Doin' time on Planet Keanu
Our fearless reporter tries to get the press-shy star to return to earth long enough to answer a question or two.
by Stephen Rebello
Keanu Reeves yanks the long sleeves of his black polo shirt over his hands, clamps shut his eyes, shoves out his arms, wriggles them into space and clasps his face in a Edvard Munch-like silent scream. For a chaser, I expect he might flip back his tumbling locks in that quintessentially imitable style we've come to know and love from watching him in two Bill & Ted movies, Point Break, I Love You to Death, Parenthood, Dangerous Liaisons, River's Edge, The Prince of Pennsylvania and Permanent Record. But the 28-year-old actor eschews the head-bobbing thing just now, probably because he's sporting a haircut that says "My-bone-structure's-so-bitchin'-I-can-pull-off-the-prison-camp-look." What have I done to induce this theatrical catatonia? I've just asked him a simple, straightforward question. Yo, Keanu?
Now, I like this guy a lot in movies. He's our hapless, sweet, gropingly inarticulate rebel, a gorgeous shambles, with the body language of Jacques Tati by way of Norman Mailer. No way did I expect Joe Average from one of the few guys in his age range who actually holds major movie stardom within reach. But I've already spent 30 minutes eliciting mostly one-word answers. I repeat the latest inquiry - "Why do you act?" - and, eventually, Reeves opens his eyes, jiggles his Frankenstein monster boots, ponders the beat-up motorcycle helmet that he's set on the chair beside him, grins an amiably goofy grin, shrugs, and finally says, "You know, man, whatever."
Right about now, I'm thinking, you know, man, if the next 90 minutes continue this way, one of us must die. "My life's in flux right now, man," Reeves suddenly mutters, just picking up on how stymied I am by his behavior. Lightening up, he mugs, flinches, then pleads, "I don't want to be on the rack. Please don't put me on the rack." Excuse me, but my question was only, "Why do you act?" After another long wait while Reeves stares at the ceiling, he says, "Let's come back to that."
Fine. Reeves strikes me, at this point, almost precisely the way he does in movies - a guy so tangled up in contradictions that even if he'd like to spill the beans, he couldn't find the can opener. So I say, "You're really good on-screen at physically displaying whatever's going on inside your characters; want to show me how you think this interview's going?"
"Well, I guess every action is an expression of it," Reeves says. Windmilling his hands, searching the heavens for an expression that will convey the words, at last he decides to attempt language instead: "I'll try to describe a physicalization of this interview." I wait some more while Reeves cogitates. Then, after, maybe, five minutes, this: "My imagination lacks wind in its sails."
Now I'm thinking of bolting and just giving up the game, but I don't. And that turns out to be a good call, too, because, contrary to what Reeves has just uttered about his windlessness, something in him suddenly pries loose. It's as if he's now satisfied that he has demonstrated to me that he doesn't have to answer my questions, and - all at once, just like that, - he becomes funny, courtly, mock-poetic, out there, not only answering virtually everything I ask, but also spinning yarns available only in Keanu-land. No wind in his sails, huh? Hell, he lets out with enough power now to sail us both around Venus and back.
I decide to mention that I was tipped off the other night that I should show up at a Hollywood bar that's so funky-hip it doesn't even have a name. Reeves is all ears while I tell him about all the black-clad ingenues and studs queued up outside the joint, and how ripped some of them looked when the doorman waved me in. "But we're friends of Keanu, man." one whined, pronouncing that Hawaiian name for "cool breeze over the mountains" as "Kee-no," which is a dumb card game they used to play at church lawn parties in my hometown. Inside the club, a band wailed for a cheery, one-of-everything crowd - guys scribbling poetry, pool sharks, Kerouac-era hipsters, and those permanent fixtures of Hollywood's hip underground set, Ione Skye, Sofia Coppola, Donovan Leich, Edan Everly, Katie Wagner - all jammed in so tightly, I felt my clothes took up too much space.
While next to me a Beat-era groovester bent the ear of a blank-eyed Lolita about how he and Miles Davis once shot smack together, three guys called "Dog Star" ambled out onto the makeshift stage to do a folk ditty about somebody named "Isabel." The eye of every woman in the place appeared to be locked on the backside of the bass guitar player. He rarely turned around and, when he did, barely looked up. That's right: Kee-AH-noo. The music didn't exactly ignite the place - "Strong drugs, weak band," one clubbie quipped, beating a hasty exit - and soon enough, there was room aplenty for all those kids who'd been clamoring outside. When I mention to Reeves that I liked the band better than some of the others who were there, he spews a dry, staccato laugh like bird claws on sandpaper.
"We were terrrrrrible, he wails. "You poor man. That was about the seventh time we played, but we have played so much better. More often in the garage than anywhere else, but..." How aware is he that his moviestar presence dragged out so many people - vocal women, especially - that night? "No idea, I can't hear 'em," he asserts, shrugging, acting the Oblivious Sex God number to a T. Though he off-handedly mentions that he'd prefer to talk instead about such touchstone bands as The Ramones, The Velvet Underground, The Exploited and The Pixies, he circles, nevertheless, directly back to the subject of his own star power. "No matter who you are," he observes, "in the end, you've got to put up or shut up." On behalf of shy people the world over, I mention I couldn't help but notice how reticent he had looked onstage.
"I'm not very good with the microphone," he admits. "I don't quite get it there. When you're shy, that shyness can come between you and the moment. Fuck our parents, man. I mean, fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. They fucked up. But, you see, there it is, man: regret. Better to regret something that you have done than to regret something you haven't done. A good, worthwhile notion, right? Except these days, at the end of it somebody might go, 'Satan, Satan, Satan!' But back to the band. We just have a very sincere effort to play music people, hopefully, will dig and dance to. We're not hard-edge, we can't have wicked irony, our music is so straight-up that you can't have a flight of fancy.
"Jeez, you were there that night, of all nights," he says, shaking his head. "Oh, well, at least the bar is a special place. It's good, honest. You can die there. You can get drugs, beat your wife, spill your blood, spill your drink."
On the subject of spilled blood, how does he feel he's been treated by the press? "Sometimes they have been very kind," he remarks, before adding, "I've never felt any kind of action against me. I feel they are pretty fair. I have no idea, man, about some of those stories, though. It's generally someone speaking from when they don't know the whole story. They project whatever they want to project. Whatever. Who cares?"
Since Reeves, when he feels like talking, gives every indication of being able to do some major goofing on his image and on the press, I ask if he'd like to do a little parody of the "teen idol" interview.
"Well, what do those magazines ask?" he says, fish-eyeing me as if I'd just asked him to admit he once bought a New Kids on the Block record. Each time i hit him with another deliberately lame question - "Do you prefer blondes, brunettes, redheads?"; "What's your idea of a dream date?"; "What's the worst excuse you've ever given a girl when you want to take her parking?" - he shoots back, tightly, unsmilingly, "What else do they ask?" After I've run through a half-dozen, he growls, with exquisite scorn, "That's absurd." Exactly the point, of course, but Reeves can't - or won't - boogie.
Okay, okay, I remember, Keanu: "Don't put me on the rack." So, I'm guessing it might be about time to talk up something serious, like his Alex Winter-directed opus, Hideous Mutant Freekz. Is it a comedy? Drama? What? Suddenly, Reeves turns chummy again, sweetly spacey.
"Well, I worked in it for eight days with Alex, Tom Stern [Winter's co-writer and co-director], and Tim, I don't know Tim's last name - sorry, Tim!" he says, cupping a hand over his mouth, the other over his heart. It turns out that I don know Tim's last name, but just as I'm about to help him out, Reeves is rolling again. "Are you familiar with Alex's 'Idiot Box' on MTV? His comedy is physical, dark, usually social commentary; I guess the base of it is bitterness at original sin, at the spit and shit of man. It's Alex's first film and he plays a successful actor who's full of himself and gets hired by this company to push all these different products. The company suits are going, 'We want you to represent all these things,' so then they say, 'We want you to represent this chemical, Zygrot 24', and he goes, 'No way, I heard that stuff was poisonous.' But when they work up to, 'Five million' he goes: 'Okay!'
"So, he goes to this make-believe Central American place called Santa Flan and there's protesters, then him and this biased American girl hook up. He buys a crutch, clothing and bandages so that he can disguise himself as a cripple, and they stop at this freak show where Randy Quaid, the freakmaster, captures them and rubs on him this poisonous Zygrot stuff that he was going to represent. It turns him into a half-beast, half-normal guy, Beast Boy. And I play Ortiz the Dogboy, the leader of the freaks in this house of freaks. I had canine teeth and makeup and got to play him - " he explains, bounding from his seat, opening his mouth wide, flinging out his arms, and bellowing a resounding "Aaaahhhhhhh!" that makes me wonder if Ortiz the Dogboy is related somehow to Tarzan, the Ape Man. Muy macho, man," he says, settling down. "I based my character upon Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Tom Jones."
As for the $50 million Francis Coppola costume epic, Bram Stoker's Dracula, there's no doubt who Reeves based his character on, since it's the latest film version of the Stoker novel. Reeves listens while I tell him how amused I've been by the preview trailers, especially by that radical wig on Gary Oldman that makes his vampiric Transylvanian bloodsucker look like a wacky combo out of Hellraiser meets "Wild Kingdom" meets The Golem. Reeves seizes onto the word "golem," repeating it as if tasting it, digging its sound.
"You mean like Gollum from Lord of the Rings?" he asks, laughing.
"No," I explain," a golem like from that groovy German silent horror movie, a Frankenstein precursor, where the monster looks like some weird, stone gingerbread man."
"Has that ever happened to you, man," Reeves asks, rocking gently back and forth, "when you're just in the world, you know, hanging out, you're in your car and blah, blah, blah, you just look at someone and they look at you and you just feel they're evil? Or they have, like, a golem in them?" Actually, I tell Reeves, it's happened just about any time I'm within spitting distance of Hollywood - and that derails our Drac-chat a bit longer because it gets us both going on the subject of the L.A. uprisings that followed the "not guilty" verdict of the cops who hammered Rodney King.
"Not guilty' was ludicrous, man," Reeves snaps. "Ludicrous is a stupid word, I mean, it was a crime. The voice of reason means the fist of action and, hopefully, that will be the case. Things are very heavy now. We're so many people so close together, there's got to be a harmony. I'm not very active in politics, but it's something that's been awakening. I'm not supporting any local politicians and I couldn't tell you who the head of the CIA is. I know the governor of California is Pete Wilson, right?"
Reeves has a way to go before he's stumping for Rock the Vote--he's still a Canadian citizen, anyway--but I'm curious about what he did while L.A. burned.
"I rode my bike around the first night. I saw some major shopping going on, 100 percent discount shopping. The second night, I had to pick up a friend around 12:30 at night and the air was electrified. It felt lawless. Like a Western town where no one wore their badges on the outside. Guns everywhere." Shaking his head at the sheer heaviness of it all, Reeves adds, "Some people don't like to feel that they're in the same boat with you, they'd like to have more room in the ocean and pick their teeth with your bones. So, it's pretty much a situation of, 'Get the golem! Get the golem!'"
And that old golem leads us back to Dracula. I throw caution to the wind and ask Reeves whether anyone's ever told him how ineffably of-this-exact-second he comes off when he does period movies, whether it's the Shakespeare rant in My Own Private Idaho, the '50's setting of Tune In Tomorrow..., or the 18th century of Dangerous Liaisons.
"Really?" Reeves asks, intent on pursuing this. "You mean, it was so obvious that when you watched, say, Dangerous Liaisons, you thought, 'This actor is not comfortable,' and it pulled you out of the film?" He leans forward. I tell him yes. There's a long, long pause. He finally flashes me a good-natured grin and says, "Yeah, well--on Dangerous Liaisons, for example, they only gave me my shoes on the first day of shooting. I guess that's symbolic of the whole thing."
Nevertheless, under Coppola's guidance, Reeves is doing the foppish, strike-a mannered-pose thing again. The director, Reeves says, views his character, Harker, as "the first yuppie," whereas Reeves explains that he sees himself playing "the perfect Victorian gentleman." I ask Reeves if he'd mind conguing up for us the qualities of the much speculated-over much rumored-about Dracula. Reeves lets forth at once with a freewheeling spin of free association: "Vampires, submission, domination, rape, bestiality, guilt, Biblical overtones, Satan, God, Christian motifs, the dead, undead, blood, murder, revenge, opera, classicism and oral sex." Dandy, but why a big, expensive Dracula movie, after so many other big, expensive ones - not to mention so many little, cheap ones?
"Well, this is another day, another story and you've got Coppola's passion, and when you have that, you have something that is going to be...extraordinary. I think Coppola's got something to say, he's got a vision, a reason to do this. Making it, he wanted all of us to go more and more out there, to be extraordinary and adventurous like he was being with the camera and with the film's look. You know, sometimes the rest of us couldn't keep up, but, with those other actors - I mean, Richard Grant, Cary Elwes, Tom Waits, Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder, Gary Oldman, Sadie Frost - Coppola made me feel I could fly. Francis brings joy to his work. I take that back: he brings joy, period." Reeves leans over and says into the microphone of my tape recorder, "Thank you, Francis, you gave me some of the best times of my life and, hopefully, I played Harker well." While we're on the subject, does Reeves have any favorite vampire flicks? "In school, I really dug the silent film Nosferatu, with Dracula's long fingers and the shadows and all that interplay. And, of course, in Vampire's Kiss, Nicolas Cage was rocking, shocking, brilliant. Radical." Radical, too, says Reeves, was the experience of doing a particular scene with Coppola directing him on a visit to Gary Oldman's Transylvanian castle - a business call, since Reeves plays an ambitious, idealistic young British lawyer. "We were doing a scene where Dracula and Harker, my character, are signing the deeds for the properties in London. I was jazzed. It's like what the leader of our band, Greg, calls 'the X factor,' when everything goes right. That scene with Gary in Dracula was something. I'd put that up there with working with Crispin Glover in River's Edge - that, also, was a beautiful marriage of writing, story, directing, and Crispin just held me to that film - or I'd say it was on a par with working with River in My Own Private Idaho - he's beautiful, inventive, funny and creative, too."
Speaking of Gus Van Sant's art movie about the relationship between a pair of street hustlers, did it gall Reeves that some of his fans beat it for the exits during the move's more homoerotic interludes? "Every actor has his own battles," he observes, quietly, "and mine right now is coming from being a younger man trying to get more mature parts in cool films. Idaho is an example of 'Keanu moving on,' you know, a really cool part in a really great film. I heard some people in theaters were going nuts, just losing it, but I'm glad they were doing it not out of boredom. As long as they were confronted and challenged, then it's worth it."
Reeves does more feet-jiggling, then says, "You know what's great? Right after I finished Dracula, I went to Paris to visit a couple of friends, shipped over one of my Nortons, my '72 750 with California plates, just hung out for two-and-a half weeks. My Own Private Idaho had just opened at a theater right near my friend's house where I was staying. I got stopped by a couple of American students who'd seen it and they bought me a beer. Which is what you should do in Paris: sit in cafes, talk, hang out. I had miraculous weather, so it didn't rain on my parade. Then I went to New York to visit friends, sat down, hung out, and the same sort of thing happened there. So, do I want more movies that lead to experiences like that? Yes, please."
Please? Given how frequently he's been winning many of the most sought-after roles in recent films, it'd appear that Reeves is already getting the easy pickings of the better available parts. "No waaaay," he insists, thumping the arm of his chair for emphasis. "It's only very recently that I've been approached with, 'Would you like to do this?' Mostly, I'm still auditioning, which there's something to be said for. Up to now, my only real choices have been: 'Hmmmm, an audition, go or not go? Go!' I auditioned seven times for Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and all the 'finalists' had to read with everyone else - me, Pauly Shore, Josh Richman, Alex Winter and others. I met with Coppola three times before he asked me if I wanted to play the part in Dracula.
Has he ever lusted after a role he didn't get? "Orphans - word is God," he says, referring to Alan Pakula's movie version of Lyle Kessler's acclaimed play, in which Matthew Modine starred with Albert Finney. Didn't he also campaign to play Jim Morrison for Oliver Stone? "I auditioned a few times, but I don't think I was ever -" he says, and while he's gesturing in the air, I offer, "Seriously in the running?" Reeves shrugs and explains, "I was terrified. I just read some of Jim Morrison's poetry and listened to some of his music and did what I could." And though Reeves speaks animatedly about his and Alex Winter's "commedia di arte-type improvisations" in the two Bill & Ted movies, it's clear that he doesn't feature himself doing Ted again now that he's approaching 30.
"I just finished learning 'To be or not to be'; I want to know about Hamlet, I want to play Macbeth. I mean, I never stop. I mean, look at people like Daniel Day-Lewis. Whew! He transcends. Robert De Niro. River Phoenix. Gena Rowlands. Just in the past three weeks, I've become devoted to trying to find a good project, a good script, story idea, anything. Before that, I was just - on vacation. Other people have been reading scripts and coming forth telling me what they like. But this is only recently that I've personally been reading scripts, talking, and meeting on things."
Are there certain kinds of roles he'd like to find and develop for himself? "How can I even answer that question?" he asks, incredulous, and when I point out that thousands have, he responds, "I can't. That would be a limitation. I have no idea. As an actor, I don't have an idealized part or anything."
It isn't only his career that he's been taking with new-found seriousness. Although Reeves can often be seen at Hollywood's groovier hangouts, it's most often with the same petite young woman and a close circle of friends. He admits that he's lately been "trying to catch up" with himself. He has his work cut out for him. Born in Beirut, Lebanon (his geologist father, from whom he is estranged, is Chinese-Hawaiian), he lived his first year in Australia, and grew up in Toronto. There, after running afoul of teachers, he enrolled in acting classes, did a TV series, some plays, and landed a commercial for Coke. Tired of playing what he once called "the best friend, thug number one and the tall guy," he drove to L.A. in a 1969 Volvo with $3000, crashed with his stepfather, and began landing castoffs (small roles in TV movies; a little-seen teen romp, The Night Before) before better offers came along.
Now, although he's on the movies' short list of under-30 comers, he keeps possessions down to a minimum: a couple of bikes, sound equipment, plenty of music. In fact, he feels he's just beginning to settle in. "L.A. has been my place of abode for seven years," Reeves explains, "and I have a little place in New York City. I don't even have a house house, but I have been living in the same place in Los Angeles for a couple of years and it's just now becoming a home. I like to be free and unfettered. I like the option of being able to do anything and go anywhere, anytime. I like to have my house open. A lot of my friends have keys to my houses and I like to have everything, you know, 'What's mine is yours,' and to drink wine, talk and hang out."
Since an interview isn't necessarily Reeves's idea of a good time, I ask him what is. He says, "Lying in bed with my lover, riding my bike, sports, happy times with my friends, conversation, learning, the earth, dirt, a beautiful repast with friends, family with wine and glorious food and happy tidings and energy and zest and lust for life. I like being in the desert, in nature, being in extraordinary spaces in nature, high in a tree or in the dirt, hanging out with my family, my sisters."
There may not be much time for hanging out, since he's soon off to Italy to join Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson and Michael Keaton in a branaghized version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, then returns to work with Gus Van Sant on a movie version of Tom Robbins's novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, about a hitchhiking gal whole odyssey takes her to such off-the-beaten-track locales as a lesbian dude ranch. After that, a raft of possibilities loom in the middle distance, including one project developed for Reeves about a three-time national amateur boxing champ who just missed making the U.S. Olympic team.
With an offbeat career dossier building up, does Reeves ponder what future pop culture critics will make of his career? "That sounds willful. I just hope I continue to get the opportunity to work with the caliber of people that I already have. I mean, I haven't seen William Hurt [with whom he made I Love You to Death] in a long time, but he'll stay with me forever. Hopefully people will, through relationships and things that I involve myself in, look back fondly and have a love for what I did." After a moment, he adds, "I'm sorry, man. My existence is not very noble or sublime."
After some 30 seconds of staring at his bike helmet, Reeves suddenly looks me in the eye and blurts, "Did you ever want to jump off a bridge onto the back of a truck?" Noticing my blank look, he adds, "I just remembered your flight of fancy. You know, about why I want to act? It's a question that arises every day. I mean, it's the meat of the matter. I just didn't feel like meandering, you know? I was trying to give you a clear, defined answer. So: did you ever want to jump off a bridge onto the back of a moving truck? That's the best way I can explain why I do it."