The Radical Reality of Keanu Reeves
(also published on July 23, 1991 under the title "One Goofy Dude... That's what actor Keanu Reeves calls himself -- right in line with his Bill and Ted character. And he may be right....")
By Chris Willman
Walking for the first time into his suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, Keanu Reeves is so thoroughly not of his Beverly Hills surroundings that it wouldn't surprise you if security had detained him on the way up. In hiking boots, tattered jeans and a suede jacket decorated with white stains, Reeves' style sense today is appropriately disheveled, to go with several days' growth of beard and floppy bangs that curve inward and meet in the vicinity of his nose.
Seeing the food spread the hotel has laid out for him, he seems taken aback at the amenities.
"Radical!" he intones, taking a gander at the Evian and chips.
For a moment, Keanu is Ted.
Or, at least, seems he could really be a suburban adolescent of the sort he played in "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," plucked by that time machine from in front of some heartland 7-Eleven and plopped down in Lotusland, out-of-town sensibilities and lingo intact.
In reality, Reeves is a fairly seasoned 26-year-old actor who has gone from naive teen roles in such pictures as "River's Edge" and "Parenthood" to more sophisticated or grown-up parts in the current release "Point Break" and the forthcoming "My Own Private Idaho."
Still, young audiences primarily peg him as half of the dimwitted duo that reappears Friday in the sequel "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey." The fact that even in person Reeves uses his share of Valley-speak jargon -- like stylin' -- doesn't hurt the identification factor.
"Keanu can lapse into Ted," notes Gus Van Sant, director of "Private Idaho." "Sometimes he can be momentarily possessed."
Enthusiastically talking up his latest "Bill & Ted" adventure, indeed, Reeves sounds as if he hasn't quite stepped out of it yet.
"The odyssey this time is outlandish, right? It's outrageous, right? Hades" -- which Reeves, right in character, pronounces as a one-syllable word -- "and heaven and hell and the evil Bill and Ted and death, you know what I mean? Did you like when we died and came up in black-and-white? It's goofy but it's cool, right?"
Goofy is also a word Reeves, who may not have a pretentious bone in his body, uses for himself. Brimming over with unfocused energy and ineffable personal charisma, he is described by Van Sant as "very, very smart." But Reeves admits that reading his own interviews can make him feel inordinately self-aware of just how ingenuously un-actor-like he comes off.
"I went through a phase of that (self-consciousness) a little bit," he says, " 'cause I'm kind of goofy, right? I'd read it and go, 'Wow, I'm a pretty goofy dude.' So I got over it, and now I'm just hopeless."
This comment may be an omen of things to come, for, in a few minutes, Reeves will be undergoing a most excellent panic attack.
Filmmakers have capitalized on his ingratiating unaffectedness and distance from the smooth, schmoozing unctuousness associated with the Brat Pack generation.
Kathryn Bigelow, director of "Point Break," says Reeves' inherent likability is "a charisma that's not manufactured or engineered. It's absolutely innate. I think there's a purity and an innocence to him that translates -- which, coupled with a very strong persona, is a winning combination."
Often pegged as a Midwesterner or California boy, Reeves grew up in Toronto, occasionally getting bit parts in U.S. productions slumming above the border -- including an early cameo in "Youngblood" (which starred future "Point Break" co-star Patrick Swayze).
It was his role as a sensitive "stoner" in the harrowing "River's Edge" that first won Reeves acclaim. Striking a vein of characters who had been "shaken and stirred by the world they happened to be born into," he said, Reeves was similarly cast in the suicide-preventative "Permanent Record" and seemed poised to replace Matt Dillon as the quintessential troubled teen.
Dillon "was tougher than I am, though, man," Reeves points out. "I was more like the alienated kid."
With the first "Bill & Ted," a sleeper hit, Reeves finally got to play for laughs a variation on the roles he'd been playing for pathos.
"He likes to play a dumb character; he really enjoys it," chuckles Van Sant. "The last time I saw him he was shooting 'Bill & Ted,' and I asked him, 'You said you needed to work on the character and find new dimensions in him for the sequel. So what are Ted's new dimensions?' He put his hair down and said, 'Basically, Ted is a lot dumber this time.' I thought that was funny but also ingenious."
But Reeves has also taken on chancier roles: a romantic lead in "Tune In Tomorrow"; a zonked hit man in "I Love You to Death"; the offended fiance in "Dangerous Liaisons" (where he was used as "a really obvious ingenue").
"Point Break" represents his first real heroic lead, for which he learned to surf, sky-dive, fight and handle guns.
His biggest risk to date may be his role as a male prostitute from good stock turning tricks as an act of rebellion -- based on Shakespeare's Prince Hal, no less -- in "Private Idaho," due in October.
Despite three starring roles this year, Reeves maintains his goal is "not to be the leading man guy" ("I don't want to be super-famous, man; that would be awful"), but to gladly continue taking on juicy supporting parts.
Reeves has "range," his directors agree. But stolidity and placidity might be a stretch for him.
"He's got a lot of perpetual motion," understates Van Sant, of the actor whose limbs seem to always be in mid-gesture.
"He's very focused when you're discussing his character, but it can be hard to talk with Keanu about the business. He's pretty upfront, and when he gets frustrated, he vocalizes it. It's a good thing and sometimes an alarming thing."
Tell us about it. Forty-five minutes into our meeting, Reeves -- who has answered a lot of questions about acting by slamming his fists on his thighs and swearing at himself, unable or unwilling to articulate what he wants to say -- has suddenly exited the room in a mysterious panic. Now he is out on the tiny balcony of his 10th-floor suite, waving his arms agitatedly and vocalizing loud, frustrated profanities over the presumably curious heads of whatever Beverly Hillsians might be lingering below.
Seen in silhouette through the room's billowing white curtain, he's a dramatically framed and lit soliloquist of inner-directed epithets. Eventually he calms down and comes back into the room, picking up the reporter's tape recorder in order to rewind and record over the previous five minutes or so of conversation, none of which has been very revealing.
What is he so uptight about?
"Just what I was yakkin' about." Which has been the business of acting, and certain things he's had to confront in himself to play recent roles. Reeves finds interview situations like this "unreal" and doesn't want to attempt waxing eloquent, " 'cause I don't know anything, man. I don't know what I'm saying. I can tell you if I had fun doing this or that, but . . . I don't know, man, I can't break it down. And who cares? I think that my journey or anything I have to say about it in the public is . . . I don't have anything to say."
"About acting. . . . That's not to say I don't have a strong point of view about it, and I'm working on my craft. But I've read stuff that James Dean and Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman have said, and there's wisdom in it."
He seems to have relaxed a little, but another question about confronting the fears involved with taking on new roles unfortunately sets off in him whatever elusive anxiety was triggered previously.
"Oh no, I'm going off again! OHHH! OHHH! OHHH!" he bellows, Sam Kinison-style. "What are we doing, man? What's going on? . . . Help me out, dude, I'm having a bad day today, man. It's like not a good day. My friends say I have to learn how to . . . " Reeves breaks off into giggles. "I'm a basket case, man. Look at me, man. I'm a basket case. Do I come off as, like, a basket case right now?" he asks.
We don't know, we say noncommittally.
"You don't know?"
Well, we offer, maybe basket case isn't exactly the right term.
He doesn't seem entirely reassured by this equivocal response but moves the subject back to the less dangerous topic of future plans. "No, I don't know what I'm gonna do next. Gonna try to travel. I have friends in New York, Paris, Greece, Amsterdam. Hopefully I can go out there on tour and have some fun."
Continuing in this less volatile vein, we helpfully suggest he should talk one of the studios he's worked for into sending him on an international publicity campaign, so that he can vacation for free.
He laughs and agrees. "I should scam it as much as I can. Actually I'm taking some of this stuff home," he adds, looking toward that still-untouched food spread the hotel has laid out. "If you want some, I'll split it with you."
Ted may suffer anxiety attacks, but never let it be said he's not a nice dude.