Keanu’s Excellent Directing Adventure
by David Marchese
Keanu Reeves was Actor and Director for ‘Man of Tai Chi’
Keanu Reeves shuffled onto the terrace of a high-rise in the financial district of Manhattan, tossed a rumpled pack of American Spirit cigarettes and a half-eaten Clif Bar on the coffee table, and gingerly lowered himself onto the couch. Tall, with scruffy beard and mustache, he’d returned to this temporary home fresh from intense fight training for his next project, a thriller called “John Wick.” With wisps of gray visible in the long, dark brown hair, the 49-year-old Mr. Reeves called himself, multiple times, “a salty dog” of the film business, and if he’s embracing the real-life role of grizzled lifer, he’s also relishing the confidence that comes with experience.
The laid-back star was describing a moment when he went off-script in his latest film, the steely martial arts action picture “Man of Tai Chi.” As a master watching his protégé lose his innocence, “I wanted to take a risk and show something elemental,” he said. “So I improvised and let out a demon scream. It was freeing. Some people on set were like, ‘Really?’ ” Mr. Reeves gave a boyish grin. “But the director liked it.”
In this instance actor and director were one and the same. “Man of Tai Chi,” opening on Nov. 1, represents a key point in Mr. Reeves’s transition from leading man to behind-the-scenes player. The film, his directorial debut, stars Mr. Reeves’s friend and the former “Matrix” trilogy stuntman Tiger Hu Chen as a Chinese deliveryman and student of traditional combat styles seduced into entering the high-tech world of illegal prizefighting by the darkly mysterious master Donaka Mark.
Shot in Hong Kong and Beijing, with dialogue in English, Mandarin and Cantonese, the film represented a rare opportunity for Mr. Reeves, who has been more hands-on with his projects of late, co-producing and co-starring in a small romantic comedy, “Henry’s Crime” (2011), and co-producing and conducting on-camera interviews for “Side by Side” (2012), a brainy documentary about the movie industry’s shift from film to digital. (An unabashed movie-tech geek, Mr. Reeves giddily rubbed his hands together when discussing different shutter angles and frame rates in “Man of Tai Chi.”)
“I was never the kind of actor who was only interested in my own performance and that’s it,” said Mr. Reeves, dressed in an olive-green military-style jacket, black cargo pants and heavy boots. “I’ve always enjoyed being on sets and seeing where the camera was going and looking at the shooting schedule and understanding how the production is put together and how I fit into the story as a whole.”
Mr. Reeves spent years “carrying the begging bowl,” as he put it, seeking financing for this “allegory about the pressures and seductions of the modern world,” themes not terribly dissimilar from those of “Side by Side.” When the opportunity to make “Man of Tai Chi” arose — thanks largely to a deal with the state-run China Film Group — he was ready. A lifelong fan of martial arts movies with fond memories of seeing “Five Fingers of Death” and “Enter the Dragon” in Times Square theaters with his stepfather, he explained: “I’ve been doing this for a while. I didn’t feel like I had to make the phone call to anybody asking” — here he feigned panic — “ ‘What do I do?’ I felt like I could see the forest and trees.”
This shift from actor fully capable of throwing a bullet-time punch or two as Neo in the “Matrix” movies to filmmaker made sense to Carl Rinsch, who directed Mr. Reeves in the coming 3-D samurai spectacle “47 Ronin,” due Christmas Day. “When I signed on to work with Keanu it was clear I was getting not an actor but a collaborator,” Mr. Rinsch said. “Keanu was there for script development and preproduction. He’s got this enthusiasm for the entire process that really brings you back to the joy and naïveté all filmmakers had when they were kids making movies in their backyard.”
For Mr. Chen, who had little acting experience, Mr. Reeves’s passion for that process was pulse quickening: “Keanu wanted me to go over the top with my energy every take. If I went 100 percent, it wasn’t enough. I had to go 120 percent. After scenes I’d feel like I was having a heart attack. ”
There are those for whom the concept of acting advice from Keanu Reeves may register as a sort of one-hand-clapping Zen koan. It’s hard to think of another major star for which the question of whether they’re actually any good at their job remains open to debate. Witness the longevity of the popular “Point Break Live!” theater parody, wherein audience members are invited to take on the role of Mr. Reeves’s character, Johnny Utah (cue the clueless California-dude accents). In 2011 the critics A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis of The New York Times entertained the question, “Is Keanu Reeves a good bad actor or a bad good actor?”
“I get it totally,” Mr. Reeves said. “People say, ‘Another inscrutable deadpan performance.’ I mostly find these things amusing. Something like ‘Point Break Live!’ is a funny idea, I can understand that. Ultimately you hope that people like what you do. It’s a drag when they don’t. The weirdest thing for me is when people assume that I’m the person I’m playing. So then it becomes, ‘You wanted my performance to be different, but you also didn’t think it was a performance?’ That’s puzzling to me.”
Mr. Reeves leaned forward on the couch and let his lank hair cover his face. “Maybe it’s because I did ‘Bill and Ted’ so early in my career and that stuck with people,” he said wryly. “Maybe my performance was too good.”
The director Alex Winter, who played Bill in the aforementioned 1989 buddy comedy “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and the 1991 follow-up, “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” said that the popular notion of his longtime friend as some sort of beautiful cipher is misguided. “He’s one of the brightest and most engaged actors I know,” Mr. Winter said. “Just look at the thing he chose to do for the first movie he directed. He didn’t do some small two-hander. He did a logistically complex martial arts film. The idea of him being either Bill or Neo or just a pretty face is wildly inaccurate. Just because he doesn’t talk publicly about his internal life and interests doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”
The “Bill & Ted” screenwriters, Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, have completed a script for a third film about those two big-hearted dim bulbs from San Dimas, Calif., and Mr. Winter said, he, the writers and Mr. Reeves were working to get it financed.
“Wouldn’t it be surreal to meet those dudes again?” asked a beaming Mr. Reeves.
Before then, the Beirut-born, Toronto-raised Mr. Reeves will be seen in “47 Ronin” as Kai, a half-Japanese, half-English outcast who joins a band of banished warriors on a revenge mission. It’s his first big-budget Hollywood studio film since “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in 2008, a gap he admits was not necessarily his choice. “I wasn’t being asked to do things,” he said with a shrug. “Some things came up, but they weren’t intriguing. I wasn’t going to sit around and wait for an amazing studio project to appear. I’m a creative person, and I want to make stuff. It just so happened that the things I was interested in making and that I had an opportunity to make were lovely films like ‘A Scanner Darkly’ and ‘Thumbsucker.’ ”
Mr. Reeves explained that he had hopes, rather than plans, of directing again, and for now is enjoying wearing the actor’s hat. That has recently required some practice. After the interview for this article, Mr. Reeves would be off to a shooting range for some “John Wick” firearms training.
“I’ve crossed seas and oceans,” Mr. Reeves declared in a mock tragic English accent as he rose creakily from the couch. “I’m a hardened vet.”
Then he returned to his regular voice. “The truth is I have no cynicism,” he said. “At my core, I’m still in love with acting and the movies.”