Life beyond Neo
Post-Matrix, Keanu Reeves is happy to play second fiddle to Jack Nicholson, and eager for another go at Shakespeare, finds David Eimer
It’s been 22 years since Keanu Reeves started acting professionally, and he doesn’t look as if he’s changed at all. Now 39, his hair is still jet black, the finely angled cheekbones haven’t been obscured by fat, there are no visible lines on his face and that 6ft 1in frame is as lean as it has ever been. Either he’s the Dorian Gray of Hollywood, or else he got very lucky in the genes department.
But Reeves doesn’t act like a man who has been blessed. He sometimes appears to have a death wish: he has crashed the vintage British motorbikes he likes to ride no fewer than eight times. When he talks about driving them, it’s one of the few occasions he gets really animated. “In LA, I like to ride to the ocean through the canyons. Especially on the day after Christmas,” he smiles. “Maybe I’ll take the helmet off to feel the wind. It’s against the law, but what does that mean? Whose life is it, anyway?” Perhaps his attitude stems from the fact that he has experienced more than his fair share of tragedy. His long-term girlfriend, music executive Jennifer Symes, was killed in a car crash in 2001, a year and a half after their unborn child had died, and Reeves’s older sister Kim has fought a protracted battle against leukaemia. So, despite his youthful looks, at times he comes across as distinctly world-weary. “I feel my age, oh, yeah,” he says slowly in his inimitable drawl.
Given the rumours that swirl around him like the multiple Agent Smiths that attacked him in the Matrix films, he could be forgiven for feeling a little paranoid, too. There was the chatter about his “marriage” to the DreamWorks co-founder David Geffen in a secret ceremony in Mexico, a story Geffen said he wished was true; and more sinister mutterings, after the deaths of fellow cast members Aaliyah and Gloria Foster, that his presence had “cursed” the Matrix shoot.
Sitting on the edge of a sofa in a bland New York hotel suite and looking unusually smart in a brown suit, Reeves claims he isn’t bothered by the whispers. “Man, I don’t take it like that. I really don’t. You know, the external manifestation of the work ...” He pauses. “The outside view of Hollywood, in terms of being a celebrity, is kind of a myth to me. It’s ephemeral, it’s like something that’s not real. I can understand why people get confused, because, if you’re outside it, it’s fantasy. You’re watching fantasy on the screen and it’s mesmerising.”
In other words, don’t confuse the Reeves you see in the cinema or read about in gossip magazines with the real man. It’s a typically convoluted reply and, like many of his utterances, not strictly an answer to the question he has been asked. It’s a trait that has led some to wonder just how bright he is. Reeves didn’t help his own case by once describing himself as a “meathead”, but while he lacks formal education, having dropped out of high school, he’s intellectually curious and far from stupid. That inscrutability, though, is a vital part of Reeves’s appeal, and the reason he was the perfect choice to play Neo, the messiah figure who defends mankind against the machines in the Matrix trilogy. Most A-list stars tend to play off their own personalities: Tom Cruise is always the eager beaver, looking to better himself; Tom Hanks an everyman in a confused world. Reeves is far less easy to read, which allows audiences to impose their own ideas on the characters he plays.
The Matrix is in the past now, even if Reeves, who was paid £8m upfront for each of the two sequels, will continue to make money off his reported 15% share of the box-office profits for some time yet. After all the hype and media glare, as well as the time he spent shooting the trilogy in Australia, does he feel relieved that the saga is over? “Well, it has been years of my life,” he points out. “No, it’s not a sense of relief. It’s kind of a new time, personally and professionally. It’s like: ‘Okay, what do I do now? Who am I now?’ The work on those films defined my life over the past three years, so for me now, it’s about doing new things. It’s like the ship has sailed, but we’re still waiting to see where it goes.”
Not that he’s hanging around. His latest film, the romantic comedy Something’s Gotta Give, sees him playing an idealistic doctor who falls for Diane Keaton’s divorced playwright. But she really wants to get together with Jack Nicholson’s roguish music mogul. And you don’t need a crystal ball to work out what happens. It’s very much a supporting role, and not many stars of his status would take such a part, but he seems to have relished the challenge of playing someone who’s so frank about their feelings after the enigmatic Neo.
“He does wear his heart on his sleeve, and it hurts when you do that. Always to be vulnerable is somehow the most enriching way of being, yet when it all goes awry, it’s the most painful way of being. But if you don’t do it, you end up all closed up,” offers Reeves. “It’s a great role, and it kind of balances out the piece. Jack Nicholson’s character is at a place in his life when he’s withholding, he’s stuck in his ways. My character is the opposite: a man who is open and ready to be in a relationship.”
Despite a list of movie credits that goes back to 1986’s Youngblood, Reeves hasn’t popped up in many romantic comedies. It’s a surprise, given the number of female fans he has, but he has been astute in the way he’s jumped between genres. Early on, he combined the popular but inane Bill and Ted comedies with more rigorous work like Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. Then 1994’s Speed launched him as a mainstream action star, and he was canny enough to avoid making its dire sequel. His choices are sometimes bizarre, like 2000’s knockabout comedy The Replacements, or the overly sentimental Sweet November, but he has a fear of being typecast. “My friend has an expression for it. He calls it, ‘That guy.’ You know, when you see an actor, you go: ‘Oh, it’s that guy.’ I don’t want to become ‘that guy’. Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunities to orientate my work in different directions. That’s what I want to do in my career, if I continue to have a career.”
Reeves reaches over and knocks on the table as he says that. He claims that for a long time, he was far from confident about whether he would be able to sustain a career in films and so never took a break. “I guess in the past I didn’t feel secure enough that I could leave the business for a year, of my own volition. I didn’t feel secure that when I returned from my trip around the world, or came out of my house, or whatever, that I would be a working actor again.”
At the same time, he appeared far from convinced about the job, and when he took up playing bass in the band Dogstar in the mid-1990s, it seemed he might abandon it altogether. “From the outside, it might have looked like I was trying to escape acting, because for three summers in a row I got the chance to go play music. But it wasn’t home. I never thought: ‘Oh, I’ll do this instead of acting.’”
Born in Beirut to an English dancer mother and a Chinese-Hawaiian geologist father, who left when he was seven and subsequently did time for drug-smuggling in Honolulu, Reeves was mainly brought up in Toronto. He took up acting at school. “I decided to become an actor when I was 15, which is young. I was playing Mercutio in an English class, and it was fun, so I started doing school plays and stuff,” he recalls.
By the time he was 20, he’d moved to LA and made an impression in 1986’s River’s Edge. But his love of Shakespeare led him to turn down a part in Heat to play Hamlet in a provincial Canadian production in 1995. He says he’s up for another crack at the bard. “I’d like to do the ‘Scottish play’. A couple more years and I’ll be ready. I’ll be 41, which is a transitional point in life. You’re still a warrior, but you’re not young,” he muses.
While he’s not at his best in period pieces — his performances in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Much Ado About Nothing were rightly slammed — his desire to play Macbeth shows his ambition and courage. He won’t let the criticism stop him, even though it can be hurtful. “I’m not going to do something because someone suggests it, or the opposite. But it’s a drag, because you want to be understood, and sometimes people have reactions to me that seem a little personal.” With all that has happened to him, he certainly knows what tragedy is. Does he feed that grief into his acting? “My hope, in terms of trying to relate my life to my work, is that I can understand what I know and seek to understand what I don’t know; part of the interest for me in dealing with roles is trying to seek what I don’t know. But whatever life experience I have is who I am, and so whatever that is comes with me.”
It is an oblique response, but there are signs that the melancholy that has sometimes threatened to overwhelm Reeves is lifting. After years of moving between a room at his sister’s house and the Chateau Marmont hotel in LA, he has finally bought his own place. “It felt like the right time, and I’m really enjoying it,” he smiles. “I’ve got some rented furniture, because I haven’t had time to buy any, I’ve bought a bed and I’ve done a mini renovation. It’s great.” A happy Keanu Reeves? Now that’s a story.
Something’s Gotta Give opens on Feb 6