It's called acting
The master of the hurt puppy-dog look school of performing arts has a few surprises up his thespian sleeves in his new film, as Roald Rynning finds out.
After 22 films and 19 years of playing a wide variety of parts in good, bad and indifferent films, Keanu Reeves still thrives on working at his craft. He might be a reluctant multi-millionaire action hero to some and a heartthrob rock star to others, but he considers himself a 'serious' actor looking for challenging roles. No laughing at the back.
As the abusive Donny Barksdale Reeves equips himself well in Sam Raimi's spooky thriller The Gift, and has earned career best notices. It's a major league role, after all his co-stars are Oscar winners Cate Blanchett and Hilary Swank. It's also something of a departure for Keanu, who specializes in a vulnerability only he portrays so well.
"I liked his intensity," he says of his character. "I liked the language and I was grateful to have the part. It was a great break for me."
Keanu always takes his work seriously and, as if to prove it, he arrived three weeks early for the Georgia filming of The Gift. "I was trying to find a locality for my character. I got myself a pick-up truck and started going out to redneck bars."
Keanu talked to psychiatrists and discovered that abusive men tend to be alcoholics and had alcoholic parents, and had, more often than not, suffered some form of abuse. So forget superstar pretensions. His co-stars see him as an attitude-free team player who's a total professional. Orlando Jones, who co-starred with him in last year's The Replacements said: "Keanu's a completely different cat than what people see on film. When I see him in interviews, he always talks reserved, as if he's clawing for his privacy. In person, he tends to be sort of gregarious and kind of funny. His perspective on life, it's not at all what you'd expect from a guy who is a movie star. I found him to be a lot more of a regular guy."
The Gift director Sam Raimi was surprised by Reeves' devotion to his role. "I had no idea he was going to be that involved in what he was doing," recalls the director. "Keanu made the part much more than it was, and much more than I thought it could be."
Reeves is usually a serious thinker when it comes to himself. Underestimating him is an easy thing to do because he is often a little awkward and unsure of what he should say and how he should say it. You never see him on talk shows and he avoids the media at all costs. You never even see him at Hollywood festivities, and at the premières of his films, he brings his sisters as dates. Fame, says Reeves, is just the price an actor pays if he wants the opportunities that he cherishes.
"The worst part of fame is the loss of privacy and sometimes it is frustrating," states the reticent Keanu, who fights to keep his private life just that. Asked how he succeeds in staying so free of press intrusion, he gives up one of those Keanu classics that make it clear the subject is closed. "Because I'm so private." He admits that fame brings its perks as well.
"I want to work in Hollywood. The experiences I've had have been some of the best in my life, and I want to act. So, if a film is successful and that has other kinds of consequences, then I'm willing to go through that," he concludes. "And sometimes, it's fun."
While Reeves is happy to demonstrate his work ethic, don't expect major insights into his personal life. For instance, no journalist has truly succeeded in drawing him out on the tragic elements in his life - his sister's battle with cancer, the stillborn birth of his child, for example. He just wants to talk about his films, and that's fine by us.
The reaction when asked how difficult it was to beat up screen wife Hillary Swank is more than surprising: "It was a lot of fun to do that scene," he deadpans. "We worked with the stunt co-ordinator and the shot was designed so it would be safe but look very physical and violent. The whole point of that sequence is the shot of the kids watching this happen. To see their innocent faces being shocked by this eruption of violence that's in their house. The stunt co-ordinator put a handle inside Hillary's wig, with a harness on her, so that it allowed me to really have a physical freedom with her, but not to put her in any jeopardy. I wasn't pulling her hair."
What originally shook him up was that he could easily feel his character's rage: "That's one of the things that I love about acting. You learn about yourself, you learn about other people."
It's lucky then that Keanu couldn't be more different from his latest character. "I tend to be very polite," he admits, "and sometimes, it doesn't behove me to be polite to some people. It was funny doing this movie and letting the character show himself. Once I was in a bar and this woman turned to me and said, 'Hey you, come here and give me your autograph.' I thought I'd get my 'Donny' on, and I went, 'What?' 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.' I was like the Incredible Hulk for a second, like Donny was coming out of my shirt. I was thinking later, like, 'Yeah, okay, speak up for yourself sometimes."'
Describing his new film's theme, Reeves says, "Everyone has some kind of a happening that they don't understand. The gift is to realize that event and express it. When it's not expressed, violence happens. Like when Cate Blanchett's character is not dealing with the loss of her husband."
So does he believe in the supernatural?
"I've had personal experiences that have made me believe it is a possibility - like clairvoyance is real. To me the analogy is almost like we didn't know there was electromagnetic energy. We didn't know about radio waves. But then all of a sudden, there's the wireless, and this kind of voice, and this kind of magic thing. I feel like that, and clairvoyance is just some kind of level of energy that some people have, but we don't clinically or scientifically understand yet. But I think it's real. I saw [a clairvoyant] in New York who told me things about my family and things about my past that she couldn't possibly know. But she was specific with times and names and events. What else can I do with that but go, 'This is real'?"