'Mind over Matrix': For Keanu Reeves, it's no pain, no gain
by Cindy Pearlman
LOS ANGELES--The only thing more confusing than "The Matrix" is the guy who stars in it. Keanu Reeves is such a puzzle that even when you think you've solved him, there's always one piece missing.
Consider the peculiarities: Here's a guy who got famous playing a moron named Ted, but what he craves is to do "Hamlet" in Canada. He makes $20 million a movie, but he doesn't own a home. No Hummer for this boy (where would he park it?)--he tools around L.A. on a 1974 Norton 850 Commando motorcycle.
He's someone who craves his privacy but stars in two of the biggest films of the year--"The Matrix Reloaded," opening Thursday, and "The Matrix Revolutions," due in November.
You might think this would rattle him a bit, but on Soundstage 16 on the Warner Bros. lot that doubles for the human town of Zion in "Reloaded," Reeves has an almost Zen-like calm. "The whole premise of 'The Matrix' is trying to find an authentic life," he reminds you. "That's all I'm trying to do, too."
That's a big revelation for a guy who doesn't want you to know anything about his life, but unfortunately he's sitting in front of a reporter who's trying to figure him out.
The biggest discovery: He might be a Hollywood star, but the world of Keanu Reeves exists as a parallel universe.
With everything at his disposal, his needs are simple. "I only hope to work. I just want to act and make good films. That's all I can really do."
That's all he has been doing for 270 days over the last 14 months on two continents, where he created all matters Matrix.
He is happy to talk about the pain of filming back-to-back sequels. Take the day when everybody was kung-fu fighting, but none as hard as Reeves. Black overcoat flying as he threw roundhouse kicks at his nemesis Mr. Smith, his Neo character was in a bit of a Matrix mess.
He was cornered in a courtyard, all alone, at the mercy of an enemy who just wouldn't stop cloning itself. Blink, and it's 10 Mr. Smiths. Blink again, and 20 are coming at him. A deep breath later, and hundreds of men are trying to beat Neo--mankind's last chance--into a bloody pulp.
"I was more proficient with the wire work this time around and also it seemed that I was able to catch on to choreography much quicker," he said. "But the fight with all of the Smiths was a lot of moves. It was great. I got to work with 12 of the stuntmen, so for three weeks, we just did that fight. So let's just say I was busy."
Reeves has a saying for the tough moments: "It's mind over Matrix," he said, grinning. "I don't know what happens when I put on Neo's big black overcoat. I think that coat informs the character. I feel like such an icon when I have it on," he said, referring to 23 versions of that coat hang in his dressing room closet, with each one crafted for specific fighting or lighting situations. "I put on that coat and it's Superman time. I become the lone wolf. I'm ready to rock your world."
In four days, he hopes "Matrix Reloaded" rocks your world. It's the first of two sequels to the 1999 hit that hauled in over $400 million at the box office.
"The Matrix Reloaded" takes us back to the dark world where machines are trying to enslave human beings and suck out their power. This time around, we get to see the city of Zion, where the humans are preparing to stage their last stand. Come this fall, things will be even bleaker in "The Matrix Revolutions," when the humans go to war with the hardware.
When it comes to "Reloaded," Reeves reveals, "It's much more ambitious than the first film in terms of how it fractures out and splinters out. There are many more themes."
Having two of the biggest films of 2003 sitting on his thin frame doesn't seem to bother Reeves. "The pressure is on in one way not to disappoint the fans of the first movie. But when that gets to be too much, I just think about how excited people are to have these two movies. I feel like I'm in the middle of something that's really big."
That said, he just has one request: "Please just don't give anything away. People want to be surprised."
Going back into the world of "The Matrix" wasn't so surprising for Reeves, who was hired by Chicago natives Andy and Larry Wachowski to do a trilogy. "It wasn't like someone said, 'Oh, the first one did pretty well, let's do a sequel.' Going into the first movie I knew this was a trilogy.' In fact when we wrapped the first one, the brothers were really excited to show me images of the robot machines that would be in the next one."
Reeves also knew that the preproduction on the sequels--which were shot back to back--would be more grueling than the actual two years he spent in Australia on a soundstage. Let's just say he knew the drill. He took on about six months of training before he shot his first scene.
"It's demanding, but it helped to do the first film because there was no surprises. I knew that my muscles were going to ache every night," he said. "Also, I wasn't a novice when it came to practicing on the wires for the fight scenes. I got new moves and caught on quickly each time. It was like my body had some sort of memory bank to build on from the last time."
The films have spawned such a cult following that there are people who dissect what it all means with almost religious fervor. To those fans, Neo isn't just a movie hero, but almost a holy figure. "I really don't seek out that kind of fan appreciation," Reeves said.
Laurence Fishburne, who plays Neo's boss Morpheus, thinks that Reeves has changed since the first outing. "I think Keanu is a lot lighter. He's grown up. He's a lot less guarded. Of course, in many ways he's always going to be an angst-ridden motherf-----."
Some find all that angst to be sexy. Monica Bellucci, who also plays a new character in "Reloaded," has a lip-lock scene with the actor. "I met him nine years ago when I was a model with a bit role in the 'Dracula' movie. Then in 'Matrix,' I had two days on a soundstage where all I did was kiss him. To break the ice, I said, 'Every time I meet you, I just have to kiss you.' "
"I wasn't complaining," Reeves said, laughing.
Yes, he can be funny. I mention that perhaps he needed something like "The Matrix" to forever erase "I was in 'Bill & Ted' " from his tombstone someday.
"Is 'The Matrix' the second coming of my career?" Then he answers his own question. "What about 'Speed'? What about 'Little Buddha'? Oh, I guess we should focus on the hits, which leaves 'Little Buddha' out.' " Pause. "But it's a good film," he insists in a quiet voice.
Born in Beruit, Lebanon, and raised in Toronto, Reeves grew up loving two things: ice hockey and acting. He left school at age 17 to peruse a career on the big screen. In 1986, he made his debut in "River's Edge" and gained critical acclaim for "Dangerous Liaisons" (1988). He became a teen idol with "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" in 1989, and "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey" (1991). Other films include "Dracula" (1992), and "Feeling Minnesota" (1996).
Personally, Reeves has suffered several tragedies. In 1999, his baby daughter with girlfriend Jennifer Syme was stillborn. Syme later died in a car accident in 2001. These days Reeves doesn't have a girlfriend, but it's not like he prefers to be alone. When he talks about the explicit love scene between Neo and Carrie Ann-Moss' Trinity character in "Reloaded," he sounds almost jealous. "I was uncomfortable doing that kind of love scene because it's really deep, but I loved the scene because it's obvious these two characters are in love.
"It's a beautiful day when you can love someone," he said, almost sadly.
Reeves will have to be content loving the work. He just signed on to do a small role in a Jack Nicholson/Diane Keaton romantic comedy, which is shooting in Paris. After that, he'll be back in the States, talking about the third "Matrix" film.
In many ways, he can't believe it's almost the end. "I remember when I got the script for 'The Matrix' and I just knew it was special. It wasn't just going to be an action picture or a sci-fi movie. Those brothers from Chicago had a real vision."
He applauds the decision of the Wachowskis not to do any interviews for this film. "They don't want to have to put a literal spin on their vision. They don't want to reveal themselves for their craft. They don't want to say too much."
From his wistful look, it's clear that Reeves wishes he could also opt out of all this yakking and just shut up.
But there is time for one last question which, of course, revolves around the something he would prefer not to discuss. Ask him for a few clues into "Revolutions" and his brow furrows so hard that you swear he will need an emergency dose of Botox.
"OK, I'll let you in on the fact that the last scene takes place with Neo in Machine City. I filmed the scene in front of 300 people because everyone was sad that we were done. I mean, the caterers and the grips and the office assistants came to watch me to this final close-up. These were cats who worked on this movie 24 hours a day, but you didn't even see.
"Everyone wanted to experience the end together because it was like we were all on this long voyage together, and the boat was finally docking on the shore."
How do you top that kind of journey? Reeves brightens for the first time. "Well, hopefully, I'll get to work with some artists who have another vision. That's always the dream."