Keanu Reeves Stays Cool in the Hollywood Hot-Bed
by Kimberley Leston
By Los Angeles time it's six in the morning and Keanu Reeves' voice is still lazy with sleep, his words punctuated with coughing and yawns. It's the kind of voice you'd expect. it goes with the floppy hair, the baggy jeans, the sagging leather jacket and the no-ties flat sharing. "Sure I could afford to buy somewhere, but right now my life kind of fits living this way. I guess I still think of Toronto as home so I like to keep myself uncomfortable, y'know?"
The 23-year-old actor is one of those soft spoken but hard hitting products of an emotionally turbulent background, a mixture of calmness and angst, naivete and outspokeness he carries onto the screen in River's Edge with a conviction that gives the film much of its extraordinary realism. As the gentle Matt in Tim Hunter's bleak, dispassionate but deeply affecting account of a group of disillusioned small town teenagers faced with the discovery that one of them has murdered his girlfriend, Keanu Reeves recognized the need to be as laid back as his co-stars were intense.
"When we started rehearsing I saw the way things were going. Crispin Glover took his role and exploded, really ripped into it, and I thought the only way to make Matt believable was to play it so, like, back there. When you get a part you have to decide what the character is all about but then you have to make it fit in with everyone else."
Apart from the charismatic Glover the everyone elses included Dennis Hopper. Reeves briefly puts aside his maturity when describing working with him. "It was really cool to meet Dennis Hopper. He's an icon now," he says, listing the great man's achievements. "I mean he's made a lot of fucking films. But we were too young to be intimidated by him remember I was only 21 when I made River's Edge."
Though still in possession of the languid, loosehipped amble of a schoolyard heartthrob, Reeves is qualified to speak with the tone of a man with a past. Born in Beirut, the son of a clothes designer and "pot-head scumbag" father, he lived in Australia and New York before putting down roots in Canada where he studied at the Toronto High School for Performing Arts and got his first parts on the stage and in an assortment of TV films, which included playing on alcoholic teenager. He's been in LA a couple of years now and talks about it with the reserved opinion of a resident outsider. 'There's a side to it that's really hard-core and debauched, and there's a lot of people who are real aggressive about having fun.
"It's weird, they don't have fun doing things, they do things to have fun." But it's where the work is and after 12 hours on the set of his movie in progress, playing a boy coming to terms with his best friend's suicide, you'll find him plugged into Joy Division and reading Philip K. Dick. Sounds even more depressing than young, white America's current obsession with digging up the Grateful Dead. "Aren't they just disgusting?" he says with a healthy contempt for this particular sector of his generation. "We were filming in Oregon last week and the place was just full of 23-year-old hippies. Real hippies. Christ, I can't understand that."
What he does understand is the importance of a good script and making movies that "don't pander to be liked". That, he says, is the way actors become movie stars and he has no desire to follow Matt Dillon or Tom Cruise even though his looks would make it easy to do so. "Those guys are OK, but I wouldn't want to be known for just, y'know, being. As soon as you're that kind of a star your choices are limited, you have to please."
It's hard to imagine Hollywood's more vacuous young heroes cost in the tortured roles that make up much of Reeves' CV, but harder to imagine him playing a nerd. He does, though, in the Tom Eberhart directed comedy, The Night Before, soon to be released in the US, in which he wears his hair centre parted and short. As a schoolboy in another upcoming release, Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure, he gets to look "real weird, like Ringo Starr with hair gel". He has a habit of describing his characters via their haircuts. Maybe that's why he likes to keep his long. His ideal scriptwriter is Shakespeare and favourite actors come from the British 'expressionistic' school typified by the romantically tousled mop of mid-Seventies Alan Bates: 'I love the drama of those people.' Working opposite the vogueish Hopper might be nirvana for some young odors, but Keanu Reeves' real ambition is to share the billing with Peter O'Toole, "but y'know, before he gets totally brain dead."