KEANU'S EXCELLENT CAREER
by Rob Lowing
It's two minutes to countdown and the arrival of actor Keanu Reeves, the most unpredictable and some would say the most unlikely leader of Hollywood's next generation of "hot" (consistently working) young stars.
Above the discordant, gossip-swapping, chain-smoking roar of European journalists waiting to start the afternoon's round of interviews, one question is repeated - how does he get those roles?
In just seven years, 28-year-old Reeves has managed to carve his own Hollywood niche built on the box office success of the low-budget teen comedy Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure. But in a career all the more astonishing because it seems so unpredictable, Reeves avoided crashing and burning in teen movie limbo.
Apparently effortlessly - he says he has no game plan whatsoever - Reeves has alternated between the provocative, independent drama (River's Edge, My Own Private Idaho), the splashy big budget action earner (Point Break), the critically revered period piece (Dangerous Liaisons) and the smash comedy (Parenthood).
Perhaps not surprisingly, critical reaction has been just as diverse. Slammed for his Californian accent in Francis Coppola's Dracula, Reeves scored plaudits for his portrayal of the rich-boy-slumming in Private Idaho.
The press has not been kind to Reeves. He has been pigeon-holed as a hippy-trippy, often incoherent airhead whose career is a result more of glossy good looks than raw talent. He might have been written off as a flash-in-the-pan who spent his off-hours playing bass in London and LA underground clubs with his grunge rock band Dog Star, riding his (big collection of) motorbikes and dating director's daughter Sofia Coppola. But Reeves just keeps on keeping on, working for the world's finest directors in dramatically idiosyncratic roles that Tom Cruise, whom he's most tipped to follow, would envy.
The next six months alone sees Reeves in films by directors Kenneth Branagh (Much Ado About Nothing, released last week), Gus Van Sant (Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, releases at Christmas) and Bernardo Bertolucci (Little Buddha, releases early next year).
After that, he's tipped to star in what he calls a "combination of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Tom Jones" in the black comedy Hideous Mutant Freakz, and Speed, a big budget Point Break-like action thriller about a bomb-rigged bus which will explode if it travels below a certain speed.
When Reeves does arrive, impeccably dressed in a linen suit and embroidered vest, the question of why front rank directors want to work with him is soon answered. Sure, he's matinee-idol good-looking, helped by his height and his justly-famous blue-black hair, but what's more striking is that Reeves, nervously dropping and re-dropping the pen he's fiddling with, is charming in an unexpectedly earnest, engaging way.
He has none of the electrifying pugnaciousness of a Sean Penn or the studied poses of an artificially debonair Charlie Sheen yet, somehow, he's more memorable and likeable. In short, Reeves looks like the kind of actor who'll turn up on time and work his heart out.
Director Branagh summed up Reeves on Much Ado: "He was wonderfully passionate in the role and he was a pleasure to work with." But it's director Bertolucci who probably comes closest to pinpointing the peculiar nature of Reeves's screen presence. The director noted simply: "I chose him for his innocence."
Yet for all his unambitious, "I don't take the work home with me" attitude, Reeves actively campaigned for a role in Branagh's star-studded version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.
In a definite change of pace, Reeves plays the villain of this comedy-drama of romantic errors involving Emma Thompson, Branagh, Denzel Washington and Michael Keaton. The film was shot at the historic Villa Vignamaggio in Tuscany, Italy, once the home of Signorina Giocondo - the Mona Lisa painted by Da Vinci. The shoot was an undeniably happy one - the film has an exuberant shimmering feel - and everyone associated with it breaks into huge smiles at the memory.
"They were very enchanted days, riding horses, working with British actors like Brian Blessed. I think the joy comes across. But, was the accent okay?" asks Reeves anxiously, obviously conscious of criticism of his Dracula performance.
In fact, his Yankee twang is barely noticeable in Much Ado. "You know," he drops his voice and rather charmingly looks over his shoulder as if director Coppola might be lurking nearby, "that's the way Francis wanted it on Dracula, so ....". He shrugs good-naturedly.
When his Private Idaho director Van Sant asked him for a cameo in Even Cowgirls Get The Blues - and four days work - as a favour, Reeves immediately said yes. "I do not choose roles on how big the part is or how much screen time I get. If it's someone I want to work with, I'll do it.
"I play an emasculated man," the actor said mischievously. Actually, he plays the would-be boyfriend of hitch-hiking lesbian Uma Thurman in the highly theatrical version of Tom Robbins' best-selling book. Co-starring an hilarious John Hurt and Angie Dickinson, the film was greeted uncertainly by audiences during its recent Venice Film Festival debut with admirers of the novel the most appreciative.
His relaxed attitude - and habit of drifting from LA to London and back again - is, he says, the result of a footloose childhood, spent with a "seriously bohemian", independently wealthy, English mother and Chinese-Hawaiian father.
He was born in Beirut, lived in Australia and New York as a pre-schooler and spent his teen years in Toronto. At 16, he decided to be an actor, appeared in Coke commercials and dropped out of high school. His sensitive but unfocused teen in Parenthood is a fair representation of himself at that age, he said. At 20, after the success of the teen murder drama River's Edge, he made LA his home base.
"I take the work seriously but otherwise I just hang out with my friends, ride my bikes (his favourite is a vintage 1974 Norton Commando), play music. I don't get stopped much when I'm out. Do I have an image? I don't think so. Isn't that a good thing?"
Director Gus Van Sant, at the Venice Festival with Cowgirls, said: "Keanu can do a lot of different things; he's energetic, spontaneous, very smart. I don't know if everyone thinks that or appreciates that but he's able to do some really great things."
After working with him on Point Break, co-star Patrick Swayze said: "He is great to work with - he's a collaborator who meets you more than half way. I think people underestimate him now but he'll work his way up to the right leading role and then, boom!"
The "right" leading role could well be Little Buddha, the latest $40 million epic from Bertolucci, who directed The Last Emperor. Shot in the remote Himalayas, the film alternates between the story of a group of modern-day Buddhist monks convinced they've found Buddha re-incarnated in a young American boy, and that of 6th century BC Prince Siddharta (Reeves) who renounced royal life at the age of 29, meditated for enlightenment and was re-named Buddha.
Predictably, with a potentially controversial subject involving a religious leader (remember Scorsese's Last Temptation Of Christ?) legal negotiations were lengthy. Richard "The Bob Geldof of Buddhism" Gere helped win approval from the Dalai Lama although the actor flatly refused a role in the film.
Reeves is extremely cautious about describing it. "It's more ritual than realistic. I mean, I'm not playing it naturalistically. Bernardo called it a neo-fable, which is a good description.
"I loved working with Bernardo, I loved him. There was real harmony in the work. The best part about working with him? I got to ride the Royal elephant! No, it was because Bernardo would turn to me and say, 'Keanu, what do you think?'"
BRITISH magazines call him a "Babe Magnet" but Keanu Reeves takes his work seriously, fasting intensively to lose weight for Little Buddha and learning enough combat skills for Point Break to, reportedly, save a girl from muggers.
* His rock band Dog Star has played 16 gigs so far, with future plans including a London tour. After rocking with the actor at London's Magick and Smashing nightclubs recently, patrons told The Face magazine Reeves was "a goofball", "so spaced out", "just like he is in his films".
* Once only playing variations on a (teenage) theme, Reeves is certainly stretching himself these days. 1986: Brotherhood Of Justice (as a rich teenager); 1987: River's Edge (conscience-stricken accessory to teen murder); 1988: The Night Before (high school goof-ball) and Permanent Record (friend of a suicidal teenager); 1989: Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (a time-travelling drop-out); Dangerous Liaisons (young courtier in love), and Parenthood (likeable teen boyfriend from hell); 1990: I Love You to Death (bumbling hit-man) and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (amorous aspiring journalist); 1991: Point Break (dedicated FBI rookie), the sequel Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey and My Own Private Idaho (bisexual hustler); 1992: Dracula (heroic Jonathan Harker) and 1993: Much Ado About Nothing (villainous Don John), Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (asthmatic Mohawk Indian suitor) and Little Buddha (6th Century BC Prince Siddharta).