Do What You Love. Keanu and Keanu Doctrine
by Li Hongyu (reporter) and Wei Jie (writer)
Photographs by Jiang Bin
(Translated from Chinese by Anakin McFly)
After Keanu Reeves became famous, he thanked his mother countless times for giving him his freedom. He's persisted in his 'do what you love' Keanu doctrine: only doing commercials for products he himself liked; staying for long periods at a hotel rather than at home; readily buying and giving away 12 Harley motorbikes; turning down an offer to star with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat, instead going off joyfully to spend three weeks acting in Hamlet for US$6000; and for his Chinese friend Chen Hu, he became a film director. Keanu Reeves happily shouted at the Southern Weekly reporter's camera: "China! We're coming!"
"Positive energy brings good feelings, and dark energy often means harm. But the destruction in dark energy is also a subtle aspect of construction, like how even forest fires have their benefits. Sometimes enemies are our best teachers, people can learn from their mistakes, destruction sometimes means rebirth. Tai chi is the concept of transformation: the so-called yin and yang, free of and without the need for moral judgement."
- Keanu Reeves
Keanu Reeves' mother never constrained her children. The thing she said most often was: "Do what you love."
So Keanu Reeves became an actor, and now he's become a director.
"China! We're coming!" Director Keanu Reeves faced the Southern Weekly reporter's camera, gesturing wildly. Compared to his onscreen movie characters, the offscreen Keanu's expressions are blatantly rich and varied. He would laugh briefly, but never presumptuously. At almost fifty years of age, he still exudes the demeanour of a high school student, free of any aggression as he engages with his surroundings.
In 2013, Keanu Reeves has already visited China quite a few times: for the Beijing International Film Festival, the Shanghai International Film Festival, as well as to promote his soon-to-be-released Man of Tai Chi.
Man of Tai Chi is the first movie that Reeves has directed, and is, very fashionably, a US-China co-production. In fact, this is also a result of 'Do what you love'. The film was conceived in 2007 - at that time, there weren't any Hollywood people who thought that there was any future in producting films with China. "I did this project because of Chen Hu," Reeves repeatedly told the Southern Weekly reporter. On The Matrix, Chen Hu was the one in Yuen Woo Ping's team who was Reeves' kungfu trainer, and due to Man of Tai Chi, Chen Hu has also become a famous name.
I thank my mother for giving me freedom
When Keanu Reeves was four years old, his father left and never came back. His mother on one side pulled him and his sister Kim along, and on the other side continued to fall in love, marry, and divorce. They wandered from Beirut, Lebanon to Australia and New York, finally settling down in Toronto, Canada.
After yet another divorce, his mother started repeatedly moving house. Keanu was in Toronto for five years of middle school, attending four different schools in that time. His manner was like that of a good-tempered tenant: polite, pleasant, happy no matter where he was; but he still kept crossing the line.
A kid who joined Keanu in delivering newspapers knew his insecure, irritable side. He was very angry about his father's departure. In the 1990 movie I Love You to Death that he acted in, he had a line, saying that the so-called father is in fact only a father in that moment of fertilising the egg. That was really how he felt about his own father.
His mother's occupation was as a costume designer, with clients including David Bowie and Dolly Parton. She loved the theatre, dressed in alternative fashion styles, had very short hair dyed pink, and smoked Gitanes cigarettes. Their more conservative neighbours thought she was a hippie. Because her work often required her to be out, Keanu and his little sister had only each other to depend on. "I didn't bring them up, I watched them grow up," his mother used to say to the media.
At 16, Keanu Reeves started performing in dramas at the community theatre. His first professional play was in Toronto in 1984, starring in Wolfboy. This play, because of its homoeroticism, became a hit in the gay male community. Its effect on Reeves' image was lasting - in 1995, Hollywood was suddenly circulating with rumours that Keanu Reeves wanted to get married to entertainment mogul David Geffen. David Geffen was quick to refute the rumours, saying he didn't know this guy; Reeves was also asked by the media if he was gay. He said, "I'm not," but later also seriously added, "But on this subject, everyone says no." (Note: I'm not sure if this is a translation issue either on my part or the reporter's, but the latter is in direct contradiction to what Keanu actually said. His initial response was 'No... but ya never know', and at another time - after being constantly hounded by the press demanding a direct answer - saying that he's not gay and has in fact never had a single male sexual encounter in his life, but he doesn't like making a big deal of it: "Well, I mean, there's nothing wrong with being gay, so to deny it is to make a judgment. And why make a big deal of it? If someone doesn't want to hire me because they think I'm gay, well, then I have to deal with it, I guess." perfect immortal human is perfect and immortal. - Ani)
After Keanu Reeves became famous, he thanked his mother countless times for giving him his freedom. In turn, he happily supported her various whims. He bought her a house in Los Angeles, pays all her bills, and invites her to all his movie premieres.
Compared to a house, he prefers living in hotels
In 1994, Reeves starred in Speed, for which his six-figure paycheck rose to US$7 million.
Reeves also chooses his films in accordance with 'Do what you love.' He turned down an offer to perform alongside big names Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in Heat. What he wanted to do was act in Hamlet, for three weeks at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Canada's town of Winnipeg, for US$6000. He reckoned that getting to play Hamlet is a huge achievement for an actor.
After Speed, he acted in two movies, Johnny Mnemonic and A Walk in the Clouds. No matter their reviews or box-office takings, Keanu did not take it to heart.
Keanu did not own his own property, and when he wasn't staying at a hotel, he was staying at his sister's or a friend's home. He likes motorcycles, owning a 1984 Norton 850 Commando, frequently riding them out at midnight on weekends, shuttling through the city - at this time, the crowds had dispersed; even the prostitutes had gone to rest, and Reeves would sometimes be riding all the way till 4 in the early morning.
The Matrix trilogy made both Reeves and his fans happy. He played the robotic, straight-faced saviour Neo, and became a truly world-renowned star.
It was only when The Matrix Revolutions came out in 2003 that Reeves bought his first house for US$4.8 million in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, and constructed a hospital ward within it - his sister had leukemia, and the house was for her. His mother and sister were always the most important women in his life.
And Reeves was also not used to staying in his own house, preferring to live in a hotel.
Who is the real friend?
Reeves does not mix with the Hollywood young actors scene, spending his free time studying scripts, reading books, and listening to music. He also has few friends. In 1990, his co-star in I Love You to Death and My Own Private Idaho - River Phoenix - was his closest friend. Phoenix died in 1993 of a drug overdose. (MOPI in Chinese is 'Unlimited Sky' (or 'Unlimited Heaven'). I love that. - Ani)
The Matrix franchise brought great riches to Keanu. He generously bought 12 Harley Davidson motorcycles for the stuntmen who worked with him.
After The Matrix, Reeves didn't do any other martial arts films. He brought his attention to the documentary Side by Side, which discussed the impact of digital technology on the science and art of film. During that time, he also made a few films that he wanted, such as the comedy Henry's Crime. "I really like it. I got to act with James Caan," Reeves told the Southern Weekly reporter, snapping his fingers. In Henry's Crime, Reeves played a man without a dream, while Caan played a conman with a dream. The movies that Keanu like also include A Scanner Darkly, an animated film, as well as the Japanese samurai science-fiction movie 47 Ronin.
As for box-office takings, Reeves still "doesn't take it to heart."
Reeves' and Chen Hu's friendship really began in 2005. After working together on The Matrix Reloaded, a few years passed without any interaction between them. In 2005, Chen Hu sought out Keanu, inviting him to write for his script. By the second day, Keanu had produced another draft, saying he'd made some corrections; a few days had barely gone by before he'd done yet another revision. (The details here don't seem to tally with other interviews, where it was years between all those drafts and Keanu admitted to being a huge procrastinator. - Ani)
"I feel that this person is enough of a friend, and at the same time very moving," Chen Hu told the Southern Weekly reporter. (Note: I have absolutely no idea what he's saying there. I know what the words mean but they don't make sense together. - Ani)
In 2006, Chen Hu wanted to become an actor. Script in hand, he wanted to offer Keanu a cameo role. The movie was originally called Tai Chi Tiger, clearly tailored for himself, and later renamed Man of Tai Chi. Given Keanu's then star status, if he agreed to guest star in the movie, it would greatly increase its ability to persuade investors to support the film.
Reeves very quickly agreed. He took the script to look it through, and felt that a lot of parts needed fixing, but even after more than ten revisions he was still not satisfied.
"He said, what are you guys doing? How hard is it to write a script? If that's the way things are, I'll write it!" Chen Hu recalled.
Five years later, Reeves hadn't become the scriptwriter; he'd become the director, and used the word 'wonderful' to sum up his life as a director: "You might sometimes think that your original idea was great, but when actors bring their input to their performance, you'll exclaim in your heart: "Oh my God, how did I not think it could be acted this way? This is simply too great!"
Dark energy is still a form of energy
Southern Weekly: You've said that acting is where you truly belong; so what made you decide to change it up and become a director?
Keanu Reeves: It's really simple. I wanted to tell stories. This story had to do with Chen Hu, and I had an urge to tell it to everyone.
Originally it was Chen Hu who inspired it, and this project was done for him. When I started learning martial arts in 1997, Chen Hu was always my partner. He taught me kicking, punching,and other similar martial arts actions, and we became good friends. We worked together on The Matrix Reloaded and have maintained our friendship, which made me really want to work with him again.
Chen Hu keeps to his master's Taoist beliefs. Within the movie martial arts industry, he was an extremely traditional person, but at the same time a martial arts master. He was a tai chi champion in his youth, with a very traditional yet contemporary side. I wanted to write this story for him. Man of Tai Chi in some way tells the story of Chen Hu.
Writing the Man of Tai Chi script for over five years, I felt more and more strongly that I wanted to direct this movie. Maybe I've reached a certain age, and no longer wish to only be a part of a work, but wish to go create works.
Southern Weekly: Man of Tai Chi's original formula was modern times + fashionable + kungfu; is that still the same?
Keanu: Oh, this is a modern kungfu movie, it's a story taking place in modern times. In the movie, Chen Hu and I have a new approach to kungfu, such as positive and negative energy, energy transformation, energy control, meditation, taking and caring (?) and so on.
The hero is a courier living in Beijing. Every day he has to go home to have dinner with his parents, and on his delivery route might see a girl and it's love at first sight. But at the same time there's the side of him that lives in the martial arts world, part of a kungfu league, training with his master in the mountains. Each of us also has these many sides: the working side, the private side, the public side. I hope this character will resonate with people.
Southern Weekly: Recently in China there's a buzzword going around: 'positive energy'. How do you understand positive energy?
Keanu: On a shallow level, positive energy brings good feelings, benefiting others and yourself; dark energy often means harm, unknowingly causing injury - positive energy is generally accompanied by awareness and consciousness, while lack of awareness symbolises the negative effects.
Southern Weekly: Aside from kungfu, what did Chen Hu bring to you?
Keanu: Patience, humour, approachability, courage; he can inspire me, he's intelligent, he's profound, he's a very cool guy.
Hamlet to me was a high mountain
Southern Weekly: Among the roles of actor, director and producer, which are you most interested in?
Keanu: Ah, the problem of labels... acting is my home, but I love directing. I like fiddling with the camera lens, I like movies, I want to think about how to film this particular story, I wish to give audiences a few different stories, I like to work with other actors, I like having discussions with everyone in the shed (?): what are we filming today, how do we tell this story, what kind of emotions do we want to capture, the camera angle, we can shoot now, let's go! Stop! I know how to say 'do it again' in Chinese. Do you know, I also really like editing, but all of this eventually comes down to the same point: what kind of story do you want to tell?
Southern Weekly: What approach do you use to choose your movies? What do you wish to see in the script or the role?
Keanu: I would choose the type of movies that I like; often those are movies that are entertaining, but also allow people to face life in a positive way.
Southern Weekly: Standing on stage, and standing in front of the camera, how do these differ in terms of your performance and level of excitement?
Keanu: I think the biggest difference is in the scene. Drama is the art of the moment, it's performing in front of a present audience; you can't do it over. We remember outstanding performances from actors in film, but film isn't an actor's medium, because there are cinematographers, film editors. But on the stage, the moment the curtain opens, it's all down to just the actors.
Southern Weekly: You've acted on stage four times: Hamlet, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet and Woflboy. Could you tell us about the process of acting in each of those plays?
Keanu: I performed for the first time when I was 17, in Toronto, Canada with Wolfboy; that was my first professional performance. I remember finally getting that role after countless auditions, and the moment I heard the news, that excitement was something that, for a young person, doesn't come by often. After that was Hamlet, and Hamlet was, to me, like a goal, like conquering a tall mountain. I thought my acting wasn't too bad.
Southern Weekly: You also played Don John in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. In that movie, how did you shape this character?
Keanu: He's an outsider who desires love and power, and who is jealous and wants revenge on happy people.
If you want me to do a commercial, I must really like the product.
Southern Weekly: Despite your fame, you haven't done many commercials; why? Do you resist endorsing businesses?
Keanu: I was a kid when I started shooting commercials. I did a few scenes for Coca Cola, as well as cornflakes and so on, until I was fifteen, sixteen years old and started acting. So, to me, doing commercials was an opportunity that allowed me to slowly get into an acting career.
I don't want to do ads to sell just anything; they must be things that I actually enjoy. When I was young, if I didn't like those products, I wouldn't audition. I like Coca Cola and cornflakes.
In that time, shooting commercials was different from today. Today, being in a commercial has become a form of personal success, an expression of one part of yourself. A lot of commercials are designed with this goal in mind. Nowadays if an actor can do a commercial it's an obvious sign that they are powerful, that they have a place in the circle, and if they have a relationship with brands that have particular connotations, it can boost a certain image of themselves; so advertising is an opportunity. But when it comes to this, I'm still old-fashioned.
Southern Weekly: How many motorcycles have you collected?
Keanu: I ride a British Norton motorcycle, and I've collected three from that brand. If you want to buy a refurbished one, it's about US$8,500 each.
Southern Weekly: Is it true that after The Matrix you gave the stuntmen Harley Davidson motorcycles?
Keanu: It's true. They gave a lot for the movie, and this was nothing in terms of thanks. The Matrix series gave me a lot of good things, and if not for those stunt doubles, Neo wouldn't exist the way he did.
Southern Weekly: I hear you've collected a bottle of 2 September 1964 (Keanu's birthday) wine.
Keanu: That was a gift from my agent for my 40th birthday, a bottle of Italian wine. At the moment it's still in my house, and I have no idea if it can still be drunk. It's been too long. Aside from that, at what kind of time should I open it? That's another question; should I let it be the very last thing I drink in life?