Keeping secrets while seeking truth
(Previously published as a slightly edited version under the title 'The Lone Stranger' on September 17)
by Ron Dicker
TORONTO - Keanu Reeves jokes with his young co-stars in a hotel hallway about their experience in Hardball, the heart-tugging baseball movie currently in local theaters. They have gathered to meet journalists, and Reeves finishes the reunion by saying, "Thanks for watching my back."
Then he walks into the room for this interview, and his joy deflates faster than a whoopee cushion. He now has to dole out information, a role that makes him far more uncomfortable than playing the hustler-turned-coach in Hardball.
Reeves first earned attention as an easygoing dude in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989). He became bankable with action turns in Point Break (1991) and Speed (1994). Then The Matrix (1999), a futuristic whirl of computer takeovers and slow-motion martial arts, put him in the let's-hand-him-the-combination-to-the-vault category.
Intentionally or not, the 37-year-old actor has built his mystique by limiting the flow of information about him. "If one is a fan of an actor, I could see why he'd want to know more about them," he says.
Not that he is about to indulge the public's wish. He is solemn for a man who has earned a reputation as a cosmic surfer boy. Reeves, his dark Eurasian good looks blending in with a black sports jacket and T-shirt, answers questions brusquely.
Some in Hollywood say he's less than intelligent. Others say he's misunderstood. Most would agree that he's like no one else. He lives in hotels most of the time. He has said he likes to stare at the walls. And he often travels solo, though he makes an exception when he plays bass with his band Dogstar.
He also is capable of staggering generosity. He donated his profit-sharing points for the two Matrix sequels - which could amount to millions of dollars - to the special-effects and costume-design crews, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. He appears stricken when the subject comes up.
'A sort of void'
"I'd rather people didn't know that," he says. "It's just a private event. It was something at the time that I could afford to do, hopefully, and it's a worthwhile thing to do."
Reeves' first name means "breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian, but an acquaintance of Reeves suggests the actor is less at ease than that translation implies.
Brian Robbins, the director of Hardball, was surprised that Reeves was interested in the part of a gambler who finds meaning in guiding a ragtag team of kids from the projects. But when Robbins met the actor, the choice made sense. "Keanu Reeves the person has a sort of void," Robbins said. "He's a guy sort of needing something, looking for something, like the character in the movie. I thought it was a good fit."
During filming in Chicago, Robbins and his wife would run into Reeves on Sunday mornings, sipping coffee alone at a cafe. They would invite the actor to join them, and sometimes he would accept. "I did try to bring him in because I felt like he needed that," the director said.
The itinerant Reeves will spend the next nine months in Sydney, Australia, finishing up the Matrix sequels to be shot one after the other. (The first sequel, The Matrix Reloaded, is scheduled to premiere in 2003.) The displacement does not faze him.
"I try to be present," he says. "I'm so grateful to be there and so grateful to be working on something I love."
Perhaps the one place Reeves could call home is just four blocks from where he sits. He spent his adolescence in Toronto with his mother, Patricia, who was a showgirl in Beirut when she met Reeves' father, Samuel, a geologist. The two divorced shortly after Reeves was born.
Reeves dropped out of four high schools here, clinging to his dream of becoming an actor. He does not visit old haunts when he returns because of limited time, but admits: "There's a certain nostalgia to it, a certain reflection."
His break came when he was cast in a bit part in Youngblood, a 1986 hockey movie that was shot in the area. The film's lead, Rob Lowe, encouraged him to move to Los Angeles.
Hardball shows Reeves at his most down-to-earth. He denies that he felt a need to reveal a warmer side, and says only that he liked the character's arc of redemption:
Conor O'Neill likes to drink and gamble too much. With bookies about to crack his skull, Conor turns to an investment-banker pal for help (Mike McGlone). The deal is this: Conor will coach a corporate-sponsored baseball team until he pays off his gambling debt. The players aren't any good. The league wants them out.
The movie's premise is reminiscent of The Bad News Bears, the 1976 Walter Matthau comedy, but the comparison rankles Reeves a tad. Hardball is more serious, magnified by the grim neighborhood in which it was filmed.
"When we had to go home early from work because people were shooting at each other close by, it just kind of intensified the feeling of how hard these places can be and how unfortunate it is," he says.
Reeves passed the time with the star-struck inner-city kids who played roles in the film by re-enacting Matrix scenes with them. "I expected him to be a stuck-up person," said Bryan Hearne, one young cast member who found Reeves to be approachable.
However, Reeves' detractors can be harsh. Two other recent efforts, the football comedy The Replacements and the romance Sweet November , did not fare well with critics or audiences.
But complaints about Reeves' stiff acting cooled somewhat with his performance as a redneck in the supernatural thriller The Gift (2001). The actor's supporters, including Robbins, argue that Reeves has worked with some of the best directors, "so there must be something there."
Reeves hints what that "something" might be when he says he began acting at age 15 because it made him happy. It still does.
"I know that I want to have truthful acting," he says, "and so maybe that's something I'm searching for. Maybe that can turn into a truthful life."