From troubled teenager to a surfing FBI agent, Keanu Reeves’ relatively short but really excellent career is creating more than waves.
Karen Moline meets the man who already has a brand of cereal in his honour.
Keanu Reeves clearly believes in the layered look, despite the heat of a Los Angeles summer. Clad in a paisley button-down over a dingy undershirt, topped by a grey vest and stained brown suede shirt with frayed cuffs, with black leather gloves sticking out of the rear pocket of his filthy jeans, he is a study in anti-Hollywood style. He crams the last of a sandwich into his mouth, wipes a few crumbs off his scruffy attempt at a beard, downs a Coke, belches loudly and sits down at the table, a wide yet wary grin on his face. If he let rip with Bill and Ted’s now infamous battle cry of ‘Whoa! Excellent, dude!’ and strummed an air guitar, you wouldn’t be at all surprised.
Yet Keanu Reeves’ outward demeanour as the socially inept hip slob belies a gentle, though determined, nature. He veers between goofiness - punctuated by ‘Wow’ and ‘Dig it!’ - and an intense sensitivity that has infused his best film incarnations with an empathic vulnerability. When, for example, he declares, ‘I’m not really good at talking about myself. Who cares?’ - the overused celebrity whinge somehow seems believable.
A lot of people care, though. For 26-year-old Reeves has three vastly dissimilar films due for release. ‘I had the most amazing year,’ he says, ‘working in three different styles of cinema.’ First is Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, the sequel to the wildly popular and ridiculously funny Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, in which he plays a time-travelling ignoramus who spouts forth in what has become much-imitated dude-speak; then Point Break, an action/thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow, in which he plays an American football star turned FBI agent who infiltrates a gang of bank-robbing surfers and meets up with Patrick Swayze; and My Own Private Idaho, Gus (Drugstore Cowboy) Van Sant’s low-budget, unusual and emotional look at teenage street hustlers in Oregon. ‘I’m not as conservative as some people here in Hollywood,’ Reeves says about portraying this alleged street prince of a hustler alongside River Phoenix. ‘They say, “Aren’t you worried about playing a male prostitute”, and I say, “No”. It’s amazing how we live sometimes,’ he adds, thinking about the real street kids.
It is also amazing to look back at Reeves’ relatively short and yet astonishingly versatile career, which began barely five years ago when he appeared in a small role in the forgettable hockey film Youngblood, with Rob Lowe and a then relatively unknown Patrick Swayze. Keanu was born in Beirut to an English mother and Chinese/Hawaiian father; his name, which means Cool Breeze Over the Mountain in Hawaiian, was given to him in honour of his great-great-uncle. When he was a baby the family moved to Australia, then New York City, then Toronto, where he stayed with his mother and two sisters until moving to Los Angeles at 20. ‘I come from a broken home. At first my parents were cavorting,’ he explains, eyes downcast, ‘and I was one of their stops. I guess they were bohemians and then some. I don’t know what they did; my mom hasn’t really explained the whole story. But my father’s stepfather was very wealthy. He’s passed away now but the money lives on. So that’s how they did it. It was a bourgeois existence with pretensions to more, but with less, if you know what I mean.’
When he was fifteen and a half, Reeves asked if he could take acting lessons - and became hooked. He dropped out of high school, and after performing in various local theatre and television productions, took the plunge and left Toronto. With his first important role, as a troubled teenager who grudgingly steps forward after the murder of one of his classmates in the extraordinary River’s Edge, he received critical acclaim and a stack of scripts. His follow-up couldn’t have been more different: as one of the loveable loony-tunes in Bill & Ted.
‘Playing Ted changed my life,’ Reeves says. ‘I tapped into something in myself that I hadn’t really seen. To have a best friend, and say, “Whoa, man! I want to live like that”; to have his kind of openness and thinking and spirit - it’s a real place to be in.’ He laughs. ‘There’s a lot of joy in that guy. And mirth.’ Even if he does wield a very lousy air guitar.
He went on to appear in a teen-suicide drama, Permanent Record; two comedies: The Prince of Pennsylvania and Tune In Tomorrow; Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons with Glenn Close and John Malkovich, in which he proved believably sword-worthy; Ron Howard’s ensemble comedy Parenthood as the kind of teen delinquent you wouldn’t want hanging around the house; and I Love You To Death, where he first worked with Idaho co-star River Phoenix as the inept, happily stoned side-kick of William Hurt. In between films, he managed a summer in America’s Shakespeare & Company production of The Tempest, playing Trinculo, as well as performing in four made-for-TV films. He can also be seen in Paula Abdul’s video for Rush, Rush.
Reeves keeps a low profile in Tinseltown. ‘I’m a homebody,’ he claims. ‘In the past year I’ve just been acting, so I haven’t had much of a life. I need some time to myself, but I’m always afraid that projects will pass me by. I really have to sit in a room and read scripts.’ He grins a cocky Ted-like smile. ‘I live under the Hollywood sign so it’s really cool. I have a real relationship with that.’
His love life is equally low-key. Reeves has a girlfriend but prefers to keep her off the record. The only love he will discuss is for his 1974 850 Norton Commando, a British high-performance touring motorbike, and he has the scars, especially visible in all the surfer scenes in Point Break, to prove it. ‘I’m an awful driver,’ he confesses. ‘Once I got broad-sided by a car and ended up somersaulting an to the sidewalk - I had my knee cut open. Two kids came running over and I was looking at my leg and they were kind of laughing. And I said, “Wow! I was like in the air!” And they said, “Yeah man, you flew!’”
Dangerous bikes permitting, Reeves’ career will undoubtedly continue to soar. ‘I don’t know what opportunities will come to me. I want to act, and I want to get better and better. I don’t want to be stuck in a Hollywood product machine.’
He already has a marked disdain for some of the merchandising that is accompanying the release of Bill & Ted. Throwing the tiny plastic incarnation of himself as Ted (with moveable head and legs) across the room, he declares, ‘The dolls suck. If they were cool I wouldn’t care, but they’re just kind of crass. But the cereal,’ he says of the sugar-laden breakfast kids will clamour for, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, ‘is a good chew. It’s pretty good without milk.’