Keanu Reeves; 'Ted' moves into Hollywood bigtime
by Jamie Portman
He left Toronto to find work and, thanks in part to Bill and Ted, his career move into high gear
SANTA MONICA, Calif. The grubby figure shuffles into the interview room looking more like one of the street beggars who loiter outside the hotel than a hot new star of the 1990s. The hair, sticking up in all directions, is matted and uncombed. He badly needs a shave and, judging from the condition of his hands, a good wash as well. His suede jacket is soiled and his jeans, stiff with dirt and grease, are tucked into half-laced boots.
He slumps down at the interview table. A journalist jokes about his appearance. Keanu Reeves responds with an extended belch. Then he imitates the sound of breaking wind. Then he gives an innocent choirboy smile.
He revels in his cocky don't-give-a-damn facade. Yet you can't say the guy is unfriendly. Furthermore, beneath the dingy exterior and the juvenile flippancy there lurks a committed actor who only a few years ago left his home town of Toronto because he desperately wanted work. Now at 26, Reeves finds his career moving into high gear.
Point Break, the new thriller in which he plays an FBI agent who infiltrates a criminal gang of surfers, opens today.
Bill And Ted's Bogus Journey the reason he's talking to the press this afternoon arrives a week later July 19.
This fall will see the premiere of My Private Idaho, the eagerly awaited new film from Gus Van Sant, director of Drugstore Cowboy. In this one, Reeves and River Phoenix play a pair of male hustlers.
Point Break is the film that will assert his credentials as an action hero for the first time. Director Katherine Bigelow has spoken of his "magical" ability to dominate the screen and "put the audience in his back pocket."
My Private Idaho will remind audiences of the serious actor who first made his reputation in The River's Edge and Dangerous Liaisons.
But Bill And Ted's Bogus Journey is the one which will be arriving to an enormous cult following.
As Reeves talks sometimes articulately and passionately, sometimes in a sassy street vernacular an image emerges of the smart-ass rebel at war with the dedicated actor.
The maverick side surfaces when he scoffs at the thought of being viewed as a role model by young fans.
"Does an actor have to be a role model?" he retorts. "Who becomes role models? Politicians and athletes sometimes have that thrust upon them. I'm an actor, man!"
Yet, he's protective of the characters of Bill and Ted because young audiences love them so much.
He uses one of his favorite expressions to describe the experience of reuniting with co-star Alex Winter to do the follow-up to their 1989 hit, Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure:
"It was cool."
For the uninitiated the characters of William S. Preston Esquire (Winter) and Ted "Theodore" Logan (Reeves) are the creation of writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon.
While still at university, they started improvising comic routines about Bill and Ted, a pair of suburban teenagers who just want everyone to be "excellent to each other."
The eventual outcome was a screenplay, Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure, which saw the two characters whizzing backwards and forwards in time.
It took another four years to get the film made, but on release it was a sleeper hit.
Now, along comes Bill And Ted's Bogus Journey in which these two intrepid heroes continue to strum at their imaginary air guitars, protect their "princess babes" from terrible fates, and win the Battle of the Bands with their music group, the "Wyld Stallyns."
This time they're threatened by their terrible alter egos, a pair of robots named Evil Bill and Ted, are sent to hell, and are befriended by the Grim Reaper (movie badman William Sadler in a pasty-faced send-up of the character of Death in Ingmar Bergman's classic The Seventh Seal).
In one off-the-wall scene, they are menaced by the Easter Bunny or, as Bill and Ted put it, this "floppy-eared, egg-dropping, hippitty-hopping behemoth." In another, their evil robot twins play basketball with their heads.
Language conventions are repeatedly sent up in these films. For example, in the world of "Bill&TedSpeak" the word "excellent" means "good", "most excellent" means "very good", "triumphant" means "excellent" and "How's it hanging?" means "hello."
"This isn't a pretentious film," says Reeves. "People respond if it's funny and clever. Bill and Ted and what they do are the spirit of this film." And despite his refusal to consider himself a role model, Reeves is highly protective of the character he portrays.
"When I first played Ted, it changed my life. I tapped into something in myself I hadn't really seen.
"There's a lot of joy in that guy. Playing him for three months every day for 15 hours it's like having the experience of a best friend, how you change when you hang out with that best friend, how you start sounding like him . . ."
But the maverick in Reeves surfaces when he starts taking shots at the massive merchandising campaign toys, Nintendo games, even a special Bill and Ted cereal which has been launched in connection with the film.
"It seems the success of films now depends on things to buy and sell," he says disdainfully. "I've seen the toy and the spirit of the toy has nothing to do with the spirit of Bill and Ted. It's garbage."
He's a bit easier on the cereal in a backhanded sort of way "it's pretty good without milk . . . the box is cool" so he might endorse that.
But he hates the "crass commercialism" connected with a film in which he and his colleagues were so "passionately involved."
When Reeves talks about the Bill and Ted films, another surprising element of his makeup emerges: his love for classical theatre.
He cites the hip language of the two characters;
"Sometimes I thought I was doing Shakespeare," he says seriously. "I know they were silly lines, but you still had to have the nuance, and the rhythm and the breadth and the emotion in these lines; otherwise they didn't communicate."
This raises another sore point the fact that when still in Toronto he was turned down when he auditioned for Canada's Stratford Festival.
"That's why I split and got out of Toronto because I couldn't do any of that stuff. I wanted to go to Stratford for the experience. I like being on stage. I love doing Shakespeare."
So instead he ended up in Hollywood where he's being paid the kind of money for a single film that would take your average Stratford performer a lifetime to earn.
He's also managed to do some Shakespeare. When he was negotiating his contract for Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey he was in Massachusetts appearing in The Tempest. Earlier In Pennsylvania, he played Mercutio in Romeo And Juliet.
The upcoming Point Break he describes as another contrast "at the opposite end of reality" from Bill And Ted, but also a rewarding experience because of the chance to work with co-stars Patrick Swayze and Gary Busey.
He knows that when My Private Idaho is released this fall it will be controversial. But again he sees it as stretching his talent.
"Will I worry about how it's perceived? Only if it stops me from getting work."
He brings up a Shakespeare analogy again. "My character is based on the rebellious Prince Hal of Henry IV only this time he becomes the prince of street hustlers."
The social rebel is never far below the surface. He starts talking about his cherished motorcycle and the number of accidents he's had.
"I dig Hollywood. I like it. There's no helmet law."
Does that mean he opposes helmets?
"I believe in helmets, man."
That's the socially responsible side of Keanu Reeves talking.
Then the rebel re-emerges: "I just believe I should have a choice."