Put another way, he’s the accidental superstar, approaching big-budget studio projects with the thespian brio of a summer-stock player. Outlandish rewards were never the goal. It’s what makes Reeves so believable as Neo, the reluctant hero of The Matrix. “Oftentimes we’d be sitting around talking about what we were doing in the piece,” says costar Laurence Fishburne, “and I remember Keanu saying, ‘Here’s this guy, he’s living his life and all of a sudden somebody comes along and says, “Hey! You’re gonna save the world!” That’s heavy shit! What do you do with that?’ I don’t think Keanu sees himself as being heroic in any way. If there’s anything about his characters he relates to it’s their ordinarinessthe stuff that makes them human, not the stuff that makes them superhuman. I know that he really had great affection and love for Neo. He had compassion for the man assigned this great responsibility.”
Unsurprisingly, in a self-aggrandizing line of work Reeves can be selflessrequesting that his bloated, tricked-out trailer on the set of The Replacements be exchanged for something smaller, in deference to the rest of the cast; diverting some of his salary to the key crew on The Matrix; kicking in more than a million dollars of his own money for The Devil’s Advocate when the studio complained that Al Pacino would be too expensive; doing roughly the same for Gene Hackman on The Replacements. He is congenitally polite, which is why the role of the wife-beating Donnie Barksdale in 2000’s The Gift was, for him, such a mind-blowing leap. During some exploratory improv, Reeves found himself in a trailer with his on-screen wife, Hilary Swank, slapping her silly. “I put a little mustard on it,” he admits. “I’m not going to abuse a trust, but in order to investigate the situation you have to commit. And it ended with her up against a wall and me behind her starting to take off her pants. Then we stopped.” The incident only hints at the possibility of a dark side to Reeves; he has been so successful at cocooning his public image in a kind of enigmatic murk, one can only guess at the number and the nature of his demons. Personal questions are met with a practiced minimalism.
When I ask if he has a girlfriend, he replies, “No, I do not have a girlfriend right now, no,” in the manner of a witness for the prosecution. When I ask how he celebrated landing his first movie roll, in 1986’s Youngblood, he says he leaped over a steel fence. Memories of his early boyhood in New York City are served up haiku style. “I remember play* ing in the park,” he says. “I remember Monster Balls. These Super Balls with monsters on the inside. I remember running after those things.” Of course, more revealing tidbits have drifted out over time, and they tend to be troubling: The fact that he is estranged from his half-Chinese, half-Hawaiian father, a man who did jail time for drug possession; the fact that one of Reeves’s two sisters is battling leukemia; the fact that the baby Reeves was to have with his girlfriend two years ago died in the womb, and his girlfriendby then an exwas killed in a car accident shortly afterward. Questioning Reeves about such things would be both churlish and fruitless. That people sometimes do takes his breath away still.
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