Arena (UK), November 2003
The power of One
For most people, being given a name that translates from its native Hawaiian as "cool breeze over the mountain" would mean a shoeing as a kid, leading to a huge presecution complex and a fear of strangers. For Keanu Reeves, however, it led to untold riches, some of the coolest parts in Hollywood and a nice line of long leather coats.
Photography by Amanda De Cadenet. Interview by Paul Croughton.
Keanu Reeves clears his throat, and apologises. He breaks his conversation to accept a drink from a friend and excuses himself, thanks the guy, and apologises again. He takes a gulp, coughs, says sorry for that, too. For one of the richest, most famous filmstars in the known world, Keanu Reeves has a hell of a set of manners.
Odd thing to remark upon, perhaps, but a major leaguer who's a stickler for politeness is odd enough in itself. It could, of course, be that as an actor he can play the nice guy when it suits him. Of the man may just be in a good mood as things have been going well on the set of his new picture, Constantine, where he's just finished the opening week of filming with a first-time director, Francis Lawrence. But we'd like to think, after dealing with bundles of up-themselves Hollywood types, it's more likely that Keanu, as he introduces himself, is pretty much a regular guy. A regular guy with a shitload of money and the hearts of millions of women, sure, but still a regular guy.
One who plays street hockey on a Sunday with his mates whenever he's not shooting, who goes for motorbike rides and occasionally scares himself witless by doing it at night with his headlights off. Who, while being photographed for Arena by his ex-girlfriend Amanda De Cadenet at the Chateau Marmont in LA, suddenly chucks up a couple of devil signs - what he and his mates call "throwing metal" - to provide us with our iconic cover image. Who loves music almost as much as he loves films, and is currently in two bands, playing bass, releasing albums, going on the road. A regular guy who, when Arena asks what he drinks, says this, "It depends. I love them all. I love red wine, Jack and coke, beer, white wine, whisky, champagne..." before wondering aloud why there's only ever an inch left in any bottle of liquor lying in the house, and why that bottle's always sticky. "But you're going in anyway, you have to," he says with a rueful laugh. "You have no choice."
There are four landmark roles in the Keanu canon (which numbers over 50 films); four characters that define Reeves to multiplexers the world over. They are, as you know, Ted Theodore Logan, Special Agent Johnny Utah, Officer Jack Traven, and Neo. It was Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure in 1989 that got Keanu Charles Reeves noticed at the age of 25, but he'd already completed numerous projects, with names like Under The Influence, One Step Away and Babes in Toyland, before that. Point Break, the film that turned Keanu into an action hero, came two years later; Speed was in 1994; The Matrix five years after that. In between were films that worked, and plenty that didn't. Reeves' hit rate isn't the most consistent. Speed took $121m in the US, the first Matrix $171m, Reloaded $281m. On the other hand, his 2001 turkey Hardball took just $40m after four months at cinemas, while Johnny Mnemonic rocketed to $19m, $6m shy of its original budget.
But since he first stepped in where Leo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Will Smith feared to tread, and decided he rather liked the look of himself in black leather and shades, none of Keanu's past box office history has really mattered. The Matrix consolidated his position as a huge global star. Reloaded, while not living up to expectation, certainly did nothing to damage him personally, and this month's concluding part of the trilogy, Revolutions, will make him the most talked-about star around. Again, his $30m fee, plus 15 per cent of the box office, makes him Charlie Big Potatoes in the earning stacks. All this for a guy who, if you believe his many and constant critics is the Emile Heskey of Hollywood - wooden, one dimensional and incapable of hitting the target with any regularity.
Despite that, Keanu has a reputation for dedication to his roles that borders on "Method". While rehearsing his part as a wife-abusing redneck in The Gift in 2000, for example, he and Hilary Swank, who played his beaten upon spouse, were running their lines in his trailer. "I put a little mustard on it," he admits, poetically. "I'm not going to abuse a trust, but you have to commit. And it ended with her up against a wall and me behind her starting to take off her pants. Then we stopped".
His commitment to The Matrix trilogy was no less impressive, with mammoth training sessions, torn muscles and gruelling shooting schedules endured without a murmur. But it was very much a love affair and he's immensely proud of the work. All his work. In fact, you get the feeling Keanu loves being involved in a production, of being at the hub of something. He's filming with Rachel Weisz in Constantine, playing an exorcist in a comic adaptation (part of the Hellblazer series written for DC Comics by Alan Moore in the late Eighties) and it sounds like fun, but the line that sticks in your mind when he talks about the new project is this: "It's just great to be working again, acting, I'm very grateful." You get the feeling he really is. While he's phenomenally successful, his life has not been an easy ride. He has the sort of past that the phrase "no personal questions" was invented for: his father did time for drug offences when Reeves was young, and he has little, if any, relationship with him now; Keanu's child with his then girlfriend, Jennifer Syme, was stillborn on Christmas Eve 1999. They split up in the wake of the tragedy, but more was to come as she was killed in a car accident, aged 29, two years later. If you give all that a little thought, it's not actually stuff you're desperate to bring up. If it's possible to feel a pang of pity for someone who earns more in a few months than your office does in ten years, then you do for him. You feel he has fun enough with his own demons without doing your bit to stir 'em up...
The stuff you shot with Amanda De Cadenet for Arena is as good as any photo session you've done. Was it helpful shooting with a mate of yours, rather than with some stranger goading you into things?
"Yeah, it was funny to work with her. She's been a photographer here for about seven years now. When I was in Japan about five years ago, she was like, "You have to get me this new Polaroid film." She was taking shots all the time, but professionally she's just come on the scene."
Historically I get the feeling you don't enjoy being shot?
"What, male modelling? Ha! You know, sometimes, if you get the right day, the right photographer, it can be fun, but most time... no. It's not something I do in my time off. I know I play dress up, but..."
You're on a bike in the pictures...
"Yeah, that was her bike. She bought it off a friend of mine. I love Nortons. I remember I saw, when I was a kid, a photograph of a guy who taught me how to walk. He had a canary yellow Dunstall. Like a '69. I learned how to ride a bike when I was 22, when I was out in Germany, in Munich, and this young girl had this bike and taught me how to ride. So when I got back to LA, I got a bike. I love the aesthetics of a Norton, and man, when I rode one... they've got grunt, when you're on the road, it's a great sound."
Can you strip bikes down?
"No. I can do roadside wrenching, a cable brake. It's a fantasy of mine, to one day be able to do that. I went into business with a guy who's worked on my bikes over the years, he and I own a shop together, TT Cycles in LA. He's a Brit, Dean Colinson. He's a magician with bikes."
And then there's the band. You've got a new one now, Becky, right?
"Yeah you can go and hear some tracks, on www.Beckyband.com. We've been together about seven months."
How's it different to the mighty Dogstar?
"We have a female lead singer, the songs are a little... I don't know, I'm reticent to define the music, in terms of, like, the difference."
Does it feel different when you play with them?
"Yeah, The songs are a little more straight ahead rock 'n' roll. When you hear music you can go, "Oh, that sounds like...", but I don't really know what this sounds like."
We asked a few friends of the magazine if they had anything they wanted to ask you. Soccer AM's Tim Lovejoy had less of a question, more a demand: "Put these bands in order of greatness and tell me why... The Specials, The Jam, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones."
"Oh my God...Can I go to that rock show? Those are all seminal great rock 'n' roll bands. Well, who came first? The Ramones and The Sex Pistols are going head-to-head, when was the first Ramones record, 77, 76? When did Never Mind The Bollocks come out? [He then mutters aloud like this for several minutes, musing on ska, reggae and each band's "unique sound".] Mr Lovejoy, those are all great rock 'n' roll bands. For me personally The Clash, The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, but then I can't draw a lid on that."
Do you think you'll ever be taken seriously as a musician?
"I don't think I'm in that world... Seriously? No. Yo Yo Ma is taken seriously, Jaco Pastorius is taken seriously."
But your band goes on world tours, it's not like you're Russell Crowe in 30 Odd Foot of Grunts...
"But that guy is rocking man, and he's drenched in it. He can tell you so much, he played in clubs as a kid in Australia, he's got such energy... I play bass, but I'm not Flea."
Can you sing?
"I can sing. I've got the crooner inside of me."
Let's talk about the films. There was a bit of a backlash to the second Matrix film, Reloaded, as it wasn't as accessible as the first. Did you know what was going on in it?
"I knew that it was an ambitious film. It's one of the densest films I've ever seen, in terms of the concepts, its theatre and what's on the screen. It's viewing on, I think. But you're right. It was interesting because it made it cultish in a way. Critically it was not well received, yet in terms of audience it was. The Matrix was a hard act to follow, but I think that the brothers were really brave in terms of the story that they told: The One isn't The One, there's six. I remember Andrew Wachowski, the writer and director, saying, "We might as well give them good dialogue, in between the action," and I thought they were very ambitious. I like that they subverted their own film."
When you read the script for the second one, did you get it?
"I read the script for the second and third ones together, but I felt the second one made sense. On the second instalment, they put "To Be Concluded", not "To Be Continued". Yet within that framework of storytelling they still had Neo and the dream, and Trinity and they gave good closure on that, so even though they were flipping the form, structurally they gave you something that was resolved."
Well, ish. Who the fuck was The Architect?
"The Architect I believe was a program that put together a system to create the Matrix, to create the world where humans who were in pods could have a digital reality. In the first one, Smith says the first Matrix was designed and everyone was happy, but it was a complete disaster. So it was a program that was designed to create a digital world for the human psyche... so maybe he's the father... and I guess now it continues on in terms of the unconscious people, they wanted to have a system of control, because the humans found that they were suffering, and I guess you get into what that actually means in the second one. Does that answer the question?"
Kind of. Let's move on. There are less guns in the second film, but by the looks of the Revolutions trailer, there are plenty in the third one. Did you take them out because of Columbine?
"No it wasn't an exterior reaction. I think that that would be a coincidence rather than a connection. But in terms of more guns in the third one, that is true."
When Arena interviewed Ewan McGregor recently, he complained that filming Star Wars wasn't a rewarding experience because of all the green screen and CGI work. Do you feel the same about The Matrix films?
"Not really, you always have a set. You always have actors or people. Hugo Weaving and I had fight scenes that were again a CGI background, but even then we are performing together. But there are CGI elements that are pure CGI, like facial capture where they're trying to create a character, but there's not so much that you're frustrated, because there's still the element of the "new". The technology was such that when you walked on set, there'd be [the feeling of] "this has never been done before", so it's fascinating. You've got five high-end Sony digital cameras with nine or ten terra bytes of hard drive in the room, and tons of lights. And you have John Gaeta [visual-effects supervisor] directing your face. "Okay you're flying! Now you're captured!" You have to move and react with your face but you can't move your body and that brings certain challenges. And also, I am a fan of the film, so I don't mind doing it. And even though it might not be the most satisfying acting experience in terms of the interplay between people, and the surprises, they're still important to the character and to the scene, so for me, it's not empty. If I have to get my face captured when I catch Trinity and she's falling from the building, I care about it, I care about the whole thing."
This is a question that's been troubling the Arena office for some time. Is Laurence Fishburne the slowest talker in the world?
"What, when he plays Morepheus or in real life?"
Mainly when he plays Morpheus. He has these speeches where he goes, "This day..." then a week later, "...Is the day..."
"I call it gravitas, other people call it sloooow."
But when he's ordering a coffee, he can get it out before it's cold, right?
"Ha ha... yeah, it's his choice."
Here's another celebrity question for you. The very lovely Lori Petty, your co-star in Point Break says, "Keanu, you wanna come over?"
When did you last see her?
"Actually it was at Laurence Fishburne's house, about four months ago."
Do you tend to keep in touch with most people you work with?
"Sometimes... if they want to be my friend, and I want to be their friend."
Here's another, from Richard Herring. I'll give you a clue on this one, he's a comedian so this isn't a normal question. "What number am I thinking of?"
No. Try again, it's about you, your work.
Nooo. It's good, but it's not right. Think Bill & Ted...
That's the one. So is there going to be a Bill & Ted 3? I read somewhere that Alex Winter, who played Bill, was writing it?
"You know, I've always thought we should do it when we're 40, because those two at 40 would be funny. He and I have spoken about it. But you know what, we don't own the material, so it's not up to us. We just play the parts, man. But it would be funny to see them, fat and 40, singing in an airport hotel lounge."
How do you feel about turning 40?
"I don't know, I've just turned 39. Your youth is definitely done at 39. You know that by the sounds you make when you bend over, or on the walk to the toilet for your first pee of the day."
You've been living out of a hotel for years, but you just recently bought a house, right?
"I did yeah. I'm getting older and I just had a feeling it was time. I've got rented furniture, I've bought a bed, I'm just learning about the house.
Lastly, I'm curious to know what you made of Kill Bill?
"I thought that Uma Thurman kicked some motherfucking ass. I thougt she was awesome in that. All the acting was great. He took every great cinematic... it was almost like watching a fan, someone who really appreciated and enjoyed certain aspects of the genre. He just pumped it up to some incredible level."
That fight scene with Uma and Lucy Liu's henchmen reminded me of you and all the Agent Smiths.
"Yeah, I guess, but he's doing his own thing. The way that he pumped up the blood, the massacre! He's so good editorially, he's great at tension, at creating pockets of heroism. It's almost like pornography. You know how pornography is really great, but sometimes you feel dirty?"
Right, and it's uncomfortable watching porn for two hours straight.
"Yeah... and that scene, when the kid is coming home from school? The editing in that, the confrontation between the violence and what is normal, innocence and the loss... he consumes everything, his films are fun, but... I don't know what they mean. I'm a romanticist. It's not that I need a happy ending, but I do need some sort of restoration, getting out from the traps of life."
The Matrix Revolutions is revealed on November 5.