It's (Neo) classic Reeves
by Henry Cabot Beck
HOLLYWOOD - Keanu Reeves is standing behind a curtain on Stage 17 of the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.
He's getting tired of answering questions about the "Matrix" movies and his character, Neo.
What he wants to talk about is a book he's reading, "Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk," by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain.
The set is full of strange machinery, as if somebody took a long-abandoned submarine and turned it inside out. It has all been imported from "The Matrix Reloaded" set in Australia for purposes of promotion.
But Reeves, never the most enthusiastic interview subject, just wants to talk about this book.
"I'm just digging that book so much," says the 38-year-old actor, who tours and records with his own band, Dogstar.
In particular, he digs "the way those people gained their individuality, how they lived their lives - [New York icons] Patti Smith, the Ramones, Blondie, Iggy Pop - the vitality of the city and the vitality of those people, all trying to have a post-'60s musical thing happening.
"I was a little young to be a part of that Max's Kansas City or CBGB's scene," he adds, "but I could have been there as a kid, a rat kid. Instead I was in Toronto being a rat kid around Yorkville."
Reeves was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and raised primarily in Canada, the child of a showgirl and a geologist. Keanu means "cool breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian. Reeves had a succession of showbiz stepdads and a few smallish roles on TV and in the movies through his late teens before he was cast in "The River's Edge" (1986), the movie that effectively launched his career.
Even so, he floundered in a series of unmemorable pictures until he played Ted in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" (1989). "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey" followed, two years later.
Reeves is a bit defensive about those films, not because they weren't entertaining but because they gave the public the idea that he's a bit thick, like the character he played. When it's suggested that Reeves is most often thought of for his roles in "Speed" (1994), "Matrix" (1999) and "Bill and Ted," he's quick to speak up.
"What about 'River's Edge'?" he asks. "How about 'My Own Private Idaho '?"
"I love those Bill and Ted pictures," says "Matrix" producer Joel Silver, "but he got a bum rap with that stuff. Keanu's smart and well-read, likes all kinds of music. He's an interesting guy, and people don't really know him. He defies what people think about him."
Reeves' good work includes Kathryn Bigelow's surf/crime drama "Point Break" (1991), Bernardo Bertolucci's "Little Buddha" (1993) and the low-budget Beat-era drama, "The Last Time I Committed Suicide" (1997).
He also stood out as the serial killer in "The Watcher" (2000), a part he particularly relished.
"Villains are fun. They're looser. Often times you're asked to be more flamboyant," says Reeves. "I don't get to go over the top a lot, so when I do, I really like it. But even with something like 'Speed,' I like to give some sense of the character so that he's less of a cipher."
"Speed" did more to put Reeves on the map than any prior role, mostly because it earned nearly $300 million at the box office worldwide.
But even that was small potatoes compared with "The Matrix," which pulled in more than $450 million and launched two sequels, the first of which, "The Matrix Reloaded," opens next Thursday. The third and final film, "The Matrix Revolutions," will be released in November.
In these films, Reeves plays Neo, aka The One, who is sent to destroy an evil regime run by intelligent machines. The second film explores the powers Neo discovered he had at the end of the first movie.
Asked what exactly distinguishes Neo - is it genetics? - Reeves responds: "Neo discovers that he's really some sort of mathematical and metaphysical probability. Beyond that, I don't think that's addressed in the story. But his role is pretty clear - to bring down the machines and save the human race.
"And he has to make hard choices along the way," says Reeves. "He isn't a case of one-dimensional heroism, because his fears make him human. Neo has a bit of a sense of humor now, which I like a lot."
Reeves' interviews are finished for the day, and as he picks up his book and prepares to leave the lot, he says of Neo:
"I love the character mostly because he's a seeking, questioning guy. In the first movie, he jumps right in and takes the red pill because he wants to see how deep the rabbit hole goes. It's a quality I admire, like the punk rockers we were talking about earlier. And for that, I find him noble."