Typecasting? Bogus! Keanu Reeves likes Ted but prefers a character change
by Bob Strauss, Los Angeles Daily News
What's in a name? If yours is Keanu Reeves, you've probably pondered that question once or twice. (Keanu, by the way, is a Hawaiian appellation.)
Names have had an unusual impact on the 26-year-old Lebanon-born, Toronto-raised actor's movie career.
Of course, there's Ted, the California heavy-metal kid Reeves is famous for playing in the comedy "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" and its sequel, "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey," which opens in Chicago Friday.
Reeves is so natural as the good-hearted, air guitar-playing airhead that it has become his signature film persona. When he played a similar character in Ron Howard's "Parenthood" a few years back, the young man bore the Ted-like name Todd.
But Reeves also can be seen on screens this month as a guy far removed from the dumb-but-lovable California teenager. This guy's name is Johnny, Johnny Utah.
"One of the things I dug was his name," Reeves, 26, said of his undercover FBI agent in the unusual action thriller "Point Break," now playing in Chicago. "I'm playing Johnny Utah, y'know? The energy from that name, like Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana - it's all in there."
As do a lot of people in Kathryn Bigelow's ("Near Dark," "Blue Steel") philosophical thrill ride of a movie. After injuries spoil his pro-track possibilities, college football star Utah joins the FBI.
His first big job out of the Los Angeles office is to track down a bank-robbing gang called the Ex-Presidents, whose members stage their bloodless, daylight heists wearing Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon masks.
Utah's partner, Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey), is convinced that the criminals are surfers. Utah starts hanging out at the beach, where he eventually works his way into a clique headed by a charismatic adrenaline junkie named Bodhi (Patrick Swayze).
As evidence mounts that it's Bodhi beneath the Reagan mask, Utah finds himself increasingly seduced by the group's pseudo-spiritual dedication to the physical rush of dangerous sports.
By the film's climax, the once-cocky Utah has betrayed everybody he has grown to care for and every simple belief he once had faith in.
For the role, Reeves learned to surf; despite having a Hawaiian father, he'd spent little time riding waves beforehand.
"It wasn't easy for me to learn," he confessed. "I started out a month and a half before filming, went on a surfing trip to Kauai with a friend, and I got slapped! I mean, the first time I went into the water, the board just smacked me in the head. But eventually, I could do it."
Reeves also jumped out of airplanes, though not for any of the film's exhilarating skydiving shots.
"I jumped at 12,500 feet, pulled my own cord," Reeves said proudly. "But I didn't do it for the film because of money. The money aspect of the film was very concerned about twisted ankles and death. We all jumped, but we didn't tell each other."
Reeves and the Ex-Presidents filmed their airborne scenes on a complex system of cranes and platforms. After principal photography was completed, Swayze went up with stunt divers and camera crews to shoot actual footage of himself free-falling.
Reeves would have joined him, but a day after "Point Break" filming wrapped, he had to go to Oregon to begin work on his next movie. Due to be released in October, "My Own Private Idaho" is the new film by the acclaimed director of "Drugstore Cowboy," Gus van Sant Jr.
Unlike, perhaps, Johnny Utah, Reeves has had an inner compass for professional integrity in fine operating order since his highly praised film debut, as the conscience-striken member of a gang of disaffected youths in the 1986 crime drama "River's Edge." The ethical questions that film brought up were echoed by other thoughtful performances in "Permanent Record" and "The Prince of Pennsylvania."
"Hopefully, the films that I did had something to say," he said of the troubled-teen movies. "When I do a gig, I try to walk the walk and talk the talk. I try to understand the thinking, where the kids are coming from, as much as I can."
More recently, Reeves has been branching out into a wider variety of roles and films. He played the young swain Danceny in "Dangerous Liaisons"; a '50s radio writer infatuated with his sexy, widowed aunt in "Tune in Tomorrow"; and alongside William Hurt, half of a stoned-out, inept assassin team in Lawrence Kasdan's "I Love You to Death."
Still, despite his demonstrated versatility, Reeves remains Ted in most moviegoers' minds. It bugs him, but about as much as anything else seems to - not much.
"As an actor, typecasting is death - unless you want to support the ranch that you own and the small plane that you want to buy. Then, I guess it works because people are buying the gig. But myself, I'd like to do a lot of different things. That's the challenge, the test, the scary part and, also, the interesting aspect of acting."
"I had a lot of fun doing Ted again," Reeves said of the sequel, in which he and co-star Alex Winter visit, among other dimensions, hell. "He's always going to be with me, and I'm always going to be in him. I learned a lot from Ted. That script and that part taught me a lot of things, and I took them for myself and in my life."
"There is such joy to his outlook. He is a very sincere young man, he'sa good guy, and he just wants to laugh and play rock 'n' roll, y'know? It's not that complicated, and it's a reaction to his environment.
"But I don't want to play Ted until I'm 45. Maybe I'll get to play the child in the man, a part of that. But I've kind of done that. I hope I get the opportunity to act in other pieces. I've got a lot of things to say."