Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss resurrect a 20-year love story with The Matrix 4.0
Keanu Reeves is jet-lagged. The 57-year-old Hollywood lifer has just arrived in Los Angeles after a flight from Jordan, where he was filming the fourth John Wick, a punishing franchise not exactly known for its leisurely pace. He hasn't been home in eight months, but instead of sleeping it off, he's at a photo shoot. Fatigue sets in. He buries his eyes in his palms, trying to rub life back into his strained pupils after the continuous pop, pop, pop of the camera's flash.
Getting his picture taken doesn't rank high on Reeves' list of favorite things. It never has. But he looks up and smiles when a pair of comforting hands rest on his shoulders: They belong to Carrie-Anne Moss, his longtime costar from the Matrix movies, positioning herself behind him for the shot. There's an ease between them that comes from 20-plus years of friendship — a friendship that began in the late '90s when the pair met on the genre-redefining sci-fi film that turned out to be so influential, it single-handedly introduced phrases like "glitch in the Matrix" and "red-pilling" to the pop culture lexicon.
Moss calls their connection effortless. "We've been through this experience together as partners," says the actress, 54. "The only way I can describe it is like a soul friendship." Their unique bond made 1999's The Matrix what it is today, and The Matrix, in turn, changed the course of moviemaking on the eve of a new millennium.
That first film, inspired by then-geekier genres like cyberpunk and anime, envisioned a grim future in which our world, unbeknownst to us, had been taken over by machines: Using a simulated reality, artificial intelligence keeps humans docile enough to harvest for energy. At the center of this brainy high concept was Reeves' Neo, a bored office worker moonlighting as a computer hacker who escapes the simulation, and Moss' Trinity, a woman from the real world with the ability to jack into the Matrix — not to mention a talent for executing gravity-defying combat moves while clad in slick black leather.
After all these years, neither star would've guessed that they'd be back together talking about yet another sequel, The Matrix Resurrections, which lands in theaters and on HBO Max Dec. 22. How could they? Sibling directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski, the architects of the franchise, were firm in their resolve that the first three installments would serve as a complete trilogy, definitively ending in 2003 with The Matrix Revolutions… and (two-decade-old spoiler alert!) with both Neo and Trinity dying at the end.
When asked why he agreed to return to the series after a nearly two-decade hiatus, Reeves offers a very simple explanation: "We had filmmakers who you wanted to say yes to," he says. Plus, he adds, "[we had] material that you wanted to commit to, to give everything that you could to."
The actual journey to Resurrections, however, was a little more complicated than that. At a Berlin screenwriting panel back in September, Lana said that every year, Warner Bros. would ask her and Lilly to make another Matrix movie, but they always declined. In 2017, screenwriter Zak Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand, The Avengers) revealed that he was working on undisclosed Matrix projects without the involvement of the Wachowskis, who had stepped away from feature filmmaking after the disastrous reception to 2015's Jupiter Ascending. Lilly told The Hollywood Reporter in 2020 that corporate interference on her films pushed her to a "breaking point." Instead of continuing her collaboration with Lana, she said that she needed to "reconnect" with herself as an artist by going back to school and working on other projects.
"The Matrix was a revolutionary film and giving that legacy to someone else I think [would have been a] horrendous mistake," says Jada Pinkett Smith, returning for Resurrections as her character Niobe from the first two sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.
For Lana, it was a series of tragic, life-altering events that eventually changed her mind: the death of her parents and a close friend. "I didn't really know how to process that kind of grief," she said at the Berlin panel. "I hadn't experienced it that closely." The Matrix's characters gave her comfort: "I couldn't have my mom and dad, yet suddenly I had Neo and Trinity, arguably the two most important characters in my life."
Profound personal change has always been central to the Matrix universe. The Wachowskis came out as trans and underwent gender reassignment surgery in the years since Reloaded and Revolutions both hit theaters in 2003. This awakening may have been an unspoken part of The Matrix since the beginning; Reeves remembers an early draft of the original script that featured a character who entered the Matrix world as a different sex. "I think the studio wasn't ready for that," he says.
"Technology paradoxically brought us closer together while also isolating or inculcating us from each other," Lana Wachowski, 56, writes to EW. (In a very Matrix-like move, the director did not sit for an interview, preferring to communicate via email.) "The power of technology to trap or limit our subjective reality was an important part of the new narrative for Matrix Resurrections." She explains that "the story [for Resurrections] exploded rather fully formed" from her mind. Neo and Trinity are seemingly alive and well, but their minds are locked away inside the Matrix, which has become more dangerous. They have no apparent memory of their past, yet Neo is haunted by it. He sees flashes of what transpired in the previous films in his dreams, in what he thinks is everyday life.
That life now includes Bugs (Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Jessica Henwick), a blue-haired gunslinger with a white rabbit tattoo. When she crosses Neo's path, we get more clues about just why Lana felt so compelled to return to The Matrix. (There's also a quite meta treatment of that very question in the film.) "Art is a mirror," Wachowski writes. "Most will prefer to gaze at the surface but there will be people like me who enjoy what lies behind the looking glass. I made this movie for them."
Henwick, 29, promises "a new tone" and "a new look" that makes Resurrections more vibrant and "joyous." Reeves, too, was "struck by how much humor is in it" — but that doesn't mean Neo will be cracking quips like Tony Stark. "It's throwing down the Matrix gauntlet again; it's super smart, clever, entertaining, suspenseful, and funny," he says. Adds Watchmen and Candyman star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, 35, who plays Morpheus, a different version of Neo's mentor originated by Laurence Fishburne: "Out of all of the sci-fi things that I've done, Matrix is the one that is the most grounded in reality, ironically. There are all of the high concepts surrounding The Matrix within our story, but really there's so much heart and humanity that's driving this narrative."
Emphasis on heart. "Not that it needed it," says Reeves, "but certainly the depth of why this film got made is the sense of it being a love story between Trinity and Neo." It was Lana's deep connection to the characters that resonated with her stars. Reeves remembers the conversation when Lana first told him about her idea for another sequel. "It was one of those phone calls where even though you're at home, you stand up," he says.
For her part, Moss saw the new movie as a rare "opportunity to embody" Lana's love. "I've never felt that way before, where I could see that I am an extension of her heart in playing this role," she says. Adds Jonathan Groff (Frozen, Hamilton), 36, who plays a suit who might be more than he appears to be: "When I read the script for this movie I cried, because the idea of watching these two iconic actors in these two iconic parts coming back and fighting to have their love again just wrecked me."
In the 22 years since The Matrix first hit theaters, audiences have never stopped wrestling with its themes — about breaking free from oppressive systems and opening one's mind to hidden truths. Still, one thing that everyone can agree on is the revolutionary influence the series has had on sci-fi tropes, particularly when it comes to action scenes, and Resurrections doesn't disappoint.
Filming began in February 2020, and the various cloak-and-dagger attempts to keep one of the most anticipated productions in years a secret didn't quite work out: Bystanders leaked on social media a scene that was shot in San Francisco in which Reeves and Moss stand at the edge of a building more than 40 floors high, swarmed by missile-launching helicopters, with no choice but to jump. According to stunt coordinator Scott Rogers, who also worked with Reeves on the third and fourth installments of John Wick, Lana saw this sequence as a metaphor for the whole movie. "For her, the studio, the actors, everybody," he says, "you're taking this leap of faith." Counters Reeves: "We have an incredible filmmaker, a visionary, these amazing roles with the kind of storytelling and ideas and promotion of thought. A leap of faith? We have a lot of faith in that leap."
Moss says she had "a lot of obstacles to overcome" before she was able to do the scene. She sat down at a table with her husband before the shoot to discuss it. "He's like, 'You really gonna do this?' And I was like, 'Yeah, absolutely. I don't know how I'm going to get there, but I know I'm going to get there.'"
"If we're there, it's not a stunt," jokes Reeves, meaning the stunt pros are the ones who actually do the dangerous stuff. "But Scott set up a situation where we could do it. So, we did." Moss acknowledges how her physical capabilities have changed from 20 years ago when she was filming close-quarter combat scenes with more ease. It was about "respecting that time has passed, that my body's had three children," she says. "But I also enjoyed that challenge."
Henwick had her own leap of faith to take. Best known for playing Nymeria Sand on Game of Thrones and Colleen Wing on Iron Fist, she was up for a role in Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings at the same time she was up for the role of Bugs. Both Disney and Warner Bros. knew about the other offer and gave her an ultimatum: She could audition for their movie only if she forfeited the competing project. Neither role was guaranteed. "It was a red-pill/blue-pill moment for me," she says.
Henwick sees Bugs as "the audience's eyes" into Resurrections, which is how one might look at all of the actors new to The Matrix. Abdul-Mateen credits Reeves for "pushing us and setting the standard" for the work. Groff concurs. "[Keanu] taught me so much about the agreement of two people to hit each other, but not hurt each other," the Broadway-trained actor says. "When our fight was over, I felt deeply connected to him in a physical way." It's not lost on Groff, who came out publicly as gay in 2009, that he's involved in such an action-heavy movie when queer people have not largely been welcomed into that space. That's another testament to Wachowski, who brought back many crew members from Sense8, a series that prominently featured LGBTQ stories, while welcoming new faces into her creative family.
To the two actors who know her best, Lana felt like a different director in some ways. Reeves remembers that on the original trilogy, she was "more behind the monitor" but "still hands-on." With Resurrections, "she was participating more with the movement of the camera, and more interested in doing than rehearsing." It was less about prep and more about everyone's readiness to find the unexpected in the moment. Reeves confesses they "barely rehearsed, if at all."
In other ways, working on Resurrections was like reuniting with an old friend. Once Lana called "Action!" Moss says she went right back to where she was with Reeves in the original movie. "Most of my scenes are with Keanu, and it was just a pleasure to sit across from him and do that again," she says, as she and Reeves sit side by side in matching director's chairs. "He has a masterful understanding of action. I've watched him grow in the last 20 years. I'm in awe of it."
Reeves shakes his head back and forth as she speaks, silently protesting. "But you've got a flavor," he responds. "It's Trinity! It's Carrie-Anne Moss, Trinity flavor. All the fierceness and mind, focus, commitment is there in the gestures. Untamed and wild and controlled."
After all these years, it's still a flavor we can't get enough of. Before Moss and Reeves change into their next outfits for the photo shoot, they slip away, catching up on each other's lives since making Resurrections. They push through the studio's back exit, flooding the darkened room with afternoon sunshine. Fans of the films might immediately think of the door of light, a portal Neo would use to slip into the digital "backdoor" of the Matrix. But that's not quite it. "They're taking a cigarette break," a crew member says. In this universe, even the most casual of exits looks cool.
Motion direction and photography by Dan Winters for EW. DP and Post-production; Alex Themistocleous; Production: Michelle Stark; Additional post-production: Ethan Bellows; Design: Chuck Kerr; Set design: Ed Murphy; Reeves' styling: Jeanne Yang/The Wall Group; Hair: Nina Paskowitz; Makeup: Geri Oppenheim; Moss' styling: Sydney Lopez/Two Management; Hair: Sunnie Brook/Forward Atists; Makeup: Patti Dubroff/Forward Artists. Cover look: Reeves: Jacket: Hermes; Shirt: James Perse; Moss: Dress: Jonathan Simkhai; Earrings: Nouvel Heritage.
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