Robin Wright and Keanu Reeves expose 'The Private Lives of Pippa Lee'
by Carla Hay
Sometimes life really does imitate art. In "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee," Robin Wright plays the title character, a married mother of two kids whose life goes in a different direction than she expected when her marriage starts to crumble and she goes on a journey of self-discovery. In real life and at around the same time she had to promote this movie, Wright has been going through her own major life change: a divorce from actor Sean Penn. And just like Pippa Lee, Wright is now forging ahead as a single mom, re-examining her identity, and recognizing that her broken marriage could be an opportunity to reinvent herself.
Indeed, "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee" is a story about self-identity and reinvention. In the story (based on the book by Rebecca Miller, who also wrote and directed the movie), Pippa Lee is a prim and proper housewife married to an affluent, older man named Herb Lee (played by Alan Arkin) and living a seemingly perfect life. But as the cracks in her marriage become obvious, Pippa starts to do things like binge eat while sleepwalking and have flashbacks to her troubled past, which included becoming a promiscuous, drug-taking party girl and dabbling in the sex industry. As Pippa starts to realize that her current life isn’t making her happy, she finds herself attracted to the eccentric Chris Nadeau (played by Keanu Reeves), a neighbor who works at a convenience store.
"The Private Lives of Pippa Lee" had its North American premiere at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where Wright and Reeves talked about the movie at a press conference the day of the film’s TIFF premiere. The press conference was held the day after news broke that Patrick Swayze (Reeves’ co-star in the 1991 action film "Point Break") had died of pancreatic cancer, and Reeves candidly shared his thoughts on Swayze. Wright and Reeves also commented on how they feel about protecting their private lives while being in the public eye, why they wanted to make a low-budget independent film like "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee," and how they related to their characters in the movie.
We’re here to talk about the movie "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee," but what may be on the top of people’s minds is the passing of Patrick Swayze. Keanu, if it’s OK with you, what do you have to say about it?
Reeves: I had the opportunity to work with Mr. Swayze. He was a beautiful person, an artist. I know our sympathies and condolences go out to his friends and family.
Robin, can you talk about why you were interested in doing "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee"?
Wright: It’s such a rare opportunity to get a role like this, and I’d always been a fan of Rebecca’s work, because lyrically, she’s like a poet without all that dead air. Fortunately, I had other people playing my life for me [in the movie], so I got to play what resonates inside — and that’s attractive for me.
Keanu, what attracted you to this movie?
Reeves: Yeah, it was working with Rebecca Miller and working with Robin Wright and reading the book and the screenplay and playing Chris. He’s kind of this character who has about three or four different responsibilities in the piece and I was trying to achieve those. He’s kind of a friend, he’s the weird neighbor guy, he’s (in a way) a lover. So I got to play three roles in one, so that was kind of exciting.
When you work with a filmmaker who’s both the screenwriter and director of the movie, is it intimidating or liberating?
Wright: That’s so funny, because there were moments when I’d say, "Maybe [Pippa] isn’t …" and Rebecca would go, "Oh no, she is, actually. She just is." You have to have that faith and trust in the visionary. And I did. [She turns to Reeves] And if you don’t have that, you’re f*cked.
Reeves: I came to the process with the novel and the screenplay, and I kept saying to [Rebecca Miller], "Which one am I doing?" And [she’d] go, "Well, do whatever you want." And [she] would give me the idea of confinement and wiggle room, it was like a particle in a wave with [her]. [Rebecca Miller] could be very specific and then there would be times where [she] would say, "Do what you feel," which was great.
Keanu, what do you think about making the transition from action films like "The Matrix" to playing complicated characters in small independent films like "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee"? Would you like to do more of these kinds of films?
Reeves: Yeah, absolutely. Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to work in different genres and different kinds of scales of work. So to me, it was a great experience to work with such great artists and a story that I responded to. But it’s nice to do movie kung fu too. It’s nice to run and jump and hopefully just looking to entertain and do work that’s worthwhile.
Robin and Keanu, what do you think about people wanting to know more about your private lives?
Reeves: I think we feel probably like how anyone would feel. You just generally want to have your privacy and the opportunity to do your work and live your life. Anytime where anyone isn’t allowed to do that, it’s frustrating.
Wright: I don’t work enough to not have a private life. I think that’s what happens: If you expose too much, you’re on every magazine cover and doing every interview, photo shoot and layout, it sort of diffuses the actor’s talent ... You’re looking through that character with [the celebrity aspect of] the person first. I just think to be healthily elusive is great. And naturally that happens when you don’t get jobs.
What did you learn from making "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee"?
Wright: I’ll never be a porn actress. I know that for a fact. Seriously, that’s what I learned. Never again. Never. Never. There’s a wall, there’s that boundary. And when you cross that boundary, you think you’re being free and you’re experiencing something tangential, and then you just go, "No, that was complete self-abuse."
Reeves: What did I learn? I learned that working with you, Robin, was a great experience. There was a sense of — I don’t know if it was learning — but moving forward in an artistic and creative environment to experience, not really to experiment, a kind of artistic freedom and trust. Working with Robin is pretty amazing. She’s a great actress and an inspiration.
Wright: [She says jokingly] Wow, your check’s in the mail!
Keanu, you’re an actor and musician. How big of role does acting or filmmaking play in your life?
Reeves: Acting is my life. If I’m not working, I’m working on working, developing scripts, trying to produce some films. It’s pretty much all I do.
Robin and Keanu, it’s not a secret that famous actors like you make a lot of money. Is acting just a job for you or is it a passion?
Wright: I made $16.95 on this movie. I don’t think it distinguishes the passion to make money. You can just heat your pool, but the pressure is off, in a weird way. You’re so catered to and you fall into "diva" quickly.
We basically shared a trailer [on "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee" set], didn’t we, Keanu? And we had one couch with a cardboard box in between. It was great because you’re doing the work and not thinking about, "Oh, what am I going to do in between the time the work takes place??" There’s not all of that mindspeak going on. You dive, you swim, you get out.
Keanu, you spent a lot of your youth in Toronto. What’s it like coming back to Toronto at a festival like this?
Reeves: It’s great. I grew up around here and it’s always nice to come back. I left when I was 20 years old, 1985. The city’s changed a lot. I remember coming to this festival in 1984, so this festival has grown a lot. It’s always been fantastic. Yeah, I guess, when you take a minute to reflect, there’s always that, "You came from here and you’re here now." A lot of good memories, and I feel lucky and fortunate to be able to make films and to act. So it’s great to be a part of this [festival].
Keanu, going back to the passing of Patrick Swayze. Can you share any anecdotes about him or insight into his character?
Reeves: I got to work with him on "Point Break." Just his passion and lust for life, his craft. You know, there were some skydiving sequences in this film that we did together, and as filming was going along, it came to be that Patrick was jumping out of airplanes all the time. I think he had over 30 jumps over the course of filming, so the production served him with a cease and desist, which they listened to until they got to Hawaii. And they kept jumping out of airplanes.
I think Patrick wanted to experience life and he wanted to for his work. He wanted to take the opportunity the film gave him, in that sense. In the film, you see him jump out of an airplane and do some flips and falling to the ground. He did it with just an open heart. To me, he was very generous — and to everyone around him. He just lit up a room. He had a really good sense of humor. And I can just say from what I know of him that he lived life to the fullest.
Robin, can you say specifically why your role in "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee" is such a rare good role for a woman?
Wright: I think it’s because it’s every woman, maybe in varying degrees. You know how we are all crazy. How that emotional data is at issue with the choice you made over here. And all of sudden, all that fabric that you’ve woven it’s so tight and it just starts to unravel out of your control. I mean, that happens post-40, right? You unwind with truth. And I think that’s pretty much everyone’s story. But how does it manifest? That was the beauty of this role. The sleepwalking, the devouring of sweets … the French fries.
Robin, what was it like walking into the film’s wardrobe and seeing that the adult Pippa Lee wore a lot of beige clothes?
Wright: That wonderful palette! That was like, "Ew!" We talked about it a lot. [Rebecca Miller] had all these ideas. She has this great designer who’s worked with her a couple of times. They had hordes of clothes figured out. I was like, "Yes, matronly, cardigans. Ew, ew, ew!" The shoes. The minute I put my feet in whatever Ferragamo nastiness, that was it. I just created the walk, and all of a sudden, your arms are next to your ribcage, and I was constantly putting hand cream on. It was the shoes.
Robin, did you have a mantra that you had in your mind to play a character who’s so emotionally contained?
Wright: I kept asking Rebecca to keep me in check all the time, because I’m very judgmental and I’m kind of a bitch a lot of the time. So I was like, "OK, I really don’t want Pippa to be that." Unjudgmental hopefulness: That’s the mantra.
Keanu, can you talk about the interesting tattoo you had to wear in this film?
Reeves: Oh yes, the Jesus on the chest. We see that all the time. It was really tough to come up with something different. It was quite a process to find the right Jesus.
How long did you have to have the tattoo while filming the movie?
Reeves: We had some great artisans who could apply it. It took, the first time, about four hours. The second time, it was two-and-a-half, three [hours].
Wright: How long did it last?
Reeves: A couple of days. Yeah, it’s a tattoo that’s about this big. [He raises his right hand to his neck.]
Keanu, you’ve had a long and successful career and you probably get to pick and choose your roles ...
Reeves: [He laughs.] That’s what it seems like from the outside.
What do you consider the moment in your career where saw a turning point?
Reeves: I’ve been pretty fortunate so far. I’ve had a few of those. Early days, even just starting out, I got an agent while I was playing Mercutio [in "Romeo and Juliet"] in a community center here in Toronto. Getting a chance to do "River’s Edge." To do "Point Break" was a real pivotal change to what I got a chance to do in the future. Those are a couple.
Can you elaborate?
Reeves: Well, I was playing Mercutio and someone saw my performance and asked me if I had an agent. I said, "No." And then I had an agent. And I went from community theater to trying to be a professional. I went to Los Angeles when I was 20 years old. I didn’t work for a pretty long time.
I got to do a film ["River’s Edge"] with [director] Tim Hunter and Crispin Glover — and Frederick Elmes was the DP [director of photography] — and Dennis Hopper and got to do a great film. And that got me some other opportunities to work as a professional actor.
[With] "Point Break," I got to do something that I don’t think I would’ve been the first choice for. But ["Point Break" director] Kathryn Bigelow saw something, and I got to run and jump and fire some guns — and that changed my life as well.
Keanu, you played a love interest to an older woman in "Something’s Gotta Give" and "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee." How do you feel about being seen as a guy who can handle older, beautiful women?
Wright: We had to beg you!
Wright: Oh, please! It took weeks. "Please, please do it."
Keanu, do you have anything to add to that question?
Reeves: No, I don’t.
Keanu, a lot of ladies were wondering before you got here if you were going to be clean-shaven or not. Can you talk about how you look now? Is it for comfort or for a movie role? You look good, by the way.
Reeves: Thank you. [He says jokingly] I’m afraid I can’t answer that question until I speak to my people.
Robin, you said earlier that women start to find their truth after the age of 40. What have you learned in this process for yourself?
Wright: I think the volume is just higher when you get older, because you go, "OK, I’ve got how many years left? I better act on it." I hope I answered your question.
Robin, can you talk about having the back story for your character already in the movie? And what it was like to see another actress play a younger version of Pippa Lee?
Wright: I took one physical trait of hers [Blake Lively, who plays the teenage/twentysomething Pippa Lee], because I had just literally met [Lively] during the camera test. So we didn’t really have time to share history and "What do you think?" and the through line and "Let’s have a conduit here."
And Rebecca said, "Look at what she’s doing." And she’s such a little doe, Blake, she would be asked a questions and just that beautiful innocence, that 20-year-old thing. And she would always go like this, "Huh? What?" And it was always with her eyes and her forehead. And [Rebecca] said, "Just take that," because [Blake Lively and I] both have squinty-eyed smiles.
And I don’t know why, something as simple as that allowed me to go into that lightness and freshness. Pippa has seen it all, done it all, slept with everything, popped every pill. And still all of the dark and light was new to her, everything was [she makes a big gasp] it hit her emotionally. She wasn’t tainted by it.
Keanu, can you talk about what the film industry is now compared to when you first started?
Reeves: When I first started out, there was a little more of a rock’n’roll feel, a little more of a carnival, gypsy kind of quality to how sets would feel when you go to work. The simple thing would be wrap beer. At the end of filming, the coolers would come out and people could have a beer and hang out and visit. And now it feels — this is not true all of the time, but the overall view — at least on the set in public, much more kind of …
Reeves: Is it corporate? I don’t know if it’s corporate but it’s less than [rock’n’roll]. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a lot of fun. People still have a wrap beer, it’s just not "out there" and [it’s] corporate.
And what else? There’s a lot going on in terms of how films are being made, how films are being bought, how films are being sold. We’re still making films, we’re still making movies.
I think as the industry is always evolving and changing, one thing stops but another opportunity begins. We’re seeing that with a lot of mid-level productions, a lot of mid-level films, independent films. There’s still money out there, equity-wise, but it’s still, "Who’s going to buy the film." I think here [at the Toronto International Film Festival], people have been speaking about distribution. Everyone’s kind of waiting and seeing. "When do we buy the film? What are the rates? What’s going on?"
And then the majors are doing a different kind of level. Some of the films I did in the past [with a] $40 million [budget], like "The Lake House," wouldn’t get made by a major anymore, really. But that gap is being filled in by other opportunities.
Keanu, you’re a big music fan. Are there any artists you’ve discovered on MySpace and the Internet?
Reeves: Yes, there are. I haven’t really been listening to much music recently. In terms of the [Web] sites and different ways to listen to music over the Internet and such, I know that a lot of my friends have a myriad of them. I’m not really the person to ask about that. I think there are hipper and cooler people for that.
Is there any character you’ve played that you would like to revisit?
Wright: I’m too old to return. [She says jokingly] Well, we’re doing the sequel to "Pippa." That’s open to a sequel. She’s got a couple more lives, I’m sure.
Reeves: Me? I’d like to play Constantine [from the 2005 movie of the same title] again. How about that?