Dell Publishing Group, New York (US), July 1992

Who's Hot! - Keanu Reeves

by Bronwen Burke

1. The Wall

If you know anything about Keanu, you know that he was born September 2, 1964, in Beirut, Lebanon. And if you know anything about Beirut, you know that it's not exactly the safest place to live.

Keanu's childhood memories include getting stoned in Beirut. Stoned - as in "people throwing rocks at you."

You may also have heard that Keanu [KEE-an-noo] was Keanu's great-great-uncle's name. (Maybe.) And that it is Hawaiian for "cool breeze over the mountains." (Maybe, maybe not, although this is probably what most people know best about Keanu.)

Keanu's English mother and Hawaiian-Chinese father moved to New York City. They settled on Manhattan's Upper West Side where Keanu got hooked on sports. He lived to play hockey and basketball. Especially hockey!

When Keanu was about eight, the family moved to Toronto, Canada.

"Toronto was a great place to be; no graffiti," Keanu recalls. It is also a great place to be if you're into hockey. It's the national sport of Canada, and Kid Keanu had gone crazy for the game.

Keanu got into all the standard boy kinda stuff in Toronto... like speed... especially speed....

He and his friends built go-carts. They raced each other recklessly around the block for the title of "The Fastest." Keanu tried all the tricks on his skateboard that fearless kids on wheels will try.

And he got heavy into music. He listened to all the rock stations in Toronto. But the older he got, the more he got into the punk movement.

Check out Keanu's fave bands: Agent Orange, the Pixies, Discharge, Husker Du, Sham 69... not what you'd call Top 40! But that's the sorta stuff he's into. Keanu's also got a bass guitar. And he loves to slap out those kinds of tunes, the amp turned way up to crack-the-walls levels. The Clash, the Ramones, any kind of classic blues... that's Keanu's thing.

Keanu admits, though, that he's "the worst bass player in the whole world." In a word, he says, "I have no rhythm."

Anyway. Back to the young, prestar Keanu. At school, he was called, "Keanu, Kee, Reeves, and Reevo." School didn't really turn him on much. He wasn't a burn-out like Matt in River's Edge or Ted in Bill & Ted, and he didn't believe that "we don't need no education" or anything like that. He just didn't get into it.

"I was kinda shy in school," explains Keanu. "But I also had the class-clown element about me. I was removed, but I was involved."

"Removed but involved." Pretty intense. Kee sounds like a real watcher. Like someone who liked to wait and react to whatever came his way in life.

His habit of reacting sure came in handy when he played hockey. He loved to play goalie, a position that's all about waiting and reacting. Keanu's natural ability, reactive nature, and sometimes reckless way made him a good goalie. His fave move was to block shots with his body. It was a little dangerous, but hey, Keanu enjoyed the other teams' frustration when they couldn't score on him.

When high school started, it was too early for hockey, so Keanu tried out for the soccer team. Keanu scored the spot of starting goaltender.

And soccer turned out to be just as fun, and just as challenging, as hockey. (The goal may be much bigger, but landing on grass sure beats diving on the ice any day!)

But it didn't matter if it was ice or grass, opponents rarely got the hockey puck or the soccer ball past him. The other players nicknamed him "The Wall." At the end of their successful season, they voted for the teammate who was "The Most Valuable Player." The player who got the most votes was Keanu.

The Wall then elected to try out for another school. It wasn't because of athletics or anything, though. The school was a high school in Toronto for kids interested in theater.

Keanu's parents had divorced and his mom had remarried. Keanu's new stepdad was a stage actor and director. Listening to him talk about the art of acting, Keanu decided to give it a try.

Kee had already dreamt of other careers, like race car driver and orchestra conductor. Nothing else at school interested him, so why not try acting?

At the age of 15, Keanu auditioned for the Toronto Theatre Arts High School. The school was modeled after the Performing Arts High School of New York, the fabled Fame school on the Upper West Side (Kee's old neighborhood).

At the age of 15, Keanu got accepted.

At the age of 16, he got kicked out.

Guess the school couldn't tell they had a future mega-star on their hands. They said he didn't concentrate, and he asked too many questions.

So the school labeled him "flighty" and booted him. They figured Keanu would no way become a serious actor.

And we know they figured wrong. In a big way.

2. Score!

The year that 15-year-old Keanu Reeves spent in the Toronto Theatre Arts High School was the year that he made up his mind to become a professional actor. He loved the stage.

But Keanu's love for theater was different than most teenagers who get bitten by the acting bug. Most kids who do high school plays like to be in the limelight. Keanu didn't want that. What he loved was the actual process of acting.

Keanu felt challenged by the demands of each role he played. And each challenge gave him a rush, the same rush he got when he played goalie and somebody took a shot on him. He handled the toughest role like he handled the hardest slap shot.

He appeared in the famous Arthur Miller play The Crucible. He concentrated on his performance so much that he completely forgot about all the people sitting there watching. One night, his mom came to the show. When Keanu delivered the line, "What am I?" his mom heard a girl sitting nearby say, "A hunk."

At 16, Keanu caught the eye of all the local girls. "I don't think I'm handsome," he protested. "I'm certainly no hunk, but I know I'm not quite a dog."

As Keanu did more local theater, more people noticed his hunkiness. He landed a TV commercial for Coke. It was the first paycheck he ever received for performing. He used the money to survive, while he did more plays for free.

He loved doing plays. "The theater can actually do something that's physical and emotional and human," Keanu says. "It's in the heavens and the earth and it just vibrates through us."

Heavy for a 16-year-old. But that's Keanu.

The money from the Coke commercial dried up, so he looked for more work. He did landscaping. He sharpened skates at an ice rink, happy to be near the hockey action.

And he kept learning. He took acting and improvisation classes at Toronto's famed Second City, the training ground for Gilda Radner, Dan Ackroyd, and Martin Short.

Keanu's stepdad gave him a recommendation to the Hedgerow Theatre, a professional company in Pennsylvania.

The Hedgerow took Keanu on as a summer apprentice. He didn't get paid, but he got room and board. In exchange for doing all the grunt work around the small theater (like sweeping and stuff), Keanu also got all the acting and drama classes he could handle.

Keanu worked hard at Hedgerow that summer. The company liked him. One actress remembers Keanu as "this happy, pimply faced teen who went everywhere on his skateboard."

When summer ended, Keanu returned to Toronto. He went to work at a local pasta shop, making a hundred pounds of pasta a day. He hoped he would be able to score enough acting jobs to be able to quit the job.

But like everything else he ever did, Keanu put his all into his work. Soon, he got promoted. He became the manager of the pasta shop. But he wasn't about to settle for this sort of a steady job - his sites were still set on a higher goal.

And the Canadian government was on his side.

In the 1970s, the American movie and TV industry began to film more projects in Canada. U.S. producers, tired of the rising costs of shooting on location at home, could get tax breaks if they filmed in Canada. But there was a catch.

Producers had to use some Canadian personnel. And with an ever-growing talent pool in Toronto and Vancouver, that wasn't a problem. Movie stars like Donald Sutherland and Christopher Plummer were Canadian citizens. Also, certain sections of Toronto could be made to look like the U.S. cities of New York and Chicago.

The Canadian movie business got busy, and Keanu got a piece of the action. His first line on television was, "Hey, lady! Where's the shower?" Then he auditioned for Night Heat, a Miami Vice - like cop show. It aired in prime time in Canada, and on CBS-TV's late night schedule back in the States.

Keanu appeared on an episode of Night Heat as one of two grungy thugs. In fact, he's billed in the credits as "Thug #1" - but only because he was taller than "Thug #2"!

Home Box Office filmed Act of Vengeance in Toronto in 1984. It starred Charles Bronson and Ellen Barkin. To fill their quota, they hired some Canadian actors to look like New York City street kids. Nineteen-year-old Keanu got one of the jobs.

Now he was rolling. He had training, he had experience, and he had some pro credits ("A Charles Bronson movie!!!"). What he didn't have was a day job - he'd quit the pasta place to act full-time.

ABC came to Toronto to shoot a TV movie called Brotherhood of Justice. It starred Toronto native Kiefer Sutherland, Donald's son. Keanu booked a role as one of the "brothers."

After that came Keanu's first feature film. Released in 1986, Flying was his big screen debut. But don't try too hard to find it. Instead, check out the next thing Keanu did. Because it's the movie that put him on the road to stardom.

In 1985, the to-die-for teen heartthrob was Rob Lowe. He wanted to make a movie about the tough world of junior-league hockey. The movie scheduled a shoot in (where else?) Toronto.

The starring roles were cast out of Los Angeles. Lowe's costars were babe Cindy Gibb and rising hunk Patrick Swayze. But the supporting roles of Lowe's hockey teammates were saved for the local talent.

So the call went out all over Toronto. This hot new movie Youngblood needed a young actor to play a hockey goalie.

Guess who scored the job?

3. Young Blood

As you watch the opening credits of Youngblood, don't watch all those slo-mo shots of Rob Lowe skating and shooting a puck. (It's only a double who skates way better than Rob, anyway.)

Instead, count the number of names before "Keanu Reeves" appears on screen.


Keanu is 11th-billed in Youngblood, but he had to be happy with the way the film turned out. It was his first big-time Hollywood studio picture.

And it would be the last time he would be 11th-billed.

Rob Lowe plays "Youngblood," a hot-shot goal-scorer who tries to make it in the Canadian junior league. Patrick Swayze plays a veteran of the team who protects Lowe. Keanu is the team's flaky goaltender (in the first locker room scene, he walks across the screen with a big roll of tape balanced on his head!).

Kee doesn't get to say much in the movie, but he's around a lot. He's with the other guys when they take Lowe out and get him drunk before their first practice. He's there during all the games, and he's in all the locker room scenes.

Most of what Keanu does in this movie is play hockey. Unlike Lowe (who had a stuntman for the action shots) and Swayze (who also had a double but did most of his stuff himself), Keanu was expected to do it all. He had to skate with the team, take the falls, and make the saves. Thanks to his years of playing the game, he was ready for the challenge!

The Youngblood Keanu is cute, he's intense, he's endearing... there's even a bit of a budding Ted in the way he howls like a wolf in the bar scene! The filmmakers noticed their goalie's on-camera appeal, and kept giving him more lines to say and more stuff to do. In the drinking scene and the locker room scenes, the camera may follow the action between Lowe and Swayze, but it keeps cuffing over to Keanu's reactions!

Youngblood was a big hit when it opened in movie theaters in 1986. And right after shooting wrapped, Keanu made a major decision to make the move.

Convinced that he could play with the big boys, he decided to go where those boys go to play: L.A. Only in Los Angeles could he get the opportunity for leading roles in movies. He packed up, pulled out of Toronto, and headed west.

And it wasn't long before he found himself at the river's edge.

River's Edge tells the scary story of a group of teenagers in a northern California town. One of them kills his girlfriend and leaves the body near a river. When the others learn of it, they don't go to the police. They talk about it, they smoke pot, and they ineptly try to cover it up.

What makes the story so scary is the fact that it's true.

Keanu played Matt, a shy, sensitive pothead. Crispin Glover, who played Michael J. Fox's dad in Back to the Future, had the starring role. But it was Keanu who all the critics noticed. The public noticed him too - especially girls.

And so did other producers. By the time River's Edge had finished its theatrical run in 1987, Keanu was committed to four other movies! All of them were released in 1988 - The Prince of Pennsylvania, The Night Before, Permanent Record, and Dangerous Liaisons.

Keanu learned from all four pictures. He especially enjoyed playing the guitar in Permanent Record. He also returned to Pennsylvania, where he had spent that fun summer at the Hedgerow Theatre, for The Prince of Pennsylvania.

But it was Dangerous Liaisons that gave Keanu his biggest rush. In all of his previous movies, Keanu had worked with actors right around his age. But Dangerous Liaisons was different. The stars were Michelle Pfeiffer, Glenn Close (both of whom would get Academy Award nominations), and John Malkovich (Places in the Heart, The Sheltering Sky). The director was Stephen Frears (The Grifters), and the story was based on a famous play. The movie was to be, as they say in Los Angeles, "A big picture." It was a great opportunity for Keanu.

And he almost blew it.

See, as his career took off, so did Keanu's habit of taking off. He loved to go out to the Mojave desert not far from L.A., and get lost. He felt free in the desert. He took joy rides to New Mexico and Arizona. He usually took off on a motorcycle.

Kee bought a Norton 850 Commando (he's also been seen around town on a Harley and a Suzuki). He could spend all night zipping around L.A., through the canyons and up on Mulholland Drive... past the spot where James Dean had his famous, fatal crack-up.

Keanu defends his pastime. "I mean I ride a motorcycle... so? That's just something I do for fun... I'm not going to start bungee-jumping or anything totally radical!"

But Kee's kind of fun can be rad enough. He has scars on his calf from a spill he took off his bike. Then, shortly after he auditioned for Dangerous Liaisons, he roared his bike around a curve in Topanga Canyon.

He didn't make it.

"I ran into a mountain," Keanu sheepishly admits. A long scar jags across his chest to prove it. (Look closely next time you see him with his shirt off.) Keanu had ruptured his spleen.

While recuperating in the hospital, Keanu got the word - the part of Chevalier in Dangerous Liaisons was his. "Cool," he thought. All he had to be now was good.

Keanu's got a strong philosophy when it comes to dealing with the pressures of his profession. "You just have to give it your best shot and hope it comes out all right."

Keanu really respects actors who have done a lot of work. "I've read stuff that James Dean, Marion Brando, and Gene Hackman have said, and there's wisdom in their words," he once said. "I don't feel I have that yet."

If Keanu felt out - classed by his big-name costars, he didn't let it show. He played the role of the virtuous, romantic Chevalier with style.

Chevalier loves a young noblewoman of impeccable virtue (Uma Thurman). He asks a nobleman (Malkovich) to bear his love letters to her. But the nobleman amuses himself with evil, and he seduces Keanu's love, making her pregnant. When the heartbroken Chevalier discovers his trusted "friend's" betrayal, he kills the villain in a fencing duel.

The role required a huge amount of sensitivity. He also had to play "in period," meaning he had to be believable as a French nobleman in the early 1800s. Since most of the young stars in Hollywood specialized in the motorcycle and leather jacket "bad boy" look, most producers thought Keanu was the same kind of actor. (After all, he did ride a motorcycle, right?)

They thought wrong.

Keanu stunned the Hollywood community with his performance. His heartfelt innocence was just as convincing as Pfeiffer's torment and Close's rage. He looked dashing in those costumes, and he was truly convincing in his difficult sword fight with Malkovich.

When Keanu returned from France, he was 24 and a movie star. Suddenly, magazines wanted him for covers, talk shows wanted to book him. Everyone wanted to know what he would do next.

"As soon as you get a certain amount of success," Keanu admitted, "people ask you what you want to do. But no one asked me that four years ago. I was just trying to act! So I guess I have to grow up and figure out what I want to do and how I want to do it!"

When interviewers pressed Keanu for his future plans, he always had one very simple answer: "To hopefully be a good actor one of these days."

He also wanted another good role. Any good role.

When Keanu got back from France, he got one.

4. Like a Duck

Ron Howard cast Keanu in his comedy Parenthood. Keanu played the gnarly, racer-wannabe boyfriend of Martha Plimpton. It was a huge cast (Steve Martin, Rick Moranis, etc.), but once again, Kee stood out.

He had a blast at the Florida location, hanging with Martha and her real-life boyfriend, River Phoenix. (River's kid bro was also in the movie.) Kee and The Riv dreamed of acting together someday.

Then came Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, the movie that put Keanu and costar Alex Winter on the map. They invented a national craze with their own bogus vocabulary. Bill and Ted, with their excellent "study skills," became the epitome of Cool.

As you know, Keanu and Alex have incredible chemistry. "He has a really strong work ethic," Kee says admiringly of his bud. 1989 became a huge year for them both, but they promised each other to try a Bill & Ted sequel some day.

Kee took a workshop acting class in the winter of 1988. It wasn't in Hollywood or New York, and it wasn't with some modern acting guru. He went to the small town of Lenox, Massachusetts, where he enrolled with the acting group, Shakespeare & Company.

After that, Keanu took a job with American Playhouse. This series of high-quality projects on public television cast him in a PBS film called Life Under Water, opposite Sara Jessica Parker.

Another dream was realized when Keanu joined the ensemble cast of I Love You to Death. In addition to Keanu, the cast included Kevin Kline, Tracey Ullman, William Hurt - and River Phoenix. The buds had their chance to work together.

The flick was not a hit, but Keanu gave it his best shot. He got to work with William Hurt, one of his acting idols. And he got to work on a wild character - a drugged-up, burnt-out male bimbo whose attempts at assassination make The Three Stooges look like polished professionals.

Kee even had a nose ring inserted for the role!

Then Keanu headed back to Lenox to do Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest. It features the comic characters of Stephano and Trinculo, two drunken sailors. The roles are considered two of the best in Shakespeare's clowning tradition. And the producers at Shakespeare & Company felt Keanu was up to the demands of the role. Kee didn't disappoint them.

"We loved him," a spokeswoman for the company explained. "He is an excellent clown, and he's welcome back here anytime!"

Trinculo is a blast of a part for someone like Keanu. Imagine Theodore Logan III from Bill & Ted with a wine bottle. Keanu got big laughs with Trinculo's constant bragging of "I swim like a duck!"

There was a laugh Shakespeare never intended, though, in Act 3, Scene 2. When Trinculo is asked how he likes a certain scheme, Keanu's line in the script is "Excellent!"

How could the Bard have known five hundred years ago that he'd get a laugh thanks to Bill & Ted? Maybe that time-traveling phone booth really does work!

Keanu's hot streak continued with Tune in Tomorrow, a big-screen comedy about a radio soap-opera writer in the 1940s. Though Peter Falk had all the clowning funny stuff as the writer, Keanu got good reviews for his performance as Barbara Hershey's lover.

Keanu also scored in his first romantic role since Dangerous Liaisons. Tune in Tomorrow contained Keanu's first love scenes with "an older woman." He loved it. And so did his older, female fans!

It was now 1990. Keanu had appeared in 12 movies in only four years (as well as the PBS project and The Tempest in Lenox). As he rushed from film set to film set, one thing was clear - Keanu had become one of the busiest, hottest movie stars of the 90s!

And that crazy pace was not about to let up....

5. "Rush, Rush"

Paula Abdul had an idea for her new album. To make a whole mini-movie video to accompany the release of her hit single, "Rush, Rush." In the video, she planned to pay homage to the famous James Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause. Paula would play Natalie Wood's role. But who to cast as James Dean, the voice of a generation, the teen screen idol to end all idols? What young Hollywood actor had the same kind of power, the same kind of charisma?

Calling Keanu...

The "Rush, Rush" video premiered on MTV in 1991. It aired right in the middle of a Keanu blitz. Point Break was packing the movie houses, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey was about to be released, and Keanu was busy shooting My Own Private Idaho.

Point Break is an action smash picture. Keanu plays Johnny Utah, a former football hero turned FBI agent. He infiltrates a gang of bank robbers by becoming one of their thrill-seeking buds. Patrick Swayze plays leader of the gang.

Things had most definitely changed since Youngblood. Keanu had gone from 11th-billed to a bona fide movie star. And Swayze had grown from supporting actor to mega-star (thanks to Dirty Dancing and Ghost).

"The movie was a real kick," Keanu says. "I got to do most of my own stunts. I did just about all the surfing stuff - especially the falls. I got real good at the falls."

Now, you know that Keanu would be turned on by all these macho stunts. His bod's got enough scars to remind us that he's an adrenaline junkie.

But it took Point Break, a movie about adrenaline junkies, to get Kee to chill.

"I didn't do the skydiving stuff. Patrick did all of his - all of it," Keanu admits. "I can't do that stuff. I have to worry about my next acting role and what I'm going to be doing there."

When Point Break was released in Japan, Keanu won the Japanese Oscar Award for Best Actor!

So, Point Break taught Keanu the lesson he never learned from those motorcycle accidents - ya gotta take care of yourself if you want to be a star.

And the next starring role was his favorite; the return of Theodore Logan III in B & T's Bogus Journey. Keanu agreed to do the movie "because it's fun. It's really fun to play Bill and Ted."

Keanu followed Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey with a movie that would be the hardest one he would ever make....

My Own Private Idaho tells the story of teen runaways who become male prostitutes. The director was Gus Van Sandt, the guy who made the movie Drugstore Cowboy with Matt Dillon.

"I think you have to see that it is just a movie about love," says Keanu. "It isn't a movie about male prostitutes... well, it is, but it isn't. The movie is really about love and the search for it."

Keanu didn't want to hear from any small minds who wondered if the choice of material would hurt his image. "Hurt my image?" he scoffs. "What am I - a politician?" He can't believe that people would ever confuse his characters with his true self. "No, man... I'm an actor."

Keanu's performance in Idaho proved it. The movie shifts from a tough look at the hard streets to a wild reinterpretation of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I. Keanu had to go from talking street talk to Elizabethan language.

"I wasn't worried about the Shakespeare stuff. It just seemed challenging to me." We know you're into challenges, Kee. But weren't you worried at all?

Keanu smiles that sheepish, cute smile. "I felt a bit of anxiety about Idaho. It was a little like, Oh no!! Can I do this? I was afraid. But River made me fit in. Said, 'Let's do one bitchin' movie....'"

That's right, River Phoenix. Keanu got into Idaho because he wanted to work with River again. He also wanted to play more Shakespeare again. It wasn't The Tempest, but it was still Shakespeare!

"I really would like to do Shakespeare with River. We could do A Midsummer Night's Dream. I think we'd have a hoot."

Shakespeare will have to wait, though, while Keanu tackles another classic. It's Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather movies and The Outsiders) is remaking the famous vampire legend as an erotic thriller. Gary Oldman (Oswald in JFK) plays Count Dracula. He meets Winona Ryder, and he tries to get her to join the "Undead."

Keanu plays Winona's boyfriend. He's determined to help Dr. Van Helsing (Silence of the Lambs' Anthony Hopkins) destroy Dracula. But will they succeed? Will Winona sprout fangs? Will Keanu also go fang-o?

Keanu likes the sexy stuff in Coppola's version of the vampire story. And he's really happy to be working with Winona and newcomer Sadie Frost. But then, he's happy about anything to do with women.

"Wow! They are amazing!!!" is what he says when you ask him about girls.

"They have powers men don't have. They can go places, do things... because they're women!"

Keanu's been romantically linked to some of his costars. Lori Petty, his love interest in Point Break, put it this way, "He's a very good kisser. And a good actor. It's something you can't learn. He works very hard, and he's definitely blessed... that's all you need: God's blessing, and lips."

But Kee has one big love - acting. Everything else comes in second place, from girls to motorcycles.

Why does he act? Simple. "Because it makes me happy, that moment when I'm acting, and I'm really into it. It's only happened a handful of times, but when it does... you're on fire. You're unconscious. You're just... free!"

That's Keanu.

Article Focus:

Youngblood , Dangerous Liaisons , Point Break , Rush, Rush


Crucible, The , Coca-Cola Commercial , Hangin' In , Night Heat , Act of Vengeance , Brotherhood of Justice , Dream to Believe , Youngblood , River's Edge , Prince of Pennsylvania, The , Night Before, The , Permanent Record , Dangerous Liaisons , Parenthood , Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure , Life Under Water , I Love You to Death , Tempest, The , Tune in Tomorrow... , Rush, Rush , Point Break , Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey , My Own Private Idaho , Bram Stoker's Dracula


mumblingmouseExcellent! (2009-04-20 11:06:47)
 What a great glimpse at Keanu's childhood and early acting career! I love articles like these. You can really see how much he's grown with respect to his career, but fundamentally he hasn't changed a bit!
Monica45This was good! (2016-01-23 13:37:34)
 ....sorry for the understatement but damn that was a REALLY GOOD article! I hadn't read such a "thorough" article before like this in a while.
Wow this was written back in 1992!

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