Keanu Reeves on directing for the first time
by Ruben V. Nepales
LOS ANGELES—“Awesome!” Keanu Reeves said in an intentionally exaggerated manner several times in our recent talk, and he was Ted Logan again from his “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” movies.
But, Keanu has come a long way from that goofy time-traveling, clueless teen. He makes his directorial debut with “Man of Tai Chi,” not exactly a simple project. A film that pays homage to the martial arts film genre, “Man of Tai Chi” is a China-US coproduction that was shot in Beijing and Hong Kong.
Dressed in his trademark black from head to toe, Keanu is a lot more comfortable at interviews these days, but he still tends to look down, especially when he smiles, and avoids eye contact when he speaks. With his longish hair, beard and mustache, the actor/musician/filmmaker may be 49, but age has been kind to him.
While Keanu is also in front of the cameras in “Man of Tai Chi,” the title character is played by Tiger Hu Chen, a stuntman who became the star’s friend when they shot “The Matrix” films. In his first starring role, Tiger portrays a Tai Chi expert whose skills land him in an underworld fight club.
Keanu was quick to answer when asked if tackling an action-thriller, not a simple intimate story, fazed him. “No, it was very exciting,” he stressed. “On paper, if you were going to say, ‘OK, you are going to direct for the first time—in two different languages, a coproduction in China that’s never been done before,’ it might look daunting. But, I had a story to tell. So, to me, these challenges were opportunities being a storyteller in the collaborative art form of cinema—whether it was working with the actors or the crew.”
“I had translators, but it was just about communicating,” he explained about how he dealt with the Chinese talents and crew. “That’s your job—to communicate a story, to understand what you’re saying or be understood! It just took a little longer.”
He recalled watching his first martial arts movie with relish. “The first one I remember is ‘Five Fingers of Death.’ I don’t know who directed it (Chang-hwa Jeong did)—I just remember a guy jumping off the floor, coming down and taking this guy’s eyes out, and they came out! It was in Times Square in Manhattan, and the movie was part of a double feature with ‘Enter the Dragon’—and it was awesome!”
“I am really good at movie kung fu,” he described his fighting skills. “In a real fight, I have a strong will, but my skill is not that high.”
Of the many directors he has worked with, Keanu hesitated at first to name one who made a mark on him. “I have worked with so many but if I have to…arrgggghhh! Today, I am going to pick the maestro, Bernardo Bertolucci—No. 1. He makes me want to cry. He was practical in directing—‘Put your hand over here’ or ‘Do this.’ He was so in the moment, so alive and thoughtful. He wanted to collaborate. He was interested.
“He could excite and inspire you, and he knew when to pull back! He was so many things for the limited time that I got to work with him. He always stayed with me.”
Not many people know that Keanu has Asian heritage. “My grandmother is Chinese and Hawaiian, so I was around Chinese art, furniture and cuisine when I was growing up,” he said. “I remember that I really liked haikus. I also liked animé and kung fu movies—so, yeah, I was exposed to Asian culture since I was a kid.”
Asked for an update on “47 Ronin,” one of his upcoming films, Keanu answered, “I knew that we were reinterpreting the story. In terms of magic swords and fire-breathing dragons, the movie went farther than I thought it was going to go.”
“And, for me to be the outsider as a way to tell this story to foreigners, so that they could relate to me as they go on this journey of the Bushido, I thought that was nice. There’s an intention by the director (Carl Rinsch), even in the fantastical, to pay respects to the Japanese depiction.”
Does he miss his band, Dogstar? “I miss the fraternity of the band, the moment when you write a song, the moment in the room when you create something new with your bandmates that you are all excited about, then playing that song live is an amazing experience—so, yeah, I miss performing!”
He wouldn’t mind having a band again. “I have to find a band,” he remarked. “It’s tough. You can’t just dial up a band. You can work toward creating one but, right now, I’m focusing on that!”