Keanu Reeves, John Wick's zen master with a gift for violence
by Andrew Purcell
Long before Keanu Reeves could fly, before he could stop bullets by raising his hand or slow down time to fight many opponents at once, he realised that action brought out the best in him as an actor.
"One of the breakthrough moments of my life was playing Mercutio," he says. "When I look back on it, that's when my taste clicked."
At the auditions for Romeo and Juliet in Toronto, most boys read for the romantic lead. Fifteen-year-old Keanu walked in, told the director "I need to play Mercutio", performed the Queen Mab monologue from memory and was offered the part on the spot. Having a sword at his waist helped him to express the anger and alienation at the root of Mercutio's taunts. The fatal encounter with Tybalt was the first fight scene of his career.
At 50 – hard to believe, but true – Keanu is an instantly recognisable, if atypical, action superstar, his last name redundant as a free gift. The bogus, post-Bill & Ted notion that he is an airhead has been exploded, but he remains an underrated performer. After directing him in the 1993 film Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh called him a "brave and resilient actor". Stephen Frears, Gus Van Sant, Francis Ford Coppola and Bernardo Bertolucci agree.
Before casting him as Neo in The Matrix, the Wachowskis put him through hours of physical testing. They also gave him a copy of Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation, to see what he could glean from the French sociologist's theory of hyper-reality.
"We knew it would take a maniacal commitment," said Larry Wachowski. "Keanu was our maniac." A voracious and omnivorous reader, he is renowned in Hollywood for his work ethic.
We meet at the press day for his latest film, John Wick, at a Manhattan hotel worthy of The Matrix, all granite, black marble and glass. Although it goes without saying that successful actors look younger than their years, Keanu is astonishingly well-preserved. He still possesses the lean, subtly Asian beauty of his youth. Even the greying, semi-kempt beard seems more like a conscious distraction than a giveaway.
"Where would you like to sit, Andrew?"
Keanu is known for his good manners. After a lifetime of being interviewed, his mannerisms have hardened too. There's the familiar defensive laugh, the long pause, the question as answer. He is evidently a lovely guy, intelligent and funny, but you'll get what you're given.
Don't ask about his father, who ran out on the family when Keanu was two. Don't ask if he has a girlfriend. Don't waste your time on rumours. It takes determination and good humour to maintain an absolute separation between public and private, despite the media's best efforts to intrude. Compared with his megastar contemporaries, Keanu remains an impressively blank slate.
In John Wick, he plays an assassin dragged back into the underworld after the death of his wife. That he returns to killing reluctantly is established with a shot of him smashing a concrete floor in his home to get at the weapons case buried underneath.
"I liked his suffering. I liked his grief," Keanu says. "And then on the other side of that I liked his will. I liked his violence." The period of mourning doesn't last long. Once the shooting starts, the only pauses are to reload.
The film is directed by Chad Stahelski and John Leitch, two veteran stunt co-ordinators. Stahelski was Keanu's body double in The Matrix trilogy, whenever Neo's feats proved too extreme. He wasn't needed much. Keanu isn't a martial artist, or a freakish, gym-built specimen like Dwayne Johnson or Sylvester Stallone: "He's not your usual muscle-bound grunter. He's got a certain reticence, a softness," is how his John Wick co-star Willem Dafoe puts it. But he takes pride and pleasure in doing the rough stuff himself.
"I like the physical-ness of it," he says. "What I try to do is connect the physical part of it, the action part of it, to character. I kind of broke my cherry in Point Break, when I had a stunt co-ordinator, Glenn Wilder, who really wanted to put me in it. Then when I did Speed, I had a great stunt co-ordinator in Gary Hymes who was like, 'We're gonna put you under the bus'."
John Wick does take a couple of beatings, but they barely slow him down. As meticulous as he is relentless, he kills his enemies in a matter-of-fact way, with maximum economy of movement. In one scene, he fights his way through a heavily guarded nightclub run by the Russian mafia, wasting red-shirted henchmen three or four at a time.
"Keanu does beautifully in those sequences. He is quite graceful in them," Dafoe says. "You're with him in a way that you aren't usually in movie violence."
Stahelski and Leitch kept the frame wide, the takes long whenever possible, in an attempt to make the action look more real than it does in the shaky, up-close fight scenes currently in vogue, in which shots last a second at most.
Keanu recently made his debut as a director with Man of Tai-Chi, starring another Matrix alumnus, martial arts trainer and choreographer Tiger Chen. He played the villain himself, and in the climactic fight scene he looked, for the first time, a little stiff – not that surprising up against a lifelong student of tai chi, who once won a national title in China.
"I know movie kung fu," Keanu says. "You have to learn how to stage different punches. How to pull, where to place, where the camera is, the timing. You have to know how to do a throw and learn how to be thrown. But it's not martial arts practice. It's not dedicated."
His hope is that, even in pulp, where style is paramount, the action can be driven by emotion, the violence dished out for a reason by characters with depth. In between filming The Matrix and its sequel, Keanu's girlfriend Jennifer Syme gave birth to a stillborn son. Two years later, before the third Matrix movie, she was killed in a car accident. Some of that grief is in Neo, and in John Wick, too.
There's also some rage, although you wouldn't guess it from Keanu's zen reputation (Bertolucci said his "impossible innocence" was the reason for casting him as Prince Siddhartha in Little Buddha). It took playing wife-beater Donnie Barksdale in Sam Raimi's Southern Gothic thriller The Gift to access it. "I don't show anger like that," he told Rolling Stone. "But then it comes out, and you go, 'Wow, I am an angry guy'. "
With a body count of 84, John Wick is the seventh most prolific movie killer of all time, one place below Rambo and one above John Matrix, the commando played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The grief-stricken avengers he has most in common with are further down the list: Road to Perdition's Michael Sullivan and The Outlaw Josey Wales.
What makes a good big-screen assassin? "They tend to have a vulnerability to them, even the Mifunes, the samurai," Keanu answers. "You need to give them some loneliness, some tragedy."
In his pin-striped jacket and designer T-shirt, the late afternoon light on his perfect skin, he looks as if nothing could touch him.
Keanu through the eyes of others
Kenneth Branagh, Reeves' director in Much Ado About Nothing
"One sees in his work that he can sometimes be very gentle, he can sometimes be very fierce, he can sometimes be very funny. And yet he's got something at the back of the eyes that says, 'No, I won't be committing here'. He'll always be on the bus, heading off. And I think there is something tremendously attractive to men and women about that combination of the utterly desirable and the definitely unattainable."
Sam Raimi, his director in The Gift
"He's really a dedicated craftsman who's most relentless on himself until he gets it right. He has a severe intensity. After a take, he'd step outside and you'd hear him just cursing himself. Just shouting, loudly, at himself."
Rachel Weisz, his co-star in Constantine
"He's one of the most intelligent people I've ever met. People think he's forever on a motorbike with all these teenage girls in pursuit, but he's nothing like that. He's very profound. He's also brilliant at his craft."
Richard Linklater, his director in A Scanner Darkly
"You care about Keanu. He's a big-hearted guy. There were a lot of passages in German [in the Philip K. Dick novel on which A Scanner Darkly is based] and he had them all translated. He was always digging deeper… Keanu's the kind of guy who would call you up about it at two in the morning."