How Keanu Reeves' original Neo stunt double came full circle with a role in The Matrix: Resurrections
Warning: This article contains a mild spoiler for The Matrix Resurrections.
In the world of the Matrix, everything is more than it seems — and the same goes for Chad.
Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss are miraculously back as Neo and Trinity in The Matrix Resurrections, though they died during the events of the last movie, released 18 years ago. Their minds are once again locked inside the simulated reality from which the franchise derives its name, but they have no memory of their past lives. Neo, now going by Thomas Anderson, is an award-winning developer of a popular video game series called (wink, wink) The Matrix, but he's losing his grip on real life. Meanwhile, Trinity is Tiffany, a motorcycle-loving mom married to a guy named Chad.
For director Lana Wachowski, casting Chad was likely another meta-nod to the theme of nostalgia that informs the latest sequel. Chad Stahelski is more widely known these days as the filmmaker behind the John Wick movies, but he started his career as a stunt performer, his early gigs including playing Reeves' Neo stunt double for The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded, and The Matrix Revolutions.
He still can't believe Wachowski enlisted him for his new role. "She's like, 'I'm gonna put everybody in the movie.' I'm like, 'Yeah, you don't wanna do that. That's just gonna hurt your movie,'" Stahelski tells EW. "You kind of blow it off and then she hands you the pages and it's like, 'Chad,' and you're like, 'Are you f---ing kidding me?!' The natural instinct is to say, 'Nah, f--- off. I'm busy.' But you gotta understand, everyone that comes from the Matrix school of filmmaking, our loyalties are f---ing fierce. They call, you answer. I owe my entire career to Keanu and Lana. If they want me to sweep the floor, I'll sweep the floor."
Here, Stahelski discusses first joining 1999's The Matrix and coming full circle in Resurrections.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you remember where you were in your life and career when you got the gig to be Keanu's stunt double for the first Matrix?
CHAD STAHELSKI: Oh my God, that was forever ago. I was in my first five years as a stunt guy, trying to figure out the business. I was working on a bunch of TV shows for a stunt coordinator named Ernie Orsatti and his son, Noon Orsati: NYPD Blue, The Pretender, The Profiler, a couple other shows. You gotta remember, back then martial arts wasn't a big thing in Hollywood movies. It was more slug-it-out Arnold Schwarzenegger fights. It was Noon who said, "There is this sci-fi action thing, but they're looking for martial arts guys who look like Keanu Reeves. You look like him. You should go." I kid you not, I had just got hit by a car for a TV show. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and still trying to stop the bleeding from a small abrasion I had in my head. He was like, "Take lunchtime, go to the audition."
How was the audition?
It ended up being very arduous, probably one of the toughest auditions I'd ever been to at that point. I drove myself to Burbank, went to the warehouse, met the Wachowskis, met Keanu. I was a big Hong Kong action nerd. They introduced [stunt choreographer] Yuen Woo-Ping, and I was like, "Holy s---!" They said, "We're gonna take you through some motions." It started off acrobatic. I drove away thinking that was wacky. They called me again, like four weeks later, to go to the same place. I did almost the exact same audition all over again. That was trippy. And then, like a month later, they called and offered me the job. And I turned it down.
I had already booked a TV show that took me through the end of the year. You'd have to ask Barrie Osborne, the producer at the time, but he sounded fairly upset with me and we left it at that. Then months went by, and out of the blue I get a call from Barrie. He's like, "We had to push some things. Do you still want to do it?" I got on a plane and went to Australia and didn't have any idea what to expect. Got off the plane, went to the training hall. You saw the rehearsals of what they were hoping to do. I think at the time it was a dojo fight. That was the first thing they were training me in. It was just a whole different level than what the U.S. guys were used to. I spent the next couple months learning everything I could from Woo-Ping. Then for the second film, they asked if I would come back and be a double but also one of the stunt coordinators. I thought that was a big deal. And the third one, I got to be one of the stunt coordinators as well.
What do you remember from working with Keanu on that first film?
What I think helped The Matrix and, later on, what influenced me in all the John Wick [films] was that Keanu was trained specifically to do his own martial arts. They were gonna take him to the absolute limit before it was time to shoot. The only times the doubles really came in, we did all the stuff to help with the training — the [camera] line, the rehearsals, test all the wire gear to make sure it's safe. They're not gonna throw Keanu Reeves through a wall. If there's anything really, really technical, a super-hard piece of wire choreography that required above average [experience], or it's painful or tricky or there's a probability of injury, then yes, a double would step in and try to make that move fit to what Keanu could do.
Keanu was coming into this movie healing from a neck injury. He said he was a little concerned about it. Did you have to compensate for certain things because of that?
I wouldn't say compensate, but you plan on it. It's not a problem when you know it's a problem. Once you acknowledge it, you choreograph around it. And Keanu is brutally honest. When he says he's got this, you know he's got it.
Are there memories from that first movie that still stick with you?
Yeah, a f--- load. I got invited to dailies. The Wachowskis were very open directors, very cool. They wanted everyone to be inspired. They already knew what they were doing was cool, so they were pretty proud of it when they showed it to us. The first couple times of playback, I remember calling my best friends back in the States, going, "I don't even know how to explain this, but this is cool." We're all big anime fans, Hong Kong action fans. But when I saw the first little clip of what they were doing, it was just like, 'Yeah, this is something different.' We all knew it. Everybody knew it before the movie was even out. It was that obvious.
When you got the call to come back for the sequels and become even more involved in this process, did you have any specific marching orders for the martial arts choreography?
They brought back Woo-Ping and his team. They wanted to go bigger with the wire work. They needed a liaison to work between the U.S. teams and the Chinese team to do all the rigging and add in their two cents to what Keanu could and couldn't do. They were also bringing a whole American stunt team to double Agent Smith [Hugo Weaving], and I got stuck right in the middle of that, of being the liaison between everybody. So I got the best of everything. I got to work with the best U.S. stunt people, the best people in Hong Kong. It couldn't have been a better opportunity for a 30-year-old stunt guy at the time, as one of my first big jobs that really defined my career.
Did you sense a change working on those sequels? The cultural response to the first movie was so big.
Big. Epic. I'm not gonna lie, you felt elated to be a part of it. You were so f---ing proud to be in that movie. When they were doing Reloaded and Revolutions, everybody wanted to be a part of it. It was a three-year commitment: six months of trial and test, a year of shooting, another year of the motion-capture stuff. It was a big deal. And then you get there and all of us were so excited to be back because we all knew we had made a difference. We knew people were going to remember this in 20, 30 years.
Then, of course, you get started and are like, "We better not f--- this up." There's a little bit of pressure. The Wachowskis are demanding taskmasters. They have a work ethic that's second to none. You have to know your s---. If you go down the crew list and do a "where are they now," I would say at least seven to nine people of the department heads are directing, producing, writing, or are Oscar winners at the top of their game. That's no accident. [Production designer] Owen Paterson, [cinematographer] Bill Pope, [visual effects supervisors] John Gaeta and Dan Glass, David Leitch [the Deadpool 2 and Hobbs & Shaw director doubled for Weaving on The Matrix]. We all came from the Matrix world. You paid attention and you watched and you picked up as much as you could on how to dive into the creative aspect of cinema. That's the way the Wachowskis formed us.
You've obviously worked with Keanu a ton since the Matrix on the John Wick movies. How would you describe your working relationship over the years?
I'd be able to give you many different answers for just about anybody else, but you're talking about Keanu Reeves, who is a complete anomaly in the industry. I've had it easy. I've had a great f---ing career working with Keanu Reeves. I still deal with people who see me as a stunt guy. And believe me, I don't mind that at all. But if I met you as my paperboy, and then 10 years later I see you as a novelist, what am I more inclined to treat you as? We may change, but they may see us as the same person they did when we left. And there's nothing wrong with that. That's human nature. But Keanu, as far as I can remember in my 27 years of knowing him, has always looked at individuals as individuals in the moment they're in.
Here's a quick story on the first John Wick. Dave Leitch and I were co-directing it. We were super excited. We landed Ian McShane. We're big Deadwood fans. And Keanu's always giving little pieces of advice. He had one day off on the first John Wick out of our 48-day shoot. We're in New York. Dave and I walk to Ian's trailer. We're going to meet him for the first time — new directors, former stunt guys. Who knows what he's gonna think? It's 5 o'clock in the morning somewhere in downtown Manhattan. Who's sitting on the steps? Keanu Reeves on his one day off. Should be sleeping in bed healing. I was like, "What the f--- are you doing here?" He was like, "I just want to be here and be the ambassador and introduce you guys." That's him. He was so f---ing cool and wanted to make sure that meeting went well. I don't know anybody else who would have done that for us.
You had The Matrix Resurrections, but you were planning John Wick: Chapter 4, which started filming after this movie. Was it easy to figure out how you'd come back?
I don't know what you've heard, but I am not an actor. I honestly believe to be an even decent director, you should study acting as much as you can 'cause those are your tools, your collaborators. I've taken hundreds of acting courses, had hundreds of conversations with other cast members, read, studied, done as much as I could to get into that mindset so I can speak the language of the cast. I think I'm well versed in speaking the language — I'm just not very poetic in it. Having been a stunt double for 15 years, I'm very comfortable on camera, but now when it's just you and finding the character, oh, I'm god-awful. I hate the way I sound. I hate the way I look. It's terrible. I think it's Lana's little gag back at me — that's what I thought this was.
What was your mindset going back to The Matrix, a movie that propelled you into this space?
We all have nostalgic experiences in our life — things you're proud of, and some things you're not. That's one of the things I was very proud of. I got to work with probably the most intelligent filmmakers on the planet, at least in our generation. Not only did I get to work for them, they actually trained me. My first big second-unit job, I was trained as a director by them. They took a 25-year-old stunt kid — Keanu's double — and taught me. They put me in the edit room, they put me with the VFX guys, they showed me why it was important to watch the fashion channel for wardrobe. That's nuts, man. To walk into that set again, to see Keanu, to see Carrie-Anne, you melt a little bit.
Did Lana have the idea to name you Chad in the movie?
You gotta ask her exactly why she wants to torture me, or maybe it's a tribute outta love. I don't know. Either way, I'm gonna take it like it's a gesture of love. Love you back!
The Matrix Resurrections is currently playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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