Keanu Reeves thanks Will Smith for turning down the role of Neo in The Matrix. Reeves ended up starring in the 1999 film by the Wachowskis, which is today considered one of the greatest science-fiction movies ever made. A third sequel titled The Matrix Resurrections is set to release on December 22 after the original trilogy concluded all the way back in 2003.
The Canadian actor was a known entity before playing Neo, having broken through in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and become an established action star in Point Break and Speed, but his role in The Matrix has arguably become the crux of his career. Famously, however, Reeves wasn’t the studio’s first choice to play “the One,” as the Wachowskis first offered the part to Smith, by that point a bona fide box-office draw. Unclear on the story, the movie star turned it down in favor of Wild Wild West, which, by contrast, was fairly loathed upon release.
Now, in an interview with Esquire, Reeves thanks Smith for paving the way to his starring in The Matrix. He considers the film to have been life-changing, both professionally and personally, and he speaks very positively about the experience of making it. Given that he’s about to feature in The Matrix Resurrections, he says, he’s very grateful to have scored the part:
Well, it changed my life. And, it was such a wonderful creative experience, and so to play Neo in The Matrix trilogy and now in the fourth… It impacted my life, personally and creatively. Thank you very much.
For his part, Smith has said he ultimately doesn’t regret the decision to turn down The Matrix, as he believes Reeves was a better fit for the role than he would’ve been. The perceived tone of the film certainly would’ve been different with the alternate casting, given that Smith was coming off an action-comedy performance in Men in Black that might’ve encouraged audiences to take the Wachowski’s vision less seriously. The movie walks a thin line between cool and ridiculous, and without the careful chemistry achieved by the original creative team, it might not be as well-remembered as it is.
Fans of The Matrix and of Reeves are surely just as grateful that things worked out as they did, since it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role of Neo. Smith’s career has certainly not suffered for it, and he’s currently getting Oscar buzz for his role in the sports biopic King Richard, which could potentially land him his third nomination and first win. Reeves, meanwhile, is juggling the two most iconic roles of his career by returning for fourth installments of both The Matrix and John Wick franchises.