Keanu Feel It
by Ethlie Ann Vare
Keanu Reeves is Hollywood's grooviest airhead. In the super action movie "Point Break", out this month, he even manages to play the vaguest FBI agent on the force. But if "Point Break" makes him a star, then the acclaimed "My Own Private Idaho", in which he plays River Phoenix's gay lover, should finally establish him as a genuinely talented actor. Ethlie Ann Vare talks to America's dreamiest movie star.
There's a new breed of young actor in Hollywood: focused, business-like, informed and in charge of his career. And then there's Keanu Reeves. Keanu Reeves makes Theodore "Ted" Logan, the goofier half of "Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure", seem positively literate. It's a good thing he's a brilliant actor because no one would want him in charge of a gas station.
This is not to say that the 26-year-old Chinese-Hawaiian-Canadian isn't smart. He's very smart. He's just so totally right-brained it's a wonder he can read a script at all. You'd think he'd ask for it to be drawn out in pictures. The guy's even left-handed, for goodness sake.
"I never had to think about my career before," shrugs Keanu. "No one asked me about my career four years ago. I was just trying to act. Now I have this responsibility to my career. It caught me off guard. I should have learned from seeing Emilio Estevez and those cats. I guess I've got to grow up."
It isn't a very grown up looking Keanu ("Kee-ah-noo" is Hawaiian and means "cool breeze over the mountains") who lopes into the room. A gangly six-footer, he's all shiny black hair and swimmer's muscles. He's wearing combat boots; motorcycle gloves hang out of the back pocket of his oil-stained Levis. He walks all hunched up and pigeon-toed and has a five-day growth of beard. He's sexy as hell.
However much he dismisses his career, he's been having an interesting one. From "River's Edge" to "Permanent Record", "Parenthood", "Dangerous Liaisons", "I Love You To Death", "Aunt Julia And The Scriptwriter" and "Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure", he has made inarticulate youth emotionally accessible. No one plays dumb better, maybe because no one else relates so well to the intelligence trapped inside.
In "Point Break", director Kathryn Bigelow's homage to her favourite hormones, adrenaline and testosterone, Keanu gets the chance to grow up on screen. In real life, he's still working on it.
"I asked my mom if I could be an actor when I was sixteen," he says. "Not that if she'd said 'no' I wouldn't have, because she always said, 'Do what you want to do'."
Keanu's English mother and his Chinese-Hawaiian father were free-spirited globe trotters ("bohemian and then some", Keanu says) and he was born during a brief stop in Beirut. "Yeah," says Keanu, "I could have joined the Lebanese army when I was twenty-one!"
After that they flitted to Australia where Keanu's first sister was born, and then to New York City. Keanu was raised mainly in suburban Toronto where his second sister joined the fold. His career started there when he acted in TV commercials at the age of 16. At 20 he moved to Los Angeles because that's where the work was.
His unconventional parents, independently wealthy thanks to a family trust, bequeathed Keanu a non-conformist attitude and a healthy distrust of authority. If he has a hot button, he says, it's "people trying to assume power over me. I'm not really good with control or any kind of power over me. Petty government infuriates me. When I don't feel free, or when I can't do what I want, I react. I go against it in a really strong way."
He "reacts" by violating every traffic law in the book. He drives a 1974 850 Norton Commando and has the scars to prove it -- an open-heart-surgery-like gash across his chest and a chunk missing from his calf.
"I'm an awful driver," he says. "A couple of times I messed myself up bad. The worst one, I got broadsided by a car at Hollywood and Normandie," naming a really bad section of town. "I ended up going through the intersection and landing on the sidewalk on my back. I did a lay-out somersault, man! These two little kids ran up to me when the ambulance crew were looking at my leg and they went, 'Wow man! You flew'!"
Keanu, of course, got back on the bike as soon as possible afterwards. Some say that living on the edge, taking risks, making huge leaps of baseless faith, are the raw skills of the actor; that Keanu's refusal to wear a motorcycle helmet has something to do with his being so believable in his roles. Others would say he's as knuckleheaded as the characters he usually plays.
But Keanu can take direction possibly because he's tried to choose good directors. "I guess in the films I've done that have been seen by most people, the characters I've played have been pretty simple guys," he says. "Todd in "Parenthood", Marlon in "I Love You To Death". There was talk of me playing Ted again and whether it would create too strong an image of me as an actor. I might not be considered for more 'serious' work. I hope that doesn't happen, but it might."
He shrugs -- again. "Who knows?" and "Wow!" are favourite phrases, wide-eyed wonder is his usual facial expression. His "Point Break" role as a hotshot FBI agent was a departure, coming as it did on the heels of being Theodore Logan again, 15 hours a day for 92 days making "Bill And Ted's Bogus Journey". But his next role will be even more challenging -- he plays street hustler, Scott Favor, in controversial gay director Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho". Keanu was delighted to be working with the man behind the acclaimed "Drugstore Cowboy".
""Point Break" went almost two weeks over. We were shooting at night," he recalls. "We wrapped at six in the morning. I left at seven and within twenty-four hours I was in Portland, rehearsing for "My Own Private Idaho". My character is based on Prince Hal from "Henry IV". When you work with Gus, it's not just straight out, plot-driven, narrative style. There's an element of Shakespeare and there's the street and there was so much to learn and to play and absorb. Wow!"
According to reports from the Canadian gay activist group, the New Lavender Panthers (who have named a dance after Keanu), the mere thought of Reeves and co-star River Phoenix in bed together guarantees ticket sales through to 1999. Off-screen Keanu goes out either with "Point Break" co-star Lori Petty or Paula Abdul (he appeared in her "Rush Rush" video), depending on whom you consult. He gets tongue-tied when you ask him about stuff like that. From the look on his face, you'd think he's too shy to have ever asked a girl on a date.
You could really believe that this is a guy who sits around his Hollywood apartment, practising on the bass guitar, reading Philip K Dick novels and listening to Husker Du and the Ramones -- which he does.
"I'm a homebody. I don't get invited to much, man," he explains. "In the last year, I've just been doing these films. I haven't had much of a life. Hopefully now I'll get more of a life and there'll be some interesting project to get into.
"I've got to give some time to myself, but I'm afraid if I do that a lot of projects will pass me by. It's like we were talking about before, with people saying, 'Well, what do you want to do next? Have you picked a new role?' Nobody asked me that question four years ago.
"All I know is I want to work with passionate people. I want to work with a script that has something to say. I don't want to get too far away from the street. I don't want to be stuck in a 'Hollywood' kind of product machine, where they have some intellectual sense of what sells -- there should be a sympathetic actor here and a love relationship there and some of this and some of that, and put it all together and we have money. Yeah, well don't call me.
"There's no way I can control how someone's going to interpret what I do. The only thing I can do is control what I involve myself in. I guess that's how my politics would be revealed. I'm not the president. I'm an actor. I want to be used. To learn about life, about existence, by playing those parts. All I can do is tell a story."
Suddenly his talking comes to a halt -- Keanu has used up his allotment of words for the day. He swings to his feet, and shrugs, like a turtle pulling its head back into the shell, and leaves. This growing-up thing is going to be harder than we thought.