Man on Fire
by Alex Godfrey
From Point Break to The Matrix to the John Wick series, Keanu Reeves is a bona fide action icon. He reflects on life as a silver-screen adrenaline junkie.
Stories about Keanu Reeves on the sets of John Wick films are almost as mythical as stories about the character. Refusing to postpone a fight scene in the midst of high fever. Defying advice to ditch the rain machines for an exhausting 12-hour beatdown in weather so cold it threatened to freeze the water, saying, “No! This is cinema! We’re making this!” Keanu Reeves will not be stopped.
In many ways, the John Wick franchise is a culmination of what’s come before – Reeves has been honing his action chops since 1991’s Point Break, forging a path that’s played to his strengths as a frankly leftfield leading man, kicking much ass and taking infinite names, but forever somewhat askew, never ditching character for dunderheaded brawn.
He’s always looking for something new, something unexpected, and, regardless of a genre that can be defiantly conventional, his choices tell of a determination to work with adventurers: Kathryn Bigelow, the Wachowskis, and, with the Wick films, Chad Stahelski. All will tell you that Reeves goes way beyond the call of duty, doing as much of the physical work as insurers will allow. And, after spending time with him in Los Angeles, Empire can confirm that Keanu Reeves has always been the real deal.
Action-wise, it’s been an evolution for you from Point Break to John Wick. Did that happen organically? No, I would say, “Thank you, Kathryn Bigelow, for Point Break.”
Did that give you a taste for more? I’d always been a physical actor. I remember I was 15, in Rose Valley, in Philadelphia, in a theatre company. One of the theatre exercises was an Uta Hagen exercise, on entrances, and my entrance was jumping through an imaginary window into a room, doing some behaviour of being chased, and then diving out of another window. I played [Romeo and Juliet’s] Mercutio in high school, getting to do the fight with Tybalt. And even as a kid, playing war, there would be drama to it – fake gun sounds and running and jumping. There was always something action, physical to it.
So what was it like for you when you were suddenly there on Point Break doing the big stuff? Well, I really enjoyed it, I enjoyed the training Growing up I was involved in a lot of athletics: I was on the basketball team, and I grew up in Toronto so I played a lot of hockey. On Point Break there was the weapons training, fake fighting… and I worked with a legendary stunt co-ordinator named Glenn Wilder, who really said, “Come on kid, you can do it!” So that scene that I got to do with the beautiful, wonderful – rest in peace – Patrick Swayze, doing all that running, and our fight at the end… Glenn Wilder, with Kathryn Bigelow’s vision, really let me do all the running and jumping and fighting. And that to me connects the character in the story with the audience – if you’re there, there’s no cutaway. So you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is really happening.”
And you did actually jump out of an airplane in Point Break, right? I did actually jump out, but not on camera. The stuff with Patrick and I was movie magic. But Patrick at the end of the film, when he’s doing all the acrobatics? That was him. I jumped out just for the experience of what it would be like. So I did the advance training. Patrick was actually jumping – while he was filming he got a cease-and-desist letter, because he was also bringing in all the people in his tribe in the film, they all started jumping out of airplanes. Patrick was jumping and jumping, so then basically Kathryn said, “We can finish the movie with the insurance – Patrick, do you wanna go?” And he was like, “Yes.” So they went up with a cameraman and Patrick just jumped out of an airplane and they filmed it.
There’s all that talk in Point Break of 100 per cent pure adrenaline. Were there moments when you felt that, with the physical stuff? Do you get a buzz from it? Oh yeah! Yeah, fake fighting is good, clean fun! And running and jumping and getting to drive cars and smash’em around and roll’em and spin’em. Well, I didn’t get to spin’em in Point Break. Yeah, the fights were good. What’s cool about Point Break is I’ve met so many people over the years who were like, “I started jumping out of airplanes because of Point Break.” That’s fun.
You said you saw Speed as a chance to humanize the action hero. Which was still pretty brawny and alpha back then. You did something else with it. Yeah, but we have to thank Bruce Willis in Die Hard for that. I was probably first-gen after, if you take the tree from that kind of humanistic approach to modern action. Because in a weird way Clint Eastwood and John Wayne were doing that… So maybe not humanistic, but the everyman idea. [Speed director] Jan de Bont was the cinematographer in Die Hard, so he gave it that look, but Bruce Willis gave it that performance. I had seen Die Hard and thought it was an amazing movie and performance. I wanted to be part of that tradition, that school. Jack Traven was an adrenaline-junkie S.W.A.T. guy, wants to be the hero.
Did you train with S.W.A.T. guys? I’ve worked with a gentleman named Randy Walker, who’s LAPD SWAT. That’s where I got the gum from. ‘Cause he showed me a video of him after an incident where he got shot, but he didn’t quite know yet, and he was chewing gum. He’s a badass. I went, “Man, you’re chewing gum!” He’s like, “Yeah.”
Is it true that, in Speed, when you jump onto the bus from the Jaguar, Jan de Bont didn’t want you to do it for real because of the danger, but you’d been rehearsing it in secret, and on the day you said, “I’m doing it”? Yeah, I did it. But I didn’t do it well enough. And they wouldn’t let me do it without a safety platform coming from the car to the bus. And also, when I did it, I wasn’t paying enough attention, and I ended up doing it when there was an overpass, so I was in the shadow. I gave it the good college try. But the stuntman did [the shot that’s in the film].
Were you doing martial arts in your life before The Matrix? I hadn’t. I’d gone to a couple of Aikido classes when I was 13, but no, I have no martial-arts background.
Through The Matrix, was it something that then became a part of your life? No. I don’t practice any martial arts. Just movie kung-fu. I can’t really hit anybody, but I can control a punch, I can control a kick. With The Matrix it was four months, every day, eight to five, so you’re still stretching and throwing kicks and punches and getting to know forms – so that’s real. And then with John Wick, it’s judo, yeah. I’m throwing people. I’ve gotten better as the years have gone by, because I’ve had more training.
Whole worlds seem to have sprung from The Matrix for you. Chad Stahelski was your stunt double on it… We got to go to the Wachowski school during The Matrix. Not only film school but action school. It’s really where Chad cut his teeth. We’re kind of a brotherhood, brothers in arms. There was he and I working together [with him] trying to mimic my body movements as Neo. So we built up a shorthand, trust, respect. The tree of The Matrix, the influences… I made a film with the gentleman who trained me on The Matrix, Chen Hu. [2013’s Man Of Tai Chi].
Chad said that between films you’re always training, like you’re preparing for a role that doesn’t exist. Yeah, I’m trying to work on working. After filming John Wick: Parabellum, I need a rest. It’s the hardest film I’ve ever had to do, physically. That might be because I’m 54. I was 53 at the time. But even if I take that out of it, it was probably the most demanding film I’ve ever had to do. Which is good – it’s fun.
How do you feel about how people react to what you’re doing? Your 37-second weapons training video went massively viral. Yeah, for me it’s fun, in the sense that the training is paying off, you know? He reason I’m there and doing that is so that when I draw and do a manipulation with a weapon in John Wick, it’s legit. Like, legit. LEGIT! And I invent stuff, John’s pistol stance… I add my own flavour. So I’m not perhaps totally correct, but different military branches have different techniques. But I wanna be legit, whatever that is.
But do you like how much people enjoy watching raw footage of you obliterating a shooting range? I would do that – it’s fun, man! I remember watching Tom Cruise training for some of the work he’s done. He’s inspiring.
Also, as you said, you’re 54, and Tom’s 56 – what you and he are doing is unprecedented. Oh, Tom Cruise is on another level.
The Bill & Ted films may not be pure action, but they do a lot of strenuous air-guitaring. You’re gearing up for the third one, nearly 30 years on. How are you feeling about that? I don’t know what the ramifications of the role will be. The writers, Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, wrote such a great script. But I have to get my head around: who is that guy? What’s he gonna look like? What’s he gonna be like? I don’t know. I find it intriguing. I’m a little scared of it. But I love the character. Alex [Winter] and I look at the characters really traditionally, like commedia dell’arte in a way. Like clown work. But his heart and soul…
There’s a purity to Ted. Yeah, there’s a purity and innocence. But also the bravery of the characters, the obstacles… They went to hell! [Slaps his leg] Hee heeee! But they came back!