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Keanu Reeves finds his inner redneck in The Gift

If you thought he was a bad-ass in Speed or The Matrix, just wait until you see Keanu Reeves going upside Hilary Swank's head in The Gift (opening Jan. 19), a turgid supernatural thriller co-written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson (One False Move) and directed by Sam Raimi (A Simple Plan).

The movie was filmed on location in Savannah last summer, although the story takes place in a fictitious backwoods town called Brixton. Cate Blanchett stars as a recently widowed mother of three young kids who makes ends meet as a psychic counselor of sorts to the local yokels. When one of them is murdered, she's called upon to use her other-worldly "gift" to help police find the killer.

In a supporting ensemble, which also includes Giovanni Ribisi as a mental case, Katie Holmes and Greg Kinnear as a slutty country-club belle and her curiously mild-mannered fiancé, and Swank as a blowzy battered wife, chief among the stereotypical Southern trash on display is Reeves' Donnie Barksdale, a surly redneck drunk and hothead who couldn't be further removed from those stoic action heroes the 35-year-old actor has become better-known for playing.

"It's not often I get the chance to play this sort of archetypal villain. It was a different kind of role in a different kind of genre, and as an actor I found that interesting and exciting," Reeves says during a recent interview. "Portraying that sort of physical abuse was tough enough, but the hardest part for me was getting into all the emotional and psychological reasons behind the violence. I just tried to embody this character. I wanted to give him a certain authenticity."

To that end, Reeves showed up in Savannah a few weeks early. He rented a pickup truck. He traded his movie-star duds for jeans and a matching denim jacket. "And then I set out in the world, hitting all these different little bars on the outskirts of town, just blending in and hanging out, shootin' the shit with people. It was a way of getting comfortable with that particular environment, of understanding it better and making it feel more natural," he explains.

"I guess I was really on the hunt to find my own Donnie Barksdale, you know? I knew the character had to be very specific. I wanted to see him for myself." And so he did. "In fact," Reeves says, "I met more than a couple of Donnies."

Up next, Reeves reunites with his Devil's Advocate co-star Charlize Theron in the romantic comedy Sweet November, due to hit theaters this spring -- by which time he'll be in Australia concurrently filming two sequels to his 1998 blockbuster The Matrix. After so flatly (and so wisely) refusing any involvement in the ill-fated Speed 2, what makes these two sequels more attractive than most? "Well, both of these have a little something going for them called a good script," the actor replies with a smile.

Reeves describes the Matrix project(s) as a "mammoth undertaking." "I started my physical training last month, and by the time we finish post-production on both movies, I'll have worked on them something like 16 months," he says. "But that's nothing. From beginning to end, I think it's taking three years out of the lives of the Wachowski brothers [the directors], you know?

"Again, they want to push the envelope of what's possible in terms of the camera and the special effects. Thematically, the second one is even more dense than the first, with a lot of more complex and sophisticated ideas in it. Exponentially, the action and the fight sequences are going to be a lot more ambitious, too," Reeves says. "I'm really doing it out of a faith in the Wachowskis, and out of my belief in the story. I really buy into the movie's philosophy that life isn't so much about fate as it is about the choices we make."

If The Gift has a "philosophy," it's that psychic phenomena happen -- and the actor admits he buys into that, as well. "I mean, I've never seen a ghost or any objects suddenly flying across the room, but I've met with psychics and tarot readers before who've been very specific with me, so I definitely believe there's another realm out there," he says.

"How else can you explain that thing that's happened to most of us before, where you're thinking about somebody and all of a sudden the phone rings and it's them? You know what I mean?"

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