Out of the shadows
Filming two Matrix sequels back-to-back was physically gruelling for Keanu Reeves, but work proved the best therapy for a star whose life has been touched by tragedy
by Marc Kennedy
Keanu Reeves speaks just like the enigmatic Neo, his character in The Matrix, who struggles to save mankind in a future dominated by machines. He's polite to a fault - often calling me 'sir' - and has refined saying very little about himself to an art form.
As well as being polite, Reeves is an earnest and very rich man. At 38, he's firmly at the top of Hollywood's A-list and was reportedly paid £20million for the two Matrix sequels - Reloaded, which is just about to hit a multiplex near you, and Revolutions, which will be released in six months' time.
Reloaded is chock-full of the amazing special affects that were the hallmark of the first film and Reeves pushed his body to the very limits. Many of the shots are created by computer-generated imagery but, wherever possible, Directors Larry and Andy Wachowski urged Reeves and his co-stars to do the stunts themselves.
And that meant that most nights, after 12 or 13 hours filming, Reeves would drag himself home and ease his aching body into a bath full of ice. At the end of the week he might reward himself with a glass of scotch.
"What happens, especially in the first few months, is that you are tearing micro tissues every day and you get inflammation. And I'm 38 years old, man, not 22 and bouncing around, so some ice and salts help recovery." Ask his co-star Laurence Fishburne and he will tell you that Reeves pushed himself very hard, to the point where he was a little concerned.
"I can be hard on myself," Reeves admits. "But you know, I don't think I need therapy. It's an aspect of the film that we work hard to try and get the action sequences right as well as get the emotional aspects right."
But as for his own emotions, he is keeping them close to his chest today. Although this Canadian-born star of hits such as Devil's Advocate, Speed, Bram Stoker's Dracula and My Own Private Idaho has always had a reputation for being a rather difficult man to pin down, it's possible that the tragic events of recent years have made him even more guarded and determined to protect his privacy.
In 1999 his then girlfriend, Jennifer Syme, gave birth to their stillborn daughter. Not long afterwards the couple split up but they did, by all accounts, remain close. Then, in April 2001, Jennifer was killed in a car crash. As if that wasn't enough heartbreak for one man, his sister Kim, who has been battling leukaemia for 10 years, suffered a setback during filming and Reeves broke off and flew to Hawaii to be by her side.
The production itself has had to endure some sad losses. The singer Aaliyah died in a plane crash before she had the chance to complete her role as Zee. And Gloria Foster, who plays The Oracle, died of diabetes.
Just how did he cope? "Well, you just go to work." So is work some kind of therapy? "I don't know. It's not an answer to anything, it's just a way of being, and something I could do." If you talk to any of the other actors involved on this mammoth production - filming two physically gruelling films back to back, thousands of miles away from home for endless months at a time - they will tell you that Reeves is a lovely bloke. Kind, considerate and caring.
It's reported that he gave over a chunk of his admittedly huge pay cheque so that some of the technicians working on the films would get a better deal.
He also gave Harley Davidson motorcycles to each of the 12 stuntmen he worked with on a regular basis and his face lights up at the memory as he pushes that floppy, dark fringe back.
"I'd worked with 12 stuntmen for about three weeks, going through this fight scene, and then we filmed every day for about a month. And every time I said, 'let's do it again,' they were there. So I wanted to say a big thank-you to all those guys who helped me make this one of the great movie fights in all of the history of cinema. So I worked it out with the dealer, they put the bikes in a truck and I got to give them all a Harley. Which was hot! That made me smile, man, for months."
Raised in Toronto, Keanu - it's Hawaiian for cool breeze on the mountain - had a troubled childhood. His mother, Patricia, was born in England, and his father, Samuel, is Chinese Hawaiian. They met and married when Patricia was working as a dancer in a Beirut casino in the early Sixties.
But Samuel walked out when Keanu was still a toddler and his sister just a baby. Patricia moved the family to Toronto, where she remarried, and Keanu completely lost touch with his father, who later served two years of a 10-year sentence for possession of heroin and cocaine. When his son became famous, he tried to rekindle their relationship, but Keanu would have none of it.
School was not easy because he suffered from dyslexia and found classwork difficult. He was, though, a talented sportsman and excelled at ice hockey and basketball. By 15, he had decided he wanted to act and on leaving school began to pick up work in local theatre and on television. His first real film break came in 1986 with River's Edge but it was two years later, with Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, that he really made a significant breakthrough.
These days he's on his own without a serious girlfriend, though previous loves include Amanda de Cadenet. Today his passions in life are his band, Dogstar, and his motorbikes - although a few months before filming the Matrix sequels he crashed his Harley and ended up in hospital with broken ribs and a ruptured spleen.
He's understandably proud of his work and the films will undoubtedly become huge hits. "It was hard work. But in a really great way. It was something I really enjoyed. It was hard, you miss friends and family and I spent my whole 37th year in Sydney. But I was working on something I love and working with people I love and I liked how much it demanded of me." In other words, he wouldn't have missed it, despite all the pain, for anything.
The Matrix Reloaded is out on Friday