Keanu's just a happy hippy
His name means "cool breeze over the mountains". Keanu Reeves looks cool, has a cereal named after one of his films and a doll that looks like one of his characters. But Rachelle Unreich finds he's a hippy at heart.
You're about to interview a guy who has a breakfast food named after one of his films (Bill And Ted's Excellent Cereal), a doll made in the image of his character in the same movie (plastic Ted's arms even move), and you've been told not to ask him about either. You've learned that he hates the toy, and he hates interviews about himself. So it's not without a little trepidation - okay, let's call it crippling fear - that you roll up to meet him.
When he finally arrives, 10 minutes late on a motorcycle, you quickly decide that this is not someone you should be scared of. In fact, he's more of a 60s hippy than a Hollywood star. Keanu Reeves, 26, is about as intimidating as a kid in a sandpit. In his white T-shirt, camouflage shirt, grey windcheater, brown suede jacket (keep in mind that it's the middle of summer in Los Angeles) and beat-up jeans, he is a 183cm mass of unevenly long hair and breezy smiles.
"Did you really hear that I hate journalists?" he asks, sounding genuinely worried. "I dig being here, man. I love talking to people about what's going on." But then, so as not to be a complete contradiction, he adds, "The doll sucks though, so that bugs me. It's kind of crass. I hope I don't get sued. But the cereal's a good chew!"
While he admits that Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure had its problems, he is much happier with its sequel, Bill And Ted's Bogus Journey (due to hit our cinemas this month). "When I see Bill and Ted together," he says, "I feel real love there. They have such joy in their existence, and there's so much friendship and honesty and purity there."
Still, the role is an odd choice for someone who has built his career on smaller, selective parts in films like River's Edge, Parenthood, Dangerous Liaisons and I Love You To Death, but then nothing about him is typical. Not his name (pronounced Kee-ah-noo), which means "cool breeze over the mountains". Nor his ethnic background: born in Beirut to a Chinese-Hawaiian father and an English mother. Not even his upbringing, which took him to the ends of the earth before he got to primary school.
"My parents were cavorting in the Middle East, and Beirut was one of their stops. Then we moved to Australia where my sister (he has two) was born. After living in New York for a while, we moved to Toronto in Canada when I was six."
The decision to act was made when Keanu was 15, and he promptly told his mother about his plans. "Not that if she'd said no I wouldn't have acted, but she told me, 'Do whatever you want to do'."
After starting out in local theatre and television, Keanu dropped out of high school. As he explains, "I'm not really good with control being assumed over me. Like when people tried to tell me where I could go and what I could do, it infuriated me. When I don't feel free, I react in a really strong way."
It's hard to imagine Keanu getting upset when he seems so easy-going and good-natured, making jokes at his own expense. On playing Ted again in Bill And Ted's Bogus Journey he says, "Maybe I'll just keep on playing Ted for the rest of my life, going back to him between other roles. I'll play Ted at 37, in Bill And Ted's Mid-Life Crisis!"
But first he'll be appearing in Point Break opposite Patrick Swayze and in My Private Idaho with River Phoenix. In the latter, Phoenix is a street hustler who has been abandoned by his parents, and Keanu is his best friend, the mayor's son. In real life the two are close, although Keanu says, "I'm not his best friend and he's not mine.
"He's an intelligent, intense human being. I think he's one of the best actors I've worked with. He's inspiring and frightening, has thought about life and takes you to the edge of yourself. River Phoenix has changed my life."
It's a heartfelt speech, but then Keanu is a passionate person, holding tight to the values he started out with.
"I don't want to become a Hollywood product machine. I'm not interested in being the main guy on the screen - I love playing little parts. All I need to do is support myself. I've been supporting myself from acting since I was 18. Of course, I only earned $4000 one year, so that wasn't much fun. But it was life, right?"
When not on his bike ("A couple of times I've messed myself up; I'm a bad driver!") he's hanging out at his home, which happens to be situated right below the famous Hollywood sign.
"I don't go to many parties. I don't get invited to much, man. I'm a homebody. In the past year I've just been acting, so I haven't had much of a life."
But I found it hard to picture this lively actor staying in one place for too long without going nuts. He's like a schoolboy who can't sit still, despite protestations that he feels quite old.
"Even Ted's getting old. He's moved out of home, he's drinking beer, he's proposing to his girlfriend. I just turned 26 and it's a radical experience. Now all of a sudden I'm reassessing my life, trying to work out what's important. It was sort of weird because it was like I woke up one morning with a different mind. I wish I had the other one back, man!"