From Geek God to Kungfu Director 'Lao Li': An Interview with Keanu Reeves
by Wang Qiting
Photographs by Tan Si Bo
Transcript by Fan Jia Qiu
(Translated from Chinese by Anakin McFly.)
He doesn't care about his appearance, and he likes philosophy. Approaching his fiftieth year of life, this Hollywood actor of 1/8 Chinese blood has most recently been involved in two films related to the martial arts.
Vagabonds and ragamuffins are but one step away. Over the internet, a photograph circulated of slacker Keanu Reeves: sitting lonely by the road, a full beard around his mouth, eating something. Several netizens were blunt in their comments. "Dirty", they called him.
But that's when Keanu is not filming movies. The moment a movie wraps, he and his beard would leave the set together. Keanu's beard has thus become a sign of his unemployment, a habit that he's said to have kept up for the past few decades.
"On set I couldn't not shave everyday, but once it was over I could let loose and stop caring," Keanu told reporters at the Man of Tai Chi press conference on the 21st of April, having arrived at the Beijing Film Festival with his iconic beard.
A month after, Keanu Reeves was dressed in a white suit, appearing in the role of director at the Cannes Film Festival. For some reason, he had shaved off his beard; but his cheeks were bloated, making him look like a completely different person from the one he was a month ago. Photos soon spread online and broke the hearts of fans - you must know that until 2008, Keanu had enjoyed the reputation of 'immortal pretty boy'.
But in Keanu's world, he's consistently been casual and unconcerned with his appearance. Man of Tai Chi actress Ye Qing rushed to defend Lao Li (Editor's note: Keanu's Chinese nickname). She rebutted these accusations on Weibo: "Lao Li's enthusiasm for his work is greater than that of a tinker (?)! In my heart, he is a thoughtful, good actor, and a resourceful director! Lao Li is hardworking! The most handsome of serious men!"
The brother who's known him for many years, and the star of Man of Tai Chi, Chen Hu also wanted to set the record straight on him: "He's just this guy. You have someone eating something, looking lazy, weary, seemingly depressed, but in reality it's not the case. That's just how he is when he's in a relaxed state. When you're relaxing, are you going to look extremely happy?"
On the fifth of July, Man of Tai Chi opens worldwide. Before that, Keanu Reeves and star Chen Hu are rushing through Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing and so on - eight cities in total, including stopovers at 360 headquarters and Dongfang TV's 'Tonight's After 80 Talk Show'.
Keanu Reeves is asked again and again to demonstrate some tai chi, speak Chinese, describe his favourite Chinese dish, answer questions about his weight gain... to the latter, his responses are evasive.
Keanu Reeves is a bit angry. Why is everyone so concerned about his appearance, rather than focusing on Man of Tai Chi itself?
But that's because he's been out of the limelight for so long. In the minds of most Chinese audiences, their impression of him is stuck at Neo, the omnipotent saviour of mankind from The Matrix 14 years ago. Before that, Speed, A Walk in the Clouds, The Devil's Advocate and other movies shot him to fame. And with the conclusion of the Matrix trilogy, it seemed like the peak of his career was over. After that, he participated in a few small independent films, walking on the fringes of Hollywood.
That is, until two years ago. Keanu broke out from the silence and began to show what he was capable of in the film industry. Last year, he worked with Christopher Kenneally to film the documentary Side by Side, in which he served also as producer. In the film, Keanu Reeves' interviewees included George Lucas, James Cameron, Martin Scorcese, Daniel Boyle, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and other famous directors, discussing the impact of digital technology on traditional film, and trying to predict the future of the film industry.
And his two most recent acting projects involve 'Eastern' and 'martial arts' themes. The Carl Rinsch directed 47 Ronin reimagines the Japanese legend, wherein Keanu plays a mixed Japanese-English romantic warrior. Man of Tai Chi is focussed on China, and was financed and filmed entirely in China.
More importantly, it's his first time wearing the director's sleeve, and the first time playing the villain. (LIES. There was David Allen Griffin and Donnie Barksdale and Don John. Donaka Mark of MOTC is but the latest in a string of Keanuspawn bad guys whose names start with D. - Ani)
Now, as he approaches his 50th year, prodigal son Keanu Reeves seems to have emerged from his mid-life crisis. In a recent interview, he admitted: "I did indeed go through a mid-life crisis. But I've recovered."
The mixed-blood director's kungfu brotherhood
In the 60s and 70s, Bruce Lee brought Chinese kungfu to America, launching a new genre in Hollywood: kungfu movies. For many American directors, this was the starting point of their understanding of Eastern martial arts.
When he was eight, Keanu Reeves saw the first kungfu movie in his life. He was born in Lebanon in 1964. His father was born in Hawaii. 'Keanu' in Hawaiian means 'Cool breeze over the mountain'. His grandmother was of Chinese, Hawaiian and Portuguese descent, making Keanu 1/8 Chinese.
When he was very young, his father left the home, and his mother had three more marriages. When he was six, his mother remarried Paul Aaron, a Broadway and Hollywood director.
In 1972 in New York, the Jeong Chang-hwa -directed film Five Fingers of Death was released in the US. Eight year old Keanu had yet to know what the word 'director' meant. But the film's fight scenes dazzled his eyes. "In the movies, I saw New York, Times Square. These stories were very interesting, like fairy tales and folk tales, concerning revenge, martial arts brothers and other such topics. Quentin Tarantino can name the director of every kungfu movie. I can't, but I really like them," Keanu said.
He told Bund that he can still remember watching Enter the Dragon with his stepfather Paul Aaron.
That movie, most representative of the global fervour towards 'kungfu', was Bruce Lee's last work, and also Keanu's favourite kungfu movie. "It's sad that Bruce Lee didn't shoot more movies," he said. Bruce Lee became the martial arts star who had a profound impact on Keanu Reeves.
Man of Tai Chi had its beginnings 14 years ago in The Matrix. In that movie, Neo flies over roofs and walks on walls, dodging bullets, engaging in action moves stylistically reminiscent of Chinese martial arts.
At that time, the film's action choreographer was the Hong Kong -famous Yuen Woo Ping. Chen Hu was Keanu's personal action trainer. Through this, the trio became the 'Action Golden Triangle'. When filming The Matrix, Keanu was 33 years old, a hot and popular young actor in Hollywood; Chen Hu was 22, alone in America making his living away from home, working in Chinatown teaching martial arts to foreigners and young Chinese children. He was the first person from China, after Bruce Lee, to be honoured as an American Karate Champion. The Matrix brought together these two men who at first glance had nothing in common, and led to them forging a profound brotherhood.
Several years after The Matrix wrapped, Chen Hu took the initiative to contact Keanu. At that time, they had a script for a kungfu movie in mind, and wanted to invite Keanu to act in it - even if just in a cameo role. "But Keanu was very disatisfied with the script. He felt that there was nothing special on the kungfu side, and he didn't like the story either."
"We found other writers and did quite a few versions, but draft after draft he was not satisfied," Chen Hu recalls. "After that, Keanu got anxious, and said he'd write the script himself! That was around 2006. But he was too busy, and so the script got shelved. In the end we decided that a few of us would write the script together."
This took about five, six years. From the early stages of research, to discussing the script, they perfected their understanding of tai chi over and over again, spending no short amount of time. At the end, about 60% of the script's plot was Keanu's work. "That naturally led to me becoming the director," he said.
In his first time directing, Keanu did not cast well-known martial arts stars with proven box-office appeal, like Jet Li or Donnie Yen; instead, he selected Chen Hu to be the star, and explained: "This is a film that got made because of brothers. Without Chen Hu, there would be no Man of Tai Chi."
A story about the tai chi layman
Keanu Reeves wanted to set the story against a modern day background, and shoot a modern day kungfu film. They
shot in more than twenty on-location sets in Beijing and Hong Kong, filming for over 6 months. "Keanu Reeves might be subverting some traditional ideas," said the film's investor, "reimagining tai chi in a more commercialised form."
In its entirety, Man of Tai Chi has 14 fight scenes, totalling about 40 minutes and not lacking in a few gunfights - Karen Mok plays a Hong Kong policewoman. Keanu saw her performance in Go Lala Go! and felt that she was "cute and perfect." He happened to meet her one time in Beijing, gave her the offer, and Karen immediately agreed.
Apart from tai chi, the film also introduces various forms of martial arts from around the world, such as MMA (mixed martial arts) Sanda, a fusion of Brazilian jujitsu and Japanese karate.
Chen Hu says that this time nobody used a stunt double. The fighting is the real deal. According to MMA choreographer Chad Stahleski (Fun fact: this guy was Keanu's stunt double in The Matrix and Constantine. - Ani), they first designed the Sanda action moves in Los Angeles, then integrated Yuen Woo Ping's 'dragon', 'crane' and other such tai chi boxing routines. This has to be the first time in history that MMA and tai chi are put to the fight on screen. The whole film has 3033 scene cuts, with very fast rhythm and pacing.
"The martial arts choreography here is very special," MMA fighter Jeremy Marinas said. "Tai chi is very relaxed: like walking on clouds and flowing with the water. Whereas MMA is very hard, very direct, like dancing. The result is like a ballerina and hip-hop dancer dancing together."
In the film, Chen Linhu (Chen Hu) is a master of spiritual taichi, dressed in white, a pure-hearted 'son of tai chi'. Donaka (Keanu Reeves) is, on the surface, operating a security company in Hong Kong, but in reality is the head of an underground black boxing criminal organisation, as well as Chen Hu's 'dark master'. Via the temptation of big money, he lures Chen Linhu into participating in underground black boxing matches, gradually nurturing his inner savagery and tyranny.
"He's a metaphor, one who seduces your depravity," Keanu said, explaining his character.
At the beginning, Keanu had some reservations. Initially, he thought that 'tai chi' is something done by old people in a park, gentle and feminine, without any substantial confrontative power. In order to convince him, Chen Hu demonstrated 'Tai Chi Pushing Hands" and beckoned (?). The media then describes, "The two of them were standing one metre apart. No matter how hard Keanu pulled, exhausting his brute strength, he couldn't move Chen Hu one bit, and in fact often had to dodge, eventually being flung off into a stumble." From then on, Keanu's views towards tai chi were completely different.
Through Chen Hu's teaching and related lessons from movies and books, Keanu continually deepened his understanding of this profound form of Chinese kungfu. "For this script, the notes he took were half a person high," Chen Hu said.
In traditional Chinese academia, there's the saying "there's no growth (physical) by the moon (yin) alone, and no growth (maturing) by the sun (yang) alone. To some degree, the 'yin and yang' philosophy of tai chi perfectly encapsulates the theme of the movie.
In the trailer, Donaka has a line: "We want to see a pure-hearted man of tai chi become a killer", adding at the end: "Kill or be killed!" These all convey the contradictory choices between darkness and light, good and evil. In the movie, tai chi becomes a double-edged sword - it is both the expression of a martial artist's morality and spirituality, as well as turned into a tool of murder. Therefore, unlike the clear split between black and white that makes up the symbol of tai chi, when it comes to one's inner reality, that straightforward division in good vs evil exists only in the mind.
Keanu said, "I remember when Chen Hu and I were filming The Matrix, every morning before we started shooting, we would spend about two hours stretching. When we were sitting together I would ask him a few things about his master, listening to his stories about learning martial arts. One day I asked him: What exactly is the point of kungfu? What use does it have? Chen Hu said, from a physical perspective, you can use it to kill people. But, once you have this kind of power, you will also develop compassion."
Chen Hu started learning martial arts from childhood, and the education and training he received were all of the traditional sort. But he also grew up in modern society, and often felt like a living contradiction. Keanu felt that Chen Hu's character and personality expresses some of that yin and yang quality. "He's very profound, but he's also very naive, very playful, very charming." So, does Keanu have similar qualities? Chen Hu replies: "In the area of personality, we should form our own category of people."
In the 'Tonight's After 80 Talk Show', moderator Wang Zijian secretly asked Chen Hu in Chinese: "As a foreigner, does Keanu really understand tai chi?" Chen Hu replied that Keanu himself prefers philosophical thinking
- this actually fits in perfectly with the speculative and philosophical style of the Matrix trilogy. In addition, when it comes to any task, he would give his 100% effort. "While it's unlikely that he'll ever become a tai chi master, among foreigners, he definitely knows a lot."
Director 'Lao Li' is in the studio
The Man of Tai Chi studio is based in the Huairou District of Beijing. On Keanu Reeves' director's chair are the two words 'Lao Li'. This is his Chinese nickname. In times of leisure, everyone loves calling him that.
Every day, Keanu would determine work hours based on the scenes and lighting. Work might start in the morning or at night, but a 10-12 hour workday on average was unavoidable. (In Chinese: 'even the force of thunder could not change it'. In English: 'unavoidable'. Sometimes I get sad at what gets lost in translation. - Ani) Chen Hu said, at the beginning, they were still thinking of living in Dongzhimen, going back and forth from the city every day, but after the first day they gave up.
During the shoot, the actors felt that the atmosphere was very serious. However, Keanu evidently had a different impression: "I was very calm, very cooperative. I was very organised, I would also joke around - I wanted everyone to be able to relax."
Going from actor to director, what was the biggest change? Since April, this question has followed Keanu around, and he looks a little tired of it. But he also gamely replied, "For those of us working in film who aren't young any more, but aren't quite old just yet, this is about getting to stand on the other side of things, and it's a process of exploring my own limits."
Also, according to Chen Hu, who has known him since The Matrix was being filmed, Keanu's transition is obvious. "As an actor, he could express himself as he liked, and only concern himself with his own body. But as a director, he needs to control his own emotions and control the whole scene. He himself cannot feel those things."
When filming The Matrix, Keanu was still a stubborn, headstrong young man. Chen Hu shared some embarrassing incidences with this reporter. Once, no matter how hard he tried, Keanu's martial arts moves were not matching up to standard. So he gave up and ran out the door to go have a cup of coffee.
Keanu gave a wry smile. "This time, he left more often than I did. I had to stay in the studio."
Chen Hu added: "This time he could only watch other people go out to drink coffee."
Keanu Reeves said that he "would not easily get angry."
But Chen Hu insists that he did have his angry moments. "You could see it on the set when he wasn't satisfied. But he would endure it and not lose his temper. But then at the end of the day when we were returning to the apartment, he would break out," Chen Hu said. "During the filming process he basically didn't drink alcohol; alcohol would affect his judgement. So he didn't drink, but he was very good at smoking. These are the pressures that he wouldn't make known. Keanu Reeves keeps his mouth shut to the outside world, or only mentions them casually, but Chen Hu could see it in his eyes."
As a new actor, at the end of each scene Chen Hu would ask: Lao Li, how was my acting? Lao Li would encourage him: you weren't bad, and at the same time ask Chen Hu: how was my directing? - these questions, with the film's release, can be left up to the audience to answer.
Actors going behind the scenes to direct, in search of a personal breakthrough, is nothing new. In Hollywood. Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and others all beat Keanu Reeves to it (In Chinese: handed in their exam scripts before Keanu did. - Ani). Among them, Ben Affleck's Argo also won this year's Oscar for Best Film.
Director Anthony Minghella shared a theory with Matt Damon, to the effect that every director lives on their own island, and rarely visits other islands.
But it's not the same when it comes to actors who take up directing, because they have seen the landscapes of many other islands and received a lot of experience; such that when it comes to their time to direct, all that comes in handy and makes the job easier.
From 25 years in film (lies. He's been acting in film since 1985. - Ani), Keanu Reeves has visited no shortage of islands. Gus Van Sant, Richard Linklater, Bernado Bertolucci, the Wachowski elder sister and younger brother (then still known as brothers)... their own styles and charisma all influenced Keanu Reeves, making him a synthesizer of the art of film directing.
"Gus Van Sant especially would let actors freely express themselves. He would rarely interfere, and wouldn't force anything. He would personally select his actors, and give those actors the space to express themselves."
Keanu recalled to Bund, "Bertolucci was also very wonderful. He was full of ideas. He had two modes of working: he would discuss your inner life, talking about the abstract, but he would also talk about external appearances, telling you not to put your hand in your hair. At the same time, he would talk to you about the inner and outer aspects of a person." And if you were to take into account the number of collaborations and time spent working together, the Wachowskis undoubtedly had the most far-reaching effects on Keanu Reeves.
It's said that before deciding to start shooting Man of Tai Chi, Keanu specially paid a visit to these old partners of his to seek their opinions. After having seen the landscapes of so many different islands, Keanu Reeves himself eventually took the step of becoming an excellent guide. "You know, there are times when these directors would give you very specific instructions, like don't do this, and what to do instead, or how about this, how about like that. So I'm trying to learn from that," he said. It's now down to Keanu Reeves to go train actors and tell them what they should do.
"Everyone has an inner demon"
"Man of Tai Chi's star, Chen Hu, plays a courier who's extremely good at tai chi. The film tells the story of how Chen Hu's character defeats his inner demons by virtue of his talent. I think that people's hearts all have these demons. I hope that this film is one that everyone will look forward to and enjoy. The film's concern of 'traditions within modern society' is something that I don't think is limited to China, but is also present in America, and it's something that exists in every culture."
Q: You usually always play good characters, and this might be the first time you're playing a character with a dark side. In your opinion, is this a very big change?
Keanu: It's true, I haven't played that many villains, but I can tell you that it's very fun to play the bad guy. There are a lot of things about them that are very straightforward: they know what they want, and they want more, they want revenge, like a hungry ghost, but on their face you can see they're having fun. You have to spend time researching villains, because there's that mystery.
Q: I see that Karen Mok is holding a gun in the movie. How do you deal with the relationship between traditional kungfu and the background of modern society?
Keanu: In the movie's story, Karen Mok tries to shut down the underground fight club. My character's name is Donaka, and she tries to stop me and rescue Chen Hu's character Chen Linhu. But the two of us never have any face-to-face confrontation.
Q: Regarding traditional Chinese kungfu and modern society, how do you deal with this dramatic conflict?
Keanu: They both appear together in the story, but there's no conflict. Karen Mok plays a policewoman, Chen Hu is a good guy. They're both standing on the same side, but they never come up against each other.
Q: So it seems that the audience won't be able to see anything similar to the classic bullet-dodging scene in The Matrix?
Keanu: Yes. (laughs)
Q: In the trailer, your character said, "We want to see a pure-hearted man of tai chi become a killer." Does this reveal the duality of kungfu - it's a manifestation of morals and character, but at the same time can be used as a tool for killing?
Keanu: Yes. I remember when Chen Hu and I were filming The Matrix, every morning before we started shooting, we would spend about two hours stretching. While sitting together, I would ask him a few things concerning his master, listening to his stories about learning martial arts. One day I asked him: What exactly is the point of kungfu? What use does it have? Chen Hu said, from a physical perspective, you can use it to kill people. But, once you have this kind of power, you will also develop compassion.
Q: Among all the types of Chinese kungfu, why are you specifically fond of tai chi?
Keanu: The inspiration for the movie came from the understanding I have of my hero, Chen Hu. When he was still a kid, he'd already started learning tai chi and participating in contests. We've also talked about his master. His martial arts pervade his body, heart and spirit. To me, Chen Hu is a traditional yet modern person, and in the five years labouring over the script, its story emerged from his own.
Q: From those beginnings, how many years did you spend until the whole movie was finished? Where did you get your inspiration from?
Keanu: More than six years. Chen Hu was the inspiration. After developing the story and spending that much time on that part of it, I decided to fulfill my dream, and make it into a story that I got to tell and direct.
Q: What kind of research did you do in preparation for this film?
Keanu: Because tai chi is very complex, with rich implicit meaning, I didn't want to use specific tai chi moves from the movies. So we came up with a form of 'spiritual tai chi'. I wanted to use some concepts of 'light energy', 'dark energy', and some ideas about controlling your strength, energy transfer, and so on. There's also 'mindfulness'. You need to think about who you are, and what you're doing.
Q: There's a saying, "Kungfu movies are a type of movie that you don't need to understand the language to understand." Do you agree with this? For instance, you don't understand Chinese; do you feel you did a good job directing this kungfu movie?
Keanu: I hope so. I hope people enjoy this movie. I relied on a lot of actors. Building a relationship of trust was extremely important. We also worked together with Chinese writers, and they helped us with translation.
Q: You have some Chinese blood: this seems to give you a natural link to China. Is this a factor in your interest in the East? Will there be some Chinese philosophy in your life?
Keanu: I'm not sure. I have a philosophy of human relations. But as for something specific, I can't say for sure. On the cultural front, certainly, my father had some Chinese blood. My grandmother really likes Chinese paintings.