A big part of Keanu Reeves' allure is that it is hard to know what he's thinking at any time, whether on camera or on a bench or in interviews. On a late October afternoon, the 49-year-old actor is tucked into the corner of the couch in his small trailer beneath the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn. He has an hour break after shooting fight sequences inside an empty bank for his next movie John Wick and his face is glistening with sweat and covered in convincing fake bruises and slashes.
Reeves is kind but quiet, never dodging a question, but he also doesn't tend to offer long responses or digressions. Clearly, he's not all that worried about public perception or internet ephemera.
In the downtime he has from shooting John Wick, an action flick about a hit man "who has his demons but is trying to be an angel," as the zen poet of an actor says, Reeves is working to promote his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi. It is a Fight Club-meets-Karate Kid-meets-The Social Network tale of tradition versus technology and power versus virtue, a real merging of East and West mainstream filmmaking.
Set in China, the film took seven years to finance and produce, which, upon its Nov. 1 stateside release, made Reeves a sort of — and maybe this is him just being modest — accidental visionary.
During the course of making the three Matrix films, Reeves got to know Tiger Hu Chen, a Chinese martial artist and stunt man. In the middle of the '00s, the two friends, along with a writer named Michael G. Cooney, began developing a story about a student of the ancient exercise discipline Tai Chi (which you probably best know as the slow, meditative activity practiced by groups of elderly parkgoers).
Chen became the film's star — his character is named Tiger Chen — while Reeves took on the role of the villain named Donaka Mark, a masochistic businessman who runs an underground fight club that broadcasts its death battles on the internet.
Over the course of the script's development, which ended up including dialogue in English and Mandarin, Chen was responsible for overseeing the many nuanced representations of Chinese culture, "especially the language of the master, because it's using a different kind of way of speaking," Reeves explained. "He talked about being a higher hand."
Eventually, Reeves decided that the project would become his directorial debut. Oftentimes, finding a director means a movie is on the fast track to production, but that was far from the case for Man of Tai Chi.
Reeves pitched the movie to Han Sanping, the head of the all-powerful, government-backed Chinese Film Group, back in 2007, when the wave of trans-Pacific sales was a mere ripple. (Now, of course, China has become the biggest foreign consumer of American films, and a tantalizingly gold mine to Hollywood studios, which are catering their products to the country more and more.) Man of Tai Chi had to find financing — Village Roadshow Asia and Universal International ended up providing crucial cash — and then go through the rigorous and sometimes unpredictable script censorship practiced by the China Film Group, which controls which movies can be seen in the country. The review was even higher stakes for Reeves and his team, because they were vying for co-financing from the CFG.
The script came back with several notes concerning the proposed film's depiction of China — the CFG prefers to sweep social criticism or suggestions that government officials are anything less than humble servants of the people — which required some adjustments.
"Originally, all of the underground fighting took place in Beijing, but it couldn't," Reeves says. "We couldn't have a corrupt police officer, and the fighting couldn't take place in Beijing, or even in mainland China. But they were fine with that in Hong Kong and Macau. It actually opened up the movie."
Production began in 2011, with interpreters helping Reeves direct the scenes in Mandarin. Much of Man of Tai Chi has intricate fight scenes, no easy task for a first-time director to pull off — especially when the participants didn't always speak his language. Reeves himself participated in one of the fights, which added to the degree of cacophony on set.
After wrap and post-production, the CFG had to give the movie another picking over, to be sure nothing objectionable snuck into the story during the shoot. It was certainly worth the submission to potential censorship, financially speaking; co-production status means the Americans get a much higher split of the box office profits, and the movie is exempt from the quota that the country has on foreign films every year.
Man of Tai Chi was released in China this summer and fell short of box office expectations, but Reeves' status in the country is still lofty. In April, his film company, called Company Films, signed a deal to co-produce an undisclosed number of movies in China, putting him in a very enviable place as the market continues to expand. What's more, he also stars in the Japan-set samurai flick 47 Ronin from Universal, which is out later this year.
Reeves is typically tightlipped on this subject. "There's certainly a lot of interest. There's a lot of people trying to make movies. There's a lot of content opportunities," he says about American-Chinese crossover. That reticence, paired with the deep thought he seems to give his few words, only adds to the sense of mystique surrounding Reeves ... as does his dream of making a big screen musical. "I'd like to do something Godard-ian, '50s and '60s French New Wave-y, romantic," he says.
Reeves clearly has a lighter side, also evidenced by the smile he cracks at the mention of the Sad Keanu meme, though he's not a huge fan of the sort of public photography that created it.
"Sometimes you do have some private moments that become public moments, which is usually, especially if you're not giving permission for it, a drag," Reeves sighs. "Even if it's a nice thing, if you're sitting there and then someone's pointing a camera at you. You're like, 'What are you doing?' 'Can I do this?' 'No, actually, no, please don't.'"
Would he like a different kind of meme, to replace that old, single photo-driven phenomenon?
"I don't think too much about it," Reeves says. Of course not; he's got bigger things on his mind.