by Philip Berk
Keanu Reeves -- a first name that means "cool breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian -- has been out of circulation for almost two years making the two Matrix sequels in Australia. Now, after four years, the first one entitled The Matrix Reloaded has opened to spectacular box-office assuring its place in history by earning more money in one week than any previous film including the more family-friendly Spiderman.
At his press conference in Los Angeles, Reeves is as enigmatic as ever. Aloof, he’s never happy talking about his personal life. Like Jodie Foster, he doesn’t live his life in the glare of publicity. Even his good deeds are left unsaid. When asked at his last press conference if it were true that he had given his ancillary revenues from the two Matrix sequels to the films’ crew, he snapped, "I’d rather people didn’t know that. It was just a private event. It was something I could afford to do. It’s a worthwhile thing to do." (Some have estimated the value of his generosity at US$40 million.)
When I have a chance to talk to him, I mention Tilda Swinton’s criticism of American actors (like Leonardo DiCaprio) who closet themselves in their trailers and never join in the process. Obviously, he is not one of them.
Can you talk about your special relationship to the crew?
I really enjoy working with crafts people. I’ll sometimes sit on the set between shots and just watch people work. I think it’s really beautiful. I love watching people who are really good at what they do. It was cool to meet all those artisans who worked on the first and share what we were doing over this length of time. It was cool to rap about the movie; that was one of the really enjoyable aspects for me, hanging out with these people.
How long were you there altogether?
270 shooting days. Basically, I was there for my 37th year.
Did you commute back and forth to the U.S.?
No, I stayed in Australia for the whole time. I happen to love Sydney. I had a great experience there. I can’t wait to get back. The people are great and for me, it’s an awesome place.
Weren’t you ever lonely?
Work hard, play hard...
What specifically did you do?
Go out to dinner.
What about your "folk thrash" band Dogstar, for which you play bass? Did you perform while you were there?
Is there anything about Australia that you miss?
I met some great people. I made some good friends. Basically for me, it was going out to dinner, taking a bike ride, hanging out with people, going to concerts. I got into this band Blue Line Medic. I went to some of their shows. They’re some cool cats.
Did you do any surfing?
I jumped into the ocean a couple of times. I didn't travel much, but I went north to Port Douglas for Christmas. I saw some plays but mostly it was going out to dinner, drinking some wine, hanging out.
Although born in Lebanon, Reeves holds a Canadian passport. His mother is British and his father of Chinese Hawaiian extraction. The family lived in Australia and New York before settling in Toronto where Keanu spent his teenage years. His mother designed costumes for singers like Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, and after her divorce from Keanu’s father, married Paul Aaron, best known for having directed the first gay themed movie, A Different Story. When Keanu was l8, he moved to Los Angeles, where he stayed with his stepfather.
Eight months later, he landed the lead (and great reviews) in River’s Edge. After that, he worked with some of the world’s best directors including Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons), Ron Howard (Parenthood), Lawrence Kasdan (I Love You To Death), Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho), Jon Amiel (Tune In Tomorrow) and Francis Coppola (Bram Stoker’s Dracula). He’s done Shakespeare (he played Antonio in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing on film and Hamlet in a theatre production in Winnipeg, Canada.) Speed was his breakthrough movie, but it was The Matrix that made him a superstar.
Keanu has never enjoyed meeting the press. He once threw up his hands in despair, grabbed hold of the interviewer’s tape recorder and asked to end the interview. At one time, he turned down everything including US$15 million to do a sequel to Speed because the movies he wanted to make were the ones he wanted to see.
But for the last four years, he’s been working non-stop -- two years ago for instance, three of his films were released in a span of five months.
When I asked him why, he replied, "I’m enjoying acting. In the past year and a half, I’ve started to feel a sense of my own technique. I’ve tried different things over the years, different ways to work, but now I’m kind of defining just what works for me and what doesn’t. And I find that fulfilling."
Sadly, his personal life hasn't been as fulfilling. A child that he fathered was stillborn and the mother tragically died a year later in a car accident. Publicly, he remains celibate, never seen with others. When told that his Matrix co-star Carrie Ann Moss thinks of her pregnancy as life-affirming, he’s nervous that someone might ask about his own tragedy.
What would he like to do that would be life-affirming? Instead of answering the question, he replies, "I can’t wait for her to have her child. I think it’s really beautiful; I just wish her a healthy wonderful experience for her and her child. That kid’s going to be really lucky to have her as a mother. I hope to continue to know her and her child until we pass away."
Now that you’re approaching 40, have you made any resolutions for the coming year?
To prepare for the original Matrix, the Wachowski Brothers had you read Kierkegaard. What assignment were you given this time?
Schopenauer. Will And Representation.
What are you reading at the moment?
A book by Simon Schama about the French Revolution.
Your character Neo is a Messianic figure. Did you discuss this with the directors? (They still refuse to talk to the press.)
Part of the ambition of the brothers is that there is no summing up. It’s about questioning, awakening, consciousness, love, support, faith, evolution, man’s relationship to machines, Kung Fu cinema. It’s got mythical figures -- the hero, the wise man, the warriors, the guides, the oracle, and the Messiah.
What do you think?
It’s a film that utilises mythic and religious themes, a synthesis of so any different things. It’s not just one thing. It might be the rebirth, the resurrection of Christianity or the freeing of one’s mind of Siddharta. I ask the same questions my character asks.
Teenage audiences who revere The Matrix are obsessed with computer games. How healthy do you think that is?
I can’t put a judgment on that. Do I think a community of children playing a video game is as healthy as a community of children playing in a field? I don’t know. All I can say is if you do anything in excess, it’s probably not good for you. But I can’t judge.
What is his relationship to machines?
I love my motorcycle.
I don’t really have that many sophisticated apparatus around me, but I got a lot of ones and zeroes in my life.
I personally don’t have one. I always ask friends if I need to look something up.
Do you think Hollywood has changed over the years?
I’d say being on a set in 1986, there was more of a pirate aspect to it. It doesn’t have that kind of gypsy renegade feel anymore.
Having spent most of your formative years in Toronto, are there things you miss about Canada?
I miss my friends. I really like this city. I grew up a couple of blocks from here. I saw this building (the Four Seasons Hotel) actually being built. I had a lot of fun growing up here. We would play in the streets until 11 o’clock a night. There would be like eight of us, a little gang of kids from nine to 18 running around. We’d play hide-and-seek, have chestnut fights. Of course I don’t miss any of that, but I think back on it fondly. I like to walk around the city and reflect on those days.
Was that where you discovered your interest in music?
As a matter of fact, when I was seventeen I had a girlfriend, an older girlfriend who turned me on to a lot of music. I had this car and these speakers in the back, and she turned me on to bands like Joy Division, the Violent Femmes. We would get in the car, drink a little, do this or that, and I’d put the speakers on top of the car, and we’d go to a park, and we’d dance.
Have you kept in touch?
Was there any particular reason why you were born in Beirut, Lebanon?
None that I know of. My mother and father were 20, 21-year-old kids, swinging in Beirut, having some fun, and they had a kid.
Have you ever been back?
No, I never have. I hope to go one day. I’ve seen photos of my parents when they were there, so it would be cool to go there.
Now that you’ve completed the Matrix trilogy, will you continue to do martial arts?
I don’t know. I certainly enjoy it. It’s really clean fun. It’s fun to have fake fights. For me, it’s an elemental form of play, like cowboys and Indians, playing ball in the park. It’s some kind of primal fun.