Keanu Reeves is awesome. That became irrefutably clear over the course of a delightful early morning interview in a stark hotel conference room one recent morning at the Toronto Film Festival. Bill and Ted 3 may, devastatingly, be in a “dark period,” but Reeves seems to be Sad Keanu no more. This newest stage of his career puts him in the director’s chair for the first time for the incredibly entertaining, unabashedly genre-loving martial arts flick Man of Tai Chi, starring Tiger Hu Chen, Reeves’s trainer on all three Matrix films. Chen’s character, also named Tiger Chen, is a traditionally trained Tai Chi protégé who starts entering televised amateur fighting competitions as a way to prove his chosen martial art isn’t just for old men in parks, and winds up entangled in an evil underground fighting ring run by Reeves’s villainous mogul, Donaka Mark. There are spectacular fighting sequences, elements of Ed TV — with Tiger’s descent into darkness being streamed across the globe — and enough ridiculously over-the-top moments to make you wonder whether Reeves was intentionally going for camp.
It seems pretty clear that he was, and we love him for it. Reeves even pulls out those Matrix fighting skills again, looking formidable, though perhaps a little less spry than he was twenty years ago. “He tried so hard, he hurt himself — many, many times,” Chen told me after I spoke to Reeves. He did 90 percent of his fighting himself, without stunt doubles, according to Chen, and lost both big toenails, wrapped them, and kept going. “We both hitting each other pretty hard,” said Chen. “Yeah, I’m impressed. All my chest is getting bruised with his punch.” Below, Reeves talks about his directing style, rusty fighting skills, and that crazy scream he does into the camera (which made everyone in my theater burst out laughing).
I’m curious, what was your intent?
My intent? [Grins and gestures like a magician unveiling a trick.] To entertain!
What were you influenced by? And why did you want to do it in the first place?
It starts with the lead actor, Chen, who … he and I had worked together on the Matrix. He was part of the action director Yuen Woo-ping’s action team, and he was assigned to help train me. And then we worked together on the second and third Matrix, a few years later, and through the course of all of this we became friends. He was starting to act, and then we wanted to work together, and so then we started to develop a story, and then over the course of the years developing this story, it became so much a part of my heart and mind. You know, the movie that we were developing became the images in my head, which became the story I wanted to tell. And I wanted to direct. I’d always said that I’d direct if I had a story to tell, and this became a story to tell.
The story of a quiet martial art like Tai Chi becoming a fighting art?
Yeah, well, it was influenced by Chen Hu’s biography. He was, as a young person, classically trained. What I mean by that is he had a master. And to me he was this guy who was very traditional and modern at the same time. And that developed into … I think ultimately Man of Tai Chi is a cautionary tale, it’s a cautionary fable about power, about being consumed by power, you know, and the things that we can lose if that happens: compassion. We see this character, all of his compassion and training and ethics kind of falls away to this pursuit of winning. Or, not even winning, it’s not that simple, but this kind of dark side of his Chi in a way. So that’s kind of I guess where it starts to lead to for me. And using the ideas and themes of Tai Chi, the ying and the yang, the masculine and feminine, the inclusive, the exclusive, the physical side of it, the spiritual side of it, offers these conflicts, contradictions. He’s a really good guy, and he’s winning, but he’s losing his soul. I felt like that could be a story for all of us, in a cautionary way.
It looks like a movie directed by someone who loves kung fu movies with all their warts, like the outsize-ness of a lot of stuff. Were there particular movies you were looking to, or elements you wanted to re-create that were sort of big and campy?
Well, I wanted to have fun. I felt like the film to me, cinematically, had no rules. So the editing style, the cinematic style, plays with a lot of different forms. In the sense that … I was playing a lot with objective and subjective, so there’s a lot of objective fixed camera and letting it play out in front of you, and then there’s some subjective experience and then us being in it with him. I wanted the fighting to be a character, to be character development, so there are some moments in the fights where you’re just seeing faces. You know, you’re just seeing what does it look like, what is he feeling, what is he doing.
You gave yourself a really the over-the-top supervillain role.
[Laughs.] You felt like Donaka was over the top?
You have to say that line for me, “You owe me a life.” My friends and I kept saying it to each other when we left the theater.
[Puts on deep voice.] You owe me a life. Yeah, I like the other one, too, which is, “Does it matter?” When Tiger is concerned, they were always like, “Does it matter?”
Wait, when does Donaka say, “Does it matter?”
“Does it matter” is when Tiger is in the tank in the fighting room, and he finds out that people are watching.
And he gets really mad at Donaka.
And [Donaka’s] like, “Does it matter?” Yeah, “you owe me a life.” Well, my hope was this character was a Mephistophelean character, and was someone that could represent perhaps some of the forces that seek to control, manipulate, and have an ownership of our self, you know? I guess, I was hoping he could be a metaphor for that force, for energies, for people that want to control, manipulate, yeah.
Does that happen in Hollywood, dark masters who want to control and manipulate?
I think we’re surrounded by it. There’s also the idea of the reality show that’s being witnessed and watching a character change. You know, I feel like that’s around.
You mean for yourself, or for everyone?
In the world, yeah. Entertainment, surveillance, you know. And having your details monitored, however that is; it’s about corruption, in a way. The corruption of another, the manipulation of others through something they desire.
Because in a way, Tiger wants this dark force to come out?
Yeah, he does. He wants to change, Tiger, other people.
How was it directing yourself?
It was okay, yeah. You know, Reeves comes prepared, he knows his lines, he knows what he’s doing. As a director, he was very collaborative. [Laughs.] The first day actually was probably most difficult for that because I’d never done it before. The actor oftentimes has the responsibility of a role in the whole, and kind of, for me, this was the first time I didn’t have the experience of it, so that was the most not fun. But it got more fun.
What was so hard that first day?
Just, you know, usually when you’re preparing and you’re going to go do a scene, you have private time, you’re coming in, you’re starting to work, your concerns aren’t where the camera’s going. Or having to answer all of these other questions. So, you’re kind of wearing two hats, two perspectives. And so for me to jump from one to the other, I didn’t have any experience for that. So during the course of filming, the facility of it improved and I was more comfortable in doing that.
How did you direct yourself in the scene when you do that crazy scream? You just go “Rawwwrrrr!” into the camera.
[Laughs and puts on voice.] We see the darkness come out! I like that beat. That was just … I just did that; I didn’t know I was going to do that. That was the actor. The actor, like, felt something and let it out, and so the director liked what the actor did and kept it. Because it’s crazy! I hope you enjoyed it, though. It goes big, it goes big.
People laughed when that scream happened in my theater.
Good, okay. So that’s the intent? It’s meant to be …
It’s over-the-top; it’s great! It’s just, you know, the demon … what I’m hoping is that as the film develops, it kind of goes to different levels, but as it develops he becomes this other force. I mean, even the super fight between the protagonist and myself goes on this mythical level. I hope people laugh and enjoy it, yeah, it’s a ride.
I consider your performance a little Nicolas Cage–y, like winkingly outsize.
It went Nick Cage–y for you?
I mean that in a good way!
Yeah! Nick Cage is awesome! Hellraiser!
It was entertaining and funny …
And campy, yeah. I saw it with a bunch of journalists and we were all really impressed that you pulled it off.
Well, that’s kind, thank you.
Because it’s hard to do intentional camp. It was intentional, right? [Laughs.]
Yeah, of course. But I think with all good … hopefully camp, pulp, and genre, hopefully that does not — that there’s more than that as well, the idea that there’s this dark force, it does take ownership.
It’s been a while since the Matrix, so what did you have to do to get ready for your fighting scene?
That scene took ten days.
To shoot or to prepare for?
To shoot. We choreographed it, worked with Yuen Woo-ping who was action director choreographer on the film. It’s good; it’s got a simplicity to it, a pureness, a directness, to me. And, yeah we just worked on the choreography and did training before we were filming and did over the course of filming, and as it came up to the scene, we would rehearse a little more. Spend more time.
Is this stuff you’re practicing often in your everyday life?
Movie kung fu training? No. [Laughs.]
No, I don’t. I don’t practice martial arts.
What’s it been like in audiences for you, watching it with an audience?
Good. I mean, I like the movie. And it’s nice that … you have to come out with an opinion. It’s touched a lot of people in Asia because of what it is, you know, in terms of being in English, Chinese-English, Mandarin, English, Cantonese — it’s a co-production. You know the idea of a Westerner coming over to tell a story of Tai Chi, but through this new perspective. So I guess one could say, not to be … [Long pause.] It’s just never been done before.
A Westerner doing a movie like this?
No. This movie. It’s never been done before. [Laughs.] It’s an exotic bird.