Movie (Aus), July/August 1992
KEANU REEVES - his excellent adventure
Keanu Reeves is one of the foremost rising young stars of Hollywood. Cool. His career veers between the box-office slapstick of Bill and Ted and daring, introspective films like My Own Private Idaho. Weird. Jeff Hayward gives him the third degree. Heavy, man.
One of the obvious facts of the screen celebrity circuit is that most stars love to talk about themselves, even though they often feign shyness. After all, you have to seriously question anyone who actively seeks out the spotlight and then complains about the inevitable scrutiny that follows.
Keanu Reeves, however, doesn't like it at all. And it seems to spring from a genuine lack of interest in exposing his inner self. The 26-year-old Canadian with the Hawaiian name (Keanu means "cool breeze over the mountains") may be one of the rising young stars of Hollywood, but that doesn't mean he likes all the hoopla that goes with it. This is, after all, the actor who confesses: "I'm just a cliché of myself".
You learn fairly quickly that being interviewed rates very low on Reeves' set of priorities. He turns up looking like he'd slept in the park overnight with the ragtag homeless of Santa Monica. There's a lot of "cool", "weird" and "heavy, man" in his rapid-fire conversation, which swings from semi-revelation and outright parody to awkward silences. And then there are the body movements: he does a sort of shuffle of the hand to sweep back his long hair off his face, half-rises, then sits down and rocks back in the chair.
"Yeah, well, it's cool," he shrugs when it's mentioned that he has a reputation for being tough to interview. Then it's "Hey, I've got a reputation for being difficult to interview? I don't think that's true at all!" Then a look of introspection and "Well, it's just that sometimes I don't like to talk about myself, and hey, who cares about this shit?"
Much of it is an act, the kind of defensive measure some celebrities adopt to deflect interest. Play the fool and hope to be left alone. Unfortunately for Reeves, he often lets slip the kind of repeat quotes that make Hollywood publicists apoplectic. On drugs: "There was a time I avoided them, was afraid of them, but then I got into it and it was groovy. I dug it." On his background: "I came from a broken home and all that shit. The story of me and my dad is pretty heavy, full of pain and woe." On his personal philosophy: "I'm just in the bell curve of humanity, cruising along where I should be."
All this would indicate a bit of a movietown basketcase if it weren't for the fact that on the film set he is said to be very keen and dedicated to his craft. And he has shown a clear penchant for taking genuine creative risks in a career that has been built steadily on a string of strong and often quirky roles. Two recent parts, the surfing undercover cop in the formula Point Break and the second installment as the gormless dude in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, were done for the money and exposure. Yet he also took on Danceny in Dangerous Liaisons, played the disorientated youth in Parenthood, a conscience-stricken teenager in River's Edge and, in his most recent role, went for the real artistic highwire.
In Gus Van Sant's bleak portrait of life on the fringe, My Own Private Idaho, Reeves and fellow traveller River Phoenix play young street hustlers who service both male and female clients. It's a brave, quirky film by a gay director that deals in open roads, disrupted families and vagabond dreams. Keanu Reeves' character is well brought up and well off, but lives on the streets to punish his father before he throws off the fellowship of the lowlifes to claim his hereditary good life.
He is particularly pleased with My Own Private Idaho, even though it's a film dominated by River Phoenix's unnerving portrait of a lost youth. "It's a dark, European-style drama, and I'm proud of it. I only have so much time, so I might as well throw myself into the fire. Roles like that make you think about things."
He candidly admits he didn't mind playing second fiddle to Phoenix.
"As far as stardom goes, man, I'm not really interested in being the main guy. Why should I be? I love playing little parts. Like in I Love You To Death, phew! When I got to play with Kevin Kline and William Hurt, I just said 'Wow!' I always tell I my agent, look, if it's a good part in a small film, show it to me, don't be scared."
Van Sant's larky style provides a moody, introspective atmosphere that verges on the surreal. It's not a film about homosexual experiences, although that's an aspect, but more a look at how young men can deal with loss and inner pain in different ways.
Of his earlier films, Reeves is most proud of River's Edge. 'When you play someone like Matt in River's Edge, someone who can't live with the knowledge of a terrible thing, it changes your life in a way. You can be really affected by it," he admits.
Talking on this level is how you get the best out of the tall and swarthy actor, who is part English, part Hawaiian-Chinese and was actually born in Beirut before his parents emigrated to Canada, where he grew up. Reeves can be quite open and lucid when the conversation is kept to his screen work. That's when he is at his most comfortable.
He's a bit wary of being too closely linked to his most popular screen face, the airhead Ted of Bill and Ted fame. The two films have been the biggest box-office hits he has been involved with, but he has tired of it now.
"Hell, sometimes I look at those old posters of Bill and Ted and I feel, 'I hope this doesn't blind other directors from wanting to work with me'," he muses. "I know there is this danger that people are going to sort of see me as this Ted guy, but hey, it's just a part I did."
Trying to steer young Reeves into talking about his own life proves to be a little bit more tricky.
"The kind of person I am in my real life? Let's see, man, do you really want to know? OK. I guess who I am depends on the day. I don't really know what my essence is. I'm not very good with authority; when people in school kept trying to tell where I could go or what I should do, it infuriated me. When I don't feel free I just react."
Home for Reeves is a rented house in west Los Angeles, which he says he shares with rented furniture, his bass guitar and a lot of mess. Even though he's earning in the six-figure-per-film club, Keanu Reeves isn't a regular on the Hollywood celebrity circuit. He's more at home playing pool or roaring down Sunset Boulevard on his Norton 850cc Commando. The new law in California requiring all riders to wear helmets doesn't meet with his approval. "Petty government bullshit, it sucks!"
Doing virtually back-to-back roles doesn't allow him much time to indulge himself in the social highlife, he maintains. "I'm kind of a homebody, really. I don't get involved much in the Hollywood scene. In the past year I've been working hard, I haven't had much of a private life.
"I'd like to have more time to myself, but I guess I'm afraid that if I do a lot of projects will pass me by.
"I now have to have more responsibility for my career, so I'll stay home and read scripts. Once you get a certain amount of success people think you lead this glamorous life, but it isn't true."
His current project is a part in Francis Ford Coppola's update of Dracula, with Winona Ryder. After that, he is slated to play amateur boxing champion Andy Minsken in 20th Century Fox's planned biopic.
Turning 26 last year was the biggest recent event in Reeve's life. "It's a radical experience, man. I was going along doing OK, then suddenly I pass this number and I start thinking, 'I'm going to die one day.' I start looking at my mother in a different way. I start thinking: 'What's important? Who am I? Why am I here?' It was so weird, like I woke up one day with a different mindset. I wish I still had the other one."
He says he has been seeing one particular girl for about a year now. He confides that's she's very passionate and sexual, but that's all he'll say on the subject. On women in general he is on record as saying: "They are amazing, aren't they? They can go places, do things, seem to have powers that men don't have. I love them."
Reeves becomes very self-conscious when it comes to his family background. His mother split from his dad when he was at school.
"I remember I said to my mother that I wanted to be an actor when I was about 16," he recalls. "Looking back, I don't know what was going on in my head at the time, but I just started taking acting classes. I came from a broken home, so hey, wow!" he grins.
"In my early days in movies I was one of those headstrong young guys who want to question everything. I'd want to know why directors would want to do certain things. I remember it used to piss some of them off."
He suggests that he hasn't slowed down his post-adolescent agitation enough to let humour really take hold of him, and so is ambivalent about his sense of humour. "Fun is a weird thing to me, I don't think that laughing is necessarily the best way... I dunno."
The irony of all this is that almost in spite of himself, Keanu Reeves has carved out quite a credible reputation for himself, even if there have been persistent rumours of a spell of drug detoxification. He may play a kind of "full-on dude", but he is being careful to push his career along a particularly thoughtful path, and has made sure to instil his characters with a sense of urgency and energy. He may be difficult to talk to, radiating a sort of restless ambivalence. But he has a real future in a business that's notoriously fickle.
"People don't realise, but it's about trying to get a job. There are so many actors out there and you see something you want and you try for it, and they go and pick somebody else. But then you learn a lot about things by playing different people, different parts. That's something pretty big, right?"