The star talks to Will Lawrence about how he approached his performance as a visiting alien in the remake of a sci-fi classic
Keanu Reeves wants to know how many years I have. It's an unusual expression, akin to an English-language translation of the French "Quel âge avez-vous?" Maybe this should come as no great surprise - after all, Reeves grew up in Canada.
"So, c'mon," he insists. "How many?" I fib a little. "Thirty-eight," I exaggerate; I'm adding a few years to bring our ages closer together. "You're looking good for it, man," he says. Of course I am - I'm a fair bit younger.
"It's funny, you are going to get to 40 soon - it's like a club with a secret handshake," he says. "I remember my doctor telling me to enjoy my forties, because I'll still have my physical capabilities but also my life experiences. We should take advantage of that before the physical capabilities slip away."
I meet Reeves in a New York hotel room, which houses a number a small telescopes, each one overlooking the southern tip of Central Park. Last night was his 44th birthday - "It was quiet, I spent it with family and friends" - and today he's talking about his latest film, a re-imagining of the 1951 sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which he plays the role of Klaatu, an alien who lands in Central Park. The little telescopes in the hotel room, I note, would have afforded potential onlookers a fine view of his spaceship.
"Actually, I'm not sure people would want to see this Klaatu," counters Reeves. "He's a little different from the original character, who was played by Michael Rennie in the 1951 classic. He was pretty idealised in the first film. He had Christian, spiritual overtones and he had a naturalism to him. He was more human than human. I am a little less naturalistic."
In both the original movie and the remake - the latter also features Jennifer Connelly, John Cleese and Will Smith's 10-year-old son, Jaden - Klaatu arrives on Earth with a warning. The first film was released during the first decade of the Cold War, and reflected the concerns of the time: nuclear armageddon. The remake, however, picks up on environmental themes. Here Klaatu is a friend of the Earth, not a friend of mankind, and if he kills the latter, the former will survive.
"That's how he thinks at the outset, but Klaatu discovers his humanity during the film - that is the journey for him," says Reeves. "So I played him as a man who has an alien inside him, but he is embodied by human flesh and that changes him. I picture the human body as a kind of container for him. It was funny - because of the way I was playing him, I didn't have a lot of facial cues, so when I was thinking about the character, I'd just look at people and I would answer them, but I wouldn't do anything with my face. I realised that it was a little off-putting so when we weren't shooting, I had to remember to smile. I enjoyed it a lot."
It seems Reeves is taking his doctor's advice: he's enjoying his forties. Traditionally, the fourth decade can prove a difficult one for actresses; for actors, the real test comes in their thirties. Reeves, however, survived, thanks largely to his lead performances in the three Matrix films, which, along with boosting his bank balance, established him as a sci-fi superstar (he has also featured in the likes of Johnny Mnemonic, Constantine and A Scanner Darkly), a reputation that his latest film will only enhance.
"I grew up liking science fiction - it's almost like a Trojan horse," he says. "You can put any other genre inside. You can do a romance like Blade Runner, you can do action romance like Star Wars; an existential art movie like Tarkovsky's Solaris; or a comedy like Spaceballs. It really translates well to a lot of different genres.
"As to whether I get stereotyped for doing sci-fi, I don't know. For me, sci-fi's just one of the things I can do."
In his long and varied career - he began on Canadian TV in 1984 - Reeves has not always won critical plaudits. The stoner-dude he played in the two Bill & Ted films (1989 and 1991) cast a shadow over his later work, and some of his performances - notably in Point Break (1991) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) - were justifiably accused of being wooden. But his performances have matured with age. He has worked with some of the world's biggest-name directors, including Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, 1988), Coppola (Bram Stoker's Dracula), Bertolucci (Little Buddha, 1994), Gus Van Sant (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, 1993) and, of course, the Wachowskis (The Matrix trilogy, 1999-2003).
"I have no idea what I would have done if I hadn't been actor," he says. "I've been doing this professionally since I was 16. I've never really - knock on wood - had to look for another job and hopefully I won't have to in the future. I played hockey when I was an adolescent, and maybe that was a crossroads. Professional hockey or the high-school play? I took the high-school play."
The high-school play has since taken Reeves to the apex of the Hollywood A-list. He has a home in the Hollywood Hills and another in Manhattan not far from our hotel, although he tries to keep himself out of the media spotlight. Notoriously press-shy, he gives short shrift to personal questions.
This, however, should come as no great surprise; he has endured a turbulent private life. In 2001 his girlfriend Jennifer Syme was killed in a car accident. Syme had given birth to the couple's daughter Ava in 1999, but she was stillborn. The two are buried side by side in a Los Angeles cemetery. He has never spoken about the events publicly.
Nowadays, he confesses to an interest in travel, especially if it involves his Norton motorcycle. "I have a bike and it's how I get around. There are so many paparazzi in Los Angeles now, it's like: here is Keanu filling up his bike with gas, here is Keanu at a stoplight on his bike! But I got the chance to travel a little bit with the bike this summer in France - I took the Route Napoléon and I went over the mountains in the Ardèche."
His trip to France also allowed him to indulge his interest in wine. "I'm not a connoisseur, though I do enjoy a good drop now and then. For me it's not only the taste but also the moment that you have the wine. So I have a sentimental favourite, which is a 1982 French vintage, a fine year from a fine grower and a couple of fine moments.
"An interest in wine, eh? I guess that's something that happens in your forties!" He smiles. "Like my doctor said, I should enjoy them."