Keanu Reeves bulked up, trained hard and looks suitably grave for his latest film performance as a troubled, violent Los Angeles cop in Street Kings. It's probably the most adult thing we've ever seen him do. And it's about time.
"Yeah, sure, it's a grown-up role," acknowledges Reeves, now slimmed back down to his regular weight and looking a good decade younger than his 43 years. "I don't think I could have played it like I did five or 10 years ago. Tommy Ludlow is a full and true adult."
Why should this matter to a star of Reeves's, um, vintage? People still identify the Toronto-raised actor with his teenage roles in the Bill & Ted comedies, or as Neo, the young universe-saver from The Matrix trilogy. Less than five years ago, he was still convincingly cast as Diane Keaton's youthful love interest in Something's Gotta Give.
But Reeves is definitely no kid in Street Kings, which boasts an original script by James Ellroy ( L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia) and was directed by Training Day writer David Ayer. Detective Ludlow is a trigger-happy, alcoholic widower facing a midlife crisis of conscience. Reeves doesn't have a goofy moment in it, and he apparently felt his age during the movie's production.
"It was one of the toughest shooting experiences that I've had," admits Reeves, sporting jet black tousled hair. "It was a really demanding role, but also just getting it on film was really demanding. I was in every shot, and it's a pretty physical role, but, also, the character was just in such turmoil all the time. ... It was 18-hour, 15-hour, 17-hour, 18-hour, 15-hour days. So, in that sense, for this line of work, it's pretty taxing.
"But I enjoyed the intensity of it very much. I like that immersion in that complete subsuming of your life. Hopefully, it was worthwhile."
That kind of work ethic has served Reeves well since he got his first movie break, as the masked goalie in the 1986 hockey picture Youngblood. Net was his position on his high-school team [at De La Salle College]where he was known as "the Wall." Unkind critics have suggested that the same nickname could be applied to some of his movie work, even though he has mixed in artistically credible projects such as River's Edge and My Own Private Idaho with the dumb teen comedy, action headbangers and romantic fluff.
By choosing blockbusters such as Speed and The Matrix, Reeves wisely ensured that he would remain an established veteran over the long haul.
"It's the first time I've been called an established veteran," he says, cackling. "The first time! I've arrived to established veteran! Which is great. I've always hoped to have a career and I still hope to have a career, and I've been fortunate and I'm grateful to have a body of work, to add onto that.
"But, yeah, I've been starting to get inklings of that for, like, the past five years. Some of the actors I've been acting with, like Chris Evans in Street Kings, their memories of films are films that I acted in. It's like, 'Oh yeah, I saw you when I was 11 in Bill & Ted' or Speed or whatever it was. So I guess that's just a course of life. It's happening more, but it's not a bad thing."
Reeves's life course was unconventional from the start. Born in Beirut to an English mother and Hawaiian/Chinese father, he moved with his mom to New York before she settled in Toronto in time for him to start school (though he has called L.A. home for years, Reeves maintains Canadian citizenship).
"I had a great upbringing in Toronto," he recalls affectionately. "The grade school I went to [Jesse Ketchum Public School]was such a, not protected, but open-to-the-world learning environment, socially. There was really no racism, there were no class distinctions; it was a great cross-section of kids from first grade to eighth grade. It was, I guess, the best of what you would think of as a liberal education. If you had a fight, it was personal, you know what I mean? We didn't inherit it. And I'm really grateful for that."
Beside hockey, Reeves caught the acting bug in high school. To his detractors' chagrin, his background includes extensive stage training, although it has been some time since he has trod the boards.
"I haven't worked in 10 years on the stage," he says. "The focus has really been on working in film. It's been enough of a creative outlet. I do have to say, though, that the stage is calling a little bit. But I want to do a new play; I don't want to do the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie."
There has also been a semblance of a music career, playing electric bass in such groups as Dogstar and Becky. But that, too, has fallen away. "The bands that I played in, we all broke up," Reeves says. "I socially still play. My friends get together and we jam and stuff like that, but nothing too organized."
He hasn't outgrown all facets of youth, though. For one, Reeves remains stubbornly single. "Yeah, I know, I don't have any kids," he mockingly scolds himself. "I'm 43, it's time to settle down. Maybe."
And any talk of guarding the net certainly brings the eternal boy out of the man Reeves has become.
"Actually, you know what?" he says with childlike enthusiasm. "The other day I bought some new hockey equipment. I had moved house, so my old equipment was in storage and it was all awful. So I went with a friend of mine out to this hockey place and I spent three hours there.
"So I'm set. My friend's kid is having a 10-year-old birthday party, so we're renting a rink and playing in it, old-school style."