Keanu Reeves: Acting is my craft
It's been a very long time since we've seen Keanu Reeves in a film that lived up to expectations. His last two films, 47 Ronin and Man of Tai Chi, which marked his return to acting after five years of quasi-hibernation, both flopped badly last year and led many industry observers to believe that Keanu's viability as a major movie star was at an end.
That kind of speculation will largely disappear in the wake of the upcoming release of Reeve's new film, John Wick, a raucous, thrilling action film in which Keanu soars as a former hit-man who makes a brutal comeback when he seeks vengeance against Russian mobsters. It's a role that marks a fabulous return to form for the 50-year-old Reeves, and reassures fans that the former Matrix star still possesses that familiar aura of elegant menace and a certain sad vulnerability.
"I like the sense of Old Testament wrath that Wick unleashes on the people who have violated his honour and destroyed the peace that he had found in life," Reeves says. "Wick is a man who has a profound sense of dignity and vulnerability and then, when he thought he had buried his past, he feels compelled to use his skills and determination and go back into that dark underworld."
Audiences were wildly enthusiastic in their response to John Wick when it premiered at the recent Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. The film features some the best action and fight sequences in years and is also bolstered by a strong supporting cast that includes Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, Bridget Moynahan, and Michael Nyquist (the star of the original Swedish The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and subsequent Millenium films) as the sinister Russian mobster, Tarasov.
Reeves resides in a palatial Beverly Hills mansion and still indulges his love of speed by riding his vintage Norton Commando motorcycle through traffic in LA. Alternatively, he also enjoys riding around LA in a 2014 Porsche Carrera 4. Reeves is currently single.
Recently, however, the ever-handsome Reeves was forced to call the police when he discovered a strange woman sitting in his library. She was later placed under psychiatric observation.
For our chat, Keanu was looked trim and fit and in good spirits. Wearing a dark blue Armani suit, he still cuts a fine figure and looks at least a decade younger than his fifty years.
Q: Do you like playing physical characters like John Wick?
REEVES: I enjoy the physicality of roles where you have a sense of both the character's emotional intensity and then his ability to act on it. Wick is the kind of man who lives by an unwritten code of honour that is part of this dark underworld he comes from. Even when he puts on his suit, he does in a way that lets you know that he has a sense of duty or mission to the journey he's about to begin. It's his armour, in a way, and even though there's a reticence and ambivalence to him, you sense that he's going to go all the way to carrying out what he sets out to do.
Q: This film seems to be raising the stakes in hand-to-hand fight sequences and the way violence is depicted?
REEVES: Chad (Stahelski) and David (Leitch) did an incredible job directing the film. They wanted to stay with a sequence longer rather than using a lot of fast cutting and close-ups to give those scenes the kind of impact we wanted. I loved the way they wanted to change the rules in a way and create this hyper-real violence that would be visually stunning but still allow audiences to identify with John and identify with his sense of purpose.
Q: Given your background in the Matrix films and others like Constantine, do you have a feeling that John Wick is going to connect with audiences?
REEVES: I hope they like it. I’ve had a couple of moments in screenings, when the audience connects to the material - you can hear that and feel that. For me, that’s part of that wanting to tell the story... Also, as a performer, you’re looking at other people’s choices. You’re looking at the editing decisions, if what you’d hoped for in pre-production got realised. Like the suit! You hope that works.
Q: How did you get involved with the project?
REEVES: I believed in what Chad and David wanted to accomplish... They have an action design company called 8711. I met Chad on the first Matrix, he was the stunt double for Neo, which is me. And I already knew Dave, and then the two of them kept doing action stuff for years, like 300 and The Expendables.
They are big-time second-unit directors, so the expectations were high. But they knew exactly the kind of film they wanted to make when they pitched it to me and I bought into it right away.
Q: How much did you train in terms of the choreography of the fight sequences?
REEVES: It was different on this film. I trained in a way that enable me to use everything that I had learned in the past - kung fu, ju-jitsu, and other martial arts forms, as well as being able to drive a car radically - and then be able to mix everything up according to the needs of a particular sequence. Then the directors would have this ideas on the day of shooting and we would work very fast with not a lot of advance preparation. It was interesting.
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.
Q: Do you make any parallels between a character like John Wick and Neo from The Matrix?
REEVES: (Laughs) They occupy different worlds, obviously, but they share a sense of destiny or mission.
I also identify with the kind of state of mind of being they're seeking. One of my favourite moments in The Matrix comes when the head of the Machines, the Deus Ex Machina, asks Neo what he is really seeking, and Neo answers, 'Peace.' That's a very beautiful moment and notion and John Wick is also, in his own way, trying to restore the sense of peace he had before that got taken away from him. I believe in that kind of search - that concept that we can achieve peace in some form.
Q: You've expressed an admiration for Buddhist philosophy in the past. Do you feel that you're a more enlightened man today?
REEVES: (Pauses) I've gained some wisdom but there are still many things that seem unknowable to me. I have fewer doubts about things but that doesn't mean I really understand things better. It's more that you focus on what you know and try to find happiness in that rather than dragging yourself down by worrying about stuff that you can't change or will never be able to really grasp.
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 practiced 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. I played the part of John Proctor in The Crucible and that was the moment I knew that acting was what I wanted to do in life.
Q: Do you still enjoy acting just as much as ever?
REEVES: I really love it, it's my craft. I hated school, and when I was 15, I went up to my mother and said, 'Is it okay if I'm an actor?' She was like, 'Sure, whatever you want!' Three weeks later I began acting classes. As for acting itself, well I think of it as kind of like - and I've heard Anthony Hopkins say this - you learn about doing it, and it's like painting, I would imagine. The craft and skill of it, the way that you work the paint, it's similar to creating a masterpiece on canvas. The more you do it, the more you know it.
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 liking 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: Did Dennis Hopper offer you any interesting advice about dealing with Hollywood and celebrity?
REEVES: (Laughs) He would say, 'Enjoy your life and f**k all that crap.' Earlier in my life I wanted very badly to be respected for my work and be seen as doing the right thing. But then you still find yourself on the receiving end of lots of negative stuff and that's disappointing. Eventually I stopped caring about others' perceptions. The older you get, the less you care about what other people think of you. You figure out what you want to do with your life and you make peace with the world.
Q: Are you still an avid motorcycle rider?
REEVES: More than ever. Riding your bike is one of the greatest things you can do to clear your head and just feel the speed and the motion.
Q: Did you start riding motorbikes as a teenager growing up in Canada?
REEVES: No. I started learning how to ride a motorcycle pretty late in life. I started when I was 22. I was filming in Munich, Germany at this film studio, and this young girl had a gorgeous (Kawasaki) Enduro motorcycle which she would drive around. One day I asked her to teach me how to ride it. So I started to ride that bike around the stage when she wasn’t using it, and when I got back to Los Angeles, I got the first bike I saw that was similar. I still have a picture of it... Unfortunately, it got stolen some years back when I lent it to a friend and it was stolen when he parked it in front of his house.
My next bike was this Canary Yellow. I think it was like a 71 Norton. So I went to a place called Supertwins out here in LA. in the 80s, and that’s where I ended up picking up a 73 Norton Commando, which I still own to this day.
Q: Do you still like to test your limits not to mention California speed limits when you ride your motorcycles?
REEVES: I don't go as fast as I used to. I don't have a sense of fear, it's just that I've had enough accidents, a ruptured spleen, a lot of scraped skin and road rash, that I don't really feel the need to test the limits as much. I also don't use riding a motorcycle as a way of getting rid of anger or frustration the way I used to. When I was younger I used to get out on the road with the bike and just go as fast as I could and basically let it all out on the road. But after enough wipe-outs, you begin to think that that's not a really good frame of mind to be in when you're riding a motorcycle at high speed. (Laughs)
Q: Do people still ask you about the infamous Sad Keanu photo?
REEVES: No, not really. I think that's disappeared. I know people might not want to believe it, for whatever reason, but I'm a really happy guy.