by Jamie Portman
Keanu Reeves remains guarded about his private life, but is at no loss of words when it comes to discussing his passion for the Matrix films. The Matrix Reloaded previews tonight and opens Thursday at the Capitol Theatre.
BURBANK, Calif. -- Keanu Reeves admits the stories are true. There were days when he was screaming with pain in preparing for The Matrix Reloaded.
But he'll insist that it was all in a good cause -- that it was necessary to up the ante for new instalments of the genre-busting trilogy that began its historic journey four years ago with The Matrix. He'll tell you that he shared the determination of The Wachowski Brothers, the filmmaking visionaries who dreamed up the Matrix story, to deliver audiences fight scenes even more complex and demanding.
He was also conscious of the huge gamble that was being taken in making the final two movies together with an eye to releasing both in the same year -- The Matrix Reloaded arrives Thursday and The Matrix Revolutions on Nov. 7 -- so his adrenaline was already racing. But it was still tough -- very tough.
"It was just basically practice and learning," Reeves explains. "Because of the experience of the first one, I had some body memory. I knew what I was going into, and my body knew. I could pick up the choreography quicker. And I knew where I was in the wire work."
But the Wachowskis and fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping wanted Reeves and his costars to perform even more daunting feats -- not only on the invisible wires, which were used with such revolutionary brilliance in the first film, but also on the ground. Reeves became acutely conscious that he was pushing 40 during those days when he was asked to add something new -- perhaps a back flip or a cartwheel. It wasn't just abusing his system with take after take of an intricate few seconds of fighting. It was also the preliminary training, forcing reluctant limbs to be far suppler than nature ever intended. That's why the stretching exercises had him crying out.
"It's no joke. It's 20-pound sandbags on your legs. It's people pushing down on you." That and the unsettling sound of stubborn joints popping.
"You do it if you want height in your kicks and clean lines and things like that," he says flatly. Still, things got so bad that between scenes, he immersed himself in a tub full of ice.
"You're basically tearing micromuscle tissue every day, so you get inflammation -- and I'm not 22 anymore! So ice and epsom salts just help the recovery. I also get cramps. So cold water tends to help alleviate that so you can sleep or walk upstairs."
Reeves, 39, isn't especially sequel-friendly. He had no hesitation in turning down a hefty seven-figure offer to do the follow-up to Speed, the movie that brought him major stardom. "I would have done Speed 2 had there been a better script," he says. "I actually would have loved to play that guy again, but I didn't respond to the script and I had just done Chain Reaction which was a really bad experience for me. But these Matrix projects were great scripts."
On matters such as these, Reeves is affable and communicative, and the media does have an easier time with him than in the past: he's taken leave of the unwashed, unshaven young rebel who used to lurch into the interview room in a layer of motorcycle grease and thought it was funny to belch into the microphone instead of answering a question. Today he's Hollywood Cool -- neatly dressed in faded jeans and fashion jacket. His passion for The Matrix shines through when he talks about the three films and the role of Neo, chosen messianic saviour of a human race under siege from the tyranny of machines who have turned the world as he knows it into a computer-generated lie.
Reeves can discourse at length about the metaphysical underpinnings of the Matrix universe, about the comic and computer game influences, about the echoes of Alice In Wonderland, about the mixture of religion and mythology tossed into the brew. If you let him, he'll even discuss the importance of philosophers Schopenhauer and Hume in the Matrix mix.
Yet he remains an enigmatic figure. True, he does talk to the media, which is more than can be said for Andy and Larry Wachowski, the reclusive brothers who made the movie. But the barriers go up if he finds a question too personal -- even Newsweek Magazine was gently but firmly rebuffed recently when it asked Reeves a family-related question.
"What is the real Keanu like?" he's asked. "It's really an impossible question to answer," he smiles. "So you enjoy being enigmatic?" a reporter persists. This time, there's friendly sarcasm. "No, I just want to sit here and cry and reveal myself to you crazy guys." The accompanying smile neuters the sting of the response, but there are signs of patience wearing thin.
"I can't tell you a thing about Keanu," chuckles Laurence Fishburne, who returns as Morpheus, Neo's mentor and defender in the film. "I've been working with him for five years and I still don't know a thing about him. All I can tell you is that after I've spent that much time with him, I love him."
Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays a rebel hovercraft commander in the film, finds Reeves a "complicated" colleague. But she adores him. "He's very guarded, very generous, very sensitive, very quiet. He's also a really intuitive person. He has this quality about him that gives you your space and he expects you to give him his space."
Pinkett Smith is also expressed by his Reeves's generosity. She cites the day that he purchased 12 Harleys as gifts for the 12 stuntmen who worked with him in one of the most gruelling scenes. "He didn't make a big deal of it," she stresses.
"Keanu is shy but he has a big heart," reports costar Monica Bellucci. "There's something mysterious about him. Sometimes you want to know more about him, but he doesn't let you approach him." She finds Reeves's personal qualities are "really close" to the character of Neo in the movie.
But producer Joel Silver does produce some insights into his guarded superstar.
"He's incredibly passionate about this piece, so he has worked very hard to do what the boys expected of him," Silver reports. "I have never seen somebody train and be as committed to a character. He almost had a religious existence in Australia. He was never really out, he was never running around. He would just train every day when he wasn't shooting. He would be quiet and to himself. He loved Neo and he wanted the audience to as well."
Reeves has now spent so much time filming in Australia that he now knows Sydney as intimately as Los Angeles or his home town of Toronto. "I just loved the city -- great people, beautiful weather and beautiful architecturally," he reports. But he unbends sufficiently to admit it was lonely. "I was in Australia for a year, basically my whole 37th year, working on The Matrix. And yeah, it was really hard to be away from family and friends that long."
But against that, there was the commitment he felt to the world of the film and to the role of Neo, the computer hacker who discovers his destiny and the truth about The Matrix. Above all there was his loyalty to the brothers. "What Larry and Andrew are trying to achieve in their storytelling, the physical action they present, the elements of new cinema and technology they have invented to create images, is unparalleled. "
Moreover, he believes the film raises profound moral issues in depicting the battle between the humans and the 250,000 Sentinels in the Machine Army who are programmed to destroy them. He talks about "that whole aspect of free will and choice, the whole nurture-nature aspect" and suggests the trilogy raises some pointed questions. "What is fate? What are you compelled to do? What is free will?"
He's proud of the showcase action scenes -- perhaps most spectacularly a confrontation with Neo's old nemesis, the relentless Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) -- a confrontation that becomes a nightmare when Smith is joined in battle by 99 lethal facsimiles of himself, all equally determined to extinguish Neo.
The action here shifts between extreme slow-motion and supersonic speed; during the extended shooting of the scene, nine stuntmen also portraying Agent Smith were brought in, and they in turn were multiplied tenfold by computer technology.
There are even moments of a computer-generated Neo. Reeves jokes that the digital Keanu in the movie is "fantastic" but says he doesn't worry about actors in Hollywood eventually being replaced by computer images. He notes that in his recent movie, Sweet November, the computer technicians put tears in his eyes. "But if they do digitally alter my performance, what I want is performance approval," he grins.