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Playing the Field: Keanu Reeves loosens up for 'Hardball'

Thursday, September 13, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

TORONTO -- Going from one interview room to another in the Four Seasons Hotel, Keanu Reeves runs into three of the young kids who play members of the baseball team he coaches in the movie "Hardball," opening tomorrow.

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They are laughing as they greet each other. Then he enters the room to face another group of interviewers and, while he is pleasant enough, the good humor disappears under a deadpan gaze.

"Hardball" director Brian Robbins already has characterized Reeves as someone with "a sort of void. He's a guy sort of needing something and looking for something." Robbins found that quality made the actor a good fit for the character he plays, Conor O'Neill, a ticket scalper who bets on sporting events, lives in a dingy apartment and owes money to bookies who send guys with baseball bats to collect.

A friend agrees to lend him money only if Conor will coach his company's youth baseball team at a dangerous Chicago housing project.

Because Reeves usually plays more fanciful characters, Robbins was surprised to hear the actor was interested in the role.

"Never judge a book by its cover," Robbins says. "He's worked with arguably some of the best directors in the business. There's something there. Sometimes he gets an unfair reaction. People judge his work before they see his work. ... It starts with 'Bill and Ted,' probably, and goes from there." As in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," in which Reeves played the kind of spaced-out dude that many people picture as Reeves himself.

Talking about "Hardball," Reeves says, "I found the role to be a really good acting role because of how far it covers a range of emotion and sentiment. I liked the journey of redemption, where he does kind of find himself."

So is Reeves searching to fill some kind of void in himself?

"I don't know," he says. "I certainly haven't formalized that feeling, if there is. I know I want to have truthful acting. So maybe that's something that I'm searching for. Maybe that can turn into a truthful life."

He was born in Toronto, just a few blocks from where this interview is taking place. His stepfather was a director, and he started acting when he was 15.

"Whenever we did acting in school, putting on plays or doing scenes, I found it a place I was happy in. I really enjoyed it. When I would go to see plays, I wanted to do that. I guess I was drawn to that."

As for working with the kids in "Hardball," he says, "I had a great time. I really enjoyed their company. I enjoyed their acting. ... I really respected their focus and attention."

Bryan Hearne, the most experienced of the young actors, plays the combative Andre in the film.

"I expected him to be a real stuck-up person, like, 'I'm better than everybody.' But he was a real nice guy," Hearne says. "He turned out to be cool. ... He didn't take it seriously. It was like all playing games and acting at the same time."

Michael Perkins, who plays the character of Kofi Evans, says Reeves "would direct us, in a way. He would tell us the way a professional or a real good actor would do it. He'd say, 'Don't get down on yourself, because a mistake will always happen.' "

"He was pretty good with the kids," Robbins says. "He really embraced them. They drove him crazy about 'The Matrix,' asked him every possible question about 'The Matrix.' "

The interviewers drove him crazy, too. Someone mentioned the news report that he had given away his ancillary profits from the upcoming "Matrix" sequels to the film's crew, a potentially huge amount of money.

"I'd rather people didn't know that," he says, noticeably uncomfortable with the subject. "It was just a private event." He almost whispers the last sentence. "It's just the way it worked out. It was something that, at the time, I could afford to do. It's a worthwhile thing to do."

Reeves spent four or five months in training for the sequels, starting last November. He shot some scenes in Oakland, Calif., in the spring, took a break and then went back to training in Los Angeles. Soon he'll be heading back to Australia to shoot the rest of the films through next summer.

"I'm so grateful to be there and grateful to be working on something that I love," he says. "In terms of the length of time or the demands -- the demands are what's so great about it, that it asks so much of you."

Robbins notes how Reeves "is a pretty hardworking guy. He's very serious. This is what he does. A lot of people make movies, and they have other things and families or whatever. This guy goes from movie to movie to movie, with no time off. It's his life."

Robbins thinks Reeves feels most at home, most comfortable on stage with his band, Dogstar, which played a few gigs at Chicago's House of Blues while "Hardball" was in production.

"It was fun," the director says. "He has a really good time."

But Reeves, typically, holds back. "I love playing music, I love playing in a band. But you should see me when I sleep."

Someone asked him about audiences wanting to know more about him because they see an elusive side to him.

"If one is a fan of an actor," he replies, "I can see why you'd want to know more about him."

As performers are supposed to, he leaves you wanting more.

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