(Previously published in August 1991 as a longer version under the title 'The Pursuit of Excellence')
Most of us recognise Keanu Reeves as one of the spaced-out dudes in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Keanu likes that, he likes to play stupid. But underneath the dumb show, one of Hollywood's finest young actors is slowly coming of age.
by Chris Heath
Some people think Keanu Reeves is a bit stupid. They see the shaggy hair and the stoned, surfer-dude body language; they hear the "wow"s and "man"s and endless pauses. They remember him as the Ted half of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, as the disaffected and druggy young Romeo in 1986's River's Edge, as the hyperactive problem boyfriend in Parenthood. He is affable but dumb, they decide, and however you cast him he plays himself.
Everybody who has worked with him tells a different story. They talk about an actor with substance and depth. They testify to his diligence, his sincerity, and his intelligence. They point to the way in which, not just in the aforementioned roles but also in less obvious parts - such as Martin in last month's Aunt Julia And The Scriptwriter or as the love sick Chevalier in Dangerous Liaisons - he has instilled his characters with a rare sense of urgency and energy, and also with a beautiful, flawed honesty and naivete. They see an extraordinary actor, one who can project feelings on to film in a truly unusual way. They enthuse about somebody who has more than the right cheekbones, a rough 'n' ready demeanor, and puppy-dog eyes. He's a bit weird, he's a bit strange, and he's living life by his own agenda, but he has, they agree, a future.
But some people think Keanu Reeves is a bit stupid, and Keanu Reeves is one of them. "I'm a meathead," he breezily tells me. "I can't help it, man. You've got smart people and you've got dumb people. You just happen to be spending some time with a dumb person."
It's convenient for him, this "Don't ask me - I'm just a dumb schmuck" line. If you live behind the shutters marked "clever," your life is dogged by nosy intellectuals rattling the blinds and trying to peek at your furniture. If you smile half-wittedly behind the curtains marked "dumb" - Mel Gibson does this, too - then they leave you alone.
Nearly all celebrities - nearly all people - like to talk about themselves. Keanu doesn't. He's cordial, and he's not deliberately evasive (he's embarrassed by, not proud of, his reluctance to talk), but he finds the process... ludicrous. If he doesn't like a question, he'll say under his breath the "wow" word, or he'll do this laugh that starts out like a normal laugh but stops halfway through, dead, leaving him leaning back in his chair with his mouth still slightly open. Then, as often as not, there'll be silence. Ask about his childhood and he'll maybe mention something about acting. Ask about his family and he'll tell you about his state of mind. Ask about films and he'll start onto something about his parents. Wait for an answer and it never comes. Very Zen.
When I press him about his past, he resists for a couple of minutes, staring unhappily at my big tape recorder on the table ("the dinosaur," he calls it), then splurges forward in an uncomfortable mixture of semi-revelation and parody. The following is delivered as a totally uninterrupted monologue: "Oh, wow. O.K., so here we go. I lived in New York City until I was six or seven or eight. I grew up in Manhattan - upper west side - and then I moved to Toronto. That's where I spent my misspent youth, my spent youth. I spent my youth, my youth was spent. I'm a middle-class white boy... a bourgeois middle-class white boy with an absent father, a strong-willed mother, and two beautiful younger sisters. I played sports - my main sports were hockey and basketball. I was kinda shy in school, but I also had the class-clown element about me. I was removed, but I was involved. I was very particular. If you wanted to invade my space it was heavy; you'd get a reaction. I started acting when I was 15. Toronto was a great place to grow up in. You know, no graffiti. We'd play hide-and-go-seek. Barry Horsely was the first rebel I ever knew. Beautiful guy. Hey, Barry, I hope you're fuckin' rockin' out there, man, doing what you want to do. Evan Williams was one of my young mates. And Rowan. Rowan was the only black dude in my school, man. Didn't start doing drugs, tried drugs when I was 18. Avoided them, was afraid of them, I guess, but then I got into it and it was groovy. I dug it. I'm so glad I've hallucinated in my life. I think that's one of the most beautiful things. Isn't it one of the most amazing things?"
I tell him truthfully, but at the time with some shame, that I wouldn't know.
"You've never hallucinated?" He is shouting. Loud. "Chris, come on, bro! You're in these clubs and everyone's tripping and singing and dancing and... you're just a fuckin' voyeur, man. Well, my friend, it's a trippy, trippy thing. You're ready, man. I can see it inside. You're kindling."
Keanu Reeves was born in Beirut, September 2, 1964. His Hawaiian-Chinese father, if the story he's been told is true, had one of the first Jaguar XKEs off the line. Purple. His mother, English, was a strong individual with a strong style, and at the time she favoured cowboy boots, blue jeans, and a mink coat. The couple's fashion sense was not always appreciated by the Lebanese. They got stoned a couple of times. By rocks.
Keanu was his great-great-uncle's name. The most famous Keanu Reeves fact is that Keanu is Hawaiian for "cool breeze over the mountains." At school they called him Keanu or Kee; sometimes they called him Reeves or Reevo. He says his middle name is Charles.
Keanu is sitting here two weeks after the busiest year of his life. He has shot three films back-to-back: Point Break - out this month - in which he stars as an FBI man undercover as a surfer alongside Patrick Swayze; My Own Private Idaho, which is due here early next year, and which stars Keanu and River Phoenix, as two young street hustlers; and January's sequel to Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, more goofing, grinning, and saving the world with Alex Winter. As light relief, he also co-starred in Paula Abdul's "Rush Rush" video, a brief remake of Rebel Without a Cause in which he plays the James Dean role. "Another regurgitation of icons and culture by the American media," he deadpans. "And I'm your guy, I guess, for that right now."
Indeed. Keanu's career has been building steadily - a strange, disparate selection of strong, quirky, charming performances from River's Edge to Aunt Julia And The Scriptwriter, Parenthood to Dangerous Liaisons, and many people see this new crop of films as the ones to cement his name.
So people ask questions. There is a type of question - just about anything that stretches beyond simple time and place - that Keanu doesn't like. I ask him what he recalls about his father. He laughs. Says "Wow." When I persist, the sarcasm steam train heads off into the hills. "He taught me how to rollerskate! We went hunting together! My father was a strong-willed man! He taught me how to cook! He had a je ne sais quoi about his step! I remember being little and grabbing for his finger; his hands seemed so big back then. And then I flashed after I'd eaten acid: 'My God, I'm taller than my dad.' Weird. Beautiful. Heavy."
He was 15 when he last saw his father. Does he think of him fondly? "I think of black and I think of blue / I think of red and I think of you / I think of yellow and I think of mauve / No more colors do I know ..."
Then, maybe, he says something he means, like "Jesus, man, the story with me and my dad's pretty heavy. Full of pain and woe and loss and all that shit."
His mother sent Keanu to a therapist when he was a little guy and the heavy father thing was going down. They played chess and talked; after a while his mother decided he was better. Keanu won the chess games, but he never knew whether the guy had let him.
We decide to shoot some pool. Down Sunset Boulevard to the Hollywood Athletic Club. Keanu leads the way on his motorbike - leather jacket, faded blue-black jeans, Adidas trainers, black jearsey, no helmet. "Helmet law of California, fuck you! Petty government bullshit -- get outta my face!"
Keanu likes motorbikes because they're great to ride and they look cool. A couple of years ago he took a turn too fast in Topanga Canyon and lost it. It wasn't too bad. His spleen ruptured, but they sewed it up. Afterward, he was straight back on the bike. It wasn't such a psychic trauma. But he fears for the future that the doctor may have put his intestines back in wrong, which would give him pretty serious problems when he gets old. He just feels his digestion moves slower round there.
He's not a bad pool player, but he hits everything too hard. He attacks the table and balls verbally as well as physically. "Fuck you, man," he tells them when he misses. In between shots he waves the cue about, pretending to use it as a weapon. He hums along to the Pretenders' "Hits" LP that's being played and does a spot of air bass. Keanu likes second-generation punk music. He talks about Wire, Sham 69, Discharge, Agent Orange. He whistles the Clash's "White Riot". "I guess it's just the frenzy, man," he explains.
On film -- in Permanent Record and both of the Bill & Ted's escapades - Keanu struggles with lead guitar. In fact, he plays bass in a group he describes as "a Joy Division-Zappa-Sixties progressive-blues jam."
Are you any good?
He looks me straight in the eye and answers in slow, definite, read-my-lips fashion: "I'm the worst bass player in the whole world, Chris. I have no rhythm."
He didn't tell himself to be an actor until he was 15. He had four early ambitions. A race-car driver, an inventor, a nuclear physicist, the conductor of an orchestra. At 15 he auditioned for Toronto's Theatre Arts High School and got in. He was thrown out after a year. Not enough concentration. Too flighty. Always questioning authority.
He worked a little. He sharpened skates at an ice-rink shop. He did landscaping, climbing trees with one end of a rope tied around his waist and the other to a chain-saw. He made a hundred pounds of pasta a day in a shop called Pastissima; at 18 he became the manager. He quit when he was cast in his first play. He never had a real job again.
His first TV part was in a local Toronto show about a community center. He had one line: "Hey, lady! Where's the shower?" In a show called Night Heat he played Thug Number One. His friend Vince was Thug Number Two. Keanu was the tallest, and the director said to him, "Why don't you be the tall one?" and to Vince, "Why don't you be the short one?" They both howled like dogs. The lesson was: just do it.
His Hollywood break came when the Rob-Lowe-plays-ice-hockey vehicle Youngblood was shot in Toronto. You first notice Keanu, the goalkeeper, walking through the changing room, a roll of tape balanced on his head. He doesn't remember that, though. When reminded, he says, "Wow. That's silly."
Why do you act?
"Because it makes me happy, that moment when you're in it. It's only happened a handful of times, but when it does you're in the fire, you're unconscious, just... free. One of the first scenes I ever did was like that. I was in community theater doing Bent (a drama about inmates at Auschwitz). I was the guy who eventually throws himself onto the fence."
It also taught him what acting could mean. He and his friend Alan had made shirts, "a bit of research," for the play. Keanu had a yellow star on his shirt - a Jewish prisoner - and Alan had a pink triangle on his - a homosexual.
"We were putting them on in the bathroom, and this old man came in and freaked out. He started spitting and swearing in Yiddish, trying to get at us. We were like" - he imitates a moron realizing what happened years after the bomb went off - "What did we do? Oh, hello, we're in the Jewish community center..."
He won't forget it.
"It hit me that theater can actually do something, that it's physical and emotional and human. It's in the heavens and in the earth and it just vibrates through us. That was a special day, and it added something - whatever - to that boy," he says, referring to himself. "He found something for himself."
The last few lines of this speech lurch into insincere voice-over - maybe that's the only way Keanu can say these things - but the impression is that he doesn't mean them any less.
A friend used some psycho one-on-one expression on Keanu recently, something about "being your own parent." It made sense to him.
These are weird days for Keanu. When he turned 26 it was the most radical change. It's not enough now just to want to be an actor. He says there's more - intellectually, spiritually. He thinks he's sometimes been guilty of falling back on what he knows, which is OK in a craft sense but not in a personal sense. "Stanislavsky talked about personality acting, and I've been guilty of that to a certain degree," he mutters. It's his own diagnosis. And he's started thinking about "my mortality... friendship, love, what's important, what's real, what there is to do, family, the smell of the flowers, all that shit." So now he's trying to act on it. He's trying to develop a life.
But this process, these changes, may have a darker side. Over and over Keanu praises things - Beat writers, acting, bike riding, retro-punk - that have that "Yes! What the hell, just do it!" quality. If there's a theme in this (and it's one that fits in well with his reluctance to share, or even examine himself), it's that he's trying to find - in his life, in his acting - that natural state where you just go. He enthuses about the filming of My Own Private Idaho. For a while, the actors moved into director Gus Van Sant's mansion to get into their roles as renegade kids. Keanu figured, "I only have so much time. I might as well throw myself into the fire."
Hollywood is aflood with stories of how this meant more than just late-night script revision and the occasional cold beer. They say that Keanu indulged his "Just say yes" enthusiasms a little too far and that they lasted well into the filming of Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. Some accounts even have the set closing down while Keanu sorted himself out. Director Peter Hewitt, who denies that the set closed, tells me that if the film's grueling schedule was a bit too much for Keanu, "it didn't show."
Keanu looks unhappy when I allude to this. "Uh-huh," he says to himself and nods. "I don't want to talk about it." For the first time he looks angry, hurt, unwilling to continue. I reassure him that this is no low-life exposé. "So why did you ask me then? " he snaps.
Keanu looks betrayed... but Keanu is the sort of person who is going to feel betrayed a lot. He's not the sort of person to pussyfoot around in a please-everyone, helmet-law, Hollywood style. Keanu believes in climbing the tree and reaching for those higher branches, and he's only interested in looking up, in watching what his hands are grasping for. He doesn't realise that other people have their eyes on his feet, waiting for him to lose his footing. He doesn't see the point in it - why would you look at the shaky feet when you could look... up there! That's what acting is about, and that's what his life is all about.
But when the world doesn't live up to your ideals, you feel betrayed. It happened on one of his early films, Permanent Record. He plays a student reacting to a friend's suicide. It's nearly good, especially in the middle, when he sweeps up the film into his hyperactive arms and makes you ache along with his character, who is trying, and failing, to cope with the death. But, as he has often related, he felt betrayed by the finale, a bit of cheesy Beverly Hills 90210 togetherness: a girl interrupts the school's Gilbert & Sullivan musical to sing an impromptu musical tribute to their departed buddy, and they all clap and smile. When he saw it, Keanu went out of his mind. Betrayed. Betrayed.
But the interesting thing is that, as he now admits, this wasn't a last-minute piece of Hollywood gift wrapping. It was in the script. It was always going to happen. It was just that the vulnerable Keanu - with all his faith, his trust, and his belief in the values and aims of acting and filmmaking - never really believed it.
Underwear on the floor. It's a mess. Keanu rents a house in Los Angeles. Lots of tapes. A bass amp. A TV. Rented furniture. He only has one of his own videos, a copy of Parenthood. It's still in its package. A few books, stuff like The Idiot, some William Gibson. Philip K. Dick. The last book he was into was rereading Stanislavsky's An Actor Prepares. "He's Russian dude," says Keanu. Then, realizing this information is unnecessary, he mutters, "That was pretty Ted-like."
Ted is a role Keanu is proud of. It's changed his life. "What's Ted like?" he asks me.
"So dumb that everything is fun," I say.
"So. Dumb. That. Every. Thing. Is. Fun," Keanu repeats. He says it three times. "Wow."
The description does not seem to have met with his approval. So what, I persevere, is life like post-Ted?
"Post-Ted? What the fuck is that, man?" he scoffs, then answers anyway. "You're not judgmental. You just want to do your own thing and just go. It's radical. What's your next question?"
"I don't know yet."
"How organic. Well, here you are, in the miasma of the moment."
He has some photos - Martha Plimpton and him during Parenthood, him and William Hurt in I Love You to Death - but he keeps those in a drawer. On the wall there's a photo taken by Allen Ginsberg of Neal Cassady.
Keanu was 18 when he discovered the Beats. He read The Dharma Bums and On the Road. It seemed "American and accessible and alone and searching and human and real and an honest kind of grooviness." But he's never lived it as deeply as those guys did. Two years ago, Keanu and a friend took a road trip over to New Mexico - a couple of thousand miles in ten days.
The desert is where Keanu feels most calm. He's very connected to the earth; he loves "dirt and earth and fuckin' flowers and big skies and the desert." He just gets in the dirt and hangs out. Then he's happy.
When did you last cry?
"Gosh." Pause. Then, a little sarcastically, "Last night."
Is that even slightly true?
"Totally. I'm not lying at all. Actually, I cried three times. I'm a crybaby, man."
What did you cry about?
"Once I cried over beauty, once I cried over pain, and the other time I cried because I felt nothing. I can't help it, man. I'm just a cliché of myself."
Can you be more specific?
"I'm kidding. I didn't cry at all. I haven't cried for a long time."
So can you remember the last time?
"Yeah, it was last night. I cried because I was happy my friend was pregnant. I cried because my sister..." He pauses and mutters under his breath, "She's not going to like this," then says, a little bit louder, "No, I'm lying again."
A girl interrupts one of our talks for an autograph. Keanu is charming to her - he signs with the Ted-like message "Be excellent" - but he gets annoyed with me when I ask whether this happens often. "I'm not famous, man," he snaps. "I played Ted - that's it."
He's suspicious of fame. He almost fears it, not in the way shy people fear attention but in the way tidy people abhor a mess. It might sully everything. It would be a bother. The things he values have nothing to do with parties and awards and crowds and interviews. He wants to act, to dive into the fire, to ride his bike too fast, to ride his mind too fast, to shake his head to music that's too fast... to be there. That's when he feels good, not when somebody knows his name.
And so, what will make him happy is not more people knowing his name but getting deeper into the fire, getting better at being in the fire. What he really wants is very, very simple: "To hopefully be a good actor one of these days." He talks about this quest as though he's sure no one could understand, with the hesitancy of someone who's been forced, against his will, to explain to a man with no mouth just what's so good about kissing.
To ask him to be self-conscious about any of this is a peculiar form of cruelty. He really hates it. When he asks me whether I liked his kiss with Barbara Hershey in Aunt Julia And The Scriptwriter - "kinda sloppy, wasn't it?" - I ask him about that experience, of kissing someone for fake. I point out to him that most people, in the whole of their lives, never get to kiss someone except with the regular motivations. What is it like?
He goes quiet. "I never thought of that," he says. And he means it. He gives me a look that seems to say, What kind of freaky, strange, self-conscious person would think of something like that?
But, I persist, he's been screen-kissing for seven or eight years.
"Just kissing right and left," he laughs. "Sure! A movable feast."
So, I ask him, where is his inner head - the one that provides the commentary - when he's doing that? He has to think awhile.
"I don't know," he finally says. "I'm not watching. I'm gone. You want to be out of there. If you're judging, you're evaluating. You're not being. There are so many atoms and molecules involved, it's hard to look at each one."
You just do it.
His love interest in Point Break, Lori Petty, says he does it well. "Oh, he's a very good kisser." And a good actor. "He's obviously very, very gifted. It's something you can't learn. He's definitely blessed, and he works very hard... and he's a good kisser. That's all you need: God's blessing, and lips."
Down in Santa Monica, at the Ivy On The Shore restaurant, Keanu is sharing a meal and some thoughts about the new Bill & Ted's with Alex Winter. Later they're meeting at a "sweat bash" at the Palladium: the Butthole Surfers, L7, and Red Kross. For now, Keanu and I wander to a bench overlooking the sea and the Santa Monica pier. It's nearly sunset and there's a cold wind. Around us, bums wander. I'd never been here before. "This," Keanu tells me, "is a street vibe... the melting pot of America." Before we start talking he jumps up toward a particularly bedraggled, bearded soul.
"I don't know if you need it or not, " he begins a little nervously, holding out the remnants of his meal, "but I had some spaghetti. I'm not going to eat it. Do you want it?"
The man grunts in appreciation, takes it.
"All right. Good, man," Keanu mumbles and sits down. With other actors, I would have suspected the whole scene was played out for my approval. Here, I think my presence made Keanu less, not more, likely to do what he did. As is so often the case in his offscreen human encounters, Keanu Reeves looks painfully embarrassed. But he's not going to change the way he behaves for me. Or anyone.