Peaking in the Valley
Canadian Keanu Reeves, at home in L.A.
by Lynn Snowden
Keanu Reeves is a twenty-four-year-old actor who looks eighteen, his appearance embodying all of the outlaw style and professionalism of a bike messenger. Reeves, whose current role is that of a young eighteenth-century French nobleman in Dangerous Liaisons, first gained attention as Matt, Crispin Glover's very laid back friend in River's Edge. And although it might have seemed as if the work in that film consisted of standing around looking stoned, the performance is a true testament to his talent because offscreen he can hardly stand still. Reeves is prone to suddenly hopping around playing air bass, leaping to his feet in order to illustrate his point from a standing position and bursting into little whoops that resemble laughter. All this energy, and he doesn't even drink coffee in the morning. Beer, maybe. "Some days, beer's just the thing," he says.
The exotic cast to his eyes and his unusual name ("It's a family name") come from his father, who is Hawaiian. Though he was raised in Canada, Keanu has spent the last three years in Los Angeles and has picked up the local vocabulary, describing everything as weird, heavy, cool or gnarly.
Often he uses those words to talk about motorcycles. There's the Harley he rented while filming The Prince of Pennsylvania, a story of teenage alienation directed by Rond Nyswaner and released last September. "I used to like to ride through the woods near Pittsburgh at night with the lights off, with maybe two other people on the back, and we'd tell each other what we saw. I was very cool." There's the Moto Guzzi he "drove 130 miles per hour" around Los Angeles while filming The Night Before, which was recently released on video (it got only limitd theatrical release, but Reeves assures everyone it's a good film). "I called the bike Guzzi Moto, like Quasimodo. It was a heavy bike." But his wildness on motorcycles has diminished somewhat, he says, since the accident. Accident? He pulls up his shirt to expose a Frankenstein scar extending from his navel to his chest. "I ran into a mountain," he says. "I found out I got the part in Dangerous Liaisons while I was in the hospital." He shows off a scar on his calf from another motorcycle accident. "My body's a wreck," he says with a shrug. While he was in New York, where he recently finished filming a PBS special, Life Under Water, in which he portrays a "mama's boy," he favored a dirt bike.
Reeves's role in Dangerous Liaisons, which is hardly a typical teen vehicle, should help his career. Directed by Stephen Frears (Prick up Your Ears, My Beautiful Laundrette), the film has a cast that includes Glenn Close, Swoosie Kurtz, and John Malkovich, whom Reeves describes as the "heaviest fuckin' actor, man -- he's great." Reeves acknowledges that he's worked with some "cool people, fuckin' radicals," and he says he particularly enjoyed playing the love interest of Amy Madigan in The Prince of Pennsylvania. "It's weird," he says. "She's married to Ed Harris, and I had his driver in Paris."
But back to their love scene: is it difficult to get steamed up over someone you hardly know? "No," says Reeves. "You have to say to them, 'Excuse me if I get excited,' and 'I'm sorry if I don't', you know? But love's an easy emotion man." He grins. "It's easy to love people." He recalls his first acting role, in a high-school production of The Crucible, in which he asked the question "What am I?" Out in the audience, his mother overheard a girl murmer, "A hunk." Eight years later, thinking about this still makes his face turn bright red. (He says it's because he's shy.) Then he laughs.
It's much harder for him to cry. "My first scene in Dangerous Liaisons is where Glenn Close looks up and I'm watching this opera and I'm crying." he says. "What a nightmare that was. It was like six hours of trying to cry. Stephen Frears came up to me and said, 'Can't you think of your mother dead or something? You're a method actor. Isn't there something you can do?' I don't cry much in real life. But I kind of like to suffer. People don't respect artists who don't suffer."
But he hasn't suffered much either. Reeves loves acting and has found steady work as an actor since the age of sixteen, when he earned his first big paycheck by making a commercial for Coca-Cola. To devote himself full time to acting, he dropped out of high school after unsuccessfully repeating his senior year. "I even flunked gym," he says. Still, he was named Most Valuable Player on the school's hockey team, tending goal so well they called him the Wall.
As if to compensate for not having gone to college, Reeves is an avid reader -- of everyone from Dostoevsky to physicist Stephen Hawking ("one heavy dude"). "Should I ready Henry James?" he asks, "Is he any good?" He's currently enjoying Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus. "I'm like 'Wow, fuck'," he says of the experience.
But he'd still rather talk about motorcycles, about how going 130 miles an hour causes time to slow down. "It does," he says. "Time gose much slower. Everything seems to move past you like this." He waves his arms in slow motion. Is he confusing 130 miles an hour with the speed of light? "Oh, right, maybe," he says. "I just spent the weekend up in Connecticut talking to a physicist. You know, it's now a known fact that there's antimatter. You know what that means? Time! That whole saying of 'Tomorrow is yesterday today' is true!" He flips his hair out of his eyes, enormously pleased, leaning in close, "You know we only use one-tenth of our brain?"