by Bruno Lester
Leonardo DiCaprio is playing Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese's film biography of the legendary reclusive US billionaire but Hollywood insiders suggest Matrix star Keanu Reeves would have been a better choice.
It would be the obvious choice, for the Beirut-born, Toronto-raised superstar is turning into this century's Howard Hughes.
The 39-year-old Reeves has been a loner since he arrived in Hollywood 20 years ago.
The shy, off-beat hunk has always kept to himself, preferring to ride alone around Los Angeles on his motorcycles, usually at night when he doesn't have to contend with fans and paparazzi.
His love of speed has resulted in plenty of scars; a squiggle on his leg, a snake on his abdomen, a bald spot in the whiskers above his lip. Like a gypsy, he has little interest in material things and lived in hotels for a decade, accompanied by his guitar and works on Shakespeare.
He spends much of his free time playing bass in the underground band Dogstar.
Not since Greta Garbo has a Hollywood superstar kept so quiet about his private life.
He simply refuses to talk about his life and has never issued denials of stories about his sexuality - once he was said to have married gay producer David Geffen, even though Geffen later told the press he had never met Reeves - or of rumoured drug use after his friend River Phoenix died of an overdose.
According to recent reports, his behaviour rivals that of Hughes, the billionaire whose eccentricity defied description.
It is said Reeves has turned more sad and withdrawn than ever, dressing like a tramp in worn clothes. He refuses to use a computer or mobile phone because he dislikes calls and e-mails, and he spent his last birthday, in September, eating alone at a West Hollywood restaurant.
Don't such tabloid articles upset him?
"I've been befuddled and bamboozled about all those so-called 'facts' about me," he answers calmly. "But they've gotten so crazy; they're not even worth thinking about. I don't care if anyone thinks I'm gay or not, or if I'm on drugs or not.
"I just try to keep a very low profile in my private life. I don't like to be seen out on the town because I don't feel at ease when I'm being chased or photographed. So I avoid events that will lead me to be seen."
During his 20-year career, Reeves has never taken a girlfriend to any of his film premieres - and there have been 40 of them, including Dangerous Liaisons, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Speed, Little Buddha, Much Ado About Nothing, My Own Private Idaho and the Matrix trilogy, and he has never confirmed any relationship.
He takes his mother or sister to public events, and that is the only thing the public knows for certain - that he is extremely close to the two - not surprising, as he has not seen his father, Sam, since he was a teenager.
His father, who abandoned the family when Reeves was a baby, served several years in prison for drug possession, and Reeves refuses to talk about him.
"I socialise a lot with my family, going to their houses for barbecues," he offers reluctantly when asked about his life outside work.
"I lead such a boring existence away from work. I don't have famous friends. All my friends are people I've known for many years, or people I've met outside the industry."
As for his love life, he says: "When I'm working, I think only about work. Women have got close very rarely."
Although he collected $30 million for the three Matrix films, he insists on maintaining a punishing work schedule.
"I began acting at 15 because it made me happy. It still does.
"I like my life when I'm working, and I don't like taking holidays. When I'm working, my life makes sense."
No wonder Reeves was happy filming the Matrix series over three years in Australia. Working on such a time-consuming, special effects-laden project, far from Hollywood, suited the press-shy star perfectly.
It also was the necessary escape from his personal tragedies at the time - his girlfriend, Jennifer Syme, gave birth to stillborn daughter Ava on Christmas Eve, 1999, and after she suffered from depression for a year, she was killed when her car crashed into parked vehicles in Hollywood.
And Reeves' sister, Kim, has battled leukemia for 10 years, and is not getting any better. He has been photographed taking her to specialists in Maui and Capri, Italy - to no avail.
"I enjoyed my time in Australia a lot," he says. "I loved making the pictures and when I wasn't working, I could play with my band and ride horses and motorbikes."
Although he recently bought a house in the Hollywood Hills, Reeves has always resisted movie-star trappings.
As his Matrix co-star, Carrie-Anne Moss puts it: "Keanu isn't about fame at all. His choices are always about what strikes his heart."
The actor picked the Matrix films after Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith and Brad Pitt all passed on the project.
This year's first sequel, Matrix Reloaded, was considered a disappointment by fans (not commercially; it grossed $280 million in the US) but the Wachowski Brothers' sci-fi story will end powerfully with Matrix Revolutions, according to Reeves.
"There's a battle between Zion and the machines," he promises of the second and last sequel, "and the relationship between Agent Smith and Neo (Reeves) is resolved. And some questions of the journey of Neo as The One are answered. And a lot of surprises."
The second film in a trilogy is always the most difficult to make successful, he points out, especially in the case of The Matrix with the sequels being one story cut in the middle. The two films were filmed over 18 months in Australia and California and cost an astonishing $310 million.
"I'm very excited about it," he offers.
"All my friends are excited and my folks are excited to see it. So it's great to be a part of something like that.
"It was a great experience acting in all three films and to spend time with the great people and artists that I got to go through this with.
"And I'm stoked that my folks are excited about going to the movies.
"In Matrix Revolutions, Neo is trying to find out, 'what's my life'? And it's kind of cool what happens.
"I don't want to give away the plot but the aspect of what Neo finds out about being The One, I love that.
"The platform of the piece itself lends itself to speaking about ideas," he continues. "Thank God that there is something to talk about because some other films don't have that ambition."
Reeves finds the love story between himself and Moss his favourite aspects of the piece "because I get to love someone and I get to be loved by someone and share that".
He hopes one day to have a family of his own, he says. "It would be great because it would be very important to me to have a home and a family, but this work is on the road a lot."
Asked whether his multicultural, multicountry background was crucial in playing an outsider hero like Neo, he concludes: "I'm sure it's influential, definitely. But, I mean, it's also my nature. Probably just my nature."