Keanu Reeves Gets ‘Thumbsucker’ Role Thanks To Director’s Dog

Co-star Tilda Swinton, meanwhile, helped raise money to make the film.

How do you get an A-list star to appear in your movie-directing debut? According to Keanu Reeves, it’s easy.

“I got the script, read the script, really liked it,” Reeves remembered recently while discussing his participation in the low-budget film “Thumbsucker.” “I went to [the director's] office, sat at a table …”

“My dog smelled you,” smiled Mike Mills, the former music-video director now benefiting from Reeves’ accessibility.

“I got smelled,” agreed Reeves, “we had a lovely conversation, and I was in.”

OK, but how do you get the money to then make the film? According to “Vanilla Sky” and “Adaptation” star Tilda Swinton, you simply hire her.

“Well, it’s kind of what I do, to be honest with you,” Swinton said, remembering the 18 months she spent after being cast in “Thumbsucker,” harassing friends while helping Mills find financiers for his project. “It’s what I’ve always done; it’s a habit I learned early when I started making films. Mike Mills was the thing that I was into, and any film that he had wanted to make I would have wanted to help him make.”

“Thumbsucker” is many different things to many different people: a “Clockwork Orange”-type indictment of the notion that people can be “corrected”; a “Donnie Darko”-esque study of a depressed, unceasingly sarcastic teen and the odd world that surrounds him; a critique of our Prozac nation; a study of the secret insecurities of your parents; and, most importantly, a heart-tugging, belly-tickling piece of art. Attendees of the 2005 Berlin Film Festival saw the film as containing their Best Acting performance, by newcomer Lou Pucci; the Sundance Film Festival agreed.

“I got on a plane to audition for this part,” Pucci remembered of his starring role as Justin the Thumbsucker, a part that required him to get on an aircraft for the first time. “I could relate to it really easily, which is good.”

When Justin’s titular problem still afflicts him at age 17, he undergoes various attempts to make him “normal.” With the help of a New Age orthodontist (Reeves), eager-to-medicate parents (Swinton and Vincent D’Onofrio), a sexy new goth girlfriend (Kelli Garner) and a cripplingly insecure debate teacher (Vince Vaughn), Justin breaks his habit while substituting Ritalin instead. As Justin’s mom chases after a cheesy TV heartthrob (Benjamin Bratt) and his dad awkwardly remains hung up on his long-abandoned college football glories, you begin to realize that “Thumbsucker” is almost as difficult to describe as it is to hate.

For Mills, the cure-all concept of prescription drugs is something that seemed ripe for a film topic. “There’s so many grays in it,” the director said. “It would be my last resort to medicate, if I had a child, but that isn’t to say it doesn’t help some people in some ways. My only fear about it is when it becomes commercialized and institutionalized, part of a school program that pharmaceutical companies do for profit. Those are the parts that scare me. … Pharmacology is huge, and it’s a big, monstrous thing for us all to start talking about.”

“One of the aspects I like about the film is that there is a kind of emotional, psychological discussion during the storytelling,” Reeves said before summing up the film’s true meaning. “Before taking a drug, go through yourself, experience yourself, all your hopes and fears in your own time. Before the pharmacology, do the psychology.”

As for their own supposed “bad habits” that society may want to rid them of, the cast does admit to a few, and a few others they’d love to obtain.

A playful Swinton demonstrated while admitting, “I am a thumb-sucker. Well I was, and I’m sad to say that it has given me up. I’ve been trying ever since we started shooting to rekindle it, but it doesn’t work. I’m working on it, and I’d like to take it up again.”

“I don’t think that’s a bad habit; I think sucking your thumb is an OK habit,” laughed Pucci. “Somebody’s bad habit could be smoking, that’s kind of a bad habit because it’s harmful to you. But thumb-sucking really can’t hurt you, except for your dental plan.”

“I still sleep with my stuffed animal,” confessed the 21-year-old Garner. “It’s an elephant named Elle E. Phant … she’s back at the Four Seasons [hotel], chilling in style while I’m working.”

Check out everything we’ve got on “Thumbsucker.”

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