[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “Always Be My Maybe.”]
Through Keanu Reeves’ larger-than-life roles, tales of gracious humility, and love of privacy, the actor has created a certain mystique that is catnip to adoring fans. That includes the Asian-American community, which never forgets that he’s also part Chinese-Hawaiian and claims him as one of their own. It’s that blend of global megastar name recognition and Asian identification that makes him the perfect choice to send up in Netflix’s rom-com “Always Be My Maybe.”
In the film written by and starring Ali Wong and Randall Park, celebrity chef Sasha (Wong) and her childhood friend Marcus (Park) reconnect in their 30s after she returns to her native San Francisco to open a new restaurant. Just as he’s about to try to rekindle whatever spark they might have had, Sasha begins seeing another man: Keanu Reeves.
Apparently, it didn’t take much convincing for the actor to play an aggro-hipster version of himself. But he’s not only in on the joke, he helped write the jokes. “He immediately got it. He read the script and wanted to meet with us, so we had a meeting with him before he agreed to sign on,” said “Fresh Off the Boat” creator Nahnatchka Khan in her feature directorial debut. “We were talking about the character, and he just had so many funny ideas and pitches that we went back and revised the script with those in mind.”
In fact, Reeves was so invested in perfecting the character that he was meticulous about the notes he gave. “I was shocked because I remember he said, ‘On page 80, this happens,’” said Wong. “He didn’t have the script in front of him. I said, ‘How on earth do you know — have you memorized what happens on page 80?’ I’ve gone through many drafts of the script and I don’t even remember what happened on page 80.”
Doane Gregory / Netflix
Reeves found a pocket of time while he was shooting “John Wick 3” to come four days to the San Francisco set of “Always Be My Maybe,” which was at the end of their shoot. As to be expected, his presence drew quite a crowd on set that day.
“Because it was also the end of the shoot a lot of people were coming through, but there were certainly people who popped up from the accounting offices I have never seen before but were suddenly on set,” said Khan. “They were like, ‘Oh yeah we’ve been your accountants this whole time.’ It’s hard not to be awestruck by someone like that because you really understand the idea of star power.”
Although Reeves is only in two scenes (his voice is featured in another), the actor makes a meal of them. His introduction is accompanied with all the fanfare one would expect when “the greatest North American box office draw of the ‘90s and early 2000s” walks into a restaurant. The movie’s Keanu Reeves is very aware of appearances, which includes the funky black eyeglasses — or rather the frames — he wears. “My eyes are perfect. This is for a part. They don’t even have lenses in them,” he explains to Marcus in the scene.
The movie has Reeves to thank for that bit of pretentious drollery. Khan said, “One of the things was he said, ‘I think it would be funny if I was wearing glasses for a part that had no lenses. So we were like, ‘Yeah that’s definitely funny, that’s amazing. Let’s put that in.’”
Take a look at Keanu’s first meeting with Marcus:
We don't deserve Keanu Reeves pic.twitter.com/20Nm0lMrfw
— Netflix US (@netflix) June 1, 2019
Later, when the dinner party retires to Reeves’ insanely elaborate hotel suite, Khan employed a strategy that she used on the sitcom “Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23” of shooting a few takes in which the actors would either ad-lib or try out alternate jokes.
“On the day, we were improv-ing a lot, and I had alt sides with different jokes for people to try and he loved that,” said Khan. “He was like, ‘I have a couple of alt jokes too if you want to try them.’ A couple of those are in the movie.”
At one point during the get-together, the Keanu Reeves character realizes that Sasha once had a crush on Marcus, and his demeanor changes, becomes more challenging. After an offhand comment Marcus makes about Mao Zedong, Keanu Reeves feels the need to prove himself.
“I’m very familiar with Chinese dignitaries, Marcus,” he snarls, and then starts rattling of names. “Xi Jinping, Li Kequiang, Yu Zhengsheng.”
“It was his idea to do the different Chinese dignitaries that he was listing,” said Khan. “He was like, ‘I think it would be funny if I just kept listing them.’ So he’s in these scenes with Ali and Randall who are the top of their game with that type of humor, and Vivian Bang who was amazing playing Jenny. It was a perfect marriage.”
Despite some of the more outrageous gags, Reeves wanted to keep his onscreen persona in check. “He didn’t want to make him too cartoony because then that hurts my character,” said Wong. “He’s very considerate in that way. Super thoughtful.”
Doane Gregory / Netflix
Park added, “Throughout the process, he was very much like, ‘This is Marcus and Sasha’s story, and I don’t want me to get in the way of their story.’”
“Even on the red carpet [at the premiere], he kept on moving to the fringe when we took group shots,” said Wong. “It’s Keanu, and everyone’s so excited about him, and everyone else looks like garbage when they’re next to him, so I think he just wanted to be considerate and tried to keep the focus on us.”
This consideration extended to the final song, “I Punched Keanu Reeves,” that Marcus writes as part of his band Hello Peril’s repertoire. The germ of the idea came Marcus’ intermittent bragging about having punched Keanu Reeves during the evening gone wrong. In the final scene of the movie, Marcus and Sasha are finally a couple and he’s celebrating her latest restaurant opening.
“You think everyone knows that I punched Keanu Reeves?” asks Marcus, to which she replies, “You should probably write a song about it just to be sure.”
The camera pans to a painting made by Marcus’ mother in the restaurant, and as the film cuts to the credits, “I Punched Keanu Reeves” begins to play. There were never plans to include that song at all; it was just a callback joke to punctuate the movie and bring it full circle. But the powers that be demanded it.
“That came after we had a cut of the movie,” said Park. “One of our executives, Tendo [Nagenda], from Netflix, was like, ‘I want to hear that song that you mentioned at the very end of the movie.’”
“I thought he was joking,” said Wong. “But he was like, ‘I really want it.’ And we were like, ‘OK, if you guys want to pay for it.’”
Reeves gave his permission for the song to be written, which includes references to his filmography. Park and legendary Bay area producer Dan the Automator wrote the lyrics set to the latter’s music.
“It was fun [writing the lyrics], because that band Hello Peril was based on a band that I was in, way back when, out of college [called Ill Again],” said Park. “This band in the movie is a kind of what if that band were to have kept going. I hadn’t done that in so long, but it was fun to exercise that muscle again.”
Here’s a sample of the lyrics:
Best believe that I punched Keanu Reeves,
And it was better than any scene you could see in “Speed.”
I’m telling’ you for real:
I punched Neo.
He could duck bullets,
But he couldn’t duck me.
Take a listen:
Marcus isn’t the only one who would feel overshadowed by Keanu Reeves in the movie. Daniel Dae Kim plays Sasha’s ex-fiance, the handsome and successful restaurant developer Brandon Choi. When Sasha describes her newfound love interest, she says, “This guy has the best qualities of Brandon, but even better.”
Kim said, “I loved it. To be trumped by Keanu Reeves, I don’t have a single problem with it at all. I just think it’s great for Randall too, because for Sasha, I’m not good enough, Keanu Reeves is not good enough, but Randall’s good enough, and that’s great for him.”
Reeves also focused on that central love story, and wanted to be sure that the “I Punched Keanu Reeves” song brought the story back to the main couple. After all, the fight with Keanu Reeves in the movie is what brought Marcus and Sasha back together. In the song, this is acknowledged:
The only thing better than punching Keanu Reeves
Is the fact that his girl chose me
I bet you didn’t think this was a love song
But the reason I’m at my pinnacle right now
Is that I hit him in the eye, then I became her guy
And her love has me feeling invincible.
In the end, Wong and Park aren’t sure if Reeves actually got to hear “I Punched Keanu Reeves.” Although he attended the premiere, the applause was so loud afterward he may not have been able to hear the song over the credits.
“He’ll probably never watch that movie again,” said Wong. “But it would be such a shame because the lyrics are great, dude. He didn’t even watch the trailer to our movie before the screening. It was like a complete utter surprise to him.”
Park added, “The fact that he loved it — that’s the biggest thrill.”
”Always Be My Maybe” is currently streaming on Netflix.