'Gift'-ed actor trains for 'Matrix'

An empty aircraft hangar isn't the usual meeting place for an interview, but Keanu Reeves was finishing four months of "flying" - suspended on wires for special-effects shots - before leaving for Australia. He'll be Down Under for at least 10 months filming two futuristic "Matrix" movies simultaneously.

Since he had only a few days before leaving for Sydney, and we wanted to talk about his new films, "The Gift" and "Sweet November," it seemed an interesting meeting place.

Literally up in the air, suspended on wires, the tall, slender actor was doing all sorts of acrobatic stunts. If you saw the original "Matrix," which was a box-office bonanza in 1999, you'll know why he had to brush up on his kung fu, as well as train on wires so he could punch, kick, flip, go up walls, and fly with the grace of a bird. It was not easy to choreograph, especially when the script called for a "wire fight" high in the air.

Later, at a more conventional location, Mr. Reeves relaxed as he asked for six ice packs, each one for a different part of his body. "No matter how much you exercise," he manages a smile, "there are still new muscles heard from during the strenuous acrobatics." "The Matrix 2" is scheduled for a 2002 release; "The Matrix 3," a 2003 release.

Knowing he'd be away for seven months, Reeves didn't want to be absent from the screen. He accepted a most unconventional role for him in "The Gift." "I know it's a smaller part,but I simply couldn't resist the opportunity of working with director Sam Raimi, Cate Blanchett, and Hilary Swank," he says. "Most of my scenes are with Hilary. Just watching how she prepared for the role was a lesson in itself. It's easy to see why she won an Oscar" (for best actress last year in "Boys Don't Cry").

Although Ms. Blanchett is the star of the movie, both Swank and Reeves accepted smaller roles since it offered such acting challenges. In the film, Reeves plays the racist, wife-beating husband of a submissive wife, played by Swank. "He's one of those men who thinks he's superior because he can beat up on someone smaller and defenseless," Reeves explains.

The actor is known for researching his roles,and his part of Donnie Barksdale was no exception, as he explains: "I went to Savannah, [Ga.,] where the movie was filmed, three weeks early. I met with a couple who dealt with family abuse. I tried to get the psychological background for Donnie, so I'd know the feelings he was dealing with, as well as clinically understand what it is for the man in an abusive relationship.

"I pumped up, bought bulky old jackets, got a pickup truck, and began looking for a town like the one in the script. I settled on Rankin, Ga., where I talked with people in stores, bars, cafes. I felt Donnie belonged to the earth; owning a farm seemed to be his natural environment.

"When we had a little time, director Raimi sat down with Hilary and me in a trailer, and we did a series of improvisations, so we could examine the dynamics of the characters' relationship. Raimi freely allowed us to give our thoughts, and generously gave us his creative feedback.

"Hilary is a very specific actress. Once she figured out the inside of her character, she asked me, 'What kind of pants would my character wear?' I told her I saw her in white and red pants, very tight. She replied, 'Yeah, that's exactly the way I visualize her.' "

Reeves's next release is "Sweet November," which co-stars Charlize Theron. "I play a workaholic - a guy who cuts himself off from so much of life, and Charlize is the woman who tries to help me. I didn't have to research that; I know where those demons are. I've been a workaholic steadily for the past 18 months - doing two feature films, then four months preparing for the next two Matrix movies. I just seem to have the energy for it."

Reeves hasn't had a home in Los Angeles for six years, but he did get an apartment near the airport hangar so he could work out for "Matrix."

"We'll film the two movies simultaneously, which means they will not be shot in sequence.Most of the footage will be near Sydney, then we'll come back to Los Angeles to finish our part."

These high-tech thrillers take so long to make because, after the actors complete the film, it's worked on by special-effects and graphic artists for another seven months. "The camera will be on us as we punch, kick, flip, do cartwheels, fight, and fly - all on wires," Reeves says."Then they fill in the surroundings. The director wants to film the fight scenes as one long sequence, without a cutaway."

In the hangar, there is one large central mat. "We arrive - do stretching exercises, then go over to the weights, and finally are hoisted up the wires." Reeves adds, "I've read both scripts for 'Matrix 2' and 3, seen the storyboards [where they sketch the scenes]. It's a very ambitious project. I have great excitement, and a few butterflies, but doesn't that make it all worthwhile?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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