Bourgeois White Boy
by Bob Strauss
"People always say, 'Now, that was such a departure for you'. But maybe Ted was the departure for me." Keanu Reeves refers to his most popular movie role, the air-headed, air guitar-playing heavy metal kid in the time/ spacebending comedies Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. Accompanied by Alex Winter's equally thinking-impaired Bill, Ted has shared the screen with the formidable likes of Socrates, Napoleon, Death and even God, all thanks to a dimension-traversing phone booth from the far future.
When you spell out the basics like that, Ted is a pretty weird thing to be famous for. Only in contemporary American cinema could acting dumb in philosophically arcane sci-fi satires be considered Reeves' great mainstream accomplishment, while his astonishingly textured and moving work in realistic films (River's Edge, Permanent Record, The Prince of Pennsylvania, Dangerous Liaisons) is marginalized as arty or even strange.
Or a departure. From what, Reeves still isn't sure. To the lanky, 26-year-old actor with the striking Eurasian features and New Age beatnik demeanor, a movie has to mean something and a role has to take him someplace he hasn't been.
"I look for films with an edge," he explains. "When I do a gig, I try to walk the walk and talk the talk, try to understand the thinking - where they're coming from - as much as I can. For an actor, typecasting is death. Unless, of course, 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 I like to do a lot of different things. That's the challenge, the test, the scary part and, also, the interesting aspect of acting."
No one can accuse Reeves' of not making interesting choices. From his first major film role in the 1986 River's Edge, as the only member of a small-town teen clique with enough moral sense to question the actions of a homicidal buddy, the actor's films have ranged from silly to scintillating. But almost all of them, even the Bill & Ted flicks, have creative daring.
None more so than Reeves' latest theatrical release, My Own Private Idaho. Sharing nothing but its title and metaphorical location with the jumpy B-52s' song, the movie is an independently produced study of homeless teenage hustlers that ranges from the mean streets of Portland, Ore. to the Italian countryside, from the semi-autobiographical experiences of writer/director Gus Van Sant to anachronistic chunks of Shakespeare. All things considered, it makes Van Sant's last film, the critically acclaimed study of happy dope friends Drugstore Cowboy, look as jaunty as, say, "Bill & Ted O.D." Even Reeves acknowledges that Idaho ain't exactly mainstream.
"This is an exceptional film," he enthuses, "because of the characters, the way it's written, the way Gus shot it. He's an artist, a painter who makes films, and his integrity is passionate."
The film focuses on the relationship between Mike (River Phoenix), a narcoleptic from a dysfunctional rural family, and Scott Favor (Reeves), the son of Portland's wealthy mayor, who lives on the street and sells his body as an act of rebellion. Playing the slumming Prince Hal to a community of Falstaffian ne'er-do-wells, Scott really only cares about Mike, but the depth of his commitment is tragically shallow.
"A lot of male prostitutes are not gay," Reeves notes. "Scott says, 'I only have sex for money, Mike.' But Mike is beyond that. He loves Scott, wants to kiss him but gets pushed away in this major way. Everyone thinks that when Scott gets his inheritance, he's gonna take care of this street family and it's gonna be one endless party. But he just dogs it."
The third film Reeves appeared in this year, Point Break, is a metaphysical action movie that equates getting one's jollies with a higher form of consciousness. In it, Reeves plays Johnny Utah, a freshly minted FBI agent who, new to the L.A. bureau, sets out to infiltrate a gang of bank-robbing adrenaline freaks. Gradually, Utah comes under the charismatic spell of the group's leader, Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), an expert at surfing, skydiving and philosophically justifying any act that can keep the party going.
"As soon as Utah enters this scene, everything goes wrong for everybody," Reeves says, half-joking but also sounding a tad guilty about his character's actions. "Utah was an all-star quarterback whose knee got busted, so he went into the FBI. But he wants to win. The essence of football, especially for a quarterback, is to win. The thing you do is control, and that's what these guys are interested in.
"Utah doesn't understand himself a lot, and he hasn't experienced a lot of different things. He likes physical rushes and the way they unite with his mind. He's motivated, he's got a pretty good sense of humor, he's a smart guy, knows what's up. But all of that gets torn apart. He gets confronted with moral questions. He kind of deconstructs into where, at the end, the man really doesn't have anything. He just has to start again."
Reeves learned surfing and skydiving for the movie, but the most important lessons for him came from the script's spiritual content and the examples et by his older costars, Swayze and Gary Busey. To hear Reeves discuss it, it was less a film production than it was a male-bonding epiphany straight out of Iron John.
"Busey is fun to work with, very much the 'Wild Man.' Same thing with Patrick - he's interested in the wild man as well. They're both very spiritual men, both into meditation and spiritual concepts of existence. They're not just straight-ahead-make-money-that's-it artists.
"To me, the most important question in life is how you exist, what you do. I have not developed in the spiritual sense as much as Mr. Swayze and Mr. Busey. Mr. Busey died and came back [Reeves refers to Busey's near-fatal motorcycle accident of a few years back, as a result of which the actor claims to have visited the afterlife]. I wasn't raised around that.
"I don't want to live a stupid life. I'm going to, I know I'm doomed, I'm just a dog. But I'm trying to shake the dog, y' know? The flesh and the spirit, right?"
Reeves, who calls himself a "bourgeois white boy" when he's not claiming to be canine, may look to older men for guidance because he never saw much of his own father, a wealthy Hawaiian. Born in Beirut, Lebanon (his parents were vacationing there when it was still the "Paris of the Middle East"), Reeves grew up in Australia, New York City and Toronto. Lest anyone think that his search for male guidance is more than platonic, Reeves assures that he has a steady girlfriend, though he won't reveal her name.
"But we do have deviant sex," he says in mock triumph.
Reeves' desire to live the excellent life affects his work. Parenthood, in which he played a much more earthbound version of Ted named Todd, sent a message to his contemporaries that even the most immature, hormonally driven relationship works better when it's based on love. And Tune In Tomorrow, an ingenious adaptation of Maria Vargas Llosa's acclaimed novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, was rich with complex, sometimes absurd life lessons for Reeves' eager young broadcaster. Okay, so he was an unredeemable zonked-out hit man in I Love You to Death, but he did that shtick opposite William Hurt and held up his side of the screen just fine, thank you.
"He likes to play a dumb character; he really enjoys it," Van Sant recently told the Los Angeles Times about Reeves. So it seems. For all of his good taste in projects, carefully developed performances and metaphysical yearnings, he appears most comfortable spouting a better-informed brand of Tedtalk.
"I had a lot of fun doing Ted again," Reeves says of last summer's sequel. "He's always gonna be with me and I'm always gonna be in him. That's a part of me. And I learned a lot from Ted. That part's taught me a lot of things that I took for myself and applied to my life. There's the joy of his outlook. He is a very sincere young man, he's a good guy, and he just wants to laugh and play rock'n'roll, y'know?"
Could Ted be the wild man figure that Reeves can model his adult life on?
"I don't want to play Ted until I'm 45," he admits. "But maybe I'll get to play the child in the man. I hope I get to act in all kinds of pieces. I've got a lot of things to say."