A lot went into the creation of Keanu Reeves' Matrix hero. He read Schopenhauer, trained 10 hours a day and meditated on the nature of existence. But does even he understand the character who will fight his final battle in this month's The Matrix Revolutions?
by Bruce Kirkland
Keanu Reeves is the quintessential Hollywood outsider. He is with "them" but he is not one of them. He is not a typical movie star. He is just too worldly, too odd, too idiosyncratic to be boxed up and sold as a commodity by the studios.
Consider his ethnic background: Reeves was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a Chinese-Hawaiian father, Samuel Nowlin Reeves, and an English mother, Patricia Reeves, providing the now-39-year-old actor with the rich genetic pool that produced his translucent skin and mysterious gaze.
Consider his childhood: After his parents split, his mother's changing relationships led to abrupt geographic shifts. The newborn Reeves was in Beirut only briefly, in New York City only slightly longer and in Toronto the rest of his early life. Still a young man, he moved to L.A. to pursue his career. Yet he has always said he is Canadian, and even straps on the old hockey pads from time to time to take part in charity tournaments.
Consider his image: Reeves looks just as at home in leathers astride a Harley-Davidson as he does in tailored suits. He is comfortable as a grunge bassist in his thrash band Dogstar, yet convincing as a fashion icon in the Matrix movies (1999's The Matrix, last May's The Matrix Reloaded and this month's The Matrix Revolutions) wearing those hi-tech titanium sunglasses from Blinde Designs. For this interview, he's in black jeans and a drab dark sweatshirt. Nothing pretentious here.
Finally, consider how he is considered: People still yell out surfer-dude slogans from his 1989 breakthrough flick, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Yet this is the same actor who so impressed insiders with his earlier work as a disenfranchised, deep-thinking youth in River's Edge (1986), and who, when first cast in The Matrix, prepared by reading Schopenhauer.
It's a conflicted background - full of growth and rebirth - that served him well in preparing to play Matrix hero Neo, who, after learning that the mundane life he's been leading is nothing more than a computer program designed to sedate all humans, changes into a completely different being - one who may be the saviour of the entire human race. (He got the part after Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Will Smith all passed.)
When asked whether there's any merit in comparing his own metamorphosis to Neo's, Reeves says, "I'm sure it's influential, definitely. But, I mean, it's also my nature. Probably just my nature."
Typically, Reeves's answer is not exactly self-revealing. Yet it's still more thoughtful and slightly more articulate than the answers he used to give in the '80s. Back then, completing a single sentence seemed like a challenge to which he rarely rose.
Reeves says he's since changed, but his words tell a different story. "It's something that, in adolescence, is sometimes... [the thought never quite gets completed]. But, in my quiet... I was working something out."
The Wachowski Brothers, Larry and Andy, know what it's like to work things out. Their trilogy (which they wrote and directed in tandem) is an intersection of philosophies. The Bible is a crucial part of the mix, yet so are Buddhism, Greek legend and pop culture clichés.
Trying to explain the plot is as easy as trying to explain God himself - but the central story evolves from the supposition that what humans perceive as reality is actually computer-generated, and this faux world is populated with creatures who look exactly like humans, but can morph into killer agents for the unseen controllers of the computer world. Some humans, including Neo, Laurence Fishburne's rebel leader Morpheus and Carrie-Anne Moss's sexy freedom fighter Trinity, have escaped the computer-generated facade and cross back and forth between the real and computer worlds to battle the baddies. Neo seems to be no one - and yet may be The One. Like Jesus Christ, he has died and been brought back to life to save mankind.
Although little has been revealed about Revolutions' plot, it's safe to assume the war between the rebel humans and the agents of the computer world will come to a climax.
You may have already noticed that the Wachowskis like to layer on as much as possible, usually without explaining how all the parts fit together. The ambiguous, and necessarily incomplete, ending of Reloaded, for example, left many viewers both mystified and upset. Others angrily debated the content.
"Well," says Reeves, "The platform of the piece itself lends itself to speaking about ideas. So thank God that there is something to talk about because, otherwise, what are they doing? Some other films don't have that ambition."
Reeves refuses to name the specific philosophies on which the trilogy draws. Same goes for the philosophical and religious beliefs to which he subscribes. "I don't have my list in front of me," he says. "I could probably make a list but then I'd be doing what the brothers don't want to be doing: 'Here's my literal thing.' They don't propose a finality to it. They don't say, 'Here's the answer!' They don't do that except - and this will be revealed in Revolutions - they do come to something. And I think it sounds really goofy, but it's about love."
Despite the obvious Christ imagery, Reeves claims there isn't even one specific religion invoked by his own character. "I think the film itself, and what [the characters] do, is such a synthesis of different perspectives and philosophies," he says. Even the way Neo dresses - like a futuristic Franciscan monk - is just "one of the fun things you could riff about."
Reeves does reveal that the training required for the fight scenes in Reloaded and Revolutions was far more difficult than anything he'd done for the first movie. "[There were] more moves in the fight with the Smiths [the so-called Burly Brawl of Reloaded] than I did in the whole first movie," he explains.
But the actor is shy about extolling the virtues of any of his movies. For Reloaded, he just said he was "excited," and happy to join members of his family at the premiere. His sister Kim, a horse breeder who has been battling leukemia for years, was there, as was his half-sister, Karina, and their mom. But not his dad. Reeves is estranged from his biological father, who landed in an American jail on narcotics offences several years back.
Where Reeves is reluctant to spout the type of over-the-top hyperbole actors often throw around when promoting their films, his producer, Joel Silver, knows no such restraint. "The next movie is really a monumental movie. It is fantastic. It is just really spectacular," he gushes.
But there is at least one solid tidbit Silver is willing to reveal about Revolutions - it will put a lid on the Matrix story once and for all. "I mean, this story ends. The story does end," he says, putting to rest speculation that there's more to Neo's tale.
The end of the Matrix saga means the end of Reeves's license to print money. Combined, the two Matrix sequels will generate an estimated $100-million (U.S.) for the unassuming actor alone (a $15-million paycheque for each film, plus a share of the profits). In a show of appreciation for the 12 stuntmen who made him look so good, Reeves spread the wealth by buying them each a Harley. The gesture garnered him a lot of press, perhaps because it showed a generous and personal side of the actor that he tries to keep from the public.
Even his co-stars don't know much about the real Keanu. "I love him, but I don't have a clue," says Fishburne.
There are, however, some very personal things he has been unable to hide, like the miscarriage his girlfriend Jennifer Syme had in 1999, and Syme's death from a car crash a couple of years later. Since then, Reeves has been linked with Amanda De Cadenet, ex-wife of Duran Duran member John Taylor, and actor Claire Forlani. But that's just speculation. Nobody really knows what he's up to - and Reeves isn't going to tell.
Perhaps he has no real private life now. Despite maintaining an apartment in New York, Reeves drifts from town to town making movies. After Revolutions, you'll see him in the romantic comedy Something's Gotta Give, as a doctor treating Jack Nicholson, and in Constantine, a comic book adaptation in which he plays a man investigating the supernatural.
Reeves' thoughts on Constantine reveal just a little more of himself: "I really like that guy. I like his ambivalence. I like his vitality. I like his darkness. I like his anger - I really like his anger - but also his kind of underlying grace, his underlying love for humanity. He finds something out about himself and his humanity."
Maybe it's in the characters to which he's drawn that we can learn the most about Keanu Reeves.
Bruce Kirkland writes about movies for the Toronto Sun.