KEANU REEVES PROVED HIS STAYING POWER LONG BEFORE THE MATRIX MADE HIM HOLLYWOOD’S HIGHEST-PAID ACTOR. BUT WHAT WILL HE DO FOR AN ENCORE?
by Ben Beard
After faltering for a few years in commercial shlock like Sweet November, A Walk in the Clouds and Chain Reaction, Keanu Reeves reinvented himself as a bone-fide action star, becoming the highest-paid actor in film history with the Matrix trilogy. But what does “The One” do for an encore?
In his latest film, Something’s Gotta Give, Keanu plays against type as a romantic doctor who falls for a much older woman (Diane Keaton), only to fight for her attention with one of his patients (Jack Nicholson). We recently met up with the 39-year-old actor in a crowded press conference, in which he talked about falling for the older woman, working with two screen legends, and exactly where his erratic career will go from here.
“The beauty of older women is life experience,” the surprisingly serious actor says in his clipped, laconic manner as he sits down. His jet-black hair, high cheekbones and signature five o’clock shadow cut a striking figure, and it’s easy to see why he landed his latest role. His deep, soft voice is often hard to hear, and many of the reporters present spend the majority of the interview leaning forward, craning to hear his almost mumbled words.
A film junket press conference is a surreal event. Reporters from all around the world crowd into oddly shaped rooms and jostle with each other for a seat close to the “talent,” many of them ultimately asking asinine questions that mean nothing. Such as when a reporter blurts out from the back, “Your character, Julian, is a confident character. Where do you get your confidence in real life?”
Keanu leans forward and says with mock seriousness, “From within. You know, there’s a book I once read... No, I was playing a character. I thought he was well-rounded and grounded, and [portraying that was] the obligation of the role.”
The actor’s remarkably youthful appearance belies his age. How does he stay so young? “I have a picture in the attic,” he says, smiling. How does he plan to spend his fortieth birthday next year? “For my birthday, I’ll either be really alone, in the middle of the desert, or I’m going to have an outrageous party.”
One journalist notes that while Something’s Gotta Give has a lot of humor in it, Keanu’s character mostly plays the straight man. “I have a couple of jokes,” he says in response, “about Viagra, and others. But to a certain extent, yeah, I’m the straight guy. But that’s the character. I’m a cardiologist, dealing with matters of the heart. I had to support whoever was around.”
Playing an ER doctor requires some credibility. And although it seems difficult on paper to imagine Keanu as a doctor, he ultimately pulls it off. “Yeah, I did some ER research at the Southhampton Hospital,” the actor admits. “I talked about bedside manner, stethoscope techniques. Hung around ER rooms...”
In person, Reeves exudes an unusual sense of calmness that is sometimes confused for dullness. He seems centered, at peace with the world, very Zen in a way. He seems content, uncynical and easy-going. The ego that is so apparent in many other Hollywood actors is noticably absent. Talking to him feels like chatting with a devout neighbor who practices some esoteric Eastern religion.
In his latest role, Reeves had the daunting task of acting opposite screen legends Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton. Although Keanu is a household name, it seems like it would be difficult not to get starstruck when working with such big names.
“When I met them,” he recalls, “it was pretty great. And, yeah, it was great to be able to communicate my enjoyment of their work. But when you go to work, you got to work. The surprise was, I didn’t know they were that good.”
He pauses a moment. “Diane and Jack are both remarkable people, very gracious. People of great humor and sensitivity. When I came onto the set, they were very welcoming.” And what did he take away from working with them? “The ease and grace and hard work they put into it, while making it all look effortless. The knowledge of the camera, and storytelling, and the way they reveal their characters.”
In the film, his character falls for Keaton’s right away. “He has enjoyed her work– her plays– and then as things sometimes happen in life, he just kind of has that feeling,” Reeves says. “The scene right before he asks her out, he’s watching her talk on the telephone. He’s enamored with her smile, and the way she moves.”
Which begs the question, has Keanu ever dated an older woman? He smiles coyly. “I’ve never dated an older woman, but...” He trails off, with a knowing grin.
Asked to describe the film in his own words, Keanu answers quickly. “It’s a romantic comedy in the tradition of the best Hollywood romantic comedies, with remarkable performances by Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton. And the script by Nancy Meiers is touching, moving, smart, and funny as heck.”
Yet another inane question gets asked– are you romantic in real life? “On good days,” he says good-naturedly, but doesn’t elaborate. And what, one reporter wants to know, is the craziest thing he’s ever done for love? “My friends would probably say, ‘Falling for that girl,’” he answers in typically enigmatic fashion.
A longtime bassist in the band Dogstar, Keanu was inspired by and brought up on punk music. Strangely, it’s when talking about music that the actor is at his most animated. “I was a lucky kid who heard The Ramones, Violent Femmes, the Clash, Exploited, Joy Division... My worlds got a lot better. I found something I could express myself with– music I vibrated to.”
With the Matrix series finally drawn to a close, Reeves is excited about moving on to his next film project– an adaptation of the Vertigo comic Hellblazer, about a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed magician who makes enemies with Heaven, Hell, and a horde of demons and other diabolical creatures.
When asked about the film’s progress, he says, “We’re going pretty well. We’re six weeks in.” And how does the source material help him to tackle the role? “I look more at the shapes of the drawings, and the atmosphere. But I mostly just use the script.”
Like many actors, Reeves is so well-known that fans and paparazzi sometimes hound him. Does being a celebrity ever become something of a social handicap? “Well, it’s important for me to move through the world, so sometimes, yeah. But only around premieres does this seem to intensify.”
Asked to remember the first time he was recognized as a celebrity, Reeves recalls, “I was going to the cinema in Los Angeles. I went into an ice cream store, then I went to pay, and the guy behind the counter said, ‘River’s Edge!’ I smiled a little, and tried to pay again. He said, ‘No, man, River’s Edge!’ And I got free ice cream. That was really cool.”
The final chapters of The Matrix trilogy (which were trashed by many critics, but still proved one of the year’s biggest cinematic events) have finally come and gone. Neo is dead, Zion is saved, the humans stuck in the matrix will be given a chance to leave, and a lot of people– Reeves included– made a TON of money. So how does he feel, now that the trilogy is finally over?
“I had such a great time,” he says fondly. “Some of the best days of my life.” Fans were notoriously divided over the sequels, some really loving them while others scoffed at the poor quality of the storytelling and scripts. How did Reeves feel about the fan division? “I didn’t know they were,” he replies. “But people are divided over every piece of art. But I hope fans see the movies and realize how much fun they really are.”
After embarking on a new iconic character from the Hellblazer comic, fresh off of sharing screen time with Jack Nicholson and finishing the last Matrix film, Keanu Reeves is a star who seems at peace with his place in the Hollywood universe. The question of whether he’ll have a career after Neo’s demise seems to have been answered.
Now, if he could just speak up...