Bang on target: Keanu Reeves on thriller John Wick and his hopes to resurrect Bill & Ted for a third movie
Keanu Reeves returns to the big screen in action thriller John Wick. The Matrix star speaks to Tom Teodorczuk about his latest role, the remake of Point Break and his hopes to resurrect Bill & Ted for a third movie.
Keanu Reeves is reliving the time he attended the 2003 Oscars and when the gulf between Hollywood illusion and reality was strikingly laid bare. "Peter O'Toole was a hero of mine," he says. "He gets this special award at the Academy Awards, like: 'You are the man! 'Yeah!' Then you go to the Vanity Fair after-party and it's champagne and he's there. Coming outside of the Vanity Fair party, there was Peter O'Toole with his family waiting for a car. I was like: 'How can that be? How can none of these people who were celebrating him have a car waiting for him?' But that's the hustle… The glamour is not 24-hour."
The episode crystallised for Reeves the artificial nature of performance. "There's something about being in front of the camera or after the curtain opens and you're on stage and then it closes," he says. "I remember being struck by this when I was doing high-school theatre. Facing the audience was a forest and behind the flat it was wood and staples and nails and splodges of paint. That idea of being celebrated and then going home, it's just life. You still do all this s***."
It's 30 years since, as Reeves simply puts it, "I drove from Toronto to Los Angeles to act in Hollywood." He's now 50-years-old, but when we meet in New York, his high cheekbones and piercing brown eyes ensure his boyish aura remains intact. Reeves has long confounded interviewers by being well-mannered but withdrawn and melancholic. He dwells hard upon every question posed, as though a stranger to English language, only to then answer with a mixture of exaggerated emphasis and acute intelligence.
Take his attitude to turning 50. "Forty went by fast," he says. "That's what they say, right, it just goes by faster and faster as you go towards the white light. It used to be the march, now it's the run, soon it will be the sprint… for me 50 was like starting to connect and I think it's part of the second childhood that Shakespeare speaks about."
Reeves definitely left a deep imprint on my first childhood. His 'Too Cool for School' vibe in the nineties ensured that at my suburban Surrey school his every character proved a constant source of conversation: seeing the airhead in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure soon after starting secondary school; sneaking in to see him as a prostitute opposite River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho; Buddha in Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha; and as a sixth-former catching him foiling a bomb-on-a-bus threat in action-thriller Speed.
His latest memorable character is as the title role in John Wick, a stylish, violent revenge tale about a former hitman seeking revenge on the Russian mafia after the murder of his late wife's dog. Every decade, it seems, Reeves roars back into life with a new action film and, just over 10 years, after he concluded the Matrix trilogy, John Wick has been a box-office smash in the US. Directed by The Matrix stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, John Wick is a familiar story but the eponymous hero is off the beaten track.
"Keanu brings something different to an action movie - a soft side, instead of this guy that's just a Terminator," says Stahelski. Reeves says he owes his action-man status to Kathryn Bigelow, who directed him in 1991 surfing thriller Point Break alongside Patrick Swayze.
"She had this idea I could play Johnny Utah," he reflects. "It changed my life." Its influence resonates today: "You can almost say that without Point Break, you don't have The Fast and the Furious. They're connected, aren't they, in terms of action?" He is undecided about whether to see the Point Break remake out this summer. "I don't know. We'll see. It's cool that a period in time is trying to be inspired by something."
John Wick pairs Reeves with Willem Dafoe, who played the villain in Speed 2, the sequel to Speed that Reeves notoriously turned down because he didn't like the script. That reinforced the perception of Reeves's idiosyncratic independence - he was as unusual as his Christian name in not returning for the obligatory sequel to a huge hit.
"Hopefully one can afford to do what you're creatively interested in and what creatively challenges because then it makes life better," he says. "I think definitely in the 1990s that was an issue, it was definitely involved with Speed 2. There have been certain moments in time like that and there's other ones that would be, 'why do you say "no" to that?' (He turned down roles in Heat and Platoon.) Speed 2 bombed with Jason Patric in the lead so he was right, I point out. "Speed 2? I feel like we're talking about something from 800 years ago. That doesn't even have a ripple anymore and I don't mean that in a bad way."
Reeves was born in Beirut to a Chinese-Hawaiian father and an English mother. The latter raised him in Toronto when his parents divorced. Did he get a British upbringing? "Absolutely. There were a lot of behavioural cues and certain manners: set the table, please and thank you, yes and no, ma'am and sir." This prepared him well for an early role in Stephen Frears's 1988 costume drama Dangerous Liaisons. "I didn't get a lot of rehearsals," he says. "Literally the first day I had to work on set with John Malkovich and Glenn Close. I was like, 'Wow! Okay! Better get comfortable fast, kid! Okay I think I'll just lay down my head on Glenn Close's bosom!"
Following the Matrix trilogy, Reeves extended himself. "The past 10 years have been trying to make things," he says. He directed his first film, little-seen martial arts film Man of Tai Chi, and produced a documentary, Side by Side, chronicling the rise of digital film.
Reeves, whose performance as Hamlet in a Canadian stage production in 1995 was acclaimed, is keen to return to the stage, but there's one stipulation. "I'd like to do a new play. I don't want to do a classic." He adopts a booming theatrical voice: 'I'm doing A Streetcar Named Desire!' Who gives a damn? I'd rather have some edgy play that has something to say."
He is also keen to return to comedy and make a third Bill and Ted movie but that's caught up in red tape. "There's a script but we're trying to get money together to get the rights from MGM to let us make it," he says.
John Wick will return, a sequel has been announced. Reeves has been thoughtful during our chat so I ask him if it is really necessary for Wick to embark on a killing spree following the death of his dog? "Watch the movie and then tell me if you think that. Because if you watch it, you're going to be going, 'I've got no problem with what Wick is doing'... John isn't killing innocent people, there is an honour to him and a process and I think that people will relate."
- John Wick is at cinemas now.