Much Ado About Keanu(also published in August 1993 as a shorter version under the title 'Total Keanu')
by Jim Turner
On a cool, gray April morning, Keanu Reeves throttles up the street on his red vintage Norton motorcycle, dressed in aging jeans, wine-colored shirt, leather jacket, and hiking boots. He removes his scarred black helmet and shakes loose his signature long dark hair. Smiling, he extends his hand. "It's April Fool's Day," he exclaims, settling onto a white canvas couch. He laughs deviously, and claps his hands together. "Uh, oh," I reply. "See, if you hadn't been reminded, maybe nothing would have happened. But now in the birth of your consciousness of April Fool's Day is the genesis of the April Fool. Now, watch out!"
Reeves first grabbed the attention of audiences and film critics in 1987, for his role in Tim Hunter's disturbing real-life murder story, River’s Edge. Starring alongside Crispin Glover, Dennis Hopper, Ione Skye, Roxana Zal, Tim Bower, and Leo Rossi, it was Reeves (along with Skye) whose character alters the final outcome of the film. River’s Edge remains a popular cult movie to this day, and it's not surprising that Reeves is still proud of it - and deservedly so.
"It's a classic," he adds. "It's a beautiful script, and there was some great acting in it. And the cinematography of Fred Elms, and the direction. It was just special. The script was so insightful and subtle. The despair of American youth! During that time  in L.A., punk rock was pretty hard-core - Black Flag, Minor Threat."
Since that time, Reeves has titillated women of all ages (no other actor elicits more heated moans at the mere mention of his name) and critics alike by offering moviegoers a myriad of roles. "I want to fall into all categories - and no categories!" he adds, "That makes it the most fun."
He's played a rich teenager in Brotherhood of Justice (1986); an offbeat high school senior on a prom date in The Night Before (1988); the best friend of a teen who commits suicide in Permanent Record (1988); a goofy and funny time traveler named Theodore Logan III (Ted) in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989); an 18th Century courtier in Dangerous Liaisons (1989); a troubled teenager in Parenthood (1989); a reprise of Ted Logan (who this time goes to heaven and hell) in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991); a stoned-out hit man in I Love You to Death (1990); a young scriptwriter in Tune In Tomorrow (1990); a surfing FBI agent in Point Break (1991); a troubled, bisexual hustler and son of the city's mayor in My Own Private Idaho (1991); and the dashing Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).
Reading through this list of Reeves' film accomplishments, one might infer that the actor makes films solely for the audience's entertainment, versus films that preach, or force the moviegoer to see someone's viewpoint on a certain subject. This observation only evokes a "Hmmmmm," from the soft-spoken actor. "You mean universal themes, as opposed to a contemporary, political, sociological theme?" he asks after a long pause. "It's something that's becoming more and more an issue for me."
Although Reeves has arrived at a point in his career where he is offered many roles outright, he continues the audition process. But instead of reading for a casting director, he reads for the director. Unlike some performers who dread the process, Reeves says that he likes to audition. "Now, I generally get the material, and we begin," he says, "sometimes it's a meeting to go through the part, and speak, but I don't have to read for casting directors anymore. And yes, it's great."
I suggest that the trend among audiences today seems to be that people go to the movies for entertainment, not to learn a lesson, which was the original idea behind movies.
"I think there should be both," suggests Reeves, adjusting himself on the couch. "If it's going to be entertainment, then keep it entertainment. A film like A Few Good Men was very confusing. It was almost asking for both. It was trying to ask a question, and be socio-political, and be entertaining. I don't like that. But I like it sometimes, like when it's total-Henry-Rollins-in-your-face. 'Truth man!' We need that, because it's inspirational."
Keanu Reeves appears this month in the role of Don John, the half-brother of Don Pedro (Denzel Washington), in Kenneth Branagh's new film (William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing). Although obviously one brother is black and the other white, Branagh felt it really didn't matter.
"To be perfectly honest, I wanted Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington, and I thought about the color thing afterwards, and thought, 'Oh, fuck, it doesn't matter,'" laughs Branagh. "It's an emotional thing. It's a familial thing. Color isn't an issue in many of Shakespeare's plays."
Filmed on location in Italy, midway between Florence and Siena at the grandiose 14th Century Villa Vignamaggio, overlooking the small town of Greve, Shakespeare's bawdy romantic comedy continues to entertain some 400 years after it was written. In an all-star cast that includes Michael Keaton, Robert Sean Leonard, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, and Kenneth Branagh, it is Reeves' character - "the dastardly Don John" - that brings a dark cloud to this serene land of wine, food, and song. "I'm the bad guy, the villain!" exclaims Reeves proudly.
Explaining the role of Don John, Kenneth Branagh says, "His character represents an unexplained malevolence. He's simply bad. There's a question of whether people will believe that certain evil forces do exist in the world. Don John is a sort of prototype for Richard III, or Iago in Othello. At the end of Othello, when the people ask Iago, 'Why the fuck did you do all this?' And he just says, 'What you know, you know. From this time forth, I never will speak word.' And, though Don John's malevolence is never explained, I feel that the character is very convincing. I certainly feel that I've come across people who - the sense of evil and malevolence is there," he laughs.
"With Shakespeare - or often, anyway - characters in movies go up and down," continues Branagh. "But to play someone who is confident about who they are, and what they are - no doubts, no hesitations - just a bad, bad bastard. To play that, I think any actor seizes on it with some relish."
Branagh, who not only directed, stars in, and co-produced Much Ado, but also adapted the play for the screen, says that he chose the location for the film in order to "more thoroughly convey the sense of people living in the countryside," as opposed to filming within the confines of a sound stage. "The sun changes the rhythm of the way you act and think about the characters," Branagh continues, "all the rest of it - wine, grapes, bread, cheese, easy laughter, and the simple way of life - soon begins to sort of seep through your pores. It is the only way to reduce life to a primitive passion where people live in the sun, eat, drink, and have sex. All of this has some wonderful, under-the-skin effect on the movie."
"He's telling the stories that he's seen of humanity, of a human nature," describes Reeves of the timelessness of Shakespeare's plays. "They are constant through time - as long as we're here."
Branagh chose Reeves for the film because he wanted a cast who had made interesting choices in their acting careers to date.
"I wanted actors who seemed to have an appetite for doing different types of work," says Branagh. "Because as an actor myself, I think that helps your development - if you're exposed to disciplines, stories, and a wide range of experience with different directors. I also wanted actors who would not be intimidated. I wanted to have American actors in this film because I wanted to take away from Shakespeare the kind of tight-assed British thing. You know, being the only sort of way you can do it. What I like about the best American film acting is when it's emotionally fearless - full-bodied and gutsy. That's what Shakespeare demands, and I think that American film actors have that. I've certainly seen it. I've also seen a truthfulness in Keanu's work. When I met him, he was someone I admired and liked his sort of curiosity and enthusiasm.
"He's a very enthusiastic actor; he wants to learn. And not necessarily that he was going to come and learn from me, but he was certainly going to learn by doing some Shakespeare, and having to be in a situation where there was absolute discipline about the words he was speaking. He couldn't paraphrase or ad lib. You have to serve the text. You have to be right there for the words. I was very impressed by the way he took to it - the eagerness, the zeal with which he worked on his voice.
"He's a tremendously passionate creature, and he cares a great deal. He will do two things [while working]: One, he'll go along with you. For instance, he would go with my way of working - he rehearsed the way I wanted to rehearse, he learned it in advance the way I wanted him to do so. He would also fight for his own choices of the way he wanted to do it. I remember him wanting an extra take here or there. I was impressed that he was as disciplined as he was. You want both things, really: you want to be strong enough to know your own mind and say, 'Listen, I think it should be this way.' But you also want to be open enough to use and cast off of whatever is being offered to you from the director and the other actors. I was very admiring of the way he managed to do that. I don't want to sound too cozy about the whole thing," he chuckles, "but I was genuinely impressed by what I thought was a very grown-up individual who was utterly serious about his chosen profession."
According to background information on Much Ado About Nothing, the Villa Vignamaggio was once the home of the Gheradini family, who had commissioned a portrait of their daughter sometime around 1503 by Signor Leonardo Da Vinci. The daughter, who later became better known by her married name, La Gioconda, is today more commonly referred to by her given name: Mona Lisa.
"Supposedly," laughs Reeves, running his hands through his dangling hair. "That's what they say - that the Mona Lisa was painted in that Villa. It's like one of those things like, 'Elvis was here.' I'm finding out in Los Angeles that in every big house it's like, 'Charlie Chaplin lived here. Errol Flynn lived here.' But, this one seems to have a strong presence. The villa is very impressive. It is on top of a hill overlooking a valley. It's one of the largest chateaus in the area."
The film's ongoing theme of eating, drinking, parties, and sex would be any modern-day man or woman's idea of heaven. "It's the way the kings or royalty lived," says Reeves. "The Italians know how to live - how to eat, drink - the art, and life! La dolce vita! There's no French existentialism or deconstruction, or American angst. The Italians are like, 'Whatever. Michelangelo, cool.' I went to Florence a couple of times, and I got to see the David. It was very cool. I was there for five weeks, and it was a very enchanted summer."
Performing Shakespeare is not new to Reeves; he has also performed the role of Trinculo alongside Andre Gregory's Prospero in the Shakespeare and Company's production of The Tempest, in Lenox, Massachusetts. Aside from the fact that it was Shakespeare, Reeves chose the role in Much Ado in order to work with Kenneth Branagh.
"Kenneth Branagh is a very exuberant, intelligent, witty man, and he's driven," says Reeves, "His drive and energy is remarkable. And the more and more I read the play, the more I enjoyed it.
"I love it. I love the soliloquies. I read Shakespeare and I love to speak it. I love acting Shakespeare, and it was Don John! And what was it he says?" Reeves begins to reenact his role in the film under his breath, before coming out with his favored line, at which point he comes to life: "'In this, though I may not be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied that I am a plain-dealing villain!' I love that: 'I am a plain-dealing villain!'"
One of the accoutrements of being an actor is traveling to exotic locations to film, and Keanu Reeves has had his share of traveling - one of his favorite parts of the business.
"Traveling is, ahhhhh," he sighs, throwing his arms up in the air. "I've been to Katmandu, Paris, London, Italy, Munich, and Bhutan."
Bhutan, a remote and secretive kingdom hidden in the Himalayas, was the sight chosen by Bernardo Bertolucci for the location of his latest production, Little Buddha. In order to maintain its Buddhists' values and shelter its society, the government in Bhutan imposed a limit of 2500 foreign visitors a year, and artificially inflated the prices, making it too expensive for most Western travelers.
"Ahhhh, Bhutan," smiles Reeves, "the snowy mountain. Two hundred and fifty dollars a day. No Dharma bums, thank you. It's very primitive, and it feels like ancient air. You almost expect to see some kind of dinosaur peek out from behind a tree. When they are in public, they have to wear traditional clothing, but in home, in private, they are allowed to wear Western clothing. I met some of the kids who'd wear jeans, sneakers and t-shirts underneath their traditional clothing. They are beautiful people; they were very kind to me. And there is one airplane there - Druk Air. The king wants to protect his country, so there is no television, but they have VCRs."
The film, starring Chris Isaak, Bridget Fonda, and Reeves, centers around a Seattle family whose eight-year-old son is believed to be an ancient deceased High Priest. The father and son travel to Bhutan under the advice of the monks, to see if, in fact, the child is the chosen one.
"I play an architect," says Chris Isaak. "My wife (Fonda) and I have a son (Alex Wiesendanger), and live in Seattle. One day, as it happens in so many people's lives, four or five Tibetan monks come to the house and say, "We think your son may be the reincarnation of a famous Tibetan High Priest.' This is no comedy. In reality, the film is actually based on what really does happen when they pick the Dalai Lama."
And Keanu Reeves plays The Chosen One.
"No, I don't," laughs Reeves heartily, obviously realizing the absurdity of my suggestion. "I play Prince Siddhartha, who, after The Enlightenment, is referred to as Buddha. But I only go half-way through The Enlightenment; there is no depiction of Buddha. I'm post-enlightened."
Possibly it's Reeves' enlightenment that directors see when envisioning him as a particular character for their production. Whatever it is that they see, many have seen it, and the eyes that have seen it are considered the best in the business. Reeves has been directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Kenneth Branagh, Bernardo Bertolucci, Ron Howard, Lawrence Kasdan, and Gus Van Sant, to name a few. He must feel pretty lucky.
"How much of an actor's success is luck?" I ask.
"Oh, I don't know the answer to that at all!" he moans, pulling his dark hair away from his face. "I don't! It's a lot of things. It's being at the right place at the right time, karma, who you know, who you don't know, what you've done lately. Anything and everything. I don't know."
I ask him if that question, along with 'Why do you want to be an actor?' is one of the questions he hates most.
"Don't ask me that!" he says completely seriously, then breaks into laughter. But it is clear that he's serious.
Reeves recently completed a small role in Gus Van Sant's new film based on Tom Robbins's book, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues - "A cameo-cowgirl-cameo," he adds, laughing. Due out in October (Fine Line Features), Cowgirls is the story of Sissy Hankshaw (Uma Thurman), the world's greatest hitchhiker. During her travels, she continues her lucrative career as a spokesmodel for a line of women's hygiene products made by an effeminate entrepreneur known as the Countess (John Hurt), and meets - and almost marries - an asthmatic Mohawk Indian named Julian Gitche (Reeves). Produced by Laurie Parker, the film also stars Rain Phoenix, Angie Dickinson, Crispin Glover, Roseanne Arnold, Udo Kier, Sean Young, Carol Kane, and Buck Henry.
This is Keanu Reeves' second film (after My Own Private Idaho) with director Gus Van Sant. In that much-talked-about film, Reeves portrayed Scott Favor, alongside River Phoenix, James Russo, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, William Richert, and Rodney Harvey, among others. Set in Portland, Oregon, it was the story of a group of street hustlers, but concentrated on the relationship between Reeves and Phoenix, in which Phoenix's narcoleptic character was secretly in love with that of Reeves.
Keanu Reeves describes Van Sant as "soft-spoken, creative in the sense of ideas of what to do. He's got a really good sense of humor - and when I say that, it's not a really aggressive, loud kind of 'Har, har, har!' But his humor is human stories. He's very respectful, and he sets up an environment that feels very creative. He wants you to play and cultivate a situation. You can do anything - even where you're not supposed to do something. It's an invitation to play. It's remarkable."
In Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker’s Dracula, adapted by Hook screenwriter James V. Hart from Stoker's 1897 novel, Reeves played the innocent, young Jonathan Harker, who is forced to fight the forces of Gary Oldman's Dracula for the love of Mina, played by Winona Ryder. In an all-star cast, Coppola followed an artist's storyboard, along with approximately one thousand photographs, to bring the lusty horror film back to life. With Coppola's history of neo-classics like The Conversation, The Godfather, The Godfather II, and III, and Apocalypse Now, any actor would jump at the chance to add one of this modern master's to their list of film achievements.
"From Coppola I got to witness a creative, industrious life," describes Reeves. "He's a man of many, many ideas, and a man who can enjoy the simple things in life. He creates things; he has ideas. He has plates made for his houses, you know what I mean? I know that's a very silly thing to say, but he loves the simple things in life: sitting, family, eating. But also he takes ideas and builds them, makes them. Oh, gosh, Francis - I can't pay him enough due.
"A simple example would be," continues Reeves, as he leans into the recorder - "I hope you don't mind me saying this, Francis, but he has a place in Belize. He saw an article in The New York Times, I believe in '85, about this country that had gained independence, and said, 'Hmmm, I'm going to go there and see what's happening.' He found a way, although it was very difficult to get there - there was no commercial airline to get there. He went there, and through dealing with the government and the people, he found this old hotel, and worked out a situation with the people there. Now, he's helping them link up with making a museum. He wants to develop educational systems there. And he also has this groovy estate there. But that's how he is - looking, searching, finding, building, creating, living. He throws down a gauntlet with a challenge of almost life or death, in a sense. He sets up a creative situation where you can explore. He's forever writing and writing. When you work with him, it's like, 'OK, do it like the script. Now, improvise.' He pushes."
When speaking about his acting experiences, Reeves's voice exudes enthusiasm, passion, and love. He truly loves to act - it's the trappings of publicity and interviewing he doesn't particularly enjoy.
"The part that is unenjoyable is sometimes the forum and the question are out of balance," he reveals. "In a sense that if it's a more popular magazine, the interviewer will ask you something like, 'Why did you want to become an actor?' and I feel there is an expectation. There's no real respect in the listening, or in the conversation that you're speaking about. That's frustrating. I generally don't like to talk to strangers about myself in an open forum - about personal things. I'm very happy to speak about what happened, generally, in what I did, felt and saw in my work. Outside of that parameter, I'm not very public. I'm also a fairly awkward speaker."
What are some of his favorite dumb questions?
"'So, what kind of girls do you like? What's your dream date?'" Reeves laughs. "In the early days I got questions like that. 'Hello? Is anybody out there?'"
And being photographed?
"It depends on the day," he replies, looking a little restless. "What kind of photograph, how I'm feelin'. [Greg Gorman, who shot the accompanying pages] wants you to feel comfortable, so he directs a lot of attention to that. He sets up a situation that's very easy to be in. If you are feeling self-conscious or uncomfortable, he tries to make it so you're not. He will make it work for you."
When he's not working, which is a rarity these days, Reeves does "as much as I possibly can - and nothing. The past year was pretty intense, but I've been off of work now for two or three months. There's always a transition. You finish, and classically what's happened to me in the last couple of years is that I've finished a project, and all of a sudden, I come out the other side, look around me, and I'm a little bewildered and in wonder of it all. The second day after I finish work I'm full of angst, and the classic feeling of, 'I'm never going to work again.' That usually lasts for a month, and after that, I sit down again, and enjoy the days."