Keanu Reeves is, to borrow a phrase from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a righteous dude.
The Canadian star of cult classics like My Own Private Idaho and Point Break as well as the blockbuster Matrix trilogy has, at the age of 49, achieved veteran status in Hollywood and as such, has ventured into filmmaking. The opening salvo was Side By Side, a documentary that Reeves produced last year about the future of filmmaking in an increasingly digitized world. And now, he’s released his feature directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, which is now available on VOD and comes out on DVD Dec. 10.
The film was inspired by Reeves’s fight coordinator on The Matrix films, Tiger Chen, and stars Chen as Tiger Chen Linhu, a delivery man/Tai Chi disciple who is seduced by the wealthy Donaka Mark (Reeves) into joining an underground fight ring, squaring off against a series of opponents in brutal bouts that are then televised for the rich. Reeves is also starring in the upcoming film 47 Ronin, out Dec. 25—a $175 million blockbuster and fictional account of the real-life tale of a group of 18th century samurai who avenged the murder of their master.
Reeves spoke to The Daily Beast about his films, grade school beat-downs, being biracial, and much more.
We talked in Toronto a little bit about the film. What was the toughest hurdle, for you, when it came to directing your first feature?
The toughest hurdle… you know, I always look at hurdles and challenges as opportunities. The toughest hurdle was just time and money. Sometimes your hopes and dreams don’t match up with your budget, so you have to make adjustments. But in those situations, you also can create something you fall in love with.
The reality TV aspect of Man of Tai Chi is pretty topical, since Tiger is lured into this fighting ring where his bouts are being broadcast to an audience of the rich and powerful. What’s your take on reality TV?
Through the lens of the film, there is, like you say, a topical aspect of surveillance—or being watched—and the culture of watching, so in Man of Tai Chi, I tried taking it to its darkest nadir in a sense of watching an innocent person and, through the carrot of their own appetite, losing yourself in [fighting], and with the audience, they’re interested in him killing or being killed. [Laughs] I think of the Romans; a loss of humanity, in a way, and a people given to bloodlust.
There is a Most Dangerous Game-esque element here, as far as the rich manipulating the poor. It seems to be big in the culture now, this theme of the rich manipulating the poor for their own twisted form of entertainment—like in The Hunger Games films.
Yeah. Whether it’s government or the rich and powerful, I think people are feeling vulnerable. There are means, and the will to capture, to monitor, and to watch. By example it’s asking a question.
Are you paranoid about being monitored? This is post-Edward Snowden era with NSA tapping, as well as the News of the World phone-tapping scandal with various celebs getting their phones tapped.
Sure. Well, I don’t have my house swept every month, and thank god there’s the deep web—no, I’m kidding. [Laughs] But, yes and no. I don’t like the idea of it, and I would hate it practically as well. Have you read Dave Eggers’s book The Circle? Check that out. It’s a fun read about what we’re talking about right now. It’s all about surveillance, and intrusion into your private life.
Did you see the special the other night on 60 Minutes about Amazon’s delivery drones?
You know, I was working the other night. What’s going on?
Well, Amazon is trying to roll out these tiny delivery drones within the next four to five years that can deliver purchased goods to your doorstep in under 30 minutes. These little flying machines. It’s pretty insane.
[Laughs] Awesome! It’s like The Jetsons! “Alright, I got that cookbook! And my drone! Watch out for the fuckin’ Amazon drone!”
There’s going to be drunk dudes down South who just forgot they ordered something and they’ll be out there with a shotgun going all target practice on the Amazon drones.
I know, right? “PULL!” [Laughs]
It is the holiday season. Are you into the holidays at all?
Absolutely. Christmas is coming!
How do you usually celebrate Christmas? Do you do a big thing at your house?
Over the years, I’ve had some really nice Christmas dinners at the house with friends and family.
Do you cook anything? Is there a special Keanu dish that you bust out?
No, no, no. [Laughs] I’ll lay out the utensils and I’ll do the dishes but you don’t want me cooking. No one wants that. [Laughs]
Man of Tai Chi also, of course, deals with fighting. Do you remember the last time you got in an actual fight?
I’ve been in confrontations in my adult life, but I haven’t actually had to fight-fight. Probably since grade school was the last time I was actually fighting, but there were fights, and I’d go to the principal’s office for fighting. It would just happen once in a while—schoolyard confrontations.
Did you usually emerge the victor? Or were you getting your ass handed to you?
[Laughs] I remember there was one time where I was in a fight, and I was actually winning the fight, and then I thought, “Well, you don’t really need to fight,” so I just stopped fighting. I was like, “Cool, man… let’s just stop fighting.”
Do you have favorite kung fu films? I was raised on them a bit, and my favorites are The Five Deadly Venoms, Shaolin Master Killer, and Enter the Dragon.
I’ve seen quite a few of them, and I really do like kung fu films. As a young kid, Enter the Dragon was one of the first ones I saw—in Times Square, actually. I remember being taken to a double feature of that and Five Fingers of Death.
Oh, I love Five Fingers of Death. Glowing red fists. Awesome. As far as your Donaka Mark character, he really is this rich bastard who gets his jollies by manipulating these poor men into fighting for sport. Have you ever been on a film and felt manipulated by a director, sort of like a marionette?
To a certain extent, absolutely. I remember working on a film called The Devil’s Advocate with Taylor Hackford and he would just talk to me and just keep talking, and I was like, “Leave me alone, man!” I realized that he wanted a certain anger in me sometimes; a rage. And I got that. So we would clash—I would yell and scream, and he would yell and scream—and then at the end of the day, we’d shake hands. And the next day, he’d start in on me again and I’d scream, “YOU DON’T HELP ME! LEAVE ME ALONE!” And then he’d go, “OK, action!” and start rolling.
So he was manipulating you, in a way, to get the performance out of you because your character is supposed to be unhinged and totally paranoid. He was playing Milton [Al Pacino’s character in the movie], to a degree.
Yeah, there was. He’d just smile while I was yelling at him. [Laughs] He was playing Milton! Exactly.
The way you used tai chi in the film is interesting, because it’s used as an offensive tactic, when it’s usually thought of as a defensive one—as well as a philosophy of sorts that is said to promote longevity. The Matrix is also a pretty philosophical film. Do you subscribe to any schools of philosophy?
Um… no. I don’t. In Man of Tai Chi, absolutely, tai chi normally isn’t used for fighting, but the concepts of transferring energy—push and pull—and the ideas of using thoughtfulness and meditation for your actions are definitely tai chi themes, and are used in Man of Tai Chi. We see Tiger practicing those things with his master early on. There are so many elements to it—life force, breath, etc.
As far as The Matrix goes, would you take the blue pill and stay in The Matrix, or would you take the red pill, and be transported to the real world. It’s I guess a “knowledge is power, ignorance is bliss”-type argument there.
Hmm … It depends. How good is it in the blue world? I think I’d slant to the red. To me, it’s not necessarily about keeping it real, but the character is asking, “What is the truth? What’s happening here?” and when I read that in the script, it resonated with me personally. As a young person, I was always curious about why things are the way things are, and what’s going on here. That’s still how I am—what’s the truth? What’s happening?
Do you think your inherent curiosity towards the world—and I know this is explored a bit in 47 Ronin, where you play a character of mixed race—was fueled at all by growing up as someone of mixed ethnicity?
The ethnicity part of it, I’d speak about it more as an outsider. But in terms of an innate curiosity, perhaps … But maybe if you’re on the outside, you’re questioning what’s going there. “What’s going on?” So, perhaps!
One of the first times I went to Sundance I saw Thumbsucker, which I felt didn’t really get the love it deserved. You poke a little fun at the way people tend to perceive you in the film by playing this spacey dentist. What do you think the biggest misconception the public has about you is—that you’re this spacey, surfer dude type of guy?
I love that movie! Well … that was certainly true in the ’90s. Certainly true in the ’90s. [Laughs] I guess it’s moved onto the “sad” thing now—the “Sad Keanu” meme that I keep hearing about, even though it was three years ago. So … a sad surfer dude? [Laughs]
I did want to ask one Bill & Ted question. Do you think Bill & Ted 3 is actually going to happen, and what are the biggest hurdles as far as pushing the project through goes?
There’s a really great story, and a really great script written. I think the script would cost about $350 million to make, so they’re trying to make a script that’s not $350 million. Once we have that script, maybe we can go out in earnest and try to find if anyone wants to make it; find a home for it. It would be surreal—in a good way. [Laughs]