Matrix man steps up to bat
Keanu Reeves lives up to his reputation as one of the most inscrutable actors who has ever made it big, writes GAYLE MacDONALD
by Gayle MacDonald
TORONTO -- A few years ago, Roger Lewis of London's Sunday Times ranked Keanu Reeve's performance as Hamlet on a Canadian stage "one of the top three Hamlets I have ever seen. For a simple reason: He is Hamlet."
Well, six years have passed since the star of The Matrix implored of Winnipeg audiences, "To be or not to be, that is the question," but the real-life Reeves still seems cloaked in Shakespearean melancholy and deep-rooted despair.
The guy, to put it bluntly, is deadly serious. Painfully so.
Last weekend, a handful of journalists were herded into a sparse hotel room at Toronto's Four Seasons Hotel to chat with Reeves about his latest film, Hardball, in which the part-Hawaiian-bred actor plays the unlikely role of Conor O'Neill, an Irish bloke who has a gambling problem and a huge chip on his shoulder, but ultimately finds redemption on a ball diamond coaching a bunch of inner-city kids from Chicago's projects.
A handful of us are sitting around a table waiting for the 37-year-old actor to arrive. We've just finished talking to three of the movie's young black stars, who have tumbled out of the hotel room and are now doing high-fives with Reeves in the hall. "Yo, man, how ya doin'?" asks the youngest of the kids, an adorable fifth grader named DeWayne Warren whose character will force you to whip out your hankie if you see the $20-million-plus film. They razz Reeves, wrestle with him a bit. Yank his chain.
But the laughter comes to a screeching halt when Reeves walks into the room where the press awaits. His handsome face is blank and his walk is stiff. He's polite enough, gives everyone a small, tight smile. But it's clear this guy, who grew up in Toronto a few blocks away from the hotel, would dearly love -- probably give away buckets of money -- to be anywhere but in this small room whose windows mercilessly frame a beautiful Indian-summer day.
The questions start off innocuously enough. Is this role the warmer, fuzzier you? Was it a conscious choice? Reeves look askance. Takes a good 20 seconds to think about his response. "No it wasn't," says the actor, dressed head to toe in black. "I took the part because I just enjoy the journey that Conor takes. I liked the writing in the piece. This guy was so far down, as a gambler, a scalper and a hustler. I found the role to be a really good acting role because of how far this character travels emotionally."
Reeves seems to brace for the next verbal lob. A freelancer from Baltimore asks if the movie is kind of like The Bad News Bears goes urban? The actor takes a deep breath, holds it for a good 10 seconds, and then broods some more. "The film has an unexplained quality to it," he finally says. "I don't find it a formulaic movie. In terms of how we talk about the movie. . . . It's not The Bad News Bears goes urban," Reeves says, raking a frustated hand through his jet black hair. "It's Hardball. That's all."
We all scramble to recover. Back on safe ground, the group talks to the superstar, who is getting $15-million for The Matrix sequels, about how much he enjoyed working with these kids. He agrees he's often overtly critical of his own work, too hard on himself, and sometimes "not the most easy-going fellow."
But then the hack from Baltimore does the most unseemly thing. He praises Reeves for his magnanimous gesture recently, where according to The Wall Street Journal, he handed over his profit-sharing points (potentially worth tens of millions of dollars) to The Matrix's special-effects and costume-design team.
The publicist who accompanied Reeves starts waving her hands frantically. "Don't go there. Don't go there," would be an apt interpretation. Reeves stiffens more. "I'd rather people didn't know that," Reeves says, no inflection in his voice.
But it's already out there, one journalist meekly suggests.
"It's a private event," Reeves says, clipped. "It's just the way it worked out. It was something at the time I could afford to do. I want to change the subject."
Reeves, clearly, is an enigma. But if there was any consolation for those of us who endured the painful interview process, it seems Reeves equally confounds others who know him far better, and for far longer. In fact, he's widely recognized by those who work with him and attempt to write about him as one of the most inscrutable actors who has ever made it big.
Hardball's director Brian Robbins (best known for Varsity Blues) admits even he thought it was a stretch for Reeves, whose mom is British and dad is Hawaiian Chinese, to play a down-and-out Irishman. But after their first meeting at Robbins's house, the director says "he saw something in Reeves similar to the guy in the movie. He's a guy needing or looking for something," Robbins tries to explain.
"I'm not going to try to play a psychologist for Keanu Reeves . . . but the story of a guy on a downward slope and looking to climb up the hill is something I think he could relate to. I was surprised he took this role," Robbins continues candidly. "When the studio phoned, I said, 'Really?' But never judge a book by its cover. He's done a wide mix of roles over his career, worked with some of the best directors. Keanu operates on many, many different levels and planes.
"This guy goes from movie to movie to movie, with no time off. It's his life. He takes it very serious. He is a very serious guy."
Reeves, whose first name means "cool breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian, was born in Beirut in 1964. His mother, Patricia, was a seamstress who made costumes for musicians like Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. His father, Samuel Nowlin Reeves, was a geologist, but ended up in prison after being caught with heroin and drugs. He bailed on the family when Reeves was young. His mother moved with Reeves and his two sisters to Toronto, where Reeves stayed until 1985. He loved hockey (his nickname was the Wall as team goalie), but hated school and quit to get serious about acting. He moved to Los Angeles in his early 20s.
To date Reeves has been amazingly prolific, making 35 films in all, including two of the nineties' biggest action blockbusters, Speed and The Matrix, which together have grossed $800-million worldwide.
His first popular success was the role of totally rad dude Ted Logan in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989). Since then his roles have been diverse and varied, including River's Edge, Parenthood, Dangerous Liaisons, Devil's Advocate, A Walk in the Clouds and Feeling Minnesota. Then came The Matrix, Andy and Larry Wachowski's mind-bending science-fiction smash that earned him millions and made him a household name.
He's now in the throes of making the two sequels to Matrix and will spend most of the year shooting in Australia. For fun, the guy toots about on his motorcycle or takes a bus to small towns where he performs with his band Dogstar.
Robbins, who with the rest of the Hardball cast and crew watched Reeves's band perform at the Hard Rock Café in Chicago, says he thinks Reeves is most comfortable and happy with his bass guitar on stage.
"He's loose up there," says Robbins, adding that Reeves plays his bass, all day, in his trailer. "He loves music."
Asked if he agrees with Robbins's assessment that he is most comfortable surrounded by his band, lost in music, the actor looks heavenward. "I love music, sure," says the actor, his voice a deep, soothing timbre. "But if I'm most relaxed on stage, you should see me when I sleep." There's a hint of a smile.
The publicist makes the sign for the last question. And one of us tells Reeves that the Hardball director mused that Reeves leaves him somewhat mystified, that he feels he's not entirely happy, that he's on some kind of quest. Do you agree with that?
"I haven't formalized that feeling," he says with a shrug. "I know I want to have truthful acting. That's something I'm searching for."
Then the interview is over. And Reeves gets up. "Have a nice day," he says, and bolts from the room.
The relief, all around, is palpable.