Pondering the mysterious Keanu Reeves
With 'Matrix' behind him, actor looking for new horizons
BURBANK, California -- From featherhead to virtual-reality savior of humanity. What an odd set of bookends to the career of Keanu Reeves.
by David Germain
For more than a decade, no matter the far-ranging roles and genres he tried, Reeves was inescapably identified as the most-excellent but nitwitted dude Ted of 1989's "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" and its sequel, "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey."
Now Reeves, 39, faces life after Neo, the most-solemn messiah of "The Matrix" trilogy, a demigod prophesied to lead the remnants of humanity to victory against Earth's machine conquerors.
What does Reeves do for an encore? The same thing he's done all along: Mix things up.
"I love doing supporting roles, different genres, different scales of moviemaking," Reeves told The Associated Press during an interview at a soundstage at Warner Bros., the studio behind "The Matrix" franchise. "It's important, it's a wish of mine to be able to do that."
In December, Reeves plays second fiddle to Jack Nicholson in the romantic comedy "Something's Gotta Give," as an emergency-room doctor wooing an older woman (Diane Keaton). Already completed is a role as an orthodontist in the low-budget comedy "Thumbsucker," and Reeves now is shooting the occult comic-book adaptation "Constantine."
Reeves' approach -- follow an action flick with a moody independent feature, move from a star turn to a fringe part in an ensemble film -- has fueled Keanu-bashing among critics. Despite serious turns in "Dangerous Liaisons" and "My Own Private Idaho" early in his career, Reeves was pigeonholed by "Bill & Ted" as a screen simpleton and castigated when he strayed from lunkhead parts.
Some of his performances have been called stiff and taciturn. Critics have scorned his attempts at villainous or offbeat roles, as in such films as Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare comedy "Much Ado About Nothing."
'It's still just a review'
For all Reeves' aloof exterior, the criticism stings.
"Yeah, I mean bad reviews suck, man," Reeves says. "It's terrible. It's a drag. But it's still just a review. It sucks to have a bad review, but it's not like after I get a bad review, I run outside and start drinking and have a kind of catastrophic depression."
Before he turned brooding into an art form with "The Matrix" movies, Reeves managed to excel mainly at playing the lovable cretin ("Bill & Ted," Ron Howard's "Parenthood" and Lawrence Kasdan's "I Love You to Death") or the cookie-cutter action hero ("Speed," "Point Break"). He handled those roles so well that he became a butt of dumb-and-dumber jokes, with critics and audiences assuming Reeves was a meathead himself.
"He plays parts and sometimes guys who were not that quick. I mean Yoda is a very smart character, but he's made of rubber. That piece of rubber isn't smart. It's a performance," says Joel Silver, producer of "The Matrix" films.
"Sometimes a lot of journalists feel that Keanu is the people that he plays. It's really not fair to say that. I don't think ('Sopranos' star) James Gandolfini is in the Mafia. But people think that Keanu is not bright. He is very bright. He's a very good actor. Keanu's very well read, he's very conscious of the world, politics, the economy."
In conversation, Reeves is highly articulate, though he peppers his speech with dude-like "yeah, mans" and the occasional "most certainly." His demeanor is a mix of California casual and fidgety furtiveness.
His co-stars say Reeves is gracious and easygoing, but closer in spirit to the guarded Neo than the goofball Ted.
"I would never say he has the carefree Ted in him," said Carrie-Anne Moss, who plays Neo's soul mate, Trinity. "I would say he's so funny and has a great sense of humor. He's a very kind person."
"He's very private, for many different reasons," says Jada Pinkett Smith, who co-stars in "The Matrix Revolutions" as ship captain Niobe. "I don't see any goofball in Keanu. Nothing. He's not goofy, but he's very funny. He's very humorous, he's very intelligent, he's very gentle, he's very sweet, and he's just one of the most generous people that I know."
'It's the journey of self'
A practitioner of Buddhism, Reeves carries the monkish image of the loner, the cypher, a persona that nicely complements his "Matrix" character. Neo's appeal has as much to do with the gradual uncloaking of the character's humanity as his martial-arts mastery and superpowers, Reeves says.
"It's the journey of self, I guess. You start with this kind of loner, outside guy, which a lot of people can relate to, and he goes out into the world," Reeves says. "He falls in love, he has self-doubt, he's questioning the truth, reality. He's got great bravery about him, I think.
"He's his own person. He's not a fool. There's a strength about him, but a vulnerability about him at the same time. ... I like him. I really enjoyed playing him. He's a very honorable guy."
Appropriately for dark knight Neo and the ebony color scheme of "The Matrix" movies, the interview spaces at Warner Bros. for Reeves and his co-stars are draped in black. Reeves himself is dressed to match from head to toe.
Politely reticent, Reeves gushes about "Matrix" creators Andy and Larry Wachowski and the film work itself, but clams up when things stray to his private life, especially to hard times he has borne.
His sister has been battling leukemia. Three years ago, Reeves and then-girlfriend Jennifer Syme had a stillborn baby. A year later, after the couple had split, Syme died in a car crash. And there was the 1993 drug-overdose death of Reeves' friend and "My Own Private Idaho" co-star River Phoenix.
Asked how he copes, Reeves turns stone-faced and glances away, muttering something about "work and friends and just trying to, uh, oh ...," before his voice trails off.
When he looks back, Reeves has a pained look in his eye as he gives a slight nod for the next question. With wordless courtesy, he has managed to change the subject and make it tacitly clear that such matters are off limits.
"He's very funny when he decides not to talk," says Laurence Fishburne, who co-stars as Morpheus in "The Matrix" movies. "I wish I knew how to do it. I've watched him and Clint Eastwood do it. It's amazing. They can just not talk, and that's that."
'He can take those kinds of hits and keep moving'
Born in Lebanon, Reeves is the son of an English showgirl and a Chinese-Hawaiian father (Keanu means "cool breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian). After his parents divorced, Reeves moved with his mother and sister to New York City and later Toronto, where he excelled at hockey and took up acting in his teens (Reeves' screen debut came with a small part as a goalie in the 1986 hockey flick "Youngblood).
Reeves appeared in such acclaimed teen dramas as "River's Edge" and "Permanent Record" before "Dangerous Liaisons," "Bill & Ted" and "Parenthood" put him on Hollywood's rising-star list. He co-starred as vampire hunter Jonathan Harker in Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and played Siddhartha, future founder of Buddhism, in "Little Buddha."
Between 1994's "Speed," a $121 million hit, and "The Matrix," Reeves had a fitful five years that produced forgettable movies such as the action tales "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Chain Reaction," the thriller "The Devil's Advocate" and the romantic drama "A Walk in the Clouds."
Between the first and second "Matrix" movies, Reeves played lead or supporting roles in a similar run of unremarkable studio and indie pictures, among them "The Replacements," "The Gift" and "Hardball."
While reviewers savaged many of those movies, Reeves often delivered better performances than he's credited for. As an abusive husband in "The Gift," Reeves captured real menace. He delivered heartfelt humor as a gambling addict forced to coach a boys baseball team in "Hardball."
"I certainly think he's taken more than his share of unfair criticism," Fishburne says. "One of the qualities that makes him infinitely lovable is he can take those kinds of hits and keep moving. That's hard stuff to take, but he takes it and he manages somehow to remain compassionate about people."
"The Matrix Revolutions" leaves open the possibility of further sequels, but Reeves says the story of Neo is complete and his work is done.
He looks forward to showcasing a cheerier side in "Something's Gotta Give" and "Thumbsucker," about a teenager with an oral fixation on his thumbs, which should help break the perception that he gravitates toward dark, somber characters.
Reeves notes that his pre-Neo Thomas Anderson character in "The Matrix" had a lighter, rogue-ish quality, while his title role in the action-thriller "Constantine" calls for a good dose of irreverence.
So Reeves is lightening up on screen. Has he lightened up in real life?
"I'm older. I'm an older guy," Reeves says, again copping his no-personal-questions-please game face. "So to answer your question, I'll just say yes."
1. His demeanor and choice of roles has made Keanu Reeves a target for critics, but his friends and "Matrix" co-stars stand up for him.
2. In "The Matrix Revolutions," Reeves plays Neo, the savior of humanity against the machine world.
3. Reeves earned fame -- and typecasting -- for his performances in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" and "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey," in which he played Ted, a goofy guitarist.