by Rene Rodriguez
TORONTO -- Keanu Reeves stares off into space, his brow furrowed slightly, and the seconds of dead silence stretch on for so long, you wonder if he'll ever say anything again. Eventually, though, he does. He's just exceptionally careful about choosing his words. A notoriously cagey interview subject, Reeves is the kind of actor who prefers to let his work do the talking for him.
And that work continues to surprise those who would dismiss the actor as a one-trick performer. In Hardball, Reeves plays Conor O'Neill, a hopeless gambler forced to coach an inner-city little league baseball team in order to repay the debts he has amassed. The movie sounds like pure formula, and in a way, it is. But it also contains a surprisingly dramatic performance by Reeves -- yet another instance of the actor defying expectations, whether playing Hamlet onstage, donning period garb in Dangerous Liaisons and Much Ado About Nothing, or doing the action-hero thing with convincing stoicism in Speed and Point Break.
Walking into a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto for a quick interview, Reeves, 37, is animated, talkative and in good spirits as he talks about his performance in Hardball, discusses the way critics perceive him and explains why he can't really say anything about the two Matrix sequels he's currently filming back-to-back in Australia.
Q: One of the things that surprised me about Hardball is that there's a lot more to it than the Bad News Bears rip-off it appears to be. When you first heard about the script, were you skeptical about its derivative nature?
A: I had no initial prejudice toward it, no. When I actually read it, there was a lot in it I really liked. It had a dramatic heft to it, but there was a humor and lightness that kept it from being too sweet or too overwrought. There was a nice balance to it.
Q: You really feel your character's desperation, which gives the film a kind of urgency I wasn't expecting.
A: [nods] He's kind of trapped, and I think that's one of the reasons why, if you do respond to the piece, you might root for him. He's a guy who is so damaged, so full of self-loathing, and he finds something inside of himself where he thought he had nothing. It's a great part. I had one of my best acting experiences playing that guy.
Q: When you're offered a role in a film, do you look primarily at the character you'll be playing, or do you also consider the movie as a whole?
A: Both. There have been times . . . if I don't respond to the character but I like the piece, I generally wouldn't involve myself. But if I like the character, but I don't like the piece, then I probably wouldn't involve myself either. They both have to exist.
Q: You've often been dismissed by critics, or at least categorized as a certain kind of actor who isn't capable of playing characters beyond a certain type.
A: It's true. I find, though, that those categories change over the years, which in a way is kind of lucky. After Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, I got categorized as that. To me, that was a good acting performance, but people couldn't see around that. They assumed I was that guy. Then after Speed, I was labeled as an action-film guy.
Q: Does it bother you when that happens?
A: Not really, because in a way, I feel if there is categorizing going on, it's because they believe the acting. So maybe I was just too good in those movies. [laughs]
Q: That hasn't limited the types of roles you get offered, though.
A: Yeah, it's been restrictive only from a critical standpoint. Other artists don't respond to me like that. When I meet directors, I haven't found that kind of prejudicial thinking, which has been nice. Certainly, when you play a part in a film that is successful artistically or financially, then people expect you to do that again and again. Or they can only see you that way. And I'm certainly an actor who's trying not to do that.
Q: Speaking of "Bill and Ted," those movies are coming out on DVD next month.
A: Are they really? I did not know that. [laughs]
Q: Have you and Alex Winter ever talked about doing another one?
A: The only thing I've ever said to him about that -- and it was in a half-joking manner -- is that we should reprise those roles when we hit 40. It would be fun to do a "Whatever happened to . . .?" thing with those characters. That has the potential to be funny and worthwhile.
Q: Where do you think Bill and Ted would be then?
A: I always pictured them as a lounge act outside of an airport, doing cover tunes. Maybe Bill's on piano and Ted's playing a little guitar. [laughs]
Q: You've been living out of hotel rooms for years now. Have you settled down yet?
A: I have not, sir. I've settled down in my work. That's where I live.
Q: Isn't it about time you laid down roots somewhere, though?
A: [shrugs] I stay with my sister on and off in L.A., or otherwise I just stay in hotels. I have a place in New York that I'm thinking I might settle in, hopefully after I finish work. I'll try New York for a while.
Q: A lot of profiles written about you talk about the "riddle of Keanu" or "Keanu's enigma." There's a sense that there's this big mystery around you. Why do you think that is?
A: [sternly] I'm a very private person. . . . I'm willing to speak about my work and things connected to my work, even the process of work. But my feeling is that when I'm not free with personal feelings with an interviewer, that becomes something for them to write about. So maybe that's where that started.
Q: So I guess I shouldn't ask you any personal questions, then.
A: [continuing his train of thought] Actors shouldn't reveal too much about themselves, anyway. It's important to maintain a certain level of mystery, because that frees the imagination of the audience. It allows you to play different kinds of characters.
Q: I want to throw out a couple of old movie titles, and tell me the first thing that comes to your head.
Q: "Permanent Record."
A: Ah, Permanent Record. [smiles] I had a great time making that film. I thought it was a really good script, and it was one of the first. . . . River's Edge was a real ensemble experience, and it reminded me of that feeling. The actors got along really well and we had a really creative time making that film. It was a great time in our lives.
Q: "Point Break."
A: Ah, Point Break. [smiles] That was my first action film. I really enjoyed the physicality and the gunplay of it. I found the dialogue so funny. It's so over the top and beautiful. Many people quote lines from that film.
Q: "Dangerous Liaisons."
A: That was . . . that was for me a really . . . um . . . I felt like I was the first time out of my . . . it was another world, in terms of working with Glenn Close and John Malkovich and going to Paris to film and doing this period piece where I had no rehearsal time. I had to ask for my shoes two hours before my first shot, so I could learn how to walk in them. That to me is symbolic of what I had to do in order to play that part. I read the book, and I had a little bit of opportunity to talk to the director. It was very scary.
Q: We're almost out of time, so let's talk about "The Matrix" sequels. It feels like you guys have been working on these for a year already.
A: That's because [the Wachowski brothers] do pre-production and principal photography at the same time. I started training in November and trained for five months. Then we went to Oakland, filmed for three months, and had a two-week break. Now we're in Australia. I've been training for two months and I start filming again in two weeks.
Q: And shooting is going to take a whole year?
A: Filming is going to be about 15 months, with occasional breaks. I won't be finished until June of 2002, and we started this past March.
Q: So you've read both scripts.
A: Yes, they're both finished.
Q: Can you give me a sense of what the story is about?
A: [smiles] No.
Q: I heard there's a scene in the film where your character, Neo, comes face to face with 100 versions of himself.
A: [grinning] Uh-huh.
Q: 100 Keanus! Is it true?
A: [laughs loudly]
Q: Come on, you can tell me. It doesn't spoil anything.
Q: You can't even confirm that much?
A: [smiling] You know the problem? I might say, "Yes, it is true," but it might not be true. Because I can't tell you the truth. So does it really matter what I say?