Wherever you fall on the Keanu spectrum, one thing is certain: he’s fascinating.
He’s also a helluva nice guy. As soon as the 49-year-old actor-director moseys in to an empty conference room at Toronto’s InterContinental hotel, the first words out of his mouth are:
Hey, do you want some water?
We’re here in the Great White North for the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, where Keanu’s feature directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, is making its North American premiere. The film, a labor of love for him, took five years to complete, because he revisited it off-and-on between acting roles, and is a martial-arts film that’s largely in Chinese. It centers on Tiger Chen Linhu (Tiger Chen), a delivery man-cum-tai chi expert who, after his monastery is foreclosed on, finds himself kicking ass in an underground fight club for money. The club is run by Donaka Mark (Reeves), an evil, evil bastard who gets kicks out of seeing desperate men kill for sport.
So, this is the mother country, right?
Yeah! I grew up here in Canada, when I was like 6 to 20. My formative years!
I grew up with the Bill & Ted movies. What is going on with this proposed third film?
I don’t know! There’s a script and everything, and we’re trying. The universe hasn’t been kind. There seems to be a lot of interest in it, but we can’t seem to get the financial side of it to take hold, so there’s not much we can do.
Bill & Ted is about time travel… sort of. If you could travel back to any point in time, where would you go?
OK, so let’s just start with some mysteries. Let’s find out about the Jesus thing and just hang out there. Let’s just hang out. I’ll just follow him around, like Where’s Waldo. We could solve that one. Then, let’s solve the Shakespeare one.
Christopher Marlowe, you think?
Marlowe? Earl of Oxford! Earl de Vere! So we can solve the Shakespeare thing, we’ll do the Jesus thing, let’s do the Muhammad thing… we could even do the Moses thing! Let’s just solve some questions. Who did what? Did it really happen?
Get some much-needed clarification.
Yeah! I’ll go on a clarification space-travel tour. We could take the top 50 things, and then just check them out. Go back to Adam and Eve, or wait for that thing to come out of the ocean, or do the microbiology thing. Take some pictures and get some sound bites. Come back with some info. You’d need some evidence. And that would be fun, because you’d get to see some humans, see the world, see the planet… Go back to Sumerian times, check that out. Breathe some older, younger earth air. Wait to see that big ol’ crater, that meteor coming.
The Big Bang?
Yeah! Go back to The Big Bang, and just hang out in your perfect little bubble and check that one out. Let’s just go there.
Let’s talk about Man of Tai Chi. Why did you opt for a martial-arts film as your feature directorial debut? And in a foreign language, no less.
I was really inspired by the lead actor, Tiger. We met in ’97 when we worked together on The Matrix trilogy—he was working with Woo-Ping, the fight choreographer—and he was assigned to me. With all the hours of training and stretching, you talk and get to know each other, and become friends. We developed the story together, and it got to the point where I realized I wanted to tell the story.
There’s a sequence where Tiger hits the camera. He’s just walking by it, and he hits it. That’s crazy sauce!”
Tai chi is primarily used for stress management, and to achieve mental clarity. How do you, in your life, strive to achieve this?
What do I do… Sometimes through sport… Ride a motorcycle… Red wine. Yeah.
And the character you play in the film is an evil suit. Did you base him on, say, any Hollywood agents?
No, I based him on a sort of Mephistophelean character—more of a seducer, and more demonic, in a way. Someone who is looking to control people, change people, steal their soul, and bring them to places where they ultimately kill, and make it public.
Your character wears a Bluetooth. Isn’t that a douchebag signifier if there ever was one? Plus, it’s always so bizarre because it sounds like people are talking to themselves.
I know! Yeah. They’ve gone to a place that others haven’t. What is that? Maybe we just haven’t acclimatized to it yet, you know? I dunno. And whenever something’s sticking in your ear, it’s always kind of weird. You’re like, “What’s in your ear?” Whoa.
Since your character in the film runs this underground fight club that’s broadcast to an online audience, it’s also a commentary of sorts on reality television.
Absolutely, there’s an extension there. It’s a dark extension because it’s not like people losing weight and benefitting from the experience, or going to rehab, or living together, or finding a love partner, or Hey, I’m famous and watch me live in the world! This is voyeurism of a kind of vampiric thing where you’re seeing harm and death. And it’s also about surveillance. And the audience is complicit in that as well.
What are your thoughts on reality television, and surveillance, and the path that we’re currently on? It seems like we’re only getting more and more voyeuristic, and at the same time, more and more surveilled.
Yeah. I remember speaking with Soderbergh for Side by Side, and he made the point that he feels like everyone is performing, and the authenticity of people in public is diminishing because everyone’s performing, since we stream, photograph, and share everything. I’m sure modern philosophers could have a field day with that. Is it apocalyptic art? Are we learning because we’re forgetting? What are we keeping, and what are we storing? Is it not real unless it’s shared, but then what about the act of sharing?
Do you watch any reality TV?
I’ve seen some of the rehab stuff, some of the [Richard] Simmons stuff… I haven’t watched Big Brother much. I haven’t seen any of the Shore’s or the Housewives. I check in to the weight-loss stuff sometimes. I’ll just be channel surfing and see what’s going on out there. Stroll the Internet, and stuff.
You’re not on Twitter.
No, not yet. I haven’t had the time yet. Like, what are your time choices?
It is pretty time-consuming and messes with your focus. I guess it's all about perspective.
For Man of Tai Chi, I was having fun with different perspectives, like doing a lot of subjective or objective, and fourth-camera stuff. I felt like there were no rules, and that the film could absorb all of those styles. There’s a sequence where Tiger hits the camera. He’s just walking by it, and he hits it. That’s crazy sauce! I remember the operator going, “You’re doing what?” And I was like, “Tiger, move the camera out of the way.” That’s craaaazy.
Tai chi has roots in Buddhism. Is that what you practice?
No, no. I had a little bit of experience with it when I was working on Little Buddha, but I haven’t taken refuge in the dharma.
Are you a spiritual person?
I don’t know? I don’t know the spiritual Richter scale measurement! That’s a weird answer, isn’t it? I don’t know. Do I believe in God, faith, inner faith, the self, passion, and things? Yes, of course! I’m very spiritual… Supremely spiritual… Bountifully spiritual… Supremely bountiful. [Laughs]
We live in an age when the public constantly judges public figures. What is the biggest misconception about you?
I guess there was that “Sad Keanu” meme—the bench thing. I don’t know if I’d describe myself as a sad person.
Would you describe yourself as a happy person?
Yeah! Happy-go-lucky. A spiritual, happy-go-lucky guy! [Laughs]
Why do you think the “Sad Keanu” thing took off the way it did? One of the reasons that I think it really took off is because you’ve been through a lot of hardships in your life, so I think people saw the meme, began looking into your history, and realized you were a survivor.
A lot of people have been through hardships. But I don’t know! I thought it was funny, though. We’re all survivors…. [Long Pause]
Now, I’m a very big fan of Point Break. Did you and Swayze know how homoerotic it was while you were making it?
Yeah, of course! Yeah. For sure.
It’s sort of like Top Gun, though. I’m not sure those guys knew how homoerotic it really was while they were making it, since it is somewhat veiled.
Oh, they must have! Of course they did.
Point Break has become such a pop-culture artifact, it seems, and this is one of the big reasons.
Yeah, artifact. Art is fact. Art-I-Fact. Artificial Act. Um… Artifac-to-a-T. Um… I don’t know. It was that, and the machismo of it, and the dialogue. With Kathryn [Bigelow], the director, her gung-ho attitude and energy, and pushing everything so big—the language is big, the scenes are big, the action is big—and she was just pushing stuff. The face-to-face, the things, the bromance…
…That amazing scene where you fire off your gun in the air out of frustration.
Oh come on, that was hilarious!
It really was. Have you seen Hot Fuzz, where they parody it?
No, no I haven’t.
Oh, you really should. It’s hilarious.