Interview (US), September 1990
by Dennis Cooper
Equal parts sex symbol, madman, oaf, and overgrown kid, Keanu Reeves is unique among younger actors in his ability to fill a movie screen with a specific, contentious energy, no matter how small his role. His is a presence that lies somewhere between Crispin Glover's manic self-involvement and Jimmy Stewart's gentle remove, with maybe a dash of Jacques Tati tossed in. Reeves -- a walking explosion of misbehaved limbs -- would have been great in the silent-film era. In flawed movies like Permanent Record, The Prince of Pennsylvania, and I Love You to Death, he's capable of wrenching plots loose from their flimsy foundations, making them tag along after his characters' wild quests for sensation. In his best movies -- River's Edge, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and Dangerous Liaisons -- he seems to embody the sensitive soul of all disenfranchised youth. Two upcoming projects match him with suitably maverick directors, Kathryn Bigelow's Riders on the Storm and, especially, Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho. In October he will be seen in Jon Amiel's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. I met with the tanned, newly muscular Reeves at one of his occasional hangouts, Linda's, a restaurant-cum-jazz club located in the nether reaches of the Melrose strip.
DENNIS COOPER: Is it true you're playing a male prostitute in Gus Van Sant's next film?
KEANU REEVES: Yeah, I play Scottie, who's based on... Hal? Prince Hal? From, um, Shakespeare. I come from a wealthy background I've denied. And I've been on the streets for three years.
DC: By "the streets," you mean Santa Monica Boulevard, right?
KR: Yeah, yeah. But in Seattle. It's not quite au courant. It's more about family. I call it "Where's Dad?" Hopefully River Phoenix will be doing it with me. And if that happens, then who knows what's going to happen.
DC: You'd both be prostitutes?
DC: What a funny idea.
KR: Yes. He'd play a character called Mike, who has an extreme case of narcolepsy. So he'll pass out and awaken and the film follows him around. I'm more like a side character.
DC: Sounds cool. Any relationship between this and Wolfboy, that gay play you did in Toronto early on in your career?
KR: [laughs] Um -- wow. No. The guy that I played in Wolfboy was a jock who just lost it. He was under so much pressure he didn't know what was goin' on. Then he fell in love with this guy who gave him back his sense of power. And even then I dumped the guy. [chuckles] And he killed me. Cut me.
DC: Yeah, I heard.
KR: He sucked my blood.
DC: Friends of mine in Toronto sent me some yellowed clippings about Wolfboy.
KR: What did they--? I don't recall.
DC: Oh um, just that it was disgusting. The play was revolting, etc.
KR: Oh, yeah!
DC: And there should never have been anything like it perpetrated on a stage.
KR: Really! Well, that's kind of cool. The poster was the cast in white T-shirts, kind of wetted down. I had my eyes closed and this guy is almost kissing me with this like grin? So the first couple of performances we had leather boys comin' out. You know, caps and the whole deal. And they were walking out at intermission because there weren't enough shoes flying.
DC: You grew up in Toronto. Wildly? Innocently?
KR: When I see stuff in L.A. now I realize how safe and sheltered my upbringing was. We didn't even do graffiti, you know? We'd build go-carts called Fireball 500. I mean we did sling chestnuts at teachers' heads, and in grade eight hash started to come around, and LSD kinda. But Toronto's become like a shopping center now. Under all those banks you can actually go shopping fourteen city blocks underground. You can buy Lotto tickets every five hundred feet.
DC: You play bass guitar, right?
KR: Do I play it? You know, it's all relative.
DC: You're not starting a band a la River Phoenix?
KR: Um, I wouldn't mind doing bar-band shit, I guess.
DC: What kind of music do you listen to?
KR: O.K., where to begin, where to begin? Let's see, Husker Du, Joy Division... The Ramones changed my life. Oh, and what's that band? It's like an industrial band.
DC: British, or Canadian, or--
KR: American. Black... Black... Big Black.
DC: Oh, they're great! Do you know their song Kerosene, about these kids who are so bored they light each other on fire just to have something to do? Someone should buy the film rights to that song. Maybe you?
KR: Yeah. Who else do I like? There's the Pixies, but I mean I don't know if I love 'em. I was telling some guy in a frat in San Diego what bands I like and he says, "Oh, so you like slightly alternative music." [laughs]
DC: Were you into punk when it started? I guess you must have been pretty young.
KR: I'm like second-circle punk. But yeah, man! [clapping] Totally! G.B.H. and the Exploited are my two hard-core bands of choice. I love playing them too.
DC: Actually, I've always thought there was something very punk about your acting, not only your erratic energy but the way you seem incapable of conveying dishonesty, no matter who you're playing. Which I guess is why you have this punk cult following.
KR: Oh, yeah. King Punk.
DC: No, really. For instance I know these punks in Toronto who adore you so much that they invented a dance called the Keanu Stomp. The dance is based on the way you walked in The Prince of Pennsylvania.
DC: Yeah. Apparently it's turning into a bit of a fad. There are slam pits full of punks doing the Keanu Stomp even as we speak. In fact, two of these punks, Bruce La Bruce and Candy, who head up this gay-and-lesbian-anarchist group called the New Lavender Panthers, begged me to ask you some questions for them. Is that O.K.?
KR: The New Lavender Panthers! Whoa! Sure it's O.K.
DC: All right: "Why haven't you made a movie with Drew Barrymore yet?"
KR: Oh, ho, ho! They're not up on their Keanu lore, because I did work with Drew on a Christmas TV special. This was after she got off drugs.
DC: "Was Rob Lowe gross to work with on Youngblood?"
KR: What?! No, Rob's O.K.
DC: "Why haven't you worked with Molly Ringwald yet? Do you want to?"
KR: I want to! I want to! I want to!
DC: "Why haven't you made a European art film yet? (Might we suggest Dario Argento, Michelangelo Antonioni, or Lothar Lambert?)"
KR: Oh, yeah. I'll just send them a tape of me going, "Whoa! Bodacious!" Sure.
DC: And finally, "Are you gay or what?" Come on, make it official.
KR: No. [long pause] But ya never know.
DC: Cool. So are you very politically aware?
KR: No, I'm an ignorant pig. I'm makin' movies in Hollywood, you know? The things that I'm doin' are pretty sheltered. For me, acting is very self-involved, especially between projects. Once you get a part, you're liberated. You can find out what that character thinks.
DC: Your character in Parenthood was kind of weird politically.
DC: Well, initially he was an outsider in every way. He even had a different energy level from anyone else in the movie. But by the end he's happily ensconced in that big family portrait with all the other characters, holding a newborn infant.
KR: Yeah. I dug that guy, man. He was trying.
DC: Well, at one point your character does this monologue about how his father used to wake him up by flicking lit cigarettes at his head. It concluded with a statement that could be interpreted as vaguely homophobic.
KR: Really! Like what?
DC: He says, "They'll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father these days," which seems to imply that "father" is some kind of godlike state, and "butt-reaming asshole," i.e., gay male, isn't.
KR: Oh, that is homophobic. It's weird.
DC: Your character does this fantastic double take right after that. Some friends of mine interpreted that as your trying to express your discomfort as an actor at having to say that line.
KR: "Butt-reaming asshole" was a weird line. But no. The character's just dismissing his past. He understands it, he's beyond it. It was ugly and he doesn't want any part of it. That double take's like him going, "Fuck that shit."
DC: Do you want to have a family?
DC: Do you have a serious girlfriend?
KR: Um -- not -- not that heavy. I want kids.
DC: How many?
DC: What sexes?
KR: Whatever comes out.
DC: Do you read much? Books, I mean.
KR: How about if I said I don't read as much as I'd like to?
DC: Nothing recently?
KR: Um, yeah. I've been rereading Letters to a Young Poet and Autobiography of Malcolm X. And some John Rechy novels, as research for the Gus Van Sant film. Oh, I love Phillp K. Dick.
DC: Me too. I just saw Total Recall.
KR: How is it?
DC: Disappointing. Everything's in the trailer. The K. Dick story it's based on gets avalanched about an hour in. Then it just turns into an excuse to blow $70 million.
KR: Explosion movie.
KR: Have you read Dick's short stories? He'd begin writing by having like a fantasy, like -- he would take a glass and go, "Hm, that's ironic." And write a story, you know?
DC: Well, he was on speed all the time.
KR: I want to be on speed! I've never been on speed. I want to be a speed freak for a while. Is that a stupid thing to say?
DC: No, no. I love speed. I mean I used to do speed all the time. Trouble is, you do get really depressed for three days afterwards.
KR: It burns you out?
DC: Yeah. It's ultimately not worth it. I used to do crystal meth, which is scary. I'd snort it.
KR: Yummmm! Wild!
DC: I know. It's yum indeed. Speaking of speed, you do a lot of films. Do you like it that way?
KR: Yeah, definitely. Like recently Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter has been having reshoots. In between those I did a couple of parts in student films.
DC: Didn't you do a Shakespeare play in Massachusetts last year?
KR: Oh, yeah, The Tempest. I played Trinculo, and it was a blast. Andre Gregory played Prospero. His daughter Marina played Miranda.
DC: Gregory must be intense.
KR: He was very intense. Anyway, my next half year is pretty much set. I'm doing Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Part 2, or Bill and Ted Go to Hell, or Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. We're also doing a Bill and Ted Saturday-morning cartoon, and that's kind of trippy. And before My Own Private Idaho with Gus I'm doing Riders on the Storm with Kathryn Bigelow.
DC: Based on the Doors song of the same name?
KR: No, at least I don't think so. I play an FBI agent who has to infiltrate some surfers who are bank robbers. The character is a kind of adrenaline junkie, and then there's this other adrenaline junkie, and they push each other into jumping out of airplanes, shooting guns, shit like that.
DC: Is he a classic Keanu Reeves-ian character -- sweet, confused, distracted, awkward?
KR: I call it victim acting.
DC: Do you make a point of seeking out roles like that?
KR: Well, I don't know about Manifest Destiny and all. You get what you put out and all that shit? I guess it's just been my lot so far.
DC: Even your creepy characters are so sympathetic. In I Love You to Death you were supposed to be a thief, but--
KR: No, my guy was just harmless. Larry Kasdan wanted this guy to be beat up by the world, just kind of in a daze. Harmless and drugged. So they hired me. [laughs]
DC: That daze is one of the things I really love about what you do. You're always kind of talking around what you actually want to say.
KR: Right, right.
DC: Most actors just manufacture emotion and expect audiences to match it. With your characters, it's their inability to produce that's the key. They're often, if not perpetually, distressed, spooked, weirded-out by the world. They're always fighting with their contexts.
KR: Always, man, always.
DC: Granted most of them are teenagers, but they're not exactly future stockbrokers, which seems like the teen norm nowadays.
KR: No, not at all. Actually, the futures of most of my characters are pretty bleak. [laughs] Who knows what they're gonna do?
DC: Do you research your characters?
KR: Definitely, definitely. Right now with this film Riders on the Storm I've been hanging out with athletes, FBI agents, police, people in college fraternities. I'm seeing a whole other part of the world, you know? When I did Ted I took stuff from cartoons. Stuff comes up that you never thought of. I look for physical things, background, and emotionally where the character's at for every second. I'm pretty flexible. I've studied some of the Uta Hagen techniques and Stanislavsky, and I've done some -- you know, some basic physical Grotowski exercises, and I've read some Artaud. A lot of times you get tired, cause you're seventeen and you got a certain kind of energy that they dig. You know? In some of the character stuff, I've had a chance to explore more, working with a whole new caliber of people, like Stephen Frears, Tim Hunter. River's Edge! That's a movie, man. American cinema!
DC: Yeah, a great movie. I keep waiting for Tim Hunter to do another movie. It's been years now. He did a Twin Peaks.
KR: He did? Did you see it?
KR: What was it like?
DC: It was nice. It was sparer than the others. Not quite as surrealistic. So, where do you think you fit into the Brat Pack, if at all?
KR: The Brat Pack? I have nothing to do with them.
DC: Do you think your acting style s fundamentally different from theirs?
KR: Jeesh! What?! No! Agggghhhh! I really respect those guys, man. Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Kiefer, Rob Lowe, all those guys. They've really set a path for us. Who would have thought that you'd give a development deal to a twenty-three-year-old actor?
DC: Well unlike them, you don't seem like a career socializer. I never see your mug in Details, Vanity Fair, etc.
KR: Right. I guess 'cause I'm a nerd.
DC: You don't avoid trendy photo ops?
KR: No, I dig going out, but -- you know, I have fun. I don't get many invitations and stuff -- it's just kind of whatever happens. Once in a while I'll ask my friends, "What're you doing? Where are you going? What's going on?" I'll go see art, I'll do whatever -- buy a drink, dance, play. All that shit. Sometimes I go to clubs. I dig the blues, man. The blues have always had some of the best times, best feelings I've ever had. The last person I saw was Buddy Guy, but it was in a bad space. Just bummed me out. Everyone was sittin' down, and they had candles in the middle of the tables! So it's like, "Bababawawa!" [He mimes a frenetic guitar player] And everyone's like [claps politely], "Excellent music."
DC: It must be weird making films, seeing a smallish group of people constantly for four or five months, then never seeing them again.
KR: Yeah, right. "Howya doin', man?" "Bye." "See you at the Academy Awards."
DC: Do you want to say something about your motorcycle? I saw it parked out front.
KR: My motorcycle. My 1974, 850 Norton Commando, high performance English touring motorcycle. Yaaggghhhhhh!
DC: Didn't you have a semi-serious accident?
KR: I've fucked up a couple of times.
DC: I thought so. When you took your shirt off in Prince of Pennsylvania you had this porcelain upper body. But when you had your shirt off in Parenthood, it looked all gnarly.
KR: [laughs] I love that bike, man.
DC: Well, not to be too parental or anything, but don't kill yourself. You've got a pretty love-struck cult of fans to think about. And you're getting more and more famous. I mean that's quite a responsibility.
KR: Yeah, I'm pseudo-quasi.
KR: Pseudo-quasi. I'm not really around. I'm around. Yeah.
DC: So where are you, if you know what l mean?
KR: Um -- lately?
KR: Lately. Training, surfing. On the weekends I've been kind of cruising the boulevards. L.A. is so trippy. Chhww. It becomes like a small town really quick. On those weekend nights the prostitutes are out, and the kids from school, and people cruising, and in the clubs all that stuff is going on? I ride my bike sometimes. I'll just go out, say, around one? Midnight? And I'll ride until four? Goin' through the city to see who's doin' what where, you know? Going downtown, riding around and just -- I care, you know?
KR: Yeah. Just to look around. Great.