Keanu Reeves – twenty years ago, enigmatic even then

September 2001 By Philip Berk 

Hollywood heartthrob Keanu Reeves, although born in Lebanon,  is actually Canadian. His mother is British, and his father (a geologist, whom he hasn’t seen for ten years) is of Chinese Hawaiian descent. His father is currently serving a ten year prison sentence for cocaine possession in Hawaii. 

Ironically Keanu means “cool breeze over the mountains” in Hawaiian. 

The family lived in Australia and New York before settling in Toronto where he spent his teenage years. 

His mother designed costumes for singers like Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton and remarried — director Paul Aaron, best remembered for the first gay themed movie, A Different Story.

When he was l8, Keanu moved out of the house, lived in an apartment in Toronto, and then two years later, in l984, he came to Los Angeles, where he stayed with his stepfather. 

Eight months later he landed the lead (and great reviews) in River’s Edge. 

After that he worked with some of the world’s best directors including Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons), Ron Howard (Parenthood), Lawrence Kasdan (I Love You to Death), Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho), Jon Amiel (Tune in Tomorrow) and Francis Coppola (Bram Stoker’s Dracula.)

He has done Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh’s Much ado about Nothing) and  played Hamlet in a production in Winnipeg, Canada.

And he is an active member of a rock group. He plays bass in the “folk thrash” band Dogstar.

Speed was his breakthrough movie, but The Matrix made him a superstar.

If there is one word to describe Keanu, it’s inarticulate.

He’s been known to throw up his hands in despair because of his failure to communicate.

In New York to promote Sweet November he is his usual enigmatic self. 

Sweet November is  a sentimental love story in which Charlize Theron plays a kookie character dying of consumption.

For an actor long admired for his idiosyncratic movies, it’s a strange choice.

There was a time when he turned down just about everything he was offered including $15 million to do a sequel to Speed. Lately however he’s worked non stop. In fact three of his recent  films were released in a span of five months.

Why the compulsion to work so much? I ask him

“I’m enjoying acting. In the past year and a half it I’ve started to feel a sense of my own technique. I’ve tried different things over the years, different ways to work, but now I’m kind of defining for myself just what works for me and what doesn’t. And I find that fulfilling.” 

His personal life sadly hasn’t been as fulfilling. A child that he fathered was stillborn (the identity of the mother is unknown.)

He steadfastly refuses to talk about his personal life.

Doesn’t he owe it to his fans? I ask him.

“I don’t feel I have any obligation to share my private life with people who enjoy my work,” he replies.

So fame means nothing to him?

“For me it’s just someone coming up to you on the street and saying hi. Hopefully you’re famous because people like your work.”

Doesn’t it impact his private life?

“I haven’t found that,” he replies obliquely.

Aren’t there people who pursue him because he’s famous?

“I haven’t had that experience in an intimate relationship, where I felt I was not being seen for who I was, who I feel I am. I can’t negate any part of me. It’s who I am and that’s how others have always viewed me. You’d have to be there in order to understand it.” 

How important is love and is he in love?

“At the moment, no. Unfortunately.” 

Is he, as his director describes him, chivalrous?

“I act with chivalry. I have a romantic spirit, and no, I won’t tell you any stories.”

Obsessive was another term the director used to describe him.

Is he?

“I love acting. I try to do the best I can; so I guess you can call it obsessive, but I don’t know. Obsession to me seems like a  term that’s kind of psychotic, and I’m not that. I certainly apply myself, I care,  but I’m not obsessive.”

Even though he’s made films with some great directors including Francis Ford Coppola and Bernardo Bertolucci, the film he is most proud of is The Matrix. He was especially pleased when the film  won four Oscars.

“I was really happy for everyone. I remember when I first met the Wachowski brothers a couple of years ago, they showed me this eight second prototypical shot of what became bullet time. To see that sequence projected at the Academy Awards, it was an incredible journey for me. And then to have them win for best editing, sound editing, and special effects, it was great. I was very happy for everyone involved.”

He once turned down $15 million to do the sequel of Speed. Yet he is now working  on the sequel to The Matrix.

Why?

“The script. Before I committed I had to know what the brothers intended to do artistically. Once I found out, I was interested and thankfully they were interested in me.”

Does he have script approval? 

“No I don’t. It’s a situation of trust which I have in them.” 

What themes can we expect from the sequel?

“Part of the ambition of its directors (the Wachowski brothers) is that there is no summing up.  But they’re interested in the idea of the infinite and the finite. They told me to go buy some Schopenhauer and some Hume. I didn’t know what that meant. I’m finding out.”

Are all the same actors  back?

“Yes, everybody is set, the entire cast — Carrie Ann Moss, Lawrence Fishbourne, Hugo Weaving and Marcus Chung — they’ll all be back.”

With all of talk of runaway production (he himself shot a movie in Toronto) does he have second thoughts about shooting the film in Australia, 

“I know a lot of people who work in the industry and I’d like to see them employed. They wanted to shoot Sweet November in Canada, but I said no. I didn’t want to.”

Sweet November is not his best reviewed film.

Do bad reviews bother him?

“I don’t have an emotional reaction.”

Nothing phases him?

“Of course when you’re auditioning for a film and you don’t get the part, that can be very frustrating.”

How does he juggle his movie career with playing in a band? 

“Sometimes it’s very frustrating. But when we were shooting Matrix, the guys came to Australia and we did a couple of weekend shows there. When I did Chain Reaction they came to Chicago. I don’t really think about it, like it was a choice. I got to do this or that. I see myself as an actor who loves playing music so hopefully I can do both.”

Which they have for quite some time now?

“Yeah, the band has been around for about seven or eight years. We just had a record released in the States, so the curiosity factor has lessened. We certainly have more fans than we used to have because of the touring.”

How close are the members of Dogstar? 

“We really have a tight bond, yes. I love the camaraderie of the band.” 

How do they create their music?

“Usually we rehearse at our drummer’s house. He has a space where we rehearse. We have drums, guitar, bass, and we have a little cassette deck on the floor while we’re writing. We just start playing, and if anyone reacts, we all join in and then we see where it wants to go. We’ll play, and then all of a sudden everyone feels a change coming, and either it happens or it explodes into nothing. If it happens, we remember it, record it, and then when we listen to it the next day, if we still like it, we try to do choruses. “

They’ve been getting some pretty good reviews recently?

“Oh yeah. We rock. We’ve been touring now for over four years, and we’re coming up with our own sound. We had a show  in L.A. recently,  and our friends were saying, ‘We used to come out to support you, the free beer,’  but now people are saying, ‘We really had a great time. We love your work.’ Hopefully you’ll dig it.”

Did he always want to be a rock and roll star?

“Not at all. I never wanted it. I never even wanted to be an actor. It came from within. Playing bass came to me when I was in my twenties. First I loved the sound of the instrument and then the physicality of playing it. When I started to play and jam and stuff, it became really fun, and then certain friends would play.”

Is he happy with their progress?

“As long as we’re getting along, writing songs, and having fun, which we are right now.”

AND THRERE YEAERS LATER

Keanu Reeves has been out of circulation for almost two years making the two Matrix sequels in Australia.

Now, after four years the first one entitled The Matrix Reloaded has opened to spectacular box office assuring its place in history by earning more money in one week than any previous film including the more family friendly Spiderman.

At his press conference in Los Angeles  Reeves is as enigmatic as ever.

Aloof — isn’t that his trade mark? — he’s never happy talking about his personal. 

Like Jodie Foster, he doesn’t live his life in the glare of publicity.

Even his good deeds are left unsaid.

When asked at his last press conference if it were true that he had given his ancillary revenues from the two Matrix sequels to the films’ crew, he snapped, “I’d rather people didn’t know that. It was just a private event. It was something I could afford to do. It’s a worthwhile thing to do.”  

Some have estimated the value of his generosity at $40 million.

When I have a chance to talk to him, I mention Tilda Swinton’s criticism of American actors (like Leonardo DiCaprio) who closet themselves in their trailers and never join in the process. Obviously he is not one of them. 

Can he talk about his special relationship to the crew?

“I really enjoy working with crafts people. I’ll sometimes sit on the set between shots and just watch people work. I think it’s really beautiful. I love watching people who are really good at what they do. It was cool to meet all those artisans who worked on the first and share what we were doing over this length of time. It was cool to rap about the movie; that was one of the really enjoyable aspects for me, hanging out with these people.”

How long were they there altogether? 

“270 shooting days. Basically I was there for my 37th year.”

Did he commute back and forth to the U.S?

“No, I stayed in Australia for the whole time. I happen to love Sydney I had a great experience there. I can’t wait to get back. The people are great and for me it’s an awesome place.”

Wasn’t he ever lonely?

“Work hard, play hard” is his enigmatic reply.

What specifically did he do?

“Go out to dinner,” is his quick answer.

What about his “folk thrash” band Dogstar, for which he plays bass, did they perform while he was there?

“No.”

Is there anything about Australia that he misses?

“I met some great people. I made some good friends. Basically for me it was going out to dinner, taking a bike ride, hanging out with people, going to concerts. I got into this band Blue Line Medic. I went to some of their shows. They’re some cool cats.”

Did he do any surfing?

“I jumped into the ocean a couple of times. I didn’t travel much, but I went north to Port Douglas for Christmas. I saw some plays but mostly it was going out to dinner, drinking some wine,  hanging out.”

He has never enjoyed talking to the press.

He once threw up his hands in despair grabbed hold of the interviewer’s tape recorder and asked to end the interview. 

There was a time when he turned down everything including $15 million to do a sequel to Speed because the movies he wanted to make were the ones he wanted to see.

But for the last four years he’s been working non stop — two years ago for instance three of his films were released in a span of five months.

When I asked him why, he replied,  “I’m enjoying acting. In the past year and a half it I’ve started to feel a sense of my own technique. I’ve tried different things over the years, different ways to work, but now I’m kind of defining just what works for me and what doesn’t. And I find that fulfilling.” 

Sadly his personal life hasn’t been as fulfilling. A child that he fathered was stillborn (the mother tragically died a year later in a car accident.)

Publicly he remains celibate, never seen with others.

When told that his Matrix co-star Carrie Ann Moss thinks of her (five month) pregnancy as life affirming, he’s nervous that someone might ask about his own tragedy. 

What would he like to do that would be life affirming?

Instead of answering the question, he replies, “I can’t wait for her to have her child. I think it’s really beautiful; I just wish her a healthy wonderful experience for her and her child. That kid’s going to be really lucky to have her as a mother. I hope to continue to know her and her child until we pass away.”

Now that he’s approaching forty, has he made any resolutions for the coming year?

“No,” he answers.

To prepare for the original Matrix, the Wachowski Brothers had him read Kierkegaard.

What assignment was he given this time?

“Schopenauer. Will and Representation.”

What is he reading at the moment?

“A book by Simon Schama about the French Revolution.”

His character Neo is a Messianic figure. Did he discuss this with the directors? (They still  refuse to talk to the press.)

“Part of the ambition of the brothers is that there is no summing up. It’s about questioning, awakening, consciousness, love, support, faith, evolution, man’s relationship to machines, Kung Fu cinema. It’s got mythical figures — the hero, the wise man, the warriors, the guides, the oracle, and the Messiah.”

What does he think?

“It’s a film that utilizes mythic and religious themes, a synthesis of so any different things. It’s not just one thing. It might be the rebirth, the resurrection of Christianity or the freeing of one’s mind of Siddharta. I ask the same questions my character asks.”

Teenage audiences who revere The Matrix are obsessed with computer games. How healthy does he think that is?

“I can’t put a judgment on that. Do I think a community of children playing a video game is as healthy as a community of children playing in a field. I don’t know. All I can say is if you do anything in excess it’s probably not good for you. But I can’t judge.”

What is his relationship to machines?

“I love my motorcycle.”

Anything else?

“I don’t really have that many sophisticated apparatus around me, but I got a lot of ones and zeroes in my life.”

Meaning computers?

“I personally don’t have one. I always ask friends if I need to look something up.”

Does he think Hollywood has changed over the years?

“I’d say being on a set in l986 there was more of a pirate aspect to it. It doesn’t have that kind of gypsy renegade feel anymore.”

Having spent most of his formative years in Toronto, are there things he misses about Canada?

“I miss my friends. I had a lot of fun growing up there. We would play in the streets until 11 o’clock a night. There would be like eight of us, a little gang of kids from nine to eighteen running around. We’d play hide and seek, have chestnut fights. Of course I don’t miss any of that,  but I think back on it fondly.”

Is that where he discovered his interest in music?

“As a matter of fact when I was seventeen I had a girl friend, an older girlfriend  who turned me on to a lot of music. I had this car and these speakers in the back, and she turned me on to bands like Joy Division, the Violent Femmes. We would get in the car, drink a little, do this or that, and I’d put the speakers on top of the car, and we’d go to a park, and we’d dance.”

Have they kept in touch?

“No.”

Was there any particular reason why he was born in Beirut, Lebanon?

“None that I know of. My mother and father were twenty, twenty one year old kids, swinging in Beirut, having some fun, and they had a kid.”

Has he ever been back?

“No I never have. I hope to go one day. I’ve seen photos of my parents when they were there, so it would be cool to go there.”

Now that he’s completed the Matrix trilogy, will he continue to do martial arts?

“I don’t know. I certainly enjoy it. It’s really clean fun. It’s fun to have fake fights. For me its an elemental form of play, like cowboys and Indians, playing ball in the park. It’s some kind of primal fun.” 

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