Exclusive Interview with Keanu Reeves: The nickname 'Lao Li' is a lucky sign
by Wang Zan Mei and Fang Yi Min
(Translated from Chinese by Anakin McFly)
In the minds of most Chinese fans, Keanu Reeves is The Matrix's dark, mysterious, handsome hero Neo. Now, years later, he steps out from the legacy of The Matrix to present his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi. In the recently concluded Shanghai International Film Festival, he was a model worker busy for three consecutive days on the campaign trail of Man of Tai Chi - to be released on July 5th - working without interruption on interview after interview for the media. After this, he'll be heading to Nanjing, Hangzhou and Guangzhou.
This famous Hollywood 'Lone Ranger' and the U.S. media's 'icy' 'Sad Keanu' turned out to be the talkative, easygoing 'Lao Li'. The effort he had invested into his directorial debut was clearly evident. Recently, in an exclusive interview with (Chinese newspaper), Reeves said: "This is my first time directing, and I'm proud of it, and wish that audiences will enjoy the film. I only hope that my efforts will help more people know about this movie."
Director Keanu: Enjoyed working behind the scenes, but "I wish to put on the hero's cloak again this autumn."
The Matrix brought Keanu Reeves into Hollywood A-list stardom, but after he hit 40, Keanu Reeves started gradually moving behind the scenes. A year ago, he and Christopher Kenneally collaborated on the documentary Side by Side, in which he served as producer and interviewer. After that, he began on his directorial debut Man of Tai Chi, a script which had been in development for five years. He said, "I have indeed gone through some hardships and a mid-life crisis. It's really embarrassing, but I got better. To me it was like regaining my youth." To look at it, he really enjoys working behind the scenes. But when the reporter asked if he would be bidding farewell to playing the action hero, his answer was no! He revealed that this fall, he wished to put the action hero's cloak back on!
Q: In the past few years, you produced Henry's Crime and the documentary Side by Side, the latter of which dealt with an issue that's rarely covered but which was critically acclaimed as being among the best movies of 2012. Now, your directorial debut Man of Tai Chi is about to be released, in which you play the main villain. Could we take this to mean: Reeves is saying farewell to the action hero role?
Keanu: Say farewell to action heroes? Never! I love action, and might be returning to it this year. The past few years, to me, were a chance for me to expand my horizons, like with the Side by Side documentary, and Henry's Crime, for which I was a writer as well as producer. And then for Man of Tai Chi, it was part of this ongoing process of preparation that eventually led to me becoming a director.
Q: Rumour has it that at the beginning you were only intending to act in Man of Tai Chi, and it was Han San Ping (director of China Film Group Corporation) who invited you to direct as well. Is this true? If so, could you tell us how he convinced you?
Keanu: I first met Han San Ping in 2007, and told him that Chen Hu and I wanted to bring this story to the big screen. He was really supportive of the idea. Later, when coming up with the script, I immediately took it to show him, and continued working with him on the story development. It was during that time when he said, "You should direct this yourself." But I was the one who came to the actual decision. I was working non-stop on revising the script, and at some point I made up my mind: I want to direct this movie. The one who completes this film can't be someone else; it has to be me. Throughout the process there were also other people who suggested that I direct, and I had no shortage of support and encouragement.
Q: In Side by Side, you interviewed over 150 filmmakers, including directors like James Cameron and Christopher Nolan, exploring the strengths and weaknesses of movies done on film vs digital technology. You had a lot of deep affection for film, but Man of Tai Chi, with the restrictions of the Chinese film industry, was shot on digital.
Keanu: A lot of Chinese films are done digitally. Apart from problems with quality control, the cost is another major consideration. The producers suggested that I try digital. Making Side by Side gave me a greater understanding of digital film, so I was quite open to the idea. We used a variety of advanced cameras and lenses to give the frames a more delicate texture, with colour and contrast closer to the texture of film, and enabling the screen to display wide-screen, wide-angled visuals.
Q: Do you regret not shooting this on film?
Keanu: I can understand not wanting to let go of the past. Like, 7 years ago, when I first found out about the increasing shift to digital, I loved performing on film, I loved the way movies shot on film turned out... but with practice, my good feelings towards digital movies are on the rise. For this particular movie, digital was the choice capable of achieving the best results.
Q: The actor who influenced you most is Peter O'Toole? Who's the director who's influenced you most?
Keanu: Peter O'Toole was my favourite actor when I was 11 to 14 years old. His performances were bold but also had this introverted restraint. As for which director has influenced me the most, there are too many. If you're only referring to the direction in Man of Tai Chi, the first one would be Bertolucci, the second Coppola. They have superior skills, with craft that utilises both classical and novel techniques, they have a strong personal style, and the ability to bring out the true inner feelings of their audience. They would provide very specific practical direction for their actors, like where you should place your hand, and at the same time were also very good at addressing character motivations. They were good at directing, but would also know when to step back and let things unfold naturally. As an actor, I really like that kind of method: you get the feeling that everything is organised and under control, but at the same time you're able to express yourself freely.
The hardest - and I think also the best - part of directing is shouldering that responsibility. It's both a burden and a gift, to have that opportunity, and it's something very valuable.
Dear Lao Li: "I like this nickname. It's a lucky sign."
Keanu Reeves is one-eighth of Chinese blood. This may be the source of his feelings for China. Man of Tai Chi was filming in China for about a year; Keanu jokes that he never encountered any cultural or lifestyle conflicts. According to workers on the set, in order to get to understand the life of a Chinese family of three, he would often pull people aside on the set to make small talk about family matters: "Do you joke around with your parents? Do you give your wages to them? How do they address you?" and so on were things he was interested in knowing. When filming the movie, everyone nicknamed him 'Lao Li', which delighted him.
Q: Man of Tai Chi let you reunite with the action choreographer of The Matrix, Yuen Woo Ping, as well as Chen Hu, who taught you martial arts and wirework. Could you talk about what it was like to work with them?
Keanu: It was fantastic. I was extremely fortunate to be able to work with Yuen Woo Ping. He's the master, and has played a key role in action choreography. You cannot find anyone better than he is to work with. And Chen Hu is my brother. He developed the story of Man of Tai Chi from when it was just budding, and then the actual shooting... for so many years we were in the trenches together, speaking the same language, with a tacit understanding.
Q: The film also has Karen Mok and Simon Yam. How were their performances?
Keanu: They were wonderful. Mok's policewoman had both strength and fragility, a superior intelligence, and gives the impression of being a very complex woman. I've seen Karen Mok's movies in the past. When I met her I was all the more convinced that this was the best person for the role, and what was lucky is that she also immediately agreed to sign up. Simon Yam was also particularly outstanding. There's also Yu Hai (Editor's note: Yu Hai is a Chinese martial artist who starred in 1980's 'Shaolin Temple' and served as the film's martial arts choreographer); these countless masters' performances gave light and colour to this film. I really want to let you watch this film right now, and see how good their performances are!
Q: While filming in China, did you encounter any other diffiulties or cultural conflicts?
Q: Karen said that throughout the shoot you didn't lose your temper even once?
Keanu: Because I had no reason to get angry. When directing you always want more time to shoot, but you need to stick to the schedule and you can't have delays. This can be frustrating sometimes, but it's also extremely normal. Then when we were filming, I had a translator, and there were workers on the set who understood English, so I wasn't alone, and they provided a lot of support and assistance, so it really wasn't difficult.
Q: 'Keanu' in the Hawaiian language means 'Cool breeze over the mountains', a really beautiful name. But in China, fans call you 'Lao Li'. Do you like that name?
Keanu: When at anytime or anywhere you hear a stranger call you by an affectionate nickname, it's always a lucky sign. Likewise, when colleagues address you this way, good things naturally follow.
Kungfu fan: "Shooting the classical side of taichi, as well as its tough side."
Keanu has often spoken in public of how his friendship with Chen Hu was the main motivation for the film Man of Tai Chi. He and Chen Hu first bonded on the set of The Matrix. At that time, action choreographer Yuen Wu Ping appointed his student Chen Hu to be Keanu's kungfu teacher, leading Keanu to develop a deep interest in martial arts - especially tai chi boxing - as well as for the two of them to develop a deep friendship. After determining Man of Tai Chi's filming schedule, Keanu also sought out The Matrix's action choreographer, Yuen Woo Ping, to be the martial arts coordinator in the film.
Keanu said, in order to stir up the interest of the Chinese audience - who are no strangers to tai chi and kungfu movies - he conceived a kind of 'spiritual tai chi' using the teachings of Chinese tai chi as its foundation, and Chen Hu is in fact the synthesiser of this kind of spiritual tai chi. In addition, he's integrating into the film his understanding of kungfu as a Western film director, and apart from the 'fighting' scenes, focuses on the understanding and control that the 'son of tai chi' has towards his power. He and Yuen Woo Ping composed as many as 14 scenes, totaling 40 minutes of Chinese tai chi vs mixed martial arts footage. They also incorporated quite a few homages to classic action movie scenes. Keanu said he wishes that Man of Tai Chi turns out to be a "wonderful, solid, real kungfu movie."
Q: The fight scenes in the movie trailer and behind-the-scenes material are really intense, and what struck people as particularly surprising is how the tai chi in the film is very courageous and unyielding, put to the test against MMA, Muay Thai, jujitsu, taekwondo and other fighting styles from around the world, resulting in very modern and cosmopolitan martial arts scenes, whereas the title of the film suggests a more traditional Chinese style. Whose idea was this?
Keanu: This was the collaborative design of me, Chen Hu and Yuen Woo Ping. Regarding your question, the answer can actually be divided into two parts. Firstly, the movie still shows the restrained and classical side of tai chi, for instance its defensive and blocking action. At the same time, we wanted to show how, in confronting an enemy, tai chi can let you absorb the strength of your opponent and use it against him. Chen Hu's character was forced into the underground fight club, and in the beginning, he stuck to soft tai chi kungfu and defensive techniques, but as things heated up, with more powerful opponents and lives at stake, he started displaying the other side of tai chi, and his moves got tougher.
Q: Is that kungfu design the biggest difference between this movie and other Chinese kungfu movies?
Keanu: I don't know if other kungfu movies have also had this kind of design. But as for what's special about this movie, I can only say it's the character that Chen Hu plays in Man of Tai Chi. Not only does his fighting style undergo change, but his character and story also develop subtly as the plot progresses, which is not something that's often a focus of other kungfu films.
Q: Before directing Man of Tai Chi, did you do any prepatory work, like watching a few Chinese kungfu movies for inspiration?
Keanu: I did. I watched a lot of kungfu movies, focusing on two particular aspects: firstly their narrative structure, and secondly how the martial arts scenes were composed and shot. Regarding tai chi culture, I was far more influenced by Chen Hu. He's been studying tai chi since his childhood, and has a deep familiarity with Chinese culture and tradition, while at the same time being very modern. This duality of tai chi culture is what we wanted to express in this movie: how a modern man takes his classical learning and applies it to his survival in modern society.
Q: What's your favourite kungfu movie?
Keanu: There are too many. If you really want me to choose one, I'd say Fist of Legend, where Yuen Woo Ping was the martial arts director.
Q: This film's director of cinematography is Elliot Davis, who worked on Twilight and Out of Sight (1998, directed by Steven Soderbergh). How do you think his cinematography brought a different style to this kungfu movie?
Keanu: I don't think 'different style' is the right way to put it. That said, what I saw in Elliot was how he manages to bring a lot of emotion to his cinematography. In Twilight, every frame has character, has texture, is alive. Elliot is an outstanding person to work with, the way he manages to bring emotion and texture into the camera lens. Man of Tai Chi's cinematographic style has very ambitious aims, as you will discover when you watch the movie.
The lone 'anomaly'
Return to the spotlight
"Physically difficult, but I really enjoyed it"
Although he rose very early to Hollywood stardom, Keanu was always an 'anomaly' within the Hollywood scene. He wasn't like many other Hollywood stars who care deeply about their image. When not filming, Keanu would go around with a beard, wearing ratty jeans and old sneakers; he also was not keen on 'saving the world' in Hollywood movies, but was more devoted to those small 'independent' movies; he turned down films from internationally renowned directors to go touring around the world with his band, Dogstar; in 2003, he took US$75 million of the money he earned from The Matrix and split it evently between 29 special effects, costume design and other backroom staff... he is the especially lonely 'Sad Keanu' in the minds of U.S. paparazzi.
After the Matrix trilogy, Keanu Reeves was all the more the person walking on the fringes of Hollywood. But today, his 49 year old self has shed his past melancholic, low-key, heartbroken image, regularly appearing talkative before Chinese fans. He once said, this is the change that directing has brought to him. While filming Man of Tai Chi, he felt enormous vitality.
Q: Man of Tai Chi will be released soon. Do you feel any pressure about the box office and audience response?
Keanu: I don't know. I can only say to myself, I hope the audience enjoys this film, because so many people put so much dedication and hard work into this movie for so long. My number one priority was to ensure that the film is entertaining, but I also hope that it is a little thoughtful. I'm not sure if I definitely succeeded in conveying that, but I want to say to the audience, Man of Tai Chi is not just a quick snack, it's a painstakingly cooked cuisine, worth savouring. I hope that the audience will enjoy this story. It tugs on the heartstrings, letting you plunge right in, tense and holding your breath, forgetting everything else; when the film concludes, there's still an aftertaste, setting the ground for lively discussion.
Q: For Man of Tai Chi, you've been rushing around China on its promotional tour, doing countless panels and interviews in a month. Do you enjoy life back in the spotlight? Or do you feel that you've had enough, and are looking forward to returning early to a quiet life?
Keanu: I'm really enjoying it, because this is my first time directing a movie and I'm proud of it, and hope that people like this movie. Although physically speaking, it's inevitable that there are times when it gets tiring, having to go to so many cities and see so many people. At the same time it's such a rare opportunity, and if all my rushing around lets more people know about the movie, the pain can also be sweet.
Q: You have a lot of fans in China, but the Reeves that most Chinese fans hold in their heart is frozen in time as the hero from the Speed and Matrix eras. But in reality you've long moved on from that to explore all areas of in the movie world. Even resuming the role of action hero, your horizons have been widened, haven't they?
Keanu: Absolutely. And regarding how I'm playing the main villain here, I love playing bad guys. Bad guys are very interesting. In Man of Tai Chi, the character I'm playing is not an ordinary bad guy, but a master of darkness. Like the two words of 'tai chi' imply, there's good and evil, light and dark, yin and yang, black and white, mutually exclusive but at the same time intertwined; so you can see the importance of this role.