Not just a sex god
His name means "cool breeze over a mountain" and he is being hailed as the new screen icon for discerning twentysomethings.
RUTH PICARDIE meets Keanu Reeves.
Keanu Reeves has a problem. These are the things he wants to talk about: What was it like working with Gus Van Sant in ‘My Own Private Idaho’? What do you admire about Francis Ford Coppola, who directed you in ‘Dracula’? How did you conceptualise your character, Don John in your latest film, Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’? How did you prepare for your role as Prince Siddhartha in Bernardo Bertolucci’s forthcoming ‘Little Buddha’? Whereas these are the questions his fans want answered: How do you pronounce "Keanu"? Where did you get that bone structure? Who cuts your hair? How long is the scar that runs from your navel to your sternum? Can we have a look at it? Do you have a girlfriend? Are there any more at home like you? Keanu Reeves is mysterious about his family. We know that he was born in Beirut in 1964 to a British mother an a Chinese-Hawaiian father.
The family spent time in Australia and New York before settling in Toronto - minus father - when Keanu was a small child. Mrs Reeves has, apparently “conceputalised costumes" for Dolly Parton.
Keanu dropped out of school at 16, spent two years at the Toronto High School for the Performing Arts, and has been in work ever since. His early roles included a Coca-Cola commercial; a short-lived CBS television series called ‘Hanging In’; and a film about ice hockey called ‘Youngblood’.
In 1986, like any other ambitious young actor, Reeves moved to Los Angeles. Naturally, he was cast in a succession of teenage roles: rich teen in ‘Brotherhood of Justice’ (1986), troubled teen in the cultish ‘River’s Edge’ (1987), wacky teen in ‘The Night Before’ (1988), teen whose best friend commits suicide in ‘Permanent Record’ (1988).
Then, in 1989, Reeves was cast as Theodore Logan III, a goofy teenage time traveller, in a film called ‘Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’.
It was - in the slang made famous by the film - a "most excellent" hit. Keanu’s co-star, Alex Winters, who had chubby cheeks and blonde curls, promptly disappeared from sight, resurfacing only for ‘Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey’, the 1991 sequel. Keanu, who was tall, dark and handsome, became “absolutely" the most popular teen idol, according to Angela Holden, the editor of ‘Sky’ magazine, the hip adolescent’s guide to music, film and fashion, which this month devoted 14 pages to Reeves, with 15 black-and-white photographs of him in various stages of undress, and several thousand words. His appeal is not restricted to teens: the ‘Modern Review’, which claims to evaluate “low culture for highbrows", put him on the July cover. Inside, Polly Frost, the writer of the article, concluded, rather untheoretically: “If Keanu Reeves remains gorgeous, it’ll be enough to keep me going to his films.
Good looks are not usually a problem for movie stars. Unfortunately for Keanu, his ‘Bill & Ted’ persona - loping walk, spaced-out grin, blank gullibility - has come along for the ride. ‘Keanu Reeves naked (but we really love his mind)’, said ‘Sky’. ‘Young, dumb and full of come’, shouted the ‘Modern Review’.
Nor have Reeves’s attempts at breaking out of dozy teenage roles been uniformly successful. The young lover in Stephen Frears’s ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ (1988)? Truly forgettable. The Prince Hal of Portland, in Oregon, in Van Sant’s ‘My Own Private Idaho' (1992)? Great sex, shame about Keanu’s dazed delivery of dialogue. The stuffed-shirt husband in Coppola’s ‘Dracula’ (1993)? Was that cotton wool in his cheeks or did he think that was an English accent? But grand, serious directors keep beating at Reeves’s door, and now he’s trying again in Branagh’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. And in May this year, he had just 24 hours at the Cannes Film Festival to prove to the international press corps that, at 28, Keanu Reeves is Not Just A Sex God.
The day before Keanu arrives, the phalanx of publicists attached to the film are aquiver. There’s the regular superstar/messiah complex to worry about: “I was in Nepal for three months," says one person involved in the production of ‘Little Buddha’, “and I got six words out of him. ‘Go away. Go away. Go away’." Then there’s the Keanu factor. Vanessa, a bubbly blonde woman in her 20sfrom Corbett & Keene, the public relations firm handling ‘Much Ado’, has been told to escort him from the airport. She is both the subject of widespread envy and extremely nervous as to what to talk about en route. Surfing? (Reeves did all his own stunts in the 1991 testosterone heavy surf thriller, ‘Point Break’). Motorbikes? (He rides a 1972 Combat Norton and a 1974 Commando). Buddhism? (Apparently, he got deeply involved in meditation while playing the part of prince Siddhartha in ‘Little Buddha’). The more seen-it-all members of the publicists’ coven, who can hardly admit to hormone surges caused by a 28-year-old, are anxious about how Reeves will cope with all those questions about Shakespeare. And they are very worried that he will be sent up. My exclusive one-to-one interview, the one I have been boasting about for days, evaporates.
FRIDAY 21 May, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ day, kicks off with a 10.30am press conference. The publicists assemble, clutching clipboards. Will Keanu turn up? Yesterday, he didn’t want to start work until midday.
Luckily, 24 hours is a long time in show business, and he makes it in time. The look is confusing. He’s part sex god - pale, thin, very “I’ve been up all-night", his pallor set off by five o’clock shadow - and part ‘Little Buddha’, sitting bolt upright and sipping mineral water. The clothes - Timberland boots, baggy linen trousers, braces, collarless linen shirt - are a la mode California hippy.
Branagh talks about Shakespeare. Denzel Washington and Emma Thompson, Branagh’s co-stars, talk about Shakespeare. A man with an insanely large zoom lens (a good two-and-a-half feet long) scuttles about. It looks as if Keanu will get off the hook. Then someone pipes up: “Keen-noo? Kee-ar-noo? (The correct pronunciation is Kee-ar-noo.) What was it like coming from ‘Bill & Ted’ to Shakespeare?" There’s a long pause. Difficult question. Stupid question. “I once played Trinculo in the ‘Tempest’," says Keanu, hesitantly, “and had to say, ‘Excellent’. I always thought of ‘Bill & Ted’ as a clown show in the way they used language and ... er ... spiritual harmony. So I’d say they were very similar." The boy has wit! The boy has intellect! The boy has some remmants of California teen-speak! A promising start to Mission Not Just A Sex God.
After signing some photographs (For journalists! For raddled old cynics! This is the Keanu effect), it’s time for television interviews on “VIP" terrace, the PR factory at its worst: actors delivering soundbites to television crews, and moving on to a fresh interrogation every three to five minutes.
Keanu is astonishing to watch: between “takes" he is absolutly serious, self-contained and silent. No theatrical bravura in the style of Ken and Emma, no flirting with the French nymphettes who have sneaked in, no knocking back the VIP company that sponsors the VIP terrace. In front of the camera, he is transformed. He stops looking like a drug addict, wreathes himself in smiles for the squirming presenter, gestures excitedly, and engages with the same stupid questions.
Unfortunately, the role he’s playing is Ted. A crew from the Netherlands presents him with a hideous denim jacket, cut off at the shoulders. “Cool!" grins Keanu.
“What’s the play about?" asks Denmark.
“It’s about the shapes that humans make in the dance of love.
How did he like working with Branagh? “The man was wearing many hats.
“Estoy Keanu Reeves!" he grins, sportingly, for the Spanish crew.
Three o’clock, and time for “Italian Print" (writers, in Cannes- speak). Eight journalists around a table in a windowless room, struggling to hear Keanu above the bonhomie of Ken and Denzel doing the same routine a few feet away.
Why, for the nth time, did he want to work with Branagh? “I had seen ‘Henry V’ and enjoyed it, but I did not really take note of who created it or why. Upon that I remembered him and when I went to meet him, from that my enthusiasm really, I guess, grew." Is Keanu speaking in this stilted mode for the benefit of the Italians? Or has he segued into what he thinks to be Shakespearean prose?: “And I love Shakespeare and I love to act in Shakespeare and in speaking with him (Ken) and watching the film (‘Henry V’) I was very enthusiastic and very happy to be there. I felt lucky and glad." In one so preternaturally silly, Keanu’s voice is unexpectedly deep.
A journalist solicits Keanu’s views on Bertolucci. He is back in Ted mode, all puppy dog enthusiasm. “He had elephants who were walking off the set, 500 extras who couldn’t get in their costumes, the sun was coming up, they didn’t have a fog, the horse was stepping on people! It was totally crazy, like the horse didn’t like elephants, it was insane, but Bertolucci was, like, kind of like hanging out. He was very intense about having it happen.
Suddenly, grown-up Keanu resurfaces to explain Don John: “I’m an unresolved character. I come in as a malcontent, I leave as a malcontent. We just want Don John to be a physical threat and a man of action.
It can’t last. We get into his preparation for ‘Little Buddha’: “I don’t come from a tradition of meditation. I’ve kind of opened a new book and through that, I guess, though I haven’t taken refuge, I guess the bottom line is, it’s become a relevance. I’ve an experience that a table is not necessarily solid and there is a continuum of birth and death. All that I’m used to experiencing in my day-to-day life and the higher energies, stuff that I’ve experienced in the passions of love and loss, I got to touch.
"Is it difficult to control the ego?" asks a bearded man. There is a very long pause. “Control the ego?" says Keanu. “Control. I don’t know. I guess it depends what aspect of the ego you’re talking about. OK, if the ego puts forth desire for the ego ... I don’t know how to answer. I’m a Westerner, fully indoctrinated in Western tradition. It’s too complex and I do not have an opinion."
Half an hour later, and a second troupe of Italians jogs in. The same questions, and Keanu is still enthusiastic. Problems with Shakepeare’s prose? “You have to say the lines over and over," Keanu says, “so that you have physical speech clarity and clarity of thought, I call it a convergence into what language really is, which is manufacturing sound to express a psycho-emotional need.
Mr Reeves’s views on Bertolucci? A very long silence. “The Shakespearean silence," says one bright spark. “Yes. Except I’m not speaking. See, a Shakespearean silence would speak to you, it would communicate. My silence doesn’t communicate anything except frustration and shutdown, that’s the difference. I’m not eloquent in my silence, except by negation. It’s a very involved question. It’s like, ‘So how were your teens?’ ‘How do you feel being Swedish?’ Bernardo’s a very beautiful man ..."
The Italians are terribly serious. I make a bid for some rock ‘n’ roll questions. Like, how was the biking in Katmandu? Keanu fixes me with a cold stare. “I was doing other things in Katmandu," he says. Mr Reeves may be confused about who he is, but he’s clear about one thing. He does not want to be a Sex God.
The interviews are over. Grumpy superstar emerges: Mr Reeves, disastrously, will not be photographed for this article. He lopes off to get ready for the razzle-dazzle screening of ‘Much Ado’.
Ah, the film. Outside the Salle Lumiere, the crowd is thick with girls. Keanu doesn’t let them down. He is heart-stoppingly handsome in black tie. And how is he inside, as Don John? OK, it’s not a great part. But I’m afraid I can’t take him seriously. He has only one expression (a sneer). His sole big speech is undermined by the fact that he delivers it naked from the waste up, having oil massaged into his lightly muscled chest. He is wearing leather trousers. Like it or not, Keanu Reeves is a Sex God. During his first performance at the Toronto High School for the Performing Arts, his character asked the question: “Who am I?" “A hunk!" shouted out a girl in the audience.
KEANU Reeves is a particularly contemporary idol, one who was born New Age. In Hawaiian, Keanu means “cool breeze over a mountain". His best friend is River Phoenix, who starred with him in ‘My Own Private Idaho’. River is intensely environmentally conscious, and a vegan. He has a brother called Leaf and sisters called Summer and Liberty. A third sister, Rain (short for Rainbow), is in Van Sant’s new film, ‘Even Cowgirls Get The Blues’. The heroine is played by Uma Thurman, whose Tibetan-speaking father named her after a Hindu goddess. Keanu makes an appearance, too.
That, for what it’s worth, is ‘90s cool, and that is Keanu Reeves.
“He’s not your traditional ‘80s hero," says the editor of ‘Sky’, dismissing a decade of get-rich-and-get-famous bratpackers. “He’s a vulnerable hunk who can’t cope with things. That open and puppyish nature is unusual in a man. And he’s intelligent in spacey, off-the-wall way, and completely his own person.
Kenneth Branagh thinks Reeves’s appeal is more timeless.
"Keanu has an aloof quality," Branagh says, "a far-away quality. You can’t quite get close to him, he is somehow unattainable. That makes him very, very attractive. Yet he seems to display all the qualities one would want: a very sexy, erotic, physical being. One sees in his work that he can sometimes be very gentle, he can sometimes be very fierce, he can sometimes be very funny. And yet he’s got something at the back of the eyes that says, ‘No, I won’t be committing here.’ He’ll always be on the bus, heading off. And I think there is something tremendously attractive to men and women about thet combination of the utterly desirable and the definitely unattainable.
And Keanu’s Don John? "Truly malevolent, sexy, passionate, an obsessively evil creature."
In leather trousers? "In leather trousers. Pretty tight ... I’d pay money to see Keanu Reeves in leather trousers, and I think a lot of people would as well." - The Independent