Keanu Reeves doesn't practice martial arts, but he does play a kung fu master in the movies.
"I've done a lot of Movie Kung Fu. So I've had some training in that," Reeves told us over the phone recently while discussing his directorial debut, "Man of Tai Chi," which is available on Blu-ray and DVD this week.
Besides directing, Reeves also plays the film's big bad baddie, Donaka Mark, a Mephistophelean American running an underground fighting ring in Beijing. After losing one fighter to unnatural causes, Mark recruits an ambitious tai chi student, Chen Lin-Hu (Tiger Chen), to star in a series of closed-circuit, bare-knuckled fights of fury.
Reeves first met Chen on the set of "The Matrix," where Chen appeared in some of the fight sequences and also trained Reeves in Movie Kung Fu.
"Man of Tai Chi" was Reeves's first go at directing, and it was also Chen's first go at starring in a movie. Fortunately for Chen, Reeves had plenty of acting experience to draw upon. And fortunately for Reeves, Chen had plenty of Real Kung Fu to bring to the table.
In the Q&A below, we ask Reeves if he ever said "Now I am the master" to Chen, if he employed Movie Kung Fu in his upcoming samurai epic "47 Ronin," and if there was any possibility of a kung fu flavored "Bill & Ted's" sequel.
Why was this the right film for your directorial debut?
Keanu Reeves: I think because it's ultimately a story that I wanted to tell. It was a project that I have been developing for a few years with the lead actor Tiger Chen. And originally I wasn't going to direct it but as I was spending so much time with it and it was kind of filling my heart and vision, I asked him if I could direct it and he said, yes. And away we went.
I love kung fu movies. To me, "Man of Tai Chi" is a bit of a cautionary tale. So, it's this kind of innocent journey as this person is changing through fighting — his conduct, his chi, gets consumed by it, in a way. He is always being told by his master to be thoughtful and to meditate, to think about what he is doing. And for me, it felt like that could have a resonance to the world today.
I really liked that relationship between the master and the student. Was your early relationship with Tiger like that in any way?
KR: Way back in the day, I mean we worked together on the first "Matrix" way back in '97, '98. Yeah, in that sense, sure, he was really training me from Movie Kung Fu to wire work. There was definitely a teacher-student relationship there.
So did that flip flop as you became the director. Did you ever have to say to him, "Now I am the master”?
KR: Absolutely not, no. He was such a part of developing a story. For me, it was kind of based around my interpretation of his biography. He is a very modern guy. He grew up in Chengdu, went to the big city Beijing. He became a stuntman. He was acting. But he is also a very traditional. He is a traditional tai chi master. He is very traditional with his parents, with who he is, and how he is. And that really became part of the fabric of the story: traditional values vs. modern.
Do you practice martial arts?
KR: I don't. I don't practice anymore. I wish I did. I wish I started when I was a kid, but I don't.
Explain your fascination with it then?
KR: Gosh, where do I begin? I'll speak about it cinematically. I think as a young kid watching kung fu films, they were very exotic. They're very physical. There's a kind of wish, like "Wow! That looks amazing! I wish I could do that.” The stories are fundamental. They're clear, oftentimes, in a good way. The struggle of the characters, of the protagonist: defending honor, revenge — sometimes— but revenge for a wrong done. So they're morality plays, oftentimes. And there's a lot of fun in the cinema of them. And they're beautiful — to watch action sequence kung fu fights, when they are well done, they're beautiful.
If you're not practicing martial arts and you're in a scene with an obvious master like Tiger, is there an intimidation level going into that final scene?
KR: Well, I've done a couple of kung fu fights in my day, in movies. So I've done a lot of Movie Kung Fu. So I've had some training in that. I'm not as good as Tiger, but I have my own flavor. So I was really excited and honored to be able to have, as I call it, a super fight at the end of this film with him.
What is the difference between Movie Kung Fu and actual martial arts?
KR: So much. I would say that one of the biggest differences is that in Movie Kung Fu, oftentimes, you're not trying to hit people. That helps.
With "Man of Tai Chi" and with "47 Ronin" coming out in a few weeks, where do these films lie in the martial arts film canon?
KR: They are definitely in the book. Well, "Man of Tai of Chi" is definitely a kung fu film.
Even though Tiger practices tai chi?
KR: Of course, you can have kung fu about actually anything. It just means that you have a practice. You can have kung fu with a chair. There are lots of different fighting styles in "Man of Tai Chi." I think we have like 11 action sequences.
[Related: Watch the "47 Ronin" theatrical trailer]
Did your Movie Kung Fu style change from "Man of Tai Chi" to "47 Ronin"?
KR: Well, I didn't get to do a lot of Movie Kung Fu in "Ronin," I got to do a lot of Movie Sword Fights, which was a lot of fun. Still you're trying not to hit people, but you try to look like your hitting people. In Movie Kung Fu, sometimes you do have to hit people, but the swords, not so much.
Why don't you practice martial arts?
KR: I know! Why don't I? I know I should. A part of me feels like it's too late.
I would venture to say it's not.
KR: I know it's not, I could pick up some tai chi and just start flowing. Maybe I'm practicing without practicing the practicing.
What's your future directing slate look like?
KR: I'm looking for a story to tell. I don't quite know, but I'm looking. Yeah, I hope I get the chance to do it again, I'd love to, but I need a story to tell, so I'm looking for that.
I'm a huge "Bill & Ted" fan, so I have to ask: Is there anything going on with the next one?
KR: There's a script and we're trying to find a home for it, which means we're just trying to find out how we can get it made.
You wouldn't want to direct that?
KR: No, maybe if Alex [Winter, aka Bill S. Preston, Esq.] directed it, too. That would just be the most surreal thing. He and I could do it and then we would direct it. And then we could co-direct it with the writers, maybe that's too incestuous. I don't know.
What do you think of when you look back at that film?
KR: I love those characters so much. I had such an amazing time making those films and I made a dear friend in Alex. I love their spirit. I love their energy. I love the positiveness of these guys. And they're funny. And their use of language.
Do you think there could be a kung fu film in them?
KR: Oh, yeah, I think "Bill & Ted" travels. I think the genre travels. I think those guys could travel. I mean, they could do a musical. They could do a horror picture. Whatever.
See Keanu Reeves discuss directing Keanu Reeves in our exlusive "Man of Tai Chi" Blu-ray clip: