Neo classic: Keanu manages a high-wire role with a low-key demeanor
by Colin Covert
BURBANK, CALIF. -- "Cool breeze off the mountain." Could there possibly be a better description of Keanu Charles Reeves' demeanor than the translation of his Hawaiian first name?
Uncorrupted by his massive renown, he keeps the world at arm's length, unlike megaphone-addicted stars who gratuitously expose us to their nightly club-hopping, their affairs, their trips to rehab.
Reeves' inner core is composed of a highly reflective alloy. He maintains a perimeter of privacy -- almost reclusiveness -- sharply at odds with the current model of movie-star ambition, which uses relentless self-disclosure as the currency of nonstop publicity.
Reeves genuinely seems to be a decent, not very self-involved guy striving to keep it relatively real despite being monstrously famous. The single most interesting thing about him is that he's so quiet and -- well, cool.
Despite playing Buddha for Bernardo Bertolucci and Shakespeare for Kenneth Branagh, Reeves has never demonstrated vast versatility as an actor. His less-is-more approach is ideally suited to his role in the "Matrix" films. He plays Neo, humanity's reluctant super-savior, without a trace of camp or self-consciousness. His reticence makes Reeves something of a mystery even to colleagues.
His costar Laurence Fishburne concedes that he "can't tell you a [obscenity] thing about Keanu. I've been working with him for five years. I don't know a [obscenity] thing about him. All I can tell you about Keanu is that after I've spent that much time with him, I love the [real big obscenity], but I can't tell you a [obscenity] thing about him. I'm telling you the truth."
Carrie-Anne Moss, who spent three days cuddling up to Reeves in the buff for an R-rated sex scene, can't provide much more detail. "He's so low-key, so not a movie star," she said. "He gives very little away about private stuff, but why give that private stuff away?"
He gives away plenty of other stuff. A huge motorcycle fan, he surprised the 12 stuntmen who fought him in a key scene of "Reloaded" by giving each one a new Harley. And he diverted a significant chunk of his salary for the "Matrix" sequels to lower-echelon people in the productions. He even spared audiences by turning down $26 million to star in "Speed 2." In an industry famous for rapacious greed, he's not all about the money.
With information, though, he's miserly, in a good-humored way. Asked to drop the enigmatic posture for a few minutes and open up, he guffaws heartily. "Oh, yeah, you'll get that. I want to sit here and cry and reveal myself to you!"
OK, then, how has he changed since "The Matrix" revived his career?
"Oh my God, man, in so many ways," he said, affecting a mischievous highbrow accent. "But really, have I? Haven't I? I haven't reflected specifically about that. I'll just say I'm older, and older."
He's more forthcoming about his attraction to the moral and philosophical themes the "Matrix" films explore.
"That's part of the fun of it for me and the audience," he said. "Those questions you have are also strongly Neo's questions, such as: 'Do you believe in fate?' That whole thing of asking those questions I think is Neo's journey and it was fun to ask them.
"What are you? What is fate? What are you compelled to do? His ethics and his search for his authentic life and how he deals with people and himself, I admire. It's like, can you live up to that? Can you live up to the best part of yourself every day? We see his fears, his personal kind of hopes and his vulnerabilities."
Tough stunts & ice baths
Reeves ignored his physical vulnerabilities in performing the film's epic fight scenes. Aside from a few effects that relied on doubles or CGI replicas for especially dangerous moves, he performed his own stunts, asking for 20 or 30 agonizing takes until he felt he had executed each move perfectly.
Fishburne said he found it hard to watch Reeves' fight scenes because he pushed himself so hard.
"Because of the experience of the first ['Matrix' movie], I had some body memory," Reeves said, with an all-in-a-day's-work shrug. "I could pick up choreography quicker, and I knew where I was with the wire work. But once I said, 'OK, I know how to do this,' [Hong Kong fight choreographer Yuen] Wo Ping would go, 'Well, how about this?' and the [Wachowski] brothers were like, 'And how about this?'" with ever-more elaborate back flips and cartwheels.
To ease the pain and inflammation from muscle tears, Reeves spent a lot of time in ice baths. "I'm 38 years old, man," he said.
Given that he's just gone through a great action-film boot camp and that Warner Bros. is still searching for someone to play Superman, he might be a perfect fit for the role: first George Reeves, then Christopher Reeve, then Keanu Reeves. He waves the idea away, however.
"They've all died" or been injured, he said. "It's all come to a not-so-good end, like films that have 'Johnny' in it," he grinned, referring to his 1995 sci-fi cringe-fest "Johnny Mnemonic." "I made that mistake."
Reeves is working on a more down-to-earth project, an untitled romantic comedy from Nancy Meyers. "It's great to work with her and Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton," he said. Will we see a new comedic side to him?
"I hope so," he said. "I think they're all hoping."