The man who would be Keanu
The Matrix franchise has made him one of the richest men in Hollywood. Now Keanu Reeves ponders life outside the grid.
by Scott Brown
Keanu Reeves is 39 years old and through making apologies. In younger days, he told interviewers he was a ''meathead,'' sensing their dim opinions of him and meeting them head-on with bodacious self-effacement. (Call it the Ted Offensive.) But as he chain-smokes his way through our conversation on the Warner Bros. studio lot, little of that old self-consciousness is in evidence now. The tics are still there, of course. He fidgets constantly, crossing and recrossing his legs, Gumby-ing his obscenely thick hair from side to side. Any query that comes across as even vaguely invasive is deflected with polite monosyllables, but one mention of Hamlet elicits an entire soliloquy (''If it be now, 'tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now.'') and a bardolater's joke about his all-black outfit. (''My inky cloak,'' he cracks.)
Reeves is famous for quoting Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, but you can see why Hamlet agrees with him: a regal yet mercurial soul, confounding our often low expectations. And confound Reeves has, every step of the way. With this week's The Matrix Revolutions, he concludes a sci-fi trilogy that entranced audiences in 1999 and befuddled them in 2003, grossing nearly $1.2 billion worldwide along the way. Whether it will lure back those whose heads are still spinning from Reloaded is today's multimillion-dollar question; Reeves himself admits the second movie was ''dense'' and says that it ''benefits from a second viewing.''
But just when you were getting used to Keanu in that sleek-if-impractical black cassock (''superhero evening attire,'' he calls it), you'll have to readjust to him in Something's Gotta Give, a romantic comedy that positions Reeves -- a doctor in this one -- opposite Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson (opening Dec. 12). Next he'll be seen as a New Age orthodontist in Thumbsucker. And after that...well, you can follow him into hell, or at least halfway. That's where his next big role -- hard-boiled ethereal middleman John Constantine, of the Hellblazer comic -- will strand him. Sensing a pattern here? Don't worry. Neither is anyone else.
Reeves' identity has always been a bit of a blur. He's your average bass-playing, beer-drinking motorcycle enthusiast who's only now getting comfortable with moonlighting as a tremendous celebrity. One thing is clear: He's no longer the guy who once said, ''I make excellent good short copy because I use words like excellent.
''Ah,'' he sighs, smiling. ''That's an early '90s quote, isn't it? Early '90s Reeves?''
He smiles beatifically and offers no further insights. No doubt about it, the guy is downright mysterious. Of course, there is a competing theory.
''He's just sullen!'' laughs Alex Winter, the Bill to Reeves' Ted and a longtime friend. ''If someone thinks he's a mystery, it just probably means he doesn't like them very much.''
The mystery -- or lack thereof, depending on whose theory you're buying -- began on Sept. 2, 1964, in, of all places, Beirut, Lebanon, where Reeves was born to itinerant hippie parents who soon divorced. He ended up in Toronto, studying hockey and drama, which eventually intersected in Youngblood, a 1986 Rob Lowe hockey flick where Reeves won a supporting role. Not long after, he packed his bags, drove to Hollywood, and began attracting attention with nuanced turns in small dramas like River's Edge and Permanent Record. But it was a comedy that established his reputation. With Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure in 1989, he and Winter made the suburban slacker duo an enduring movie trope.
Ted proved a potent character -- perhaps too potent. Reeves, between his minimalist face and the low, slow wavelength of his speech, became the archetypal Valley boy: He even did a Ted reprise in 1989's Parenthood, playing Martha Plimpton's doofus boyfriend...Tod. Suddenly, the actor was facing the prospect of a long and lucrative career playing morons -- and Hollywood was only too happy to pigeonhole him.
"Look at Yoda. He's made of rubber. People say how smart he is," notes Joel Silver, producer of The Matrix. "People somtimes can't get past the performance to the person."
Through it all, Reeves continued to receive high marks for quirkier fare like Little Buddha and My Own Private Idaho, in which his performance as a bisexual hustler drew praise (and the obligatory gay rumors). Still, he had to fight for any mainstream part perceived as outside his dude-erific purview. Longtime manager Erwin Stoff recalls that landing Reeves the role of tubular FBI special agent Johnny Utah in Point Break was no picnic: ''People thought [production exec] Larry Gordon was out of his mind.'' But Break met with some success, and a door cracked open -- a door that would lead to Speed. Suddenly, the Hollywood establishment was calling Reeves the anointed king of action.
They called him some other names when he nixed Speed 2. He didn't woo them back by taking himself out of consideration for Heat (Val Kilmer was the beneficiary), Without Remorse (a planned Tom Clancy actioner), and The Object of My Affection to play Hamlet in Canada and tour small clubs with his band Dogstar. It was all part of Reeves' master plan to keep the focus on the work. Otherwise, "I'm at the Betty Ford clinic," notes Reeves. "Or swinging from a rope."
He did return to film, of course, and amassed a strange and varied resume, seesawing from solid showings (The Devil's Advocate) to sodden ones (Johnny Mnemonic). By 1999, his involvement in a big-budget head trip called The Matrix (for which he'd received a rather surprising $10 million paycheck) was considered highly suspect.
''If you really analyze it, I think all his baggage really worked,'' says Silver. ''Because when the movie begins, you see Thomas Anderson as this goofy Bill-and-Ted kind of guy, working as this software programmer who is never going to be a hero of any kind. At the end of that movie, you believe that he has transformed himself, and is Neo.''
''Of course, he's not a flake at all,'' says Diane Keaton, the crux of a Reeves-Nicholson love triangle in Something's Gotta Give -- and someone who knows something about being identified with a fictional flibbertigibbet. So take it from Annie Hall: ''You can't be a flake and be Keanu.''
Reeves' friends and associates have a tendency to defend his intellect even when no one's really attacking it. ''I learned my lesson the first time we played a game of chess,'' recalls Laurence Fishburne. ''We were living in Sydney [filming The Matrix], and I thought we'd have a little game and I'd see how bright the motherf---er was. Beat my ass in 15 minutes and left.''
So what exactly is it about the guy that need defending? Maybe it's the fact that a typical Reeves quote sounds like this:
"Self-achieved submission." Pause. "Acceptance." Pause. "Everything that has a beginning has an end. Sad, but ultimately beautiful." Pause. "For Neo."
A journalist's rule of thumb: If your subject answers you with the tagline of the movie he's promoting, it's time to fall on your Bic. That said, Reeves doesn't sound stupid - far from it. He just doesn't sound human, either. Rather, he sounds like he has a deep affection for humans and has made a purely anthropological effort to integrate himself into their charming little socitey.
"It's been so frustrating for the press that a lot of journalists have decided to make him a real whipping boy," observes Stoff, "because he has not been willing or interested in playing ball." What does interest Reeves is perpetual reinvention. "It stems from theat self-effacing quality," says Keaton. "I think he probably thinks that he isn't enough, at the core of himself. Which is kind of a good quality if you're interested in pushing yourself and your boundaries."
Reeves certainly does push himself, going the Full Method every time. To get inside the doctor he plays in Something's Gotta Give, "he went to the hospital. He put on scrubs. And he worked," recalls director Nancy Meyers. "The cool thing about him is, he comes to your party. He has no entourage. He waits in line for his food. He does the work on your movie." And every movie gets equal treatment, regardless of pedigree. To research the ticket-scalping gambler he played in the smallish Hardball, Reeves hit the Wrigley Field parking lot with a vengeance--and was eventually ejected by security guards only too happy to provide verite. "I got a good price for one ticket. I think I got the highest price of the game - about $125." He grins at the memory. "I could be making a killing."
Still, this isn't the craziest thing he's done to prepare for a role. "I can't share that in public," he demurs. It's as if, in that instant, he's calculated the odds that this line of inquiry will lead us back to Idaho, and the perennial question of whether he and the late River Phoenix experimented with drugs to "research" their junkie-urchin characters. (The heroin habit that later claimed Phoenix's life is widely believed to have started during that period.)
Reeves guards his privacy, and not without reason. He's had some hard knocks over the years, and not just from the spills he's taken on his beloved hogs. His sister Kim's battle with leukemia (and his tremendous financial support both for her and for cancer research) is a verboten subject, as is the tragedy surrounding his late girlfriend, Jennifer Syme. (Their baby was stillborn in 1999; a breakup soon followed, and in April 2001, Syme died in a car accident.)
Fortune's door has swung both ways. Reeves' Matrix deal, reportedly a combined $30 million for the last two movies, against 15 percent of their gross, would put his total compensation between $100 million and $150 million. He's performed some quiet heroics to redress that karmic imbalance, reportedly distributing a few million of that sum to crew members.
But Reeves generally prefers his heroics gray, not black-and-white, which is why he's so fond of John Constantine, his next major screen incarnation. In Constantine, he plays a bloke who's on barely speaking terms with both heaven and hell. ''And he hates them both,'' Reeves reports with great satisfaction. ''I think that was actually always the attractive thing about Batman -- he had some kind of inner demon.'' He contemplates this for a second, then grins wistfully. ''But I didn't get to play that guy. Now I'm too old.''
Keanu Reeves turning 40 is hard to imagine, if you're not Keanu Reeves. If you are Keanu Reeves, however, it's easy.
''I'm feeling 39, that's for sure. So I'm sure I'll feel 40, too.'' He laughs. ''Forty: Here comes a crisis. Forty: Here comes the mortality reflection....I've ordered the Ferrari. I'm going to get the whole midlife-crisis package.''
KEANU REEVES IS HAVING a good time. He's laughing off a midlife crisis. So, feeling saucy, I theorize aloud: Reeves' success, I posit, was what freed us from the muscle-bound headlock of Arnold and Bruce and gave us Tobey Maguire, Christian Bale, Smallville's Tom Welling, and a raft of other "sensitive" leading men -- slightly androgynous titans whose heroics are balanced with introspection.
"I agree," he says. And that's all he says.
Well, good, I say, clearly peeved.
He meets my irk with a smirk.
"Okay," he offers, "how about... 'You're right! What an incredible insight! You're a genius!'"
Perhaps he's right. Perhaps I am a genius. Perhaps he's a genius for saying so. With Keanu it's all conjecture anyway, and this particular theory reflects pretty well on both of us. So I'm sticking with it.
Meanwhile, Back in The Matrix...
STILL DECIPHERING THOSE MYSTIFYING MONOLOGUES FROM Reloaded? Has your Wachowskian gotten a little rusty? In the interest of minimizing mass confusion at the multiplex, we've assembled this handy guid to get you back up to speed with the pivotal characters and plot points of the climatic third film. And we promise: no big words. - Raymond Flore
He's helplessly stuck between the Matrix and the Machine World, and the only one who can spring him in the unforgiving Frenchman Merovingian. Since his would-be Gallic savior still harbors a grudge from the last film, Trinity & Co. must persuade the Merovingian that liberating Neo is in everyone's best interest.
Relegating her erstwhile lover Morpheus to the role of sidekick, Captain Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) shows serious muscle (holy pecs!) in steering her ship clear of Sentinels. But can she zip back to Zion before the Machines level it? And will her support of Neo's journey to Machine City mean extinction for the humans?
THE ORACLE The Merovingian has punished her for aiding Neo by terminating her "shell": She's forced to alter her appearance (new actress Mary Alice replaces Gloria Foster, who died before filming Revolutions). She still bakes cookies and doles out self-help riddles, but we also discover her past link to Agent Smith.
The evil program (Hugo Weaving) is replicating himself by the millions. At the end of Reloaded, he'd infiltrated the body of Bane (Neo's shipmate), and now he menaces the vessel's crew. Meanwhile, his wild growth rate threatens to infect and control those supreme rulers of the world, the Machines.