Pitching in with 'Hardball'
by Cindy Pearlman
It's Sunday afternoon , and Keanu Reeves stops his rusty 10-speed bike at a choice spot on Chicago's lakefront. He pulls out a bottle of water and just watches the sun set over Lake Michigan.
Not even one person bothers him. That's only because no one knows it's the star of such movies as "Speed," "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" and "The Matrix." He's just another man in the crowd for once in his life.
With wrap around sunglasses and wearing jogging pants and an oversized sweatshirt, Reeves could be any other yuppie getting in a little exercise after a tough day at the office. And speaking of tough days, Keanu knows a little bit about them.
For three months last year, he was in the Abla Housing Project in Chicago filming "Hardball," which is in its opening weekend. It's inspired by Daniel Coyle's book Hardball: A Season in the Projects and revolves around a down-on-his-luck gambler (Reeves) who takes a job coaching an inner-city baseball team as a condition of getting a loan to pay his debt.
"The best part of the shoot was Chicago," Reeves says. "It's a beautiful city. Most nights I was there, I'd go for that ride down the lakefront. I did it because I felt very comfortable in your city. Chicago to me is good people, good bars and good clubs."
There is no time for leisure today. The thin, 6-foot Reeves in a serious black Armani suit jetted into Toronto from Australia where he was filming "The Matrix: Reloaded" to talk about his season in the dugout.
Q. Keanu, let's start by clearing up a rumor. The real Chicago kids who play your baseball team in the movie say that as a ballplayer you're a pretty good actor. In other words, the kids say you stink!
A. This hurts me deeply. As a baseball player, I'm actually a pretty good hockey player because as a kid growing up in Toronto if you don't play hockey, they kill you. As for the Chicago kids saying I stink well, the only way to console myself is to tell you that kids lie.
Q. On a serious note, it wasn't easy for you to shoot in the Chicago projects. Didn't production have to halt one night due to real gunshots breaking out in the distance?
A. Yeah, we were shooting one night in the projects and we heard gunshots that weren't actually that far in the distance. It was sad to me, but it re-affirmed what we were doing with this movie. We were telling a story of kids who lead tough lives. I mean, we could leave and go back to our hotels. The kids who live in these projects don't have that luxury now do they?
Q. This wasn't your first visit to a Chicago project?
A. No, it's a funny story, but when I was promoting "Bill and Ted" in your city, I felt so cooped up so I went out to take a little walk. I got really lost and kept walking and walking. I ended up in Cabrini-Green. At first, I felt like I might get hurt when these tough kids approached me. But all they wanted to say was, "Whoa, dude, you're Keanu!" I signed a few autographs and they helped me find my way back to where I needed to go.
Q. The producers of Training Day, an upcoming Denzel Washington movie actually went and met with gang leaders in Los Angeles to get permission to film on their streets. Did you do the same thing in Chicago?
A. I know that our production company went to the community. The main thing for us is that the community be present and supportive. We didn't want to invade their area with some movie. But it turned out that we had great cooperation except for a few protestors who didn't like the language the kids use in the film. But that's how kids speak in real life and this movie is very real.
Q. What was it like for you out on that baseball field? Were the kids impressed that they were hanging out with the "Matrix" guy?
A. Oh yeah. They were thrilled that they were meeting the "Matrix" guy. They actually made me do a bunch of "Matrix" moves for them between takes. It was fine because I love that kind of pure excitement about anything.
Q. In "Hardball," you play a street punk and gambler who finds redemption. We've seen this type of story in so many movies. What made this different enough for you to sign on?
A. There are a limited amount of stories to tell. And yes, we've seen the fallen man try to find redemption in countless movies. What made this interesting was the depiction of it. He wasn't a bad man. You honestly like my character Conor despite all of his failings. He gambles. He scalps tickets outside the United Center. But the minute he's forced to get on that field and be with those kids, he likes them. He respects the kids. And he doesn't talk down to them. All of a sudden, you see a man with a good heart. And I like anyone who treats kids with that sort on inherent goodness. His humanity made him beautiful.
Q. Does it worry you being so identified with "The Matrix"?
A. Hopefully, by the end of my life there will be five or six parts I'll be identified with so they don't just write "Matrix Guy" on my tombstone. But I am really proud of my performance in that film. It's a great film. I'm also just as proud of "The River's Edge." Anyway, people who like film aren't affected by the publicity generated by a mainstream movie like 'Matrix.' They're like me. It's not about the budget. It's about the film. That's why I did 'Hardball.' I felt that it could change people's feelings about kids because it was an honest picture and that made it worthwhile.