Life on planet 'Matrix'
The stars who played the heroes of the sci-fi saga describe what it all meant to them
by Henry Cabot Beck
What has living and breathing the "Matrix" movies done for their four main stars?
The three-part series concludes on Wednesday with the release of "Matrix Revolutions," which opens in IMAX and regular theatrical formats at precisely the same time in nearly 70 countries.
Beginning in 1999 with "The Matrix," and continuing last May with "Matrix Reloaded," the films tell the story of a resistance group - led by Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) and a messiah figure, Neo (Keanu Reeves) - fighting a tyranny of seemingly all-powerful machines.
The films have already spawned much debate about their philosophical and theological meanings and will continue to do so as they pass into movie history and DVD-land. We asked Reeves, Moss, Fishburne and Pinkett Smith how acting in the trilogy affected their personal lives.
As Neo, Reeves, now 39, has joined the ranks of movie actors who have played superheroes without humiliating themselves. In "Matrix Revolutions," his powers not only exceed those of mortal men, they are greater even than the Machine World that dominates the planet.
Reeves is wary about discussing how "The Matrix" films may or may not have coincided with changes in his life, but offers, "I can say this, honestly: that I'm a better person for having played Neo."
As the central figure in the series, Reeves was called upon to commit himself to its production for 22 months in total.
"That's what makes it special - the amount of time that it took and the consistent intensity of the project," he says. "And the idea that you can have such a strong passion for something and then, when it comes out in the end, you're more than satisfied with it."
He believes this third installment is more spectacular and more fun than part two.
"There's an openness to 'Revolutions' that I think 'Reloaded' doesn't have," he says. "The character of 'Revolutions' is that it wears its heart on its sleeve, and with that openness there's a certain old-fashioned action-movie feeling. Plus, it's beautiful to look at."
He hopes audiences will have a variety of reactions to the story now that it's been completed.
"I hope what people take from it is not just one thing or another," he says. "I hope they leave the theater thinking about cinema, metaphor, Eastern myths, Western myths, the relationships between characters, the evolution of humanity and technology, man and machine, compassion, interconnectedness, will, ego - all kinds of things."
That will keep us busy, then.
Reeves is already shooting his next picture, "Constantine," based on a character created by Alan Moore, who wrote the comic that provided the basis for "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."
In the three "Matrix" films, Morpheus, played by Laurence Fisburne, is Neo's staunchest defender, a partisan and disciple whose sheer faith rallies the underground denizens of Zion into fighting the good fight against the dastardly forces of the Machine World.
Fishburne, 42, is the most seasoned member of the cast: He started his acting career at age 10 and appeared in "Apocalypse Now" in his late teens. He is impressed by the magnitude of the "Matrix" project and its worldwide reception. "The first movie's about birth, the second is about life and the third is about death," he says. "I respond to the ideas about change: the way we deal with death - our deaths, the death of ideas, the death of something we hold dear, death of the physical body, death of a way of thinking. Death is transformative; it's a change from one form of consciousness to another. I believe that. I don't know what it is, but I don't think the spirit just dies. It's really about faith, isn't it?"
He is under no illusions about what the "Matrix" films might or might not mean for his career.
"This is something that I was really lucky to get a shot at," Fishburne says. "I was blessed and I'm grateful and happy. But this is the end of it. This is all.
"It means I've been working for 32 years as an actor," he adds. "That's a long time. I'm at the beginning of the second chapter of my life and I'm open for whatever, man. There's no guarantees, no rules and no road map."
If there's a single image from the "Matrix" saga that's likely to stand the test of time, it's of Carrie-Anne Moss frozen in midair for one brief instant, like a leather bird, before she unloads a kick that sends a cop flying across the room.
Moss' Trinity is the love of Neo's life. Like Ilsa was to Victor Laszlo in "Casablanca," Trinity is part of his work, the thing that keeps him going.
Moss, 36, was born in Vancouver. Throughout her 20s she worked as a model and appeared in adventure- and action-oriented television shows and movies. She landed the part of Trinity after several auditions, never imagining how profoundly the "Matrix" films would affect her.
"I thought people would love it, but I didn't really think I was going to make this kind of money or have this kind of success," says Moss. "Playing Trinity has affected who I am, and who I am has affected Trinity."
She insists that she has little in common with the character. "I was nothing like her, not a tomboy at all," she says. "I actually got into fights in school 'cause I wore dresses, and the other girls thought I was a goody two-shoes."
"Carrie-Anne is a girlie girl," says co-star Laurence Fishburne. "In the movie she's the Valkyrie, the kick-ass biker chick, but in real life she's the take-care-of-people goddess chick."
Moss had her first baby with her husband, actor Steve Roy, in September. Now that the "Matrix" films are done, she says she's "ready to go on to a new segment of my life which is not so much driven by my career as it is driven by my family."
As for the message of the three movies, she says, "What I would have people take away from these films is the idea of being awake - of taking the red pill - and once you're awake you can't go back to being asleep. I've been awake for a long time. Actually, I chose to be awake before I ever started shooting the movies."
Jada Pinkett Smith
In "Matrix Revolutions," it seems as if Niobe, played by Jada Pinkett Smith, is a newcomer to the story, even though she was introduced in "Reloaded." She is the fierce captain of a ship that she steers through a dangerous tunnel, pursued at high speeds by mechanical squids.
The film's directors, Andy and Larry Wachowski, had to help Pinkett Smith overcome her own traveling anxieties.
"There are certain questions about my faith that I had put off for a long time, and I came to a point that I had to deal with that subject after 9/11," says the 32-year-old actress. "The Wachowski brothers wanted me on a plane on Sept. 15, and I was so traumatized, so scared. Larry got me on the phone and said, 'Listen, are you gonna allow this situation to paralyze you? Are you gonna stop living, stay trapped in your house? This is life, this is fate. You can't hide from it.'
"It made me think, 'Jada, this is the time when you have to find out for yourself the foundation of your faith.' So faith is something I study on a daily basis now. Right now, I'm into the Tao Te Ching."
Smith admits that her husband, Will Smith, has a more thorough understanding of the underlying concepts of the "Matrix" than she does.
"See, Will reads all the philosophy and the 'Matrix' material, so he explains it all to me," she says. "Like he said, that little girl in the movie, Sati [Tanveer Atwal], represents the Dalai Lama, because they pick one Indian child as the chosen one and the child must be dropped off, and that's what the parents did in the movie."
But what is the message of the "Matrix" movies to her? "Don't be afraid to think," she says. "Don't be afraid to live. Don't be afraid to question. Don't be afraid to wonder. Don't be afraid to live outside the damn box."