From Point Break and Speed to the groundbreaking Matrix trilogy, the actor Keanu Reeves has made the action movie his own. Now, for the first time, he goes behind the camera, directing Man of Tai Chi, the story of a young martial artist (Tiger Hu Chen) and his induction into the world of underground fight clubs.
How would you describe Man of Tai Chi?
It’s a story about a young man in contemporary Beijing who gets involved in underground fighting, being manipulated by my character to save his temple. We follow him on this journey of innocence – in a way he’s a simple delivery guy on the one hand, but on the other hand he’s a very skilled martial artist in tai chi. As he goes on this journey to save his temple and go into underground fighting, his power rises. We see this loss of innocence in the journey of this man who ultimately has to confront himself.
How did you both get involved in the project?
The lead actor, Tiger Hu Chen, is a gentleman I worked with on The Matrix films. And chatting with him over the years we became friends. And after we finished the films, we stayed in touch. He started to do some acting – he was a stuntman at the time – and we stayed friends and wanted to do something together. Over the course of five years, we developed a story, which is what became Man of Tai Chi. And that’s how that started.
What was it you love about kung-fu movies?
Kung-fu movies are beautiful. I was a typical kid. I saw the Bruce Lee films – I remember seeing a film called Five Fingers of Death in Times Square in New York when I was a little kid. That was something exotic, wonderful, empowering. There was something that was overcoming. And then The Matrix was my introduction to the kung-fu side of things – although I’d done some action films before then. It’s like play. It’s like playing. There’s something childlike about it. They’re fake fights. That’s fun! But they can hurt.
What was the craziest part of the shoot?
I guess every film has its madness. It was a multi-language crew. We filmed for more than 105 days. We filmed in Beijing, we filmed in Hong Kong, we were on the street, we had sets we built. So every day, it was movie challenges – and every day those challenges are crazy. You’re trying to have a plan and be organised, and life is not always like that. But sometimes it is. I guess the hurricane in Hong Kong counts as a little crazy.
Given your work on A Scanner Darkly and The Matrix trilogy, it seems that you’re an actor who likes to be at the cutting edge of technology.
It’s kind of happened that way. It’s an accident. I am fascinated by it, but in the past I’ve been lucky to be in those kinds of experiences. Now that I’ve done it, it is something that I think about differently and am interested in.
Will you direct again?
I’d like to, I just need to find a story to tell. I don’t have the story to tell yet. But I’d love to, I would hope to – but I need to find that story.
You’re 49 now. Did you ever get a midlife crisis?
I had the classic 40 meltdown. I did. It’s embarrassing. It was pretty funny. But then I recovered. To me, it was like a second adolescence. Like when you’re an adolescent, so many things change in your body that affect your physical self and your emotional self. To me, I felt like that was happening at that age. That something was changing.
What was changing?
Hormonally, my body was changing, my mind was changing, and so my relationship to myself and the world around me came to this assault of finiteness. It was also the end of the projection of my younger self. I came to the place where I thought: “I don’t know where I am anymore but where have I come from and what am I doing? And my eyes one day will not open!” So that had all of these kinds of consequences. It was quite enjoyable.
• Man of Tai Chi opens in UAE cinemas tomorrow