Star says film's more about kids than sports
by Betsy Pickle
Before he was programmed to look like a martial-arts master in "The Matrix," Keanu Reeves was creating his own little repertoire of sports skills on the big screen. He began with hockey in a supporting role in 1986's "Youngblood," then moved on to surfing in 1991's "Point Break" and football in last year's "The Replacements." Now Reeves, 37, finds himself in "Hardball," his first baseball film, but he says he doesn't have a grand plan to tackle movies about all sports.
"I'm getting a little old," says Reeves. "I'm going to have to be coaching. Hold it - I am coaching! I'm old already."
In "Hardball," which opens in theaters today, Reeves plays Conor O'Neill, an obsessive sports gambler forced to coach an inner-city, youth league baseball team in order to pay off his bookies. Conor isn't happy about the arrangement, but as the season goes on he finds that while he's coaching the kids in baseball, they're coaching him in life.
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, and reared in New York and Toronto, Reeves has never been a diehard baseball fan."I like playoff baseball. I like Joe Torre's Yankees." That wasn't a factor for him in deciding to do "Hardball."
"I don't really consider 'Hardball' a baseball film," says Reeves, who has flown to Toronto from the Australian set of "The Matrix Reloaded" for a whirlwind visit to promote "Hardball." "I think (it's) much more about play and cultivating a place for kids to play than about baseball."
Reeves says the adage about not working with kids or animals didn't apply in the case of the youngsters in "Hardball," many of whom were cast in Chicago, where the movie was shot.
"The kids were great," says Reeves, whose clean-shaven face and designer-casual black suit and black T-shirt give away no trace of his jetlag.
Director Brian Robbins ("Varsity Blues") filmed "Hardball" in sections of Chicago not usually frequented by movie productions, including the ALBA Housing Project, where the baseball field was built. The film company received a warm welcome from the neighborhood.
"We had lots of people hanging out," says Reeves. "The film was really good about creating a situation that was comfortable for everyone. ... The community where we were filming was pretty supportive of it."
"Hardball" was inspired by Daniel Coyle's book "Hardball: A Season in the Projects," but Reeves says the film isn't meant to be a biography. "The film was not put to me as being a portrayal of anybody," he says. "It was more of a fictional (story)."
The league is real, he says, but "other than that, it's a work of fiction."
The realistic language in the movie at first earned an R rating, but the filmmakers edited it to get a PG-13. Not only were they sensitive to complaints about the depiction of black youths using foul language, they also wanted to make the movie accessible to younger viewers.
Reeves points out that the language gradually toned down within the story anyway.
"The language does shift in the film as the kids feel more comfortable and safe," he says. "I don't know if you can take offense at it if you've seen the film.
"(My character) begins to foster a more positive environment, and I think as the positive environment becomes more real, the language shifts. ... They don't stop swearing because they were told not to swear. They stop swearing because, psychologically, the anger is not there anymore.
"That feeling of why you curse shifts, and that's why you don't swear. That, to me, is a good lesson. As we foster this more positive environment, the language shifts. We don't have to treat ourselves or treat each other in such a violent way. I think it's really a positive, affirming picture."
Reeves is adamant that the film isn't about a white man coming to the rescue of a bunch of black kids. "That's not what happens," he says. "If anything, the kids save him, and I think that my character is such not the white knight."
Asked about the lack of positive black male role models in the film, Reeves says, "There's no positive male role model for anybody in this movie, white or black.
"I think that that's one of the themes of the piece is the absenteeism of that particular role model. And in a way, that is what Conor transcends for himself. His father wasn't around, and he kind of transcends that absence by becoming it.
"He fulfills it by fostering relationships with the kids, and through that gains that kind of maleness for himself and helps with his self-respect."
Reeves doesn't mind fielding hard questions about "Hardball" - he's been under fire for most of his career. His performance as Valley dude Ted in 1989's "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" pigeonholed him as a scruffy but clueless youth, an image that began to fade only slightly after 1994's "Speed" turned him into a viable, clean-cut action hero.
Even now, film critics rarely give Reeves a break. For every film for which he's earned acclaim - "River's Edge," "The Devil's Advocate" and "The Gift" among them - he's been lambasted for two or three others, including "Bram Stoker's Dracula," "Much Ado About Nothing," "Little Buddha," "A Walk in the Clouds," "Chain Reaction" and "The Watcher."
Reeves is unfazed by negative criticism. "I tend to disagree with it, but that's just my way," he says. "In terms of the critical aspect, if that's what they're doing, then however they feel about something is fine. I can agree or disagree. They can agree or disagree."
Nearly everyone - viewers and critics - agreed that Reeves was the one to watch as Neo in "The Matrix," which is why he'll be working on the sequel (and "Matrix 3") until June.
"It's much more demanding than the first one," he says. "It's much more demanding in terms of the aspirations of what they want me to be able to do physically and emotionally. This is a much, much broader emotional picture."
Like everyone else, Reeves was surprised by how well people responded to 1999's "The Matrix." But he knows why he likes it.
"It's very thoughtful and smart and entertaining."