Keanu Reeves’ first TIFF: ‘I am in pretty good shape for a 20-year-old’

Written by By Jennifer Lewington, CNN

In 1988, Keanu Reeves was entering his first fall screening of “Under Siege,” starring with Steven Seagal. The movie, about the kidnapping of U.S. president Jimmy Carter, had been chosen to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Reeves was a darling of the festival, described in its brochure as “a multimillion-dollar film project” with “a little-known man who turns into a savage, clinging for his life to a swimming pool and a spigot in terror against the big bad pirates who have been stalking him since the opening credits.”

Stephen Gaghan, who was nominated for an Oscar for directing and adapted the screenplay, said, “Mr. Reeves is emotionally, physically and physically unbeatable.”

It wasn’t even a decade since Reeves played Mark Rothko, in “Breathe” — his first film as a director — at TIFF. Reeves’ 1991 debut “Stranger than Fiction” opened TIFF as well.

The path from deadpan to slick

TIFF was shaping up to be “one of the best film festivals in the country,” Reeves said in an interview with TIFF. “It has become what I’m sure is one of the premier film festivals in the world.”

TIFF CEO Piers Handling said, “We thought it was a great time to come to Toronto.” It was “fairly unique” — hands-on screenings for journalists were no longer possible, but “we didn’t know whether it would be warm or cold.”

Enlarge Image Courtesy TIFF

“I thought it would be nicer to be above water,” Reeves said of his entry on the red carpet. “And Steve [Seagal] was there. And oh my god, what was it? … Beautiful. Hot. Hot. And Steve … was wearing a $2,500 coat. I think there were 250,000 people in the audience that night. But I was pretty comfortable. … I looked around, as well, and I said to a friend of mine: ‘Boy, I am in pretty good shape for a 20-year-old.’ So it was a good night.”

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“I had waited so long to make that movie, and what an opportunity for the director’s freedom,” Reeves said of “Under Siege.” “The way that the action was — and the way it was done — just so compelling and riveting. We were such a big success because of that.”

The choice to premiere “Under Siege” at TIFF had nothing to do with the film’s critical reception and praise, Reeves said.

“All of the reviews were good, and I found it refreshing that people knew that I had taken this picture, that I had made it for a true movie star who had worked with Steve’s buddy and has had an interesting career,” Reeves said. “It was something that wasn’t just some big, artificial juggernaut. … It had purpose, and it had a story, and it had meaning, and it had emotion.

“(It also) allowed us to try something a little different, something more film noir-ish.”

That year, TIFF expanded to include a temporary village adjacent to the red carpet. The village brought thousands of fans to downtown Toronto to cheer on stars and take part in celebrity interviews.

“Stranger than Fiction” was no longer able to screen in its original fall slot, according to Handling.

“For three or four years, there were a variety of us who came to a TIFF board meeting, and I think that was the last year we added a festival village to the edge of the red carpet,” Handling said. “But Mr. Reeves was insistent that we not change the week of the festival when you had one of the first opening nights in the festival, and the way we now pick the films.”

As Reeves also noted in the interview, the notoriety of a film like “Stranger than Fiction” doesn’t compare to the promotional bang that comes from opening TIFF.

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