Making The Matrix
(Previously published on November 1 in the Sydney Morning Herald under the title 'Neo romantic')
by Phillip McCarthy
For Keanu Reeves, the legacy of three Matrix movies seems to be a certain Zen-like calm.
Keanu Reeves doesn't own a computer and has no plans to acquire one. "I don't use the internet, I don't send email, I don't have a secret identity," the star of the Matrix trilogy says. "You don't have to be a computer geek to be interested in the subjects these movies raise."
Still, he says, fans who love the movies and want to talk bytes find it odd - and there are many fans: after the first Matrix film grossed $US171 million, the second instalment, Matrix Reloaded, pulled in $US735 million.
What's even stranger, though, is the black-curtained room inside a Warner Bros sound stage in which we're sitting to discuss part 3, Matrix Revolutions. Reeves, too, is dressed head to toe in black and, despite the gloom, wearing dark glasses.
"Maybe I'm having a hard time letting go," he says of the Neo-esque attire.
"I lived and breathed these films for three years.
"I've read a lot, I've thought differently about things and now I'm almost 40. So now I'm perfectly positioned for a midlife crisis, right?"
He's tired because he's in the middle of making his next film, called Constantine, in which he plays a supernatural detective.
His all-black attire and some unflattering overhead lighting make him look pasty. Coiling and uncoiling his fingers is about as animated as he gets.
The Matrix creators, brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski, are notoriously press-shy so the burden of plugging their movie falls to the actors.
"They made it clear from the get-go that this isn't their thing," Reeves says.
"I'm not saying that it's mine. But this has been a pretty life-altering experience for me, these movies, so if I can back them up that's fine. I'm cool with it."
A few years back, before The Matrix, Reeves alternately coughed and chain-smoked his way through interviews.
The legacy of three Matrix movies, apart from a strapping bank balance - though Reeves denies he has received $US100 million from salary and equity in the Matrix movies as has been rumoured - seems to be a certain Zen-like calm.
He has needed it both on screen and off.
His younger sister, Kim, has been battling leukemia for a decade and after a remission has become sick again. Two years ago a girlfriend, Jennifer Syme, was killed in a car crash and a year before that Syme suffered a miscarriage.
He doesn't allude to either tragedy in the interview, but when the subject of fate comes up, as it inevitably does with The Matrix, he says he has not adopted Neo's philosophy:
"People say everything happens for a reason. I don't buy that."
When he made Speed in 1994, Reeves was talked up as Hollywood's next action hero, but he would have none of it. He wanted variety, and as if to prove the point grew his hair and ditched the buff body and hero stance for unsympathetic characters such as the ruthless young lawyer in The Devil's Advocate (1997) and murder suspect and wife beater in The Gift (2000).
The irony was that when the Wachowski brothers reinvented action films as thoughtful parables pumped up with kung-fu moves, there was Reeves as the sensitive, cerebral can-do man who thinks first and acts later.
The Wachowskis love "how long is a piece of string"-type dialogue and Reeves's Neo (The One) gets the best of the lines. "Why do you continue to fight?" Hugo Weaving's Mr Smith asks in Revolutions. "Because I choose to," says Neo.
Even his cadences come across a bit like a page out of Wachowski script. When the possibility of yet another Matrix sequel is raised (the brothers seem to leave it open at the end of this third and "final" film), Reeves says: "Well, I think my work is finished. My journey has ended."
Reeves is the metrosexual action hero for the new millennium. Ask him what he enjoyed most about the three movies and he cites the evolution of Neo's relationship with Carrie-Anne Moss's Trinity, rather than the groundbreaking, martial-arts-influenced fight scenes with Weaving, which one of Reeves's earlier characters would almost certainly have described as "awesome, dude".
"He gets a bad rap," Matrix producer Joel Silver says of Reeves's perceived lack of nous. "He is intensely private. But he played a couple of movies where he played kind of slow (witted) guys. And he got tarred with that brush. That's like assuming that there is a guy in Star Wars called Yoda who is a genius. But Yoda is made of rubber."
Not even Reeves could tell you what that analogy is supposed to mean, but the evidence is that he's not dumb.
Colleagues say he's just painfully shy. Like Tom Cruise, he had problems with dyslexia growing up, which compounded the shyness. But, for example, when I mention that Laurence Fishburne says the third Matrix is his favourite, but adds that "it is the film he's promoting today", Keanu gives me a bemused stare and says: "Well, that's a little cynical of you. I, of course, like all three."
I admit that I don't always get Matrix movies; maybe they're just too deep for some people. Reeves nods sympathetically.
But Revolutions does have a long, very watchable battle scene where the machines mount their long-awaited attack on the human city of Zion deep inside the earth. Their secret weapon is a sort of flying calamari. No need to tell you who gets fried.