Cool Keanu hits a homer
by Katherine Monk
TORONTO - Keanu Reeves does not need sunglasses, a long black leather coat and a big gun to emanate coolness. The dude could wear flood pants, a clip tie and white socks and still exude a Zen-like sense of hip.
In fact, in his new film Hardball, the story of a gambling addict redeemed by coaching a youth baseball team in Chicago's inner-city projects that opens today, Reeves does wear a pair of flood pants. They don't exactly look chic, but Reeves proves that cool transcends the Gap-ad image.
For Reeves, cool seems to stem from compassion, a quality he demonstrates through his commitment to Hardball and making sure it gets a good at-bat with the public.
After all, that's why earlier this week he left Australia, where he was in the midst of shooting Matrix sequels, to be in the midst of the movie and media maelstrom called the Toronto International Film Festival, speaking about a project he says he wouldn't have done without believing in its underlying message.
"This is what I would call a life-affirming film. There's a positive message behind it and that's why I chose to take the part," he says.
"I liked Conor [Reeves' character] because for all his hustling and scalping he has respect and a good heart. There was this inherent goodness to the character, even if he may not like himself all that much. He has a lot of self-loathing ... but he can be redeemed."
The fallen man who finds redemption is hardly a new motif in American film, but Reeves says it doesn't matter how old or unflattering a certain character may be. What counts is the way a given character is written and if he'll be able to find enough internal tension in the role to make it interesting -- not just for him, but for the audience.
Reeves' portrayal of Conor O'Neill is a perfect case in point. A fast-talking, big-betting loser who finds himself in debt with the baddest bookmaker in town, O'Neill is a stock character in the Hollywood catalogue, but Reeves makes him real.
Reeves says that's because he is real -- at least in a general sense.
Originally conceived as a story about a stockbroker who finds meaning in the ghetto, Hardball's hero got a gritty makeover by director Brian Robbins because he felt the story was too black and white, both figuratively and literally.
The added complexity is what drew Reeves to the project.
"I may not consider myself a technician when it comes to playing rock 'n' roll, but I do consider myself a technician when it comes to being an actor," he says.
"I have nothing against Hollywood movies ... I have no problem acting in a big-budget film. For me, it depends on what the movie is about ... I'm just as proud of the work I did in The Matrix as my performance in The River's Edge. I feel a sense of responsibility for the parts I take. I liked Conor because he is transformed and that scene in the church where you see and hear his realization, and how he developed a greater appreciation for life and became a better person for it, that excited me as an actor.
"I think all the parts I've played have had more than one dimension ... except maybe The Watcher. That was something I didn't find interesting at all."
He has fonder memories of his first audition, driving to Montreal from his hometown of Toronto to prepare for an audition as a hockey goaltender. "I had the hockey skills, I just needed a French-Canadian accent so I got in the car and headed to Montreal to just listen to how people spoke. It was fantastic. I met these kids outside of Montreal and after that, I don't remember thinking too much about acting.'
While Reeves says he loved shooting Hardball in Chicago and hanging out with some incredibly talented young players -- some of whom had never acted before in their lives -- but every so often, the real world intruded in the Hollywood fiction.
"We stopped shooting one night because there were gunshots in the projects where we were. What can I say about that? I mean, it's pretty f****d up."