"When I read the script I laughed my head off" - 92.9 movies (07nov03)
The Matrix Revolutions
November, 7 2003
The third, and apparently final film in The Matrix trilogy opened with a star-studded Australian premiere (and after-party) at Sydney Opera House, last Sunday, November 2. CHOICE was in Sydney to speak with on-screen enemies Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving, and found they both had certain things in common.
In Matrix Revolutions the characters of Neo and Agent Smith become very close. At a symbolic level they are opposite sides of the same coin. In fact, they are battling out one of the most complex, profound questions in human philosophy, the question of free will.
In Christian philosophy the question goes something like this: if God created the universe according to His laws, and He is all-powerful, and all creation unfolds according to His divine plan, then how can human beings really have free will? In more modern, scientific terms, the question is more like this: if the universe, including the human brain, is composed of basic atoms, and those atoms always behave according to unchanging scientific laws, do we really have free will, or are we just a set of very complex chemical reactions? Some would say it is basically the same question, just phrased in a slightly different way.
The artificial, computer generated world of the matrix has been constructed to give human beings the illusion of free will, but is actually a means of control. So, Neo represents the ability of human beings to choose their own reality. By using his own mind he has penetrated the illusion and beaten the matrix. However, in Matrix Reloaded we learn Agent Smith has gained some new abilities of his own. He has learned how to absorb identities within the matrix and turn them into copies of himself. It is the ultimate expression of conformity, a world were everyone really is the same.
In this sense, if Neo is The One, the saviour of humanity, the pin-up boy for free will, Agent Smith is a version of the Devil. It's a role Weaving didn't anticipate when he first took on the mantle of Agent Smith for The Matrix. "Well we thought there probably would be (more films), because they were talking about a trilogy anyway, but I certainly didn't know how Smith was going to develop. I always thought after the first one you would eventually go and find the architect or the man behind the curtain, and then I thought the focus would go on to that character, but Smith would always be there in some form. But Larry (Wachowski) said don't worry, he'll develop in a really interesting way, and then when I read the script I laughed my head off."
If you've seen the film these words take on a whole new meaning, as Weaving is called upon to do his very own version of the maniacal evil laugh. It is just one of the classic moments in the film that will probably keep people talking for years to come. Of course Weaving himself is not like that at all. He comes across in person as a friendly, sensible guy, and he very closely protects his own ability to make choices and stay focused on each moment as it comes. For example he says he has tried not to think about the press interviews he is doing all day.
"I mean if there's something massive coming up, of course you need to give some attention to it, maybe I need to prepare for this to some degree, but as little as possible, and just try and do the day when it comes. I mean I've been so involved in this play (Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing) around the corner (at Wharf 1 Theatre, with the Sydney Theatre Company), and that's been taking up most of my time, and any time I have outside of that goes straight to the family, 'cause I haven't seen them a lot in the last couple of weeks. So today I think it's a Sunday, I'm not doing this big press junket, I'm just doing today, and I'll try and enjoy it, see Keanu, see Joel, see all the people we haven't seen since the last big junket in June, or whenever it was," he laughs, "so that's been great."
It's an irony of the filming process that the two arch enemies, Neo and Smith, have developed an obvious off-screen friendship. The two actors share some of the most dramatic scenes in the film, including a climactic battle that takes place within the matrix, in pouring rain. Reeves describes filming that sequence as the most harrowing part of the whole movie. "We would be in these rigs that were about 25 feet off the ground and you could rotate 360, you could rotate sideways, you could rotate all these different directions, and obviously we were flipping and we had really no control and there were people moving us back and forth, and as you're flipping you're thinking 'I hope I don't kick Hugo in the head' and then as I come around I'm thinking 'I hope Hugo doesn't kick me in the head.'"
Of course, despite the best of intentions, Reeves admits with an embarrassed laugh they did give each other a couple of accidental taps. "I think I got him on the shoulder once, he punched me in the side of the head, but you know, tit for tat, it was all OK."
It's obvious both actors found the fight scene extremely challenging, but they also describe it with a certain degree of relish. Weaving says during the filming, the rain was coming down so hard they initially decided to wear wetsuits under their costumes, to prevent pneumonia, "but we found if we were fighting we would get too hot. So I only ever wore a wetsuit if I was standing in the rain, doing dialogue, or standing in the rain just doing take after take of me standing in the rain as a slightly different Smith. So I abandoned the wetsuit quite quickly when we were fighting. So you'd get frozen very quickly with this very cold, very chubby rain coming down, but as soon as we started moving around it was exhilarating actually, I loved it. That fight in the street was great fun."
Weaving supports Reeves' recollection of events, saying that he doesn't harbour any fantasies of being the next Bruce Lee. "It would be great to be seriously skilled at it, but I'm not, I never have been. We got very good at doing the particular choreographed fight and we got pretty good at not hurting each other," he laughs, "although occasionally we'd whack each other in the face. No I'm not into fighting really, so it was fun to act it out, but I'd rather sit around with Keanu with a glass of wine."
Of course Reeves is quite used to saving the world, ever since he first launched into the public awareness in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Fortunately, Reeves is not at all embarrassed about discussing that early role, and still has an obvious fondness for the character of Ted, saying "Well, he was a really cool character." He spontaneously slips back into that famous stoner accent for a moment, saying, "I thought that Ted Theodore Logan, he had such a wonderful take on everything, to play someone who had that exuberance and love of life, that was really great as an actor."
Reeves has also played the role Siddhartha, the legendary prince who became Buddha, in Bertolucci's Little Buddha, and Reeves admits Ted has a Buddha-like aspect if you're prepared to find it. "There is, yeah. Be excellent to each other. The Be Excellent To Each Other Sutras," he jokes. It's a thread that continues to the role of Neo as The One, and Reeves says he hopes acting these roles may help him in some small way to improve his life off-screen. "Yeah, I mean it's certainly something that's there, if you're sensitive to those sorts of things, yeah. With those roles, like Bill and Ted, or Siddhartha, or definitely with Neo, those are roles where we're trying to realise the better part of ourselves." He adds with a self-deprecating laugh, "So even when I'm not realising the better part of myself, I know that's a choice I'm making."
Seeing Reeves up close, in the flesh, it seems incredible he is now turning 40. It seems a long way from those early Bill & Ted days in some ways although, judging by the response of the intelligent, mature female journalists who meet him, he has even more power as a heart throb now than he did as a teen pin-up boy. "You know what, if anything it's an excuse for a party. I'm turning 40, I'm half-way there, if I'm lucky, let's go dance. But I don't know, it's weird. I like a lot of getting older, more mature."
One of the enjoyable things about meeting both Reeves and Weaving is they both seem to have a certain relaxed humility about their future prospects. "I don't know, I just hope I that I get to continue as an actor to do interesting work with interesting actors and directors, and have the choice to act," says Reeves. In light of his earlier comments about turning 40, it is likely Reeves has been doing a certain amount of reflection about his position in the world and his ability to make some sort of lasting changes to it. "Yes, that's certainly something I wasn't thinking about when I was 27," he laughs. "Some people do that, Orson Welles seemed to have that consciousness, and I think it's a beneficial thing to think about how you want to ultimately live your life." It seems he may have reached some conclusions, but he's not going into details right now.
In a similar way, Weaving is clearly in an enviable position. Having played Agent Smith in Matrix Revolutions, and also Elrond in The Return Of The King, he's starring in the two biggest blockbusters to dominate not just this summer, but the last few summers in a row. Having said that, he says he is not at all sure whether this has made it easier for him to select new parts. "Er, it's a hard one. No, is probably the answer, but I suppose it's made it a little bit easier for certain things here – that's been great. But then in terms of overseas projects I'm not sure, but then again I'm not sure exactly how much I want to do that. So I can't really answer this question, and maybe in a year I'll be able to answer and say this is the effect of those roles. But the other thing is that people obviously see you in a role and say he's Smith or he's that or whatever. So you've got to try and find the things which really interest you and whether they're from the 'States or whether they're from Australia, just go back to the script and think what is it that excites you, what is it about the part that makes you really want to see this film."
It seems Weaving is aware of the danger of standing too close to the Hollywood hype machine. The characters he has played and the films he has been part of have touched the lives of millions, all over the planet, but Weaving says he doesn't want to think about it. "Not really, because they might think of those characters, but they're not really me, they're versions of. They're things I have to create. And for me, people might say he's Smith or he's Elrond, but I definitely don't think that. I think I'm doing this play at the moment, or I'm doing this other thing. And beside all of that, much more importantly, I am Hugo, and I'm a dad, and all these other things. So whatever people think of Smith or Elrond that's great, but that's nothing to do with me." This might sound like excessive humility, but, apparently it's genuine, and this is surely one of the most endearing discoveries from talking to both Weaving and Reeves.
Once again, it comes back to free will. Weaving clearly values his ability to be part of Hollywood some of the time, while still keeping his feet on the ground here in Australia. "Yeah I do feel very privileged actually," he agrees. At the same time, he gives himself some credit for having made the choice to do it that way. "I suppose I've made sure that I still do theatre, that I want to live here, that I do focus on Australian film, and yet I have been able to do large budget films as well. And why that is I don't know, maybe I've been lucky, maybe my focus is broader than I think it is."
Maybe it is because he is a damn fine actor. The suggestion puts Weaving on the spot. "Erm well, maybe."