'Henry's Crime' is Keanu Reeves' labor of love
by Walter Addiego
Like many of Hollywood's elite, Keanu Reeves alternates major productions with small-scale projects. His new movie, "Henry's Crime," an indie film that combines bits of caper movie and romantic comedy, is definitely the second sort. It's a labor of love the actor has been working on for years.
Reeves plays an aimless tollbooth worker who is tricked by supposed friends into driving them to a bank robbery and is sent to jail. On his release, he decides he might as well do the crime, because he's done the time. There's a forgotten underground passage connecting the bank to a nearby theater, so Henry joins the cast of "The Cherry Orchard" so he can access the tunnel.
The star's support includes James Caan in a comic turn as Henry's former cellmate and Vera Farmiga as the lead actress in the play. Also appearing are Peter Stormare as the temperamental director and Bill Duke as a bank guard.
"Henry's Crime" was directed by Malcolm Venville, who previously made "44 Inch Chest," a crime drama with a remarkable cast including Ray Winstone and Tom Wilkinson.
Reeves spoke by phone from New York.
Q: "Henry's Crime" is about a guy who acts so he can rob a bank. Why did you think this could work as a film?
A: I was actually involved in the development of the script. My producing partner, Stephen Hamel, had the idea of a guy robbing a bank that he'd already (wrongly) gone to jail for robbing. That, to me, was a provocative sentence. What is that story, and why? And we started to come up with this guy who worked at a tollbooth, who was in a netherworld physically and emotionally. We just started to build this story, and it became more and more - I don't know, not implausible - but fantastic, I guess. But that started to turn it into a fable, and we knew we wanted to make it comedy. Then all of these characters were born: Max - Jimmy Caan's character, the mentor - and the stage director (Stormare) and Vera Farmiga's Julie, the fireball actress. We spent about five years working on the script. I was drawn to this idea of this guy who's stuck in his life and decides to do something quite outrageous to change his life, who, during the course of the film, we see develop into a person.
Q: What about Henry appealed to you?
A: Who he is and his sensibility. He starts quite quietly, almost where you can't hear it or see it. You can see his discontent, it's almost existential, this guy sitting in this tollbooth in the middle of the night, alone. He comes home to his wife, who's going to work. We feel something wrong. And I was drawn to what this guy does, and his humor. He's nonjudgmental, and I found him pliantly willful in a weird way that I like.
Q: "44 Inch Chest" also had an outstanding ensemble cast. Is that why you chose Malcolm Venville to direct?
A: He was brought to our attention by Lemore Syvan, one of the film's producers. We saw (Venville's) film, and he's a photographer, so we looked as his photography as well, his commercial pieces. What struck me was his eye, his composition, but also how he treated his characters. He had a sympathy for them, even though they're hard characters. There was an affection for them. And he brought that to "Henry." He kept saying it was a very emotional piece. Everyone feels quite real in their yearnings and such.
Q: We don't think of James Caan as a comic actor, but he's good at it.
A: He's great, a total pro. He wants everyone to have a good time when they're making the movie. He really believes if there is camaraderie on the set, between the actors and crew, that the audience will feel that, and I think he's right.
Q: Vera Farmiga brings vitality to the film. She has an air of screwball comedy.
A: I think that comes from the plot, and Vera specifically felt an abandon, comedically so. She got to hit higher levels that we don't often see from her. She often plays such interior, intense, real characters. But we saw her touch in "Up in the Air" - she's a very generous actress, smart. I think she enjoyed being able to scream "What!" (which she does many times in the film) and curse and have a strong point of view and be uncensored.
Q: Why did you choose the soulful songs by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings for the soundtrack?
A: The editor, Curtiss Clayton, found (the music), and he brought it to Malcolm Venville, who felt that it played to the movie's rich undertone. He didn't want to do bouncy music; he was letting that happen in the behavior and the dialogue. A lot of the dialogue is quite snappy. And he wanted to bring (Jones') voice underneath it, like a chorus. It grounded the film, I felt.
Q: You've just filmed "47 Ronin" in Budapest. It's a major undertaking, right?
A: It's a famous story from Japan, based on something that happened in 1703. We're doing a reinterpretation or reinvention of the story. It's a fantastical, real (pause) Western, in a way. These samurai who become ronin (samurai without masters) seek to get revenge for their fallen lord. There are some celebrated versions of it, (particularly) "Chushingura" (the 1962 movie by Hiroshi Inagaki).
Q: A story in Variety said it's going to have "Lord of the Rings"-style fantasy elements. Is that right?
A: No, it's creating a world, but not as "Dungeons and Dragons" as that. And I don't mean that in a pejorative sense. "47 Ronin" is fantastical - we have a witch, we have giants, mythical creatures. But the emotion and the drama are not fantastical.
Q: It's a pretty heavy story.
A: Yeah, I mean, we all commit suicide in the end.
Henry's Crime (R) opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.