Keanu's hard drive
Don't let his reticence fool you - 'Matrix' star always rises to the occasion
by Bob Strauss
The person or the program?
This "Matrix"-sounding question often arises during a conversation with Keanu Reeves.
The actor plays the central figure, Neo, in Larry and Andy Wachowski's "Matrix" movies, the third and final installment of which, "The Matrix Revolutions," opens worldwide at 6 a.m. Pacific Time on Wednesday. He's an average hacker who's evolved through the trilogy into the superheroic savior of a mankind delusionally enslaved by mechanical masters, via a computer program that makes most humans believe they're actually living in the utterly virtual title world.
And he is perfect casting for the role. Not just because Reeves looks like a superhero - at 39, he presents a remarkably sleek and chiseled picture in a black tailored suit. But also due to his rather unique personality trait of sometimes coming off as computerized. Reeves can articulate highly complicated (for Hollywood action movies, anyway) concepts eloquently, but appears to glitch out at unexpected intervals as well.
As last spring's "Reloaded" suggested Neo may be no more than a program himself. Yet "Revolutions" plays out the story's themes of individualism, free choice and spiritual transcendence, human traits too naturally peculiar to ever command with code.
In a similar way, Reeves constantly surprises with spurts of humor and a careful balance of guarded privacy and emotional relevation.
And for a guy whose earliest stardom resulted from playing a sweet airhead in the "Bill and Ted" teen comedies, his regular brainiac flourishes can be startling.
"I cannot speak for the whole films because I don't think there is an ultimate totality to them," Reeves begins, judiciously, when asked to expound on the core philosophical query that all "Matrix" fans hope "Revolutions" will answer satisfactorily: What does the whole mind-frazzling thing mean? "They're like launch points, you can speak about different elements of them.
"But for character: In the first film he's launched with this question, what is truth or what is the Matrix. Then that goes into the Oracle saying, 'Know thyself,' and he goes from this sort of isolated, solitary figure into this man who goes out into the world and learns about the nature of reality and humanity and gains relationships.
"Later, especially in 'Revolutions,' he learns about programs and machines and Zion. And he's a character who ultimately asks for peace; it's almost like a classic birth of compassion. And he's the character who brings together a kind of interconnectedness. His journey brings about a kind of restitution, which is the classical hero myth."
Deep. But like everybody else, what really gets the Beirut-born, Toronto-bred sports enthusiast going about the "Matrix" movies is their incredible action. Ever polite, Reeves raves most about "Revolutions"' epic-scaled centerpiece - the invasion of the free-thinking humans' last refuge, the underground city of Zion, by an overwhelming force of monstrous war machines - a part of the movie that Neo's not even in.
But he does enough stuff. Such as, blinded and with lover and fellow rebel fighter Trinity (Carne-Anne Moss), breaching the defenses of the Machine City to confront the guiding artificial intelligence that has enslaved his species. And, in the film's climactic battle, re-entering the Matrix to take on Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the rogue enforcement program turned endlessly reproducing virus that threatens the very existence of Earth, not to mention several different dimensions of reality.
And that last, gravity-dissing fight in the rain. But not just any rain. The biggest, coldest-dropping rain ever rigged up for a movie. For six shiversome weeks straight.
"They did, like, two or three months of R&D on the creation of the perfect water drops for them," Reeves says, amused, of the level of detail the Wachowskis demanded for the concurrent production of "Revolutions" and "Reloaded," much of which was filmed on high-tech, effects-facilitating sound stages in Australia. "I love that, I love that you had to have the perfect rain drop."
And he loved being drenched. And sightless. This strange human.
"In terms of the elements that were involved in it - say, the wire work or the choreography - the fight in 'Reloaded' between Smith and Neo was more demanding," Reeves explains. "But this one, in terms of the conditions we had to fight in, was different. It was about six weeks of rain fighting. And what we found on take one, Hugo Weaving - who plays Smith - and I, was that we couldn't see each other because we were wearing glasses in the rain. But we'd fought so much together that we didn't even need to see. We can fight blind!"
Reeves famously soaked his bruises in bathtubs of ice at nights when shooting the "Reloaded" smackdown. The valances were reversed for the "Revolutions" sequence.
"It was at least 12 hours a day, soaked," he recalls, not a hint of complaint in his voice. "It came down at about a ton of water a minute. But it was great fun. We had wet suits on under our costumes. But in between setups, I would go into a spa and just sit there in hot water. In the first fight between Neo and Smith, I was in cold water. But in this one I was in hot water."
He plays with words. But Reeves, whose adolescent interest in acting was matched by his passion for hockey, is almost legendary for the amount of discomfort he'll tolerate for a role.
"He needs to do what he needs to do as part of an action scene," co-star Moss says admiringly. "Sometimes, for Keanu, it's getting very frustrated and yelling and getting kind of amped up. But in the acting scenes, he's very open and generous and considerate of how I work, too."
Approachable as Reeves is for a huge star, however, he also has a reputation for reticence. He prefers to answer questions in single sentences, often with a deflecting quip. And when faced with a really unsettling inquiry - like why, despite its record-setting R-rated gross and $736 million worldwide box-office take, the mega-hyped "Reloaded" is widely perceived as a disappointing follow-up to 1999's original "Matrix" - Reeves drops his head, lowers his eyelids and literally appears to shut down. For nearly a minute.
"I hope people enjoy them," he finally responds, referring to both sequels. "I mean, I don't really ... I don't have a... I just hope that people enjoy them. Whether... I, uh, y'know..."
It takes "Matrix" producer Joel Silver to voice the company line.
"We were as clear as we could be that this was half a movie," the producer says of "Reloaded," which ended right before the point at which "Revolutions" begins. "And everybody said, 'Well, it's only half a movie!' The second half completes the story, and the visual effects that are in this movie are beyond anything that's ever been seen before."
As for his sometimes inscrutable star, Silver observes; "Look, he is a great talent and a great guy who has worked very hard. He has really gone beyond himself in this third picture. He is a very smart guy, he is very private, he doesn't really like to give a lot. But he is a great friend and a great person."
Table for the One
The perception of Reeves as a self-contained unit was reinforced when he was spotted, dining-alone, on his birthday last September at a famous West Hollywood eatery.
"I needed some time alone, and it just happened to fall on my birthday," Reeves says with a shrug, more tickled than anything that anyone would possibly care. Of course, this led to his thoughts about the old saw that money - of which he's making at least $30 million from the "Matrix" sequels – can't buy happiness.
"No. But you can get a good bottle of wine and a steak at Dan Tana's, and I was very grateful for that!" he says, laughing. "So it helps. But no, obviously... It was a good day. It wasn't as terrible as they made it sound."
Reeves knows what really terrible things can be like. Such as being abandoned at an early age by his father, a Hawaiian-Chinese geologist (Keanu means "cool breeze over the mountains" in the Polynesian language) and convicted drug dealer. A few years back, Reeves' girlfriend lost the child they were expecting, and was herself later killed in an auto accident. And one of his two sisters, to whom he has always been very close, has fought an off-and-on battle with cancer for many years.
"She's in a clinic right now and she had some procedures that went pretty well for her," Reeves reports. "So that's really good news. My family is very important to me."
As are other kinds of human contact. Ask Reeves about his next film project, the romantic comedy "Something's Gotta Give" with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton, opening Dec. 12, and he turns positively rapturous.
"Oh my gosh, they're both so unique," Reeves gushes. "It was a great experience and I was just so honored as an actor to be able to work with them. They have such an effortlessness, it's just beauty on the screen. And intelligence and humor and rich souls, you know what I mean? You can really feel the soulfulness of them in their performances. And it was great to fall in love with Diane Keaton and to play Jack's doctor!"
We don't doubt it. Especially after hanging upside down in wire-flying rigs, being pelted by extra-heavy, fake Australian rain.
But Keanu Reeves is not going with that program. At the pinnacle of his career, predictability has no place in his personal wiring.
"Yeah, I like it on earth," he says of doing character-based comedy. "But I like it in the sky. I had a great experience working on 'Revolutions' and 'Reloaded' and 'The Matrix.' But in terms of too much stunt work, I just feel grateful to have the opportunity to do different kinds of films."