. For the uninterested, it was merely another session of drinking, hollering and whoopin' up the same ol' patriotic ruckus as the night before.
But those who cottoned on to the stranger, an A-list movie star travelling incognito to get a feel for the so-called redneck South, he was bait.
Quietly, and unannounced, Keanu Reeves had packed up his Hollywood lifestyle and slipped somewhat unnoticed into a rundown trailer park in Rincon, Georgia, a blue-collar town an hour's drive from Savannah.
He had just come through a personal tragedy. It was just a month since Reeves' girlfriend Jennifer Syme delivered a stillborn daughter, Ava. (Then last week, Syme, suffering from severe bouts of depression since the loss, died in a car accident near Los Angeles.)
Reeves still refuses to talk about it, sticking to his long-standing refusal to answer personal questions, and threatens to walk out if the interview so muck as veers from film work.
In telling his story, he sticks to the professional line. He was set up in the trailer park, driving a rundown pick-up truck, and whoopin' it up in the bars, Reeves says, because he was seeking to get inside the skin of Donnie Barksdale, the abusive husband he plays in the film, The Gift.
"I was trying to base it on what I was seeing, on how guys dress like around here," Reeves says in a thick Southern accent. "Baseball cap, hair mullet-style, you know, long in the back, short in the front, certain clothing colours, work boots, and just your average Joe: whatever that is."
The "research" began three weeks before shooting started on The Gift, with Reeves working on the look, the accent and the stance.
"I went out to a couple of bars and I met a couple of guys and then I went: 'All right, I see it. That's what I gotta get'. There is something about the South. People from any locality they just exude where they're from."
Reeves' bar crawls received a mixed reaction from locals. "A couple of times, it was good. A little confrontational sometimes, you know, men and women in a bar," he said. "It was a way for me to try and get into a culture, see how they sound, how they behave, get stories."
Four weeks later, in Springfield, Effingham County, a short drive north of Rincon, director Sam Raimi is about 20 days into the 47-day shoot for The Gift.
It is a lavish setting of US small-town charm: grand homes, golden leaves fallen from aged trees, a marble monument and an imposing domed courthouse with Confederate flag hoisted high as its centrepiece.
If bad looks and foul mood are any indication, Reeves' month-long prep has done the trick. Almost unrecognisable, he is burly, with a proud mullet and thick beard.
For most of his career, Reeves has been criticised for a brand of supposedly flat, monotoned non-acting - even in the high-octane pieces Speed and The Matrix, where his presence as compelling eye-candy is undeniable.
The Gift is a story of a psychic, Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett), whose visions lead her through a web of small-town secrets, battered wives and a brutal murder mystery.
Valerie (Hilary Swank), the wife of Donnie (Reeves), is a regular visitor to the psychic but, after Annie's powers implicate Donnie in the murder, his violent temper spins out of control.
On this day's shoot, Blanchett sits in the courthouse being tom to shreds - verbally - by Reeves' legal defence team.
Elsewhere, it's physical violence. "Most of the time he meets me," Blanchett says after the courtroom scene, "he's either slapping me in the head or punching me in the stomach."
"Cate and I were outside with the stunt people and we were trying to figure out: 'Should I punch her in the head, or should I punch her, maybe, here...'," Reeves said.
"And then the stunt guy goes: 'Hit her in the stomach, man, in the f... in' womb!' That was really hard for me to do. But Cate was like: 'Look, just do it. Hit me.' I was scared."
Earlier, while still deep into his character, an atypically thuggish Reeves has threatened the film's stills photographer to stay out of his line of sight, or else.
"I figure the more I live in the skin, the more I know and you gotta kind of keep that up," Reeves explains later.
The Donnie character has "a temper and a rage and a directness that I don't normally have in life".
"I'm much more polite and domesticated," Reeves says, offering a rare taste of his private life.
Reeves agrees his role is atypically unheroic. "I would love to be able to act in different films and genres and different styles and different characters," he says.
"I'm interested in playing that character for whatever reason, and then once you get into it, more profound things can happen."
Meanwhile, Reeves has been sworn to secrecy on The Matrix sequels. But already the Sydney shoot has been delayed because of Syme's death.
"I'm trying to act as much as I can before The Matrix sequels because I'd like to have a diverse career on the other side of those films. I've got stories to tell."