Keanu reloads in new film
Margaret Agnew meets Keanu Reeves to talk about his views on his role choices, paparazzi and his new status as a "veteran'' cop in his new movie.
Street Kings is a gritty new cop thriller from Keanu Reeves, and before you ask, yes, it involves guns.
Lots of guns.
However, in some ways Street Kings is both a continuation of typical Reeves action movies and a slight departure for the actor.
Here, he is described as a "veteran" cop for the first time. At 43, Reeves is no longer the new kid yet his laidback, youthful stoner image, first forged in the Bill & Ted movies nearly 20 years ago, still clings to him.
Maybe it's the slow, reflective way he talks with plenty of "you know"s and "like"s sprinkled liberally throughout.
In person, Reeves looks much as he does on screen, only his chin is covered with black bristly three-day growth.
He's dressed in a symphony of charcoal, with just-got-out-of-bed-hair even at midday.
He wears the classic slightly-dressed-up-bloke combo of a black T-shirt and suit jacket over jeans, which looks kinda scruffy but presumably it came all the way with him from Los Angeles to Sydney, so excusable.
Reeves is in Australia promoting his latest film Street Kings, directed by writer-turned-director David Ayer (who wrote Training Day and directed Harsh Times) and co-starring Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, Naomie Harris, Chris Evans and rappers The Game and Common.
Reeves plays veteran LAPD detective Tom Ludlow who uncovers a conspiracy within the police department he's been part of for years.
Sydney was Reeves' home for two years while he was shooting the Matrix trilogy and he seems happy enough to be back, although spending all day talking to journalists probably isn't on his list of favourite things to do in Australia.
When I ask him whether he's a bit jaded from many days and different countries promoting the film, he says politely, "No, not at all".
Street Kings is by far the grittiest and most realistic movie Reeves has made in recent years. Years in which even a Sandra Bullock romance - The Lakehouse - incorporates an inexplicable time rift and the animated sci-fi film The Scanner Darkly is downright surreal.
By comparison, Street Kings is grittily realistic even though Keanu's character has retained a Neo-like ability to predict what the bad guys are going to do next.
Reeves says: "I don't know if I reacted to it as leaving fantasy stuff behind, but it was certainly a role that, because of its grittiness and the emotional pitches that are in the film, and some of the ideas in it, it was definitely.
"I don't know if it was a departure for me but certainly a reach, and you know, a really attractive acting role. Yeah, it's very different for me."
So what drew him to play the "very different"' role of Tom Ludlow?
"Well, I hate to say its differences, but I guess I liked the intensity of it."
Tom is less of a clear-cut hero, with ambiguity about what drives him, which may be more guilt than a desire to do the right thing.
"Well, he was certainly more complicated than a straight hero. He's a character of contradictions. He's a very ethical guy, he's described as being a good cop, but he does do unethical - maybe unethical - things.
"He's the first guy in the door, he's described as the tip of the spear, so you know, he's living in a world of violence and yet to me, he's got a vulnerability to him. You know, he's kinda hard on the outside but a pretty sensitive guy on the inside, so I liked him and that interplay, you know?"
James Ellroy, best known for penning LA Confidential, wrote the book that the film is based on.
To prepare for the role, Reeves spent a lot of time with an ex-LAPD police officer: "who was very generous with me with sharing the job and what it was like to live with the job".
That ex-cop gave him a book on hyper-vigilance: "where you're living in this kind of fight or flight mode all of the time on the job but then how do you live your normal life?
"My guy wakes up in the morning and pukes, so that was fun."
Reeves describes his character's view of the force: "The fantastic Naomie Harris says of my character - she's the widow of my ex-partner and I'm trying to find the killers of my ex-partner - and she's like: 'When are your eyes going to open?' so for me, I think Ludlow at the end of the film kinda just has an awareness of where he is in his life.
"He's been used as a pawn, his own personal agendas have been co-opted by other people's agendas. And I think, not only as a cop movie and a cop story, I think that idea can be translated to another situation. You think you know what you're doing, you think you're in control, and you're not."
Reeves seems determined to explain the subtleties of his latest character.
"He's very awkward and then when he's looking at the videotape and going on the hunt, he's just so alive, so to get to that place, was definitely getting in touch with your inner Ludlow.
"It's not fun. Part of the film is like, when is violence necessary and when isn't it? Like Naomie Harris's character says: 'Blood doesn't wash away blood' and Tom Ludlow says: `I don't care'.
"(But) when she ends up in a situation of peril and she sees Tom Ludlow coming onto the scene she almost gets a smile on her face because she knows she's gonna be OK. He'll f...... take care of business . . . So you need it but Ludlow sometimes crosses the line.
"Because what is he doing? Is he meting out justice to serve and protect, or is he a murderer? Is he a killer?
Despite his research, he's not necessarily trying to sell Street Kings as an accurate portrayal of LA cops.
"I mean, the plot is obviously on steroids and it's hyper-real but I think definitely the interplay, the sense of humour, a lot of the language, the way the guys talk to each other, I think we had that as an accurate portrayal in a sense."
And no, he hasn't seen Hot Fuzz,the British cop spoof that contains an homage to Reeves' 1991 film Point Break.
"I know of it, but I haven't seen it."
Here's the difference 17 years makes: Point Break is renowned for its backyard chase but in Street Kings, when his character finds himself in a similar position, he sends a younger cop to do the chasing on foot while he drives his muscle car after the suspect.
He seems to be enjoying playing a "veteran" character now.
"Yeah, sure, I'm older and wiser, so I got Chris Evans, he and I end up as partners, and we're out to get these killers. There's definitely, as my character says: 'Go get 'im' and I'll just use my 'street smarts'."
However, he says he enjoys filming the "fun" action scenes.
"I enjoy the intensity of the physical aspects of the role, you know, the gunplay and the certain 'shoot 'em up' aspect to it. Hopefully we depict it in a harder grittier way."
There's a risk for someone who has played so many iconic movie roles that Reeves may end up repeating himself.
He says he doesn't hate the phrase "Bill & Ted".
"No, I did them (those movies) so long ago, but I guess I did it really well and people enjoyed it."
The youthful stoner image has stuck fast to Reeves for a long time, it seems. "Certainly for you," he says, rather pointedly, but for the record, folks, Bill & Ted 3 is not going to happen.
"It's always been my hope to work in different genres and to play different kids of roles, to not get pigeonholed.
Reeves seems like the sort of actor who prefers the quiet life and avoids unnecessary publicity, not gracing the opening of an envelope like some celebs.
But ironically, starring roles such as this one by necessity throw him into the media spotlight.
So how does he cope with all the media attention?
"I dunno, you go to work and then you go home. And hopefully you don't have somebody with a camera looking through your window."
He says he hasn't had many "really bad" situations with paparazzi.
"There's situations with paparazzos that are, you know, unfortunate, but uh, yeah, I don't know. I've heard them say the same thing 'It's my job!'"
He says he had no concept of what it would be like back when he was starting out in acting.
"Especially back then in 1985, '83, it was a little different. The world was a little different."
His next film is a return to sci-fi with a remake of the classic The Day The Earth Stood Still.
"It's looking good," he says. "I just finished filming that. They finished a couple of weeks ago, I finished about a month ago, but yeah, it's a great cast: Jennifer Connolly, Kathy Bates, myself, John Cleese, Jaden Smith, and I think we did a great job. Knock on wood.
"If you haven't seen The Day The Earth Stood Still I recommend it. I didn't jump into a remake of a classic. I worked with the writer and director for almost two months on trying to get this script and I think we did a really nice ... we found a reason why to make it. What Klaatu is in the first one, what Klaatu is in the second one and what gets spoken about in the movies."
Contrary to some internet rumours, there is definitely a mysterious Gort character in the new version.
"Gort's there. You gotta have Gort. That's like making a peanut butter sandwich with no peanut butter."
- Street Kings is currently screening in New Zealand cinemas.