TV OR NOT TV
by Mike Hughes
He's your typical Canadian guy with a Hawaiian name, taking American show business by storm.
Look around now and you'll find Keanu Reeves, almost wall-to-wall.
He's a blank-eyed French lover in ''Dangerous Liaisons.'' And an underthinking Californian in ''Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.'' And now an overthinking Easterner in a superb 'American Playhouse, "Life Under Water,'' at 9 p.m. (EDT) Wednesday on PBS.
In short, he's been busy. ''My dreams are very quickly becoming true,'' Reeves marvelled. ''...I'm in a state, man.''
At 24, Reeves still comes across as the sweet novice he often plays. His reason for doing "'Playhouse", he says, was simple: ''It was the closest I could get to doing a play ... I'd always wanted to do a play.''
In this case, Richard Greenberg adapted his own play about three mismatched people at a summer home. Prior to its deflating finish, it has gifted young actors - Haviland Morris, Sarah Jessica Parker and Reeves - saying fascinating dialog.
''These were amazing words,'' Reeves marvels. ''We had the most amazing things to say.''
In ''Dangerous Liaisons,'' other actors had rich, Oscar-winning words to say, while Reeves remained primarily silent and overwhelmed. But the role let him snuggle with Glenn Close, duel with John Malkovich and study some steeply trained pros. ''Those actors can act and fence and fight and do anything. You've just gotta try to keep up with them.''
Reeves has had little time for such training. His life has swirled.
From his father's Hawaiian roots, he got the unusual first name and the jet-black hair. From his Toronto boyhood, he got the chance to land acting roles.
Canada's kids usually make the move to Hollywood; Megan Follows did it at 14, Michael Fox at 18, Cree Summer at 19. ''I procrastinated for a whole year,'' said Reeves, who didn't take the step until he was 20.
He arrived cold - ''I didn't have a clue'' - and scored quickly. That ranged from light duty (he was the teen-ager with Robert Urich's soul in a Disney film) to two heavy films that drew steep praise. In ''River's Edge,'' he conspired with a murderer; in ''Under the Influence,'' he followed his father's alcoholic pattern.
''The toughest thing was doing an important scene at 7:30 in the morning,'' Reeves says of his breakthrough duty in ''Influence,'' with Andy Griffith. ''I'm not a very good actor before 10.''
Along the way, he learned the quirks of the movie business.
Yes, ''Liaisons'' is a box-office success, totaling 27.4 million through April 2. But even after winning its Oscars, it was still being outpaced by ''Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure,'' which had made 31.7 million.
The latter had a sweet-spirited silliness that no one in Hollywood seemed to recognize. It sat on a shelf for two years, amid a pile of failures in a bankrupt company; then it became a belated hit.
That puts Reeves in opposite worlds. The ''Liaisons'' crowd would scoff at the ''Excellent'' fun ... but will marvel at the dark brilliance of Wednesday's ''Playhouse.''
And Keanu Reeves marvels at his life's odd directions. So far, he says, he has a motorcycle, no steady girlfriend and general enthusiasm.
''You have to learn how to enjoy it. I wasn't for a while there ... I was a little (bleeped) up by it all for a little while, but that didn't last long. This has been great.''