Keanu's Got a gun
by Bob Thompson
Once upon a time, Toronto's Keanu Reeves was associated with his dim-witted dude from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Now he's known as the nuanced Neo from the Matrix trilogy. What's an actor to do?
If you're Reeves, who has learned to cope, you make a sly joke in a sales-pitch voice about the latest typecasting. "Yes, I am the ambassador for The Matrix trilogy," he says, smirking a little. "My operating hours are ..."
Wit aside, the 43-year-old actor admits that he still gets inundated with Matrix questions. And not just from fans. On the set of the cop thriller Street Kings, for instance, fellow actors lightly grilled him for information.
"It was hard to resist," says Fantastic Four's Chris Evans, who plays a Los Angeles cop opposite Reeves's loose-cannon detective.
Opening on Friday, the movie features Reeves as an enforcer for a corrupt police captain (Forest Whitaker). When his former partner is murdered, Reeves's dirty cop starts to question what he's doing but not before violently defending himself.
The part may be one of Reeves's darkest and most demanding, but that suited him just fine. "I like to be pushed to a place I don't normally live," he notes. "And I get to kill eight people, so that's a good role."
To give authenticity to his portrayal, he immersed himself in weapons training and police procedures with help from former L.A. cops. He not only learned attitude but also the specific footwork required when entering a dangerous area.
"I wasn't very good," he confesses. "So I had to practise, practise, practise, just to seem like I knew what I was doing without thinking about it."
Evans, who had some tense scenes with Reeves, confirms the actor's work ethic as well as his "compassion and dedication."
"A lot of actors don't want to do rehearsal or even utter the words, but Keanu loves it," maintains Evans. "And there's not one line of the script that he hasn't really thought out."
Some things don't change. Reeves has been that obsessive since he was 15 and enrolled at a Toronto acting school. During that time, he worked as an extra and a production assistant, and persuaded directors to hire him for their local plays.
When he moved to L.A., he did a string of roles before bursting out in 1986's River's Edge and 1989's Bill & Ted film comedy. In 1994 Speed made him a bona fide movie star, although a reluctant one. The Matrix five years later sealed the deal, although he was just as uncomfortable with the limelight.
Maybe that's why he can relate to his Street Kings character, who is torn between what he wants and needs to do as he pretends to be somebody he's not.
"He's in a dilemma from the consequences of his job," Reeves says. "He's soft and vulnerable on the inside, but he's got to be something else on the outside."
Not that the actor would say that about himself. His privacy is a lot more important to him than his fame. He will discuss his career motivation, however.
"It is simple," he says. "I'm just hoping to be able to work in different genres and play different roles, so I can explore all I can as an artist."
He's optimistic that his involvement in the remake of 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which he plays the alien Klaatu, will fulfill that desire.
"I just finished," he says of filming in Vancouver. "Hopefully, we will do right by the original. But our film is more of a reinvention appropriated to our time."