by John Griffiths
A talk with the mysterious star of Dangerous Liaisons and River's Edge.
It is difficult for me to think of another young actor today whose performances are as honest as those of Keanu Reeves. While Judd [Nelson] flares his nostrils, Rob [Lowe] flashes his choppers and Andrew [McCarthy] forces his pout, Reeves quietly delivers a deeply cutting edge to his roles -- from the moral Matt in the cult classic River's Edge, to the romantic Danceny in the current critic s bon bon Dangerous Liaisons. His ethereal, amazingly true work in these movies, as well as in the acclaimed Permanent Record and The Prince of Pennsylvania, have made him film's most believable spokesman for eighties youth. Yes, I felt impelled to talk with him. I wanted to find out what Mr. Reality is really about. And I did, I think, but not without agitating my stomach first.
It's a sunny but cool day in Venice, and Keanu Reeves has warmed himself with a few gulps of ruby-red wine. A couple of hours earlier, on a beach house rooftop where a photographer directed him to pose, he had seemed distracted, and it was hoped the Gallo would ease his ennui. But right now it is beginning to look as if Reeves is determined to remain as mysterious as the nearby sea, and we're both getting a bit fidgety. We're talking about the girlfriend he doesn't have and the apartment he hates (or is it the other way around?), and his contribution is somewhat limited.
I ask Reeves if he's in the mood for a relationship. "Uh huh," he answers with all the enthusiasm of a yam. "My heart and my dick are out."
He gets serious about singlehood. "It's kind of lonely," he says, looking at a piece of lint floating in a beam of sunlight. On the chance that he's about to bare his soul, I ask him if meeting someone is tough because he is into his career. "Into my career?" be mimics. "No, man, I just, you know, here. I don't know, man. Sure, yeah, I guess."
So, is it yes or no, I ask. "I don't know, man ... There's so many angles to take on these questions. What do you say? You just kind of go, uh, yeah."
He pauses. "I don't have a feeling about it," he says finally, frustrated. His face is stoic until he adds, "But if you know of a good, expensive, elite prostitute agency, if you have a card, I'd like to know." Whereupon Reeves sounds off like a cheap smoke alarm, his version of a nervous laugh.
This is not the person I was expecting to meet. On the screen, Reeves does not call attention to himself. Though his performances suggest a whole unsettled world rumbling beneath a coping surface, he doesn't brood for effect. From his subtle, sensitive screen exercises, I expected him to be reserved, even pensive.
Reeves in person, though, is Crispin Glover with dark hair, an intensely hyper individual, a young man with a passionate soul and a superball factory for a mind. He has a crude sense of humor, is an occasional smart ass and can be aloof to the point of autism. Until, of course, he breaks into a wild impromptu street person soliloquy without warning.
As such, it s hard to get a handle on him. As a girl I once knew would say, "I'd like to crack his head open and see what's inside." But that would be too drastic, so as I gulp some wine down myself, I decide to stick to basic questions and hope something happens.
I ask him about him unusual first name, which is pronounced Kee-ah-noo. "It s Hawaiian. It was my great, great uncle's name. It means 'cool breeze over the mountains' ... I've got a cousin who has the same name."
Reeves has family there, but he wasn't born in Hawaii. He was born in Beirut, and was raised in Australia before settling in Toronto with his nom, who is a clothing designer, and his two sisters. I ask him what his father does. "My dad, I have no idea what he's doing. I don't talk to him. I'm one of those kids without a dad," he says wistfully.
Having found a piece to the puzzle, I ask him if I've come upon a sad tale. "Sure. It s the classic story." Has it affected him? "Yeah, man, I'm sure. I mean it s something that I've only started to really think about in the past five years I guess, I mean ... what does it mean? I'm a lot like my father. I have a lot of his physical things ... the way I laugh ... I saw him last I guess when I was fifteen, about ten minutes. Yeah, man, of course it's heavy."
Does he ever see himself improving his relationship with his father? "No, man. It doesn't matter. As long as I understand in my head there's no love there or there's no even curiosity. I feel I understand why it's happened, how it's happened, blah, blah, blah."
That's that, so I ask him what high school life was, like in Toronto. "I got kicked out of one and I stopped going to one, and I switched from another, and another one I quit," he says. "I wasn't wild ... I was kind of a passive guy, I guess ... passive and innocuous."
The thought that he must have had a short attention span back then crosses my mind, but then I remember that Reeves co-starred in a popular Canadian sitcom (yes, they do have their own sitcoms) called Hanging In beginning at age 16. In high school, he had already made the decision to act, appearing in commercials, doing radio, and trying out for stage roles.
At 18, he left Toronto. "I was a little too untrained, rambunctious and crazy for that town," he says. Although he had a promising future in Canada, and was getting increasingly bigger roles in East Coast plays, he was frustrated. "I just felt that if I was serious about doing it that I had to be in Hollywood. So I got a role (the lead in a Disney special with Robert Urich and Lindsay Wagner) and I made some money and I got a car."
Arriving in LA, he found a place and landed an agent, who nudged him into a handful of TV movies (he played Jack Nimble Jr. in NBC's Babes in Toyland remake) and a small part in Youngblood (which starred everybody's favorite alternative to Sominex, Rob Lowe). In between, be starred in 1985's little-seen Dream to Believe, a variation on Rocky. It was only the next year that Reeves landed the central role in one of the decade's most disturbing films.
Tim Hunter's River's Edge told the extremely unnerving true story of a murder of a Northern California high school girl. In 1980, a teenager thoughtlessly strangled his girlfriend and showed the body to his friends, who vowed to keep the death a secret.
Squeamish Rex Reed called the film one of the worst of the year (his gist was that it was just all so yucky and depressing), which is as good a reason to worship it as any. Practically every other critic was mesmerized by the film's eerie look, charged script and dead-on performances. Roger Ebert called it "the best analytical film about a crime since The Onion Field and In Cold Blood." River's Edge was an instant cult classic.
It's hard to imagine, but Reeves insists that "the true story's even worse. It's even more sick." In this lurid look at teens in despair, he played Matt, the classmate who finds it in his conscience to inform the police of the murder.
His performance set the tone for the whole film, but it was the flashier roles that got the attention. Crispin Glover as a vacuous speed freak who gets off on the intrigue ("This is totallllly unreal, this is totallllly unreal! I feel like Starsky and Hutch"), and Dennis Hopper as a nightmarish drug dealer who shares some touching moments with a blow-up sex doll, were impossible to ignore. Some critics found Glover's cat-in-the-microwave delivery a bit over-the-top, but Reeves is still in awe. "I think his performance made River's Edge in terms of what it is. I think if I had done it, I would have been more pedestrian," he says unconvincingly.
Some could look at River's Edge as an indictment of eighties youth, of a generation that has been so jaded by drugs and neglect that they've lost their emotions. Reeves sees it differently.
"God, that's not what it's about, man," he says. His eyes grow intense, and his brows look ready to catch on fire. "It was about so much emotion ... When I read the script, it wasn't robots I thought I was hearing. I heard pain and just so much emotion."
"People tend to make River's Edge sound like it is of the eighties, of the eighties disease and of the new youth. But I think it's kind of timeless in terms of like the characters and their reaction to finding a dead friend on the ground. I think (the characters seeming numbness) was a pure human reaction. I don't think in the'50s Beaver would have run to the police and said, My best friend just killed someone - gee, Wally!'- you know, it wouldn't have happened that way."
His argument that youth angst belongs to no decade is easily won; after all, this point of view has allowed him to be perfectly at home in the bleak 1980s of Edge and the 17th century decadence of Liaisons.
In the intrigue-laden Liaisons, Reeves is Chevalier Danceny, an innocent music teacher who is an unwitting pawn in a sort of sexual game of chess orchestrated by the devious Glenn Close and John Malkovich, with whom he ultimately clashes in a sword fight. The film allowed him to gaze at co-star Michelle Pfeiffer and equally beautiful Paris locations, but he saves his praises for Mildred Natwick, the 83-year-old acting veteran. "I ate lunch with her. You ever sat next to an eighty-year-old f---ing feisty woman, man? Damn! It's cool."
For this film version of the hit play Les Liaisons Dangereuses (in turn based on the 1792 book by Choderlos de Loclos), director Stephen Frears (Prick Up Your Ears) cast Reeves himself. "He's a very insightful actor, very sensitive," says Frears through a Warner Bros. publicist. Uma Thurman, the object of his affections in the movie, is equally keen on Keanu. "He never gives too much or too little," says the Boston-born blonde beauty. "He is very precise. Oh, and he's very funny."
Reeves' universal quality -- and it's not just in his shoulder-length, coal-shaded hair -- no doubt helped him land a starring role in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, which has him traveling in time. In Adventure, set to open next month, Reeves plays a high school senior who has to pass a history exam with a friend, so of course they find a way to go back in time and get involved with historical figures. "It's the nicest movie made in the history of cinema," he says, barely veiling the cynicism. "It's from bankrupt DEG."
He has a kinder tone discussing the recent acclaimed working-class drama The Prince of Pennsylvania, which gave him the title role of a teen who can't relate to his father and feels trapped in his small town (The Keanu Reeves Story?). But he gets cynical again when we talk about Permanent Record, last year's sometimes schmaltzy tale of a teen who commits suicide half-way into the movie. I tell him I was really moved by his performance as Alan's best friend, who tears himself apart wondering why his pal, a popular student and talented musician, would purposely jump off a cliff. It s a gut-wrenching performance, especially when he bawls his head off after almost running over his dead buddy's baby brother.
In fact, I tell him, the whole movie moved me.
"Really, you liked it?" he says incredulously. The smoke alarm goes off again. "No way, Man! Even at the end when they all clapped and shit?!"
Reeves thinks Marisa Silver, the film's director, sold out. "That movie depressed me," he says. "Making it was hard. They hired great people -- every actor in that film I think is really good -- and the issue that we were doing of suicide was a pretty heavy thing. And I think they pulled the rug out from under us. People stand up at the end and clap. It becomes absurd. It becomes corny, absurd, Hollywood bullshit. And I know the way it was shot and the way we acted it was very dramatic, but they f---ing yanked it, We were told to smile all the time. I'm singing my best friend's song, and I'm smiling?
"I've never had as much fun making a movie, in terms of what happened outside of the movie, like with the other actors and stuff. We had fun, I mean we really did. But that movie f---ed me up. It's a good movie for what it is, for how Marisa wanted to direct it. But what they made depresses me, and that I was a part of it and was good in it, depresses me. But it's my job."
I ask if Reeves, at 24, is getting a bit tired of roles that have him play a teenager. "It's starting to become an issue. I've done it so much, I don't want to do it much anymore," he says. "I've worked pretty steady for a couple of years and I think I became kind of a freak. You know, you're playing younger than you are ... it affects you, man." He doesn't regret these roles, "But I want to catch up to myself." What sort of role would he like to play? "Just give me a good catharsis," he says, smiling wryly.
He mentions he's just done a version of Harold Pinter's The Servant for PBS, and I ask him if he is well-read. "Not really. I'm kind of like sort of would have quasi maybe not really. I mean, you know, I dropped out of high school, so (now) I'm chasing all didactics. I really like to read, I never learned approaches to thinking. I never wrote essays. When you write essays, you f---ing think about what you read. You write it down and you have a point of view. So my thinking has been going through some changes since I've been out here, and I've worked with some people who are really well-read, intelligent people, and they've enlightened me onto a couple of things that have really affected me."
When he's tired of enlightenment, Reeves plays basketball at Fairfax High near his LA apartment with whoever is there. He also sees movies, goes to dinner with friends and rides motorcycles. "I've gone through a lot of bikes," he says, the newest of which is an '82 Suzuki GS 1100 E. "It's just a big pig ... It s good. You can put people on the back as soon as it starts."
"I've had some of the best times of my life on bikes ... just unreal," he says in his John Travoltaish voice. "Like 4:00 in the morning, Portland, Oregon, with three people on a bike in a tree forest, ripped out of my mind, and just f---ing screaming into the night, and singing, and just driving along with my friends on the back." He tells me the intimidating scar down his stomach is a remnant of a motorcycle accident, and I'm not surprised.
Since that accident, Reeves says, "I've had to slow down physically." But the Ramones and Velvet Underground fan who plays bass has dreams of performing in a rock band. "I would love to play one day. It looks like so much fun. I have a couple of people that I play with and every time we play, and we groove, it's like... the Muppets."
The Muppets? "Yeah, man, whenever the Muppets are playing, they turn to each other and nod their heads smiling... one day, I was watching this band play in Paris... Herbie Hancock, or maybe it was Wynton Marsalles, I don't know, but they finished playing and they turned to each other and they just looked at each other and smiled, exactly like the Muppets do. I didn't understand that then. Now I do. It looks like they're happy."
The wine is finished, and so is our talk. I decide that to get a handle on what this actor is all about, I'd probably have to sit on the back of his Suzuki for a month. But I at least leave Venice certain that hunger is part of his edge. Be it through bikes, books or the Muppet Band, Keanu Reeves' search for total fulfillment continues.