Movies (US), July 1991
Keanu Reeves: An Actor - Three Movements
by Dario Scardapane
Keanu Reeves has to, and I mean has to keep moving. Whether he's bouncing around a restaurant like a wind-up toy or flying through Californian canyons on his motorcycle, the twenty-six-year-old actor has made motion his passion. This hyperkinetic quality infuses his characters with a boyishness far removed from the "I am an angry young man and all I want to do is grow stubble smoke cigarettes and pose on my Harley" demeanor that's currently in vogue with actors under thirty. From the mondo burnout Matt in River's Edge through the painfully naive Danceny in Dangerous Liaisons and back to brain death in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Reeves has given life to some incredibly inarticulate but likable goofballs, letting his motions make the message.
These days Reeves has been shooting three films back-to-back. It's the type of grueling run that might take a bite out of that boundless energy - just as it might also make him a star. First there's Point Break, a cop surf thriller that's destined to have pundits labeling Reeves a sex symbol. Then My Own Private Idaho, a strange road trip directed by Drugstore Cowboy's Gus Van Sant and aimed straight at the heady heart of the art house crowd. And finally, Keanu reprises the bonehead savant Ted for Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, which should line his pockets pretty nicely. Sex, Art and Money. It looks like it's been a good year.
"It's been hysterical," Reeves says as he shifts around in his seat at one of L.A.'s noontime hotspots. "The most jarring for my psyche was going straight from Point Break to Private Idaho. I finished Point Break in Hawaii at six in the morning when the sun came up. Then I got on a plane, arriving in L.A. at four in the afternoon. I flew to Portland at seven the next morning and bam, started filming."
Point Break proved to be one of the most physically challenging shoots of Reeves' career. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Blue Steel), it tells the story of Johnny Utah (Reeves), an obsessive FBI agent who enters the world of surf outlaws to bust a robbery ring. Reeves and co-star Patrick Swayze performed their own stunts for the film, a fact which added to the wear-and-tear of a seventy-seven day shoot.
"It was reaaaallily hard," Reeves drawls, bobbing his head up and down. A non-surfer, Reeves found himself on a board for the first time in Kauai's massive waves. "If you were a little grunt and your Dad put you in the water every day, you'd start to get into it," Reeves says. "But coming in at twenty-five it's a different thing. Kauai was a heavy place to start..."
Getting into character proved as intense as the watery beating. "Point Break's kind of about male bonding and ego in that it goes into the macho myth," he explains. "My character is a total control freak, and the ocean beats him up and changes him. After a while everything becomes a game. He becomes oblivious to guilt. Then he goes into what I call juggernaut mode. He becomes as amoral as any criminal. He loses the difference between right and wrong. Once he gets his eyes on something, he'll kill you to get it."
While Point Break showcased Reeves as a virile surf satyr, My Own Private Idaho immersed the actor in decidedly different waters. It tells the story of two street prostitutes: Scottie (Reeves) - a wealthy scion whose prowlings are an alternative to accepting his tainted life of privilege - and Mike (River Phoenix), a narcoleptic hustler, half asleep in a very harsh world. Yep, it's a strange premise but one that appealed to the actor immediately.
"I thought it was an amazing script," he says. "Just in terms of narrative, man. There's cows, bang, bang, bang, porno shops, salmon swimming, oral sex, money exchanging and then I bust out in Idaho ... smash. And then there's the Shakespeare."
Shakespeare? Private Idaho's middle section centers on the plotline of Henry V, with Reeves playing a decadent Prince Hal to a perversely pandering Falstaff. Did he find the role risky? "Why, because of the homosexual aspect of it? See, that's not really it, man. Street kids are a weird world, man. The street is gnarly, it's hard. But also I met people who like it... who love it."
Keanu approached his character with just that ambivalence, creating a mixture of predatory sexuality and self-loathing that's physically palpable.
After the concentration required in sliding through the separate worlds of Point Break and Private Idaho, Keanu got a bit of a mental break with Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. Ted's a character he knows well and comes without the emotional baggage of an on-the-edge fed or a street hustler. "I love playing Ted," Reeves grins. "He's a total clown and a really good guy." The second installment of the Bill & Ted saga was no cakewalk, though. With a bigger budget this time out, the film provided ample opportunity for Keanu to bust a move or two. "'they wrote a very ambitious script," Reeves comments. "Me and Bill are living together like total deadbeats and we just want to play music really bad. And this evil guy from the future, Denomalos, sends back these evil Bill and Ted robots because at the battle of the bands we're gonna say these things that might change the course of history and make Wyld Stallyns [a.k.a. Bill and Ted] the band that eventually changes the Universe. So Denomalos wants to change history by coming back and killing us." Sounds kind of like Dante's Inferno on a twelve-pack of Bud, but for Keanu it's the last lap in a marathon of filming.
Sure, working that much is a bitch, but Reeves seems to have more trouble structuring his free time and figuring out more means to motion. He doesn't do the Young Hollywood schmooze-and-cruise circuit and we already know Keanu doesn't surf. So what's the boy to do? With Bill & Ted wrapped, he'll fly around on his Norton 850 Commando ("Classic bike, man," he crows), read scripts and practice the fine art of hanging out. For all his career's frenzy, he can't really imagine anything different. "What would I do if I wasn't an actor," he queries. "Uhh, can I take your order please? I don't know what I'd do... I would like to think I'd be some kind of-" Reeves jerks his arms up and twists his face into an expression that says more than any soliloquy, "I don't know, man."