47 Ronin Set Visit: Keanu Reeves Interview
by Edward Douglas
The journalists on set got to speak to Keanu Reeves fairly early in our visit, all of us sitting around a table in a conference room specifically set up just for that purpose. It may surprise some who only know Reeves from his movie roles what a good interview Reeves can be, but he covered a lot of territory in this interview in which he talked a lot about being a Westerner taking on so many Japanese traditions, from the story to the language to the samurai's "bushido."
Question: Did you actually learn Japanese or just learn your lines in Japanese?
Keanu Reeves: I'm sure Carl [Rinsch] explained. He wanted to have the actors speak with a native feeling. So I try, when we do the Japanese takes, to be as familiar as I can with the dialogue in Japanese. I've been getting some instruction on pronunciation. It's been fun. To play a scene, it's so fantastic with the Japanese actors. It must be fun, as well as challenging. I know personally, it's always exciting for me, for the idea of acting in another language. But it has its challenges. Oftentimes, when we get changes in the script at the 11th hour, it becomes kind of scary because you've worked so hard to figure out this chunk of dialogue and then someone says, "Well, how 'bout this?" and that's very challenging. But it's been fun to try and almost have a sense of even a simple expression. I had a line with Hiro Sanada and I just had to say, "You are samurai." (he says the line in Japanese) It had such a different... I mean still to say, "You are samurai." To convey that.
Q: What first attracted you to the film?
Reeves: The story. When I first read the script, it had kind of the largesse of a Western. The character that I played, this outsider seeking to belong - I always talk about it as a story of revenge and impossible love. For drama, that's good stuff. It sucks in life, but in a movie that's good stuff. So I was drawn to that. I was drawn to this guy who's an outsider, who is involved in this culture but is outside of the culture and wants to belong, and who has the chance to fight for it, the way of belonging by fighting for the cause. I found that interesting and a good story.
Q: You've been involved with this for so long. How has the vision or ideas changed since Carl came on board? Has it changed a lot since the original script?
Reeves: I only saw way in the beginning when Carl had some conceptuals that he showed me. They had some boards and a look at certain costumes, and temples and some locations. Then, to go from storyboards for sequences like the Kirin hunt - there's the hunt of this beast in the opening section of the film. Then when I got to London in January, Jan Roelfs had started to realize it and was building it from conceptual to pre-vis. I was impressed by the scale and invention. It was one of the things that drew me to the story, the scale of it. Have you taken a look at the sets? It's cool. I like the idea of actually being in a place and filming something. I've worked in the construct before, and I enjoy that as well, but it's nice to have flesh and blood and walls, even if they're made out of paper or plastic.
Q: Is the approach to the action as unique as the rest of the story? How does the training and 3D factor in?
Reeves: I'm really digging the 3D. I overheard what Carl was saying, a little bit, about the size of the cameras and going back to a traditionalistic... which is a weird word because it's only something that you can look at something from the past. What I'm finding is when I watch it in the way that John Mathieson, the lighting and cameraman, is working in 3D. Oftentimes, when we think of 3D we think of things coming out of the screen, but actually, you've got this zero, this negative space, what they call the negative space, which is the scene, what's being filmed in the positive space of the audience. As you can have things come out, you can have all of this depth. With this "traditional classicism," you get this scene and there's such a grand story, like those sets. Now you're looking and you can feel depth and go inside that story. It's like walking on to the stage while actors perform, in a way. I really liked how they're using the immersive potentials of 3D. It's beautiful.
They're taking risks. Did you see what's going on out there? I haven't seen that. There's that and there's some real grittiness with the Dejima sequence, so there's a lot of different looks. Locations, the outdoors, the temples, where people live. I get taken to this place called Dutch Island, which has its own thing. So that aspect's been really great to be a part of that.
Action-wise, late last year I started picking up katana and we had some training. Hiroyuki Sanada is pretty fantastic with a sword. Films like "The Twilight Samurai" and "The Last Samurai." I kinda grew up with Sonny Chiba. I remember we were doing a camera test and I was like, "So, Hiro, how many samurai films have you done?" "Twenty." "Okay." Later I asked him, "How many have you done, again?" and he went, "Mmm, 30." And one day in Los Angeles in training, he came over, because he wanted to speak about the work. He warms up a little bit and I'm taking lessons from this gentleman, Tsuyoshi [Abe] and so he says to Tsuyoshi, "Do overhead strike." And Sanada goes and there's the blade against his Adam's apple. I go, "Okay... there's the bar." [laughs] I haven't reached it. But he's so fantastic. What's great about working with someone who's so experienced is he's very generous with help. "Look here, put your balance here, move like this, checking form." He's great with all of the cast and everyone, he's making sure everything's right. How do you wear your swords? He's Oishi, this guy who's looking out for everybody. He's looking out for Ako, he's looking out for the cast, he's looking out for the production.
We've had one fight together and they did these shots on Phantom, which is this high-speed digital camera. I'm kind of like this caveman. In super slow-motion, we have this sequence. Every line is so beautiful so hopefully that'll be a nice contrast. They're trying to have a traditional two-handed sword. Hiroyuki's really paying attention to that. And then I've got this other past, I've got other training where I go into one-hand stuff.
Q: Is there any wire work?
Reeves: There's one sequence where they're doing a bunch of it. I've only done one wire so far. It was nice to get into the saddle. I had to do this thing where we're escaping. I have to jump from this elevated element and jump down into these guys. That was fun. I don't get to do some of the 60 somersaults, but there's another sequence where they're doing some wire stuff. This is more earthbound.
Q: "47 Ronin" is so Japanese in the way that it approaches honor and sacrifice; it's not what we're used to in the West. Is Kai the character that lets us begin to understand Bushido? Is that what his role is?
Reeves: I would think so, yeah. Yes and no. These actors walk on the floor and you get it, you know? On some of the more obvious aspects of it: honor, placement, status, composure, how to express yourself. The idea of honor, being a samurai, one of the interpretations is to serve. Oishi, Sanada-san's character, does that. You see some of it from Kai's perspective, but mostly it's from the filmmaker's perspective, and I don't know if it's so foreign to Western audiences, the idea of honor and revenge. I think maybe some of the behavioral collection, but maybe not, I don't know. In terms of how deep you bow? Maybe. Or when do you reveal something. Like how do you express doubt or intimacy, you know?
Q: What kind of research did you do to understand Bushido?
Reeves: I don't know if I understand Bushido, but I watched a lot of samurai films. Spending time with the actors, spending time with Hiro. I just talk about, in this scene, what can we do? Hiro gave me a nice afternoon where I said, "Okay, the bows. What are we doing?" [laughs] I went to school with the different ways to sit and where to put hands and what levels to pay respect. Some of the... like "The Way of the Samurai" and reading a little bit on Japanese thought and perspective. As an example, a lot of people have spoken about, "Is what the 47 Ronin did correct? Should they have fought that night? Should they not have fought that night?" There are some people who say, "They should have fought that night and died trying." And then there are other people who say, "What they did was okay, they came back." And that's that conversation. Historically, they killed Lord Asano [Naganori] very quickly, if not less than 24 hours. He had one appeal and then it was done. Nothing happened to Kira [Yoshinaka]. And that was an outrage! But it's also different because historically it took place in Edo, or Tokyo, and here it's outside of that arena. So there are different rules. But historically, should they have done it that night or should they not have?
Q: You're working with a lot of Japanese actors. Have you had any conversations with them about the version of the story you're doing and the fantasy element?
Reeves: Everyone here who's doing the film likes the idea of a reinterpretation, likes the idea of telling the story but also making a Hollywood movie and making it fantastical. Penny Rose can talk about that, Jan Roelfs can talk about that, in terms of what are they building to the specs, what are they playing with costume, what are they keeping, what are they changing, what knots are they doing, etc. And to the story, it's so different, the circumstances. We're really playing with some of the bigger ideas of the story.
Q: I was wondering if there were purists out there who don't want to see a different take on it.
Reeves: Well, then they should watch "Chushingura." That's a wonderful work. For me, "47 Ronin," the story is a national holiday. It's huge there. There is that story and I think hopefully with this interpretation, some people will have fun with it like, "Oh my God, they did the colors of Lord Asano. Look at those. Or they did that part of it or, Chikara [Oishi] is represented in that one." We're doing little pieces, so it could be very high-end 47 Ronin drinking game, you know? [laughs] "Chikara did that! Look, he's with the arrow!" and then you have a drink. Or if you're studying it in a university or school, that could be the test. How many things do you see in the Hollywood version, do a contrast and compare on "Chushingura" and "47 Ronin."
Q: Feudal Japan was very xenophobic, so obviously Kai's status as a half-breed is going to be really important. Can you talk about how his race informs his character and his story?
Reeves: It's kind of non-race specific. It's more about the "other." In the story, I'm discovered by Lord Asano and Oishi when Kai is 13 years old. We come to learn later that he escaped from this place but he's different. Oishi comes up to me and I'm kind of disheveled and distraught and exhausted by this stream, and I pull a knife on him. He takes my hand and he's going to use it against me, we haven't shot the scene yet, or he's going to stab me. Lord Asano says, "Stop." Oishi says, "My Lord, it's a devil!" and Lord Asano says, "It's a young boy."
So we're showing Lord Asano as being someone who is not xenophobic, someone who has a bigger idea. Ako is this kind of Camelot. I get taken in and then we're shown in the next sequence when I'm older and I'm a tracker. I'm tracking this beast and they've found a utility for me. We show that I'm treated differently by different people. Also, when I'm a young boy, I see the princess and the princess sees me, and there's this moment where she brings me food and then we have this kind of connection that becomes unrequited love. We can't be together; there's a certain place we can't go. And there's some samurai to whom I'm a dog, and then there's some who, like Oishi, "He's a tracking dog." And then we learn that he can fight. Ha! We learn this place where I came from. He needs my help.
Q: For Kai, part of the story is finding the acceptance of the Ronin. Theirs is a story of revenge. Is yours revenge but also proving yourself?
Reeves: It's interesting. We end up having the same goal. I think by my actions, they learn about Kai, some of his grace as well as his ferocity and his commitment to what they're doing. It's 47 guys. In the end, they accept him, they take a blood oath. I think they have this commonness, this common goal; the idea of honor and revenge. I get a certain kind of acceptance. But there's a line; I can't take the princess out for dinner.
Q: How do the set pieces compare to some of the other action movies you've been in?
Reeves: "Speed" and "Point Break" were a lot of running and jumping, and then "The Matrix Trilogy" had a lot of fights and wire work and green screen elements. In this piece, there's a little running and jumping and some fights, so it's a blend.
Q: I always like hearing you talk about "Point Break."
Reeves: Yeah, "Point Break" is fantastic! That was my first time. I got to work with the great stunt coordinator, Glenn Wilder, and he was the guy who just said, "We can put you in it. Go! We can put you there." And then I worked on "Speed" and Gary Hymes was like, "We can really put you there!" And then I worked on "The Matrix" and they were like, "You can do it!"