This one's for the team: Reeves loved working with poor kids to make Hardball
(Previously published on September 14 as a much shorter version under the title 'Never work with children? Keanu Reeves didn't mind')
by John Griffin
Keanu Reeves doesn't look jet-lagged. But he acts it.
The Canadian movie star has flown into Toronto from Australia to do two days of interviews for his new baseball melodrama, Hardball. By the time he gets off the plane in Oz to return to the set of The Matrix sequels he's shooting there, he will have spent as much time in the air as he has answering questions in his old home town. No wonder he's a bit cranky.
Actually, that's not entirely fair. He's polite, articulate and gracious toward director Brian Robbins and the pint-size players who make up the Chicago inner-city Little League team his troubled character coaches toward mutual redemption.
He's also well-dressed in regulation film-industry black, and has the sleek, fit look that seems to come with fame and very fat paycheques. He's just not having a good time. And it shows. "Chuckles" would not be Reeves's nickname on this day.
We talked last weekend, before the American airplane hijackings made such conversations seem even more contrived and superficial than normal. It can be said, however, that Hardball is a more worthy subject than most to see the light of production day in Hollywood.
Reeves is Conor O'Neill, a drunk and obsessive gambler who agrees to coach a team of under-privileged black kids in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Chicago to pay off his debts. To Robbins's credit, the portrayal of life in the projects is harrowing. Routine violence, murder and crack addiction are shown against a backdrop of non-existent male role models and housing so decrepit no middle-class American would set foot in the place. Under these circumstances, it is possible to imagine how some might come to hate corporate America.
"I don't consider Hardball a baseball movie," Reeves explained.
"It's about the concept of play. My character wants to foster a more positive environment for his kids. As they feel safer, their language shifts. There is less swearing and less aggression because there's less anger. The process becomes a positive, affirming experience."
Many of the boys on the team come from the Chicago projects. All were athletic, few had ever acted and all had attitude to spare. Adoration of the fantastic martial-arts world of The Matrix was their common bond, and they hounded Reeves unmercifully to duplicate the stunts from the movie, most of which were either done by a stunt double or generated by computer.
Despite the ribbing, he discounted the old line about never working with children or animals. "They're wrong. Working with kids was great."
The community got behind Hardball, too. Robbins, whose work includes the sports movies Varsity Blues and Summer Catch, resolved to shoot his film in a convincing urban setting and settled on Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project.
"We went in and said, 'This is the situation. This is how we want to do it,' " Reeves recalled. "The community got comfortable with it and got involved."
Many worked as extras, and all now enjoy a community playground built for the production and left behind. It also helped that Reeves's character is no "white knight" riding in to save the poor black folks from themselves. He's a mess who needs the kids even more than they need him.
"There's no positive male role model in this film," he said. "White or black."
Hardball is based on a book by Daniel Coyle that is based on a real character, and there's some talk of a lawsuit floating around. But Reeves's character is not that character. "The film was never put to me as based on anyone. It's a fictional piece."
He perks up when asked about the state of his rock group Dogstar.
"We finally got out of our old label contract and have finished a four-track EP that's due soon." But it will be a while before he and the band do any serious woodshedding.
He started shooting The Matrix 2 and The Matrix 3 simultaneously last November, and - with a few of these brief, unfortunate breaks - continues at a punishing pace till next June. "This Matrix is much more demanding than the first one. Physically and emotionally."
So that's it. Reeves isn't unhappy. He's beat.
- Hardball is now playing in Montreal cinemas.
- John Griffin's E-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.