Given its setting and star, it’s tempting to see Siberia as a lost chapter in the John Wick franchise. Keanu Reeves plays Lucas Hill, a man whose life of quiet reflection, faded love, and the occasional international trip to sell diamonds is interrupted by some Russian gangsters. We know, those details don’t quite line up, especially not once the alluring Katya (Ana Ularu) joins this uneven romantic thriller. As we watch Lucas get his ass handed to him by some drunk—but hostile—locals, Reeves looks nothing like the implacable bogeyman he’s arguably most famous for playing at this point. But dig beneath Matthew Ross’ uneven caper, and you’ll find a white-hot romance between Reeves and Ularu. As star-crossed lovers, their palpable chemistry even manages to jumpstart the film when it stalls out over plot intricacies.
Ularu, late of Emerald City, gives an expressive but subtle performance as Katya, the café owner minding her own business and shoveling her own snow until Reeves’ businessman drops by for a drink. And though he’s not nearly as cool as John Wick, Reeves is still incredibly sexy and solicitous (that is, if you can also forget about the wife Lucas struggles to remember). Ultimately, Siberia features two great matches: the pairing of Lucas and Katya, and the union of the two most prominent images of Reeves—the impassive action star and re-emerging romantic lead.
With two new romantic comedies in development—including reuniting with Winona Ryder for Destination Wedding—and this amorous turn in Siberia, the Matrix star seems to be leaning into this new phase (or maybe just segue) in his career. Ahead of the film’s July 13 release, The A.V. Club spoke with Siberia’s star and director about heist movies, what really makes you vulnerable as an artist, and Russian love stories in the time of collusion.
The A.V. Club: You’re kind of the driving force behind this movie—you recruited Matthew Ross to direct, working off Scott B. Smith’s script. What was it about the idea that first grabbed you?
Keanu Reeves: I just really enjoyed the world of Siberia. I liked the character, Lucas Hill, who’s this man that’s scrambling to keep it all together, and he’s kind of failing. He falls in love in the middle of this deal gone wrong—he’s trying to sell some diamonds, but it’s not quite working out. But in the middle of all this, he meets a soul mate. And we realize that the life that he lived is precluding him from having this life that he could possibly live.
AVC: People sometimes refer to their significant others as a “partner in crime.” That’s literally the case for Lucas and Katya here, isn’t it?
KR: In a way. I mean, I don’t know how much Katya, Ana Ularu’s character, is a criminal. But definitely, I guess, in the eyes of her family, she’s stepping outside of what’s expected. So maybe she’s more of a rebel.
I looked at it as a bit of a Romeo and Juliet [story]: Katya has her own world, and Lucas has his. And in a way, these worlds don’t conspire to keep them apart, but it’s their histories, their inherited lives that keep them apart. I thought it was romantically tragic.
AVC: You’re obviously best known for these blockbuster action franchises like The Matrix and John Wick, but you’ve also starred in a fair number of romantic dramas and comedies. How does filming these intimate scenes compare with stuff like fight choreography?
KR: They’re both very physical and intimate, but the intimacy of violence is obviously different from the intimacy of opening your heart. There’s greater tenderness in a lovemaking scene, but it’s almost riskier. Honestly, those were the scenes in Siberia that felt the most dangerous and important for me, as an actor and a performer. I think I can speak for Ana as well, that going into the scenes of intimacy, just as they yell “action!”—it feels like you’re coming down from the heights, like you’re on a high wire. You’re left very vulnerable. I don’t know what that is sometimes, where there’s a danger in connection, you know? Making oneself vulnerable... I don’t know. There’s that, “Oh, my gosh.” [Laughs.] But it’s thrilling to perform.
AVC: Is there anything you take from one genre to the other—something you’ve learned from your more physical roles that has helped you in a romance, or vice versa?
KR: It’s the relationship with the camera. Dancers can speak about this as well—or anybody can speak about it, I guess. But in terms of the focus of the discipline, you know? You’re just very aware of where your body is in these spaces. And there are all these little movements, so you learn to be mindful of where the camera is, and whether it is capturing that moment.
AVC: I know you were drawn to the romance in Siberia, but what about the heist element? Because this is actually one of two jewel heist movies out right now; there’s also Ocean’s 8.
KR: You know, I do enjoy a good heist movie—the whole Ocean’s series is fun. It’s a really broad spectrum, and my tastes run the gamut: bank robbery movies like Bonnie And Clyde, World War II heist movies, the Pink Panther series.
AVC: The movie’s setting gives it a bit of Russia connection, which is something that a studio or producer might play up because of its timeliness. But Siberia isn’t a political movie.
KR: I agree with you.
AVC: So what would you like audiences to take from it?
KR: Just that a connection to someone else is precious, and one of the best feelings and opportunities available to us—that life and love are fucking precious. Yeah.
AVC: Well, that’ll always be timely.
KR: I think so. Yeah! Yeah.
AVC: Aside from Keanu Reeves, what first drew you to the project?
Matthew Ross: It’s funny, but Keanu actually kind of cast me in the film, because he had been developing this script. This is something that was very personal to him, and that he’d been developing for a couple of years before bringing me on to direct it. So, I never chose him, although I certainly would have had I been given the opportunity to. But he had seen my first film and responded to it, and he had been developing Siberia and thought that I would be the right fit for the script that he’d been working on with Scott Smith.
AVC: One of the parallels between your previous movie, Frank & Lola, and Siberia is that when the male lead finds himself in a foreign place and a new environment, it makes him rethink his current relationship. Is this just an extreme case of “vacation behavior”?
MR: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s one way of putting it. But I think what Lucas finds in Katya, is this spark—it’s something unique, and it forces hm to reevaluate his entire life. The irony, of course, being that the circumstances that have brought him to meet her are also putting him in a ton of danger. So, he’s rediscovering his life under very extreme circumstances. That’s really what this film is about. It’s about taking somebody, a character out of a sort of stasis, or any kind of familiarity and putting them in completely new circumstances—professionally, personally, geographically—and then seeing how they react to those circumstances. And that of course includes his relationship.
AVC: There are many great—and tragic—Russian love stories, in literature and film. Did any of those stories influence Siberia?
MR: Well, there’s a ton of films that influenced the look of the movie. [Andrei] Tarkovsky, obviously being sort of the godfather of Russian cinema, and one of the best directors of all time, in my opinion. We certainly watched his movies and craft, as we were designing digital elements of the movie, and all the visual parts of the film. We also watched a lot of Robert Altman from the ’70s, specifically for all of the stuff that we were shooting outside—McCabe & Mrs. Miller was a big influence. We were also inspired by a lot of the French filmmakers in the ’70s. But certainly, Tarkovsky and Russia—rewatching a lot of those movies was something that absolutely got us in the mood to shoot things, for sure.
AVC: Siberia will draw comparisons to the John Wick movies, but the character of Lucas isn’t this stylish killing machine. He’s clever and capable, but he’s not Baba Yaga.
MR: That’s very well put. I wanted to explore another aspect of Keanu, and maybe play with the expectation of that a little bit by not making this a film that has zero comparisons to some of these other bigger action movies. Because it has a little bit of that genre element in there, but it’s really not that kind of movie at all. It’s very much a love story, it’s very much a character piece.
AVC: Is the film’s Russia connection just a coincidence or matter of geography, or do you think there is some tie-in to everything happening right now?
MR: Well, a lot’s happened in a year and a half. When I first met with Keanu on the movie, Obama was still president and Trump hadn’t been elected. I think we met in October of 2016, maybe a few weeks before the election. While we were in prep on that movie, the world changed in a very profound way, and in a way that was very much involved what we were shooting, and where we were shooting. But obviously there was nothing we could do about any of that, so we just decided to roll with it. And I’ll sort of leave it up to other people, to see if they can find some interesting parallels in the current political situation. But we went into production two months after Trump took office, and my first meeting with Keanu happened before the actual election. So, all of this was developing in real time as we were making the movie, which is interesting to say the least.
[Note: Siberia is distributed by Saban Entertainment, whose founder, Haim Saban, is also part owner of Univision, which owns The A.V. Club. So we’re like three degrees of corporate ownership away from this movie.]