Keanu Reeves: I'm a very happy personHe may look a little older, but he's a lot less confused about life. Now 49, Keanu Reeves has been something of a wanderer over the years. Despite having starred in one of the most successful movie franchises in history - The Matrix - Reeves has always hovered around the margins of Hollywood. He lives like a hermit, preferring to avoid the limelight at all costs while driving around L.A. on his motorcycle. There's always been an air of mystery that surrounds him and his quixotic personality. Keanu might best be described as a searcher, a man seeking wisdom while living out some of the more absurd aspects of life as a movie star.
â€œI can understand celebrity - sure. There's this whole fantasy element of wanting to know what someone else's life is all about,â€ Reeves muses. â€œI just don't think about it. I'm looking at other things. We're all the sum of our experiences and I'm trying to gain awareness as I go along... I'm a happy guy, a spiritual, happy guy!â€
His new film, 47 Ronin, is a $200 million 3D action epic starring Reeves as Kai, a half-Japanese, half-English outcast warrior who joins a band of 'Ronin' (Samurai without a master) in their quest to avenge the death of their beloved master. A conflict emerges when Kai falls in love with the deceased master's young daughter, Mika (KÃ´ Shibasaki), and his loyalty to the cause is questioned.
The film marks Reeves's first big studio production since 2008â€²s The Day the Earth Stood Still, having preferred to work in indie films like Henry's Crime (2010) and this year's ultra-low budget Generation Um. But Keanu hasn't been slacking during this time - on the contrary, most of his attention over the last few years has been focused on his directorial debut - Man of Tai Chi - a martial arts film which he shot in Beijing and Hong Kong.
Man of Tai Chi stars Keanu's long-time friend Tiger Hu Chen as Chen Lin-Hu, a supremely talented but mild-mannered tai-chi apprentice lured into the world of underground fighting by mysterious financier Donaka Mark (played by Reeves).
The idea for the film evolved out of conversations that Reeves had on the set of The Matrix films while training with Chen, his martial arts instructor and stuntman. â€œWe would be sitting on a mat doing stretching exercises for two hours a day, so there was plenty of time for Chen to tell me stories about China, all its traditions, and about martial arts. The story picked me in a way. I knew I had to direct it.â€
I caught up with Keanu Reeves at the Toronto International Film Festival where Reeves, a Canadian who lived in Toronto until the age of 20, looked suitably rakish in his customary flowing long black hair and lush beard. For our chat, he was wearing a black Ferragamo suit, black T-shirt, and tan desert boots.
Q: Keanu, what was it about 47 Ronin that attracted you to the project?
REEVES: The story. When I first read the script, it had kind of the largesse of a Western. Kai, the character that I play, 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: Was this film more meaningful to you given that you have Asian roots?
REEVES: I feel I have a connection to the culture. My grandmother is Chinese and Hawaiian, so I was around Chinese art, furniture and cuisine when I was growing up. I remember that I really liked haikus. I also liked animÃ© and kung fu movies - so, yeah, I was exposed to Asian culture since I was a kid.
Q: What was it like training for all the complex fight scenes in 47 Ronin?
REEVES: It was during all the months of training for the film that I started to feel my knees and appreciate that it's a lot harder to execute those kinds of moves now than it was when I was younger.
The swordplay was the most difficult aspect to learn. You're a lot more conscious of your movements when you have a big, sharp point object in your hands that you have to be responsible for. There's a level of elegance and precision that's required to wield a giant sabre like it was an epee. I was basically learning to master those movements as the shoot went along.
Q: Are you good at kung fu or other martial arts?
REEVES: I'm very good at movie kung fu but in a real fight I might have a lot of fighting spirit but I don't think I would have the necessary skills. It's more than just knowing the forms and techniques, there's another art altogether when it comes to actual combat. I first started getting interested in martial arts when I was around 10 or 11 and I studied Aikido for a month. The next time I practiced martial arts was when I began training for the first Matrix film. But after doing this film and Man of Tai Chi, I wish I had begun at a much younger age. (Laughs)
Q: Did you learn Japanese for the film?
REEVES: We shot the film in both English and Japanese. The hardest part of the shoot was to do every scene once in each language. Japanese is a difficult language to find the correct pronunciation, and I was a lot more worried about getting my lines right in Japanese than I was about the fight choreography! (Laughs)
Q: Your character Kai has a level of sadness to him. Do you think this will cause more people to think back to your 'sad Keanu' photo?
REEVES: (Laughs) When it comes to all that, my attitude is that a picture can tell a thousand words, and none of them can be right. Or true. I'm absolutely a very happy person. Maybe I think about my mortality more as I approach 50. But it's an interesting kind of terror that you feel about ageing. I don't know. Your knees hurt more...
Kai's sadness is a real and profound part of his being and I find that fascinating to be able to explore. He's not bitter about the way others judge him - he carries himself with a level of grace and dignity that I found beautiful.
Q: Were you already aware of the Japanese myth on which this film and many Japanese samurai films have been based?
REEVES: Yes. I also 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. In Japan, parents have been teaching this legend to their children for many generations as a way of teaching them about loyalty, duty, and sacrifice, which are profound values in Japanese culture. The story is also taught in Japanese schools.
I felt honoured in a way that I, as an outsider, would be helping tell this story of the journey of the Bushido (the way of the warrior) to the western world where it is not that well known. The idea of honour is so important in Japanese society and deeply ingrained in the people and the way they relate to each other.
Q: Did you immerse yourself in the art or understanding of Bushido which is akin to the notion of chivalry in western culture?
REEVES: I spent a lot of time watching samurai films and speaking to the other Japanese actors. I studied how to bow, how deep to bow, how you should sit, and how you pay respect.
There are many, many things which belong to Japanese culture and philosophy that relate to Bushido and I still have a lot to learn about it. I'm not sure if I fully understand it even now. But it's incredibly fascinating.
Q: You've also directed your first film, Man of Tai Chi, which also involves the martial arts and is set in China. Do you have an affinity for Eastern philosophy?
REEVES: It's a coincidence that these two movies are both set in Asia and they're both coming out now, but in general I am deeply attracted to Eastern philosophy. I'm attracted to the different way that kind of philosophy looks at the world and identifies our place and how human beings relate to each other. In Man of Tai Chi, I was interested in developing the theme of power and control as Tiger struggles with his dark side while his master is urging him to meditate, to slow down, and to be more thoughtful about his actions.
Q: How did the process of your making this film and directing it come about?
REEVES: It started with the lead actor Chen Hu. He and I had worked together on the Matrix Trilogy. He was a stuntman on the action team for Yuan Heping, the choreographer who choreographed the Matrix films but also choreographed 'Taichi Xia.' Over the course of the years Chen and I became friends and he had already started to go into acting while we were doing the Matrix Trilogy. We wanted to work together and over the years we developed a story that eventually came so close to my heart and my vision that I wanted to direct it.
Q: Apparently you have your own Chinese nickname, 'Lao Li'.
REEVES: (Laughs) Yeah. People started to call me by that and it kind of stuck. While we were shooting in Beijing, my director's chair had the name Lao Li printed on it. The people were incredibly friendly and generous with me while we were shooting. It was a great experience for me.
Q: Having directed your first film, how do you compare it to acting?
REEVES: They are different pleasures. (Smiles) One is ice cream and the other is a really good steak.
Q: When you were growing up in Canada, you actually started out wanting to be a professional hockey goaltender before you got into acting?
REEVES: As a teenager, my only real passion in life was playing hockey, like millions of other Canadian kids. I practised and played as often as I could and I dreamed of playing for the Canadian team in the Winter Olympics. But then I started getting into acting when I was 15 and enrolled in drama classes and got involved with a local theatre troupe. All that changed my life. The first time I acted in a high school play I knew I wanted to be an actor.
Q: Of all the actors you've worked with, who made the greatest impression on you?
REEVES: That's a tough question. Definitely one of the most interesting actors I had the privilege of working with and getting to know was Dennis Hopper. We worked together on River's Edge and then on Speed. I was a huge fan of David Lynch's and Dennis had just finished working on Blue Velvet. So we spoke a lot about the way Dennis created his character and what it was like working with Lynch. I miss Dennis. I would see him socially afterwards every once in a while and he had such an incredible warmth and sensitivity and a great sense of humour. He was a really unique man.
Q: You've worked with many famous directors, including Bernardo Bertolucci and Kathryn Bigelow. Did that influence your shooting style?
REEVES: I have so much respect for the kind of detail that Bertolucci would apply to the way he made a film. He had a poetry to his vision but also a very practical sensibility. He's the master! But I wanted to apply several different styles of shooting and filmmaking. I wanted to pay homage to 70s Kung Fu movies, but I also wanted to reference Italian cinema and so we shot with anamorphic lenses (intended for a 2.35 to 1 wide-angle screen ratio) to add a mythic quality to the action.
But I wasn't trying to make a big statement with the way the film was shot as much as I was involved in trying to tell a story. I would sometimes recall the way the Wachowskis shot the fight sequences in The Matrix films.
Q: What is the most important theme or message of your film?
REEVES: A lot if revolves around the idea of letting go of your morals and telling yourself you have to do this to make money. I think there's a lot of seduction involving money in the world today, and the film is asking you to take stock of that and to look at what we lose when we make those compromises in our lives.
But that's only one aspect to it. It's also supposed to be fun. Getting lost (while watching a movie) is so much fun. There were numerous times when I looked at Tiger (Chen Lu) and I said to myself, 'He's f**king rocking it.â€
Q: Tai Chi is often practised by people in the west for its relaxation and meditative aspects. Do you practice Tai Chi?
REEVES: I don't practice any martial arts. I like to relax by doing sports, riding my motorcycle, and enjoying a little red wine! (Laughs)