"Kian-who?" he wishes, but if do you see the singular Keanu Reeves hanging out in Sydney this year, humour him by pretending to ignore him. Jenny Cooney Carrillo reports.
Keanu Reeves does not stay in one place very long. As the star of four films in the past 18 months – The Replacements, The Gift, Sweet November and his recent hit Hardball – the 37-year-old actor also travelled to three cities just to promote those films, which had also taken him to all corners of the United States to show.
Next in his travels comes one-year stint in Sydney for the sequels The Matrix 2 and 3, which began filming last year in San Francisco and resume in March 2002. Reeves is also hoping his beloved band Dogstar, for which he plays bass, will make it Down Under at some point so they can play some local venues as they did while he was filming the original The Matrix there.
"I guess we'll have to play by ear, but it can be frustrating for the guys when I'm had to turn down," he shrugs.
Considering his wanderlust, it's nothing short of miraculous that Dogstar has actually survived together as a band for six years. Notorious for living in hotels, travelling alone and having few material possessions, Reeves may be one of the highest-paid actors in the world – but he's also capable of equally staggering generosity, recently donating his profit-sharing point for the two Matrix sequels to the special effects and costume-design crews. But the modest star looks mortified when this is mentioned to him.
"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, and it's a worthwhile thing to do."
So what does he do with all his money? "I enjoy a good suit, I have a nice car, I like a nice Bordeaux but I haven't bought any shrines," he says, shuffling in his seat with a look of embarrassment.
Reeves, whose first name means 'breeze over the mountains' in Hawaiian, began his travelling ways shortly after his second birthday, when his free-spirited parents Patricia and Samuel Reeves – who had met at University in Beirut, Lebanon – split up after Samuel left (eventually ending up in jail on drug charges) and Patricia moved Keanu and his sister Kim to Toronto and supported family designing clothes for bands like Led Zeppelin.
"As kid growing up (in Toronto) you could really play in the streets until 11 o'clock at night and there was eight of us, like a little gang of kids from nine to about 18 years old, running around having chestnut fights and playing hide and seek," he remembers.
"It is nice to be able to reflect on those days."
It was in Toronto that Reeves first discovered the acting bug – at a high school for the performing arts, which ironically failed him in acting and was one of four high schools he attended before dropping out.
"I got to perform some Shakespeare and it felt like a kind of epiphany, or something that I wanted to do more of," he explains.
"So I pursued that and that same feeling of playing and investigation still exists today, except now I've matured and gotten older so a lot of my sensibilities and feelings about life have developed alongside that original impulse to play."
Despite his dim-witted screen persona from films such as Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure and Point Break, Reeves would return to Shakespeare at many points in his diverse career: playing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet in Toronto 1985, co-starring in The Tempest at Shakespeare & Company in Lennox, Massachusetts in 1989 and his well-received portrayal of the Dane himself in Hamlet in a 1995 Canadian production in Winnipeg. That performance also helped to establish him as a serious actor at the same time he was earning fame and fortune for playing an explosives expert attempting to diffuse a bomb-rigged bus in the action blockbuster Speed.
But it was a classic of another kind that helped Reeves really tap into the consciousness of movie-going audiences all over the world. In 1999 he turned his back on a Speed sequel and instead played Neo, a computer expert who joins forces with a rebel underground to pursue The Matrix in the movie of the same name. The film grossed UD$450 million worldwide and won four special effect and sound editing Academy Awards, also luring the actor back for two sequels.
"It's a film about questioning, awakening consciousness, love, support, faith, evolution, man's relationship to machines, Kung Fu cinema, you name it," he grins, explaining why he's not at all surprised at the level of success it has achieved.
"When you see it, it's got the kind of mythical figures that make a great classic: the heros, the wise man, the warriors, the guides, the prophesy, the oracle and the Messiah, but it also has a contemporary and reinvestigation experience to it."
The Matrix introduced the actor to Sydney, where he spent eight months shooting the first film.
"I had a great time there and the people were extraordinary – although occasionally I'd read somewhere which store I'd been into and which book I had bought and that was a bit alarming when you think you're anonymous," he recalls.
Despite the presence of other Hollywood stars of The Matrix, such as Laurence Fishburne and the lesser-known Jada Pickett Smith, wife of Will Smith, Reeves attracts attention simply by virtue of his desire to be anonymous. He may be a singular man with no fixed place of abode in the world, privately affable and unaffected, publicly undemonstrative – even a karate air-punch of frustration on the set of Sydney's Fox Studios earned him an "Keanu outburst"-style headline in a Sydney daily – yet his low-key persona creates an enigma that has its own allure.
The Keanu "sightings" in the Sydney press are inevitable and are bound to intensify. Back in '98 we learnt, fascinatingly, that he scratched someone's dog in Bondi, he drinks Vodka, travels solo in cabs and goes ten-pin bowling (or did once, at least). It could be a good thing for him that he's brought with him his personal escape machine – a Harley, complete with Californian licence plates.
This time, he says, 'I'd like to take my motorbike through the wine country – I ran out of time on the first film."
With almost a year back in Australia, this time he'll have no excuse.
"I look at it like I'm marrying The Matrix and there is just such a true core commitment to creating it and being there every day focusing on realising what directors want to see," he says.
So what does he plan on bringing Down Under?
"I'll bring my phone book, so I can call my friends, but other than my guitar, bike, a few pictures, a couple of suits, a T-shirt and script, that's it," he says simply.
There are as many of 40 locations around Sydney earmarked for shootings, but any tell-tale visual evidence betraying the true identity of the fictional city of the film will be avoided or expunged – from structural icons to left-side drive streets and vehicles. Reeves will not have that magical ability while he's here, while he's here, although he seems contest to reveal himself with Dogstar.
If the band makes it here, Keanu fans elsewhere in the country may well get the chance to see their hero thumbing on bass. Last time round the band managed to hit the stage at Brisbane's Alexandra Hills Hotel, The Central in Melbourne and The Playroom on the Gold Coast. (The current availability of Dogstar's Playroom support act, One Eyed Milkman, is unknown).
Perhaps the respective fringes of the Sydney Festival this month, the Adelaide Festival in February and March and the Perth International Arts Festival beginning later this month will lure the band westward. If so, they'll no doubt flog their latest album, Happy Ending, which features a cover of The Carpenters' hit Superstar, and the Dogstar original quasi-hit, Cornerstore. All will depend on breaks, if any, in a demanding 250-day filming schedule.
While the directors Andy and Larry Wachowski have sworn him to secrecy about the plot for the sequels, Reeves says he's trained harder than ever before to pull off the physical requirements of the role.
"These two films are very ambitious and the action and fight sequences are a lot more sophisticated," he reveals.
"But there is also a love story that's expanded on so I'm really excited with what the Wachowski brothers want us to do in the films."
The appeal of The Matrix movies, he says, is that they aim to "synthesise the action spectacle and give it an emotional context." So much so, the actor adds, "that I never thought of it as an action picture but always as a drama."
With his choice of films, Reeves could never be accused of selling out, as fame and fortune seem to have only happened as a by-product to his choices along the way.
"The first book I learned from was called Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen," he remembers.
"For the past few years especially I feel like I've really enjoyed acting more and more by just doing a lot of it and getting more of a sense of my own technique." In The Replacements he played a washed-up football player who helps his team win a championship; in The Gift, with Cate Blanchett and Hilary Swank, he played a wife-beater suspected for murder; in Sweet November, with Charlize Theron, he plays an ambitious ad executive who falls in love with a woman dying of cancer and in Hardball, he plays a gambler who loses a debt and is forced to coach a little league team.
"These were all very different kinds of films and different kinds of parts," he says proudly.
"So whether it's true or not to someone who's watching my work, my own sense has been that I am coming more into my own craft."