Taming of the dude
When word went out that Hollywood's most laid-back young actor was having a go at Shakespeare, there were a few raised eyebrows. Jim McCellan ponders the "dude meets Bard" phenomenon, while Marianne Gray corners Keanu in Cannes for 30 minutes and finds out how he coped
What is it about Keanu Reeves exactly? How come this 28-year-old actor, the son of an English mother and a Hawaiian-Chinese father, has become the heart-throb of the age, a cross-generational dreamboat whose charms can induce sexual meltdown in everyone from pre-pubescents and middle-aged career women to gay men? OK, so it's a dumb question. After all, you only have to look at the guy for your answer. Still, there are plenty of other "good-looking" actors - so why Keanu?
It might be the oriental features he inherited from his father, which give an interesting edge to his conventional handsomeness. But perhaps it's got more to do with his manner, with the fact that, with Keanu, what you see is what you get. On-screen and off, he seems guileless, dreamily uncalculating, innocently open. There's something almost bloke-ish and boy-next-door about his manner, if not his looks (which perhaps accounts for the fact that straight men can put up with him too).
At the same time, he also embodies a different kind of masculinity. The "young, dumb and full of come" line from Point Break may follow him to his grave, but he only really scores one and a half out of three there. Testosterone-fuelled in your face and on your case macho is not his bag (which is why his presence in Point Break was another of the ways in which director Kathryn Bigelow parodied the gung-ho excess of the buddy action pic). There's something seductively passive, vaguely feminine about him; someone recently suggested that on-screen, he was more like a female star, that he was prepared to let people have a good look.
Not surprisingly this kind of thing has led to suggestions that he can't act. OK, he has his limitations. But in early efforts like River's Edge and The Prince Of Pennsylvania, in the Bill & Ted films, in less well-known work like Aunt Julia And The Scriptwriter (aka Tune In Tomorrow), Keanu did watchable, nicely observed variations on his standard turn of adolescent naiveté and goofy innocence.
Even if Keanu is unaware of his own limitations, it only adds to his charm. His presence in Coppola's Dracula and Kenneth Branagh's take on the Shakespeare comedy Much Ado About Nothing would suggest he is. Though these roles might, with some of his peers, appear to be a desperate attempt on the part of a pretty boy actor to be "taken seriously", with Keanu it doesn't look that way. You get the feeling he isn't planning a career, just blundering good-naturedly into whatever comes along. If there's any calculation at work, it's on the part of big-name / arthouse directors, who know that Keanu will guarantee a modicum of box-office success for their auteurist efforts.
Whether they then manage to get the best out of him is an interesting measure of true directorial nous. Kathryn Bigelow (with Point Break) and Gus Van Sant (with My Own Private Idaho) both passed. With Dracula, Coppola flunked disastrously, strapping Keanu into a period strait-jacket which cramped his natural style so much even hard-core fans were unable to just kick back and enjoy goggling at their boy. As for Kenneth Branagh, he may not be able to direct, but he knows how to play the angles, and Much Ado About Nothing uses Keanu spectacularly cynically.
The action centres on two pairs of lovers, the supremely sappy Hero and Claudius (played by Kate Beckinsale and Robert Sean Leonard) and the irritating/witty Beatrice and Benedict (Emma Thompson and Ken himself), a sort of Renaissance screwball couple who spend all their time insulting each other but, deep down, are actually desperate to get into each others tights. While the play's bad guy Don John the Bastard (Keanu, kitted out with scratty beard and perma-scowl) tries to split the first pair up, Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (Denzel Washington), tries to bring the second pair together. All in all, it's one of Shakespeare's fluffier comic confections, which Branagh has contrived to make even more lightweight by ignoring all of the darker plot strands, reworking the whole thing as a wild weekend in a nineteenth-century Tuscan villa, complete with gratuitous nudity and endless bloody revels.
As it bounces along on its jolly-hockeysticks, isn't-this-all-a-bit-of-a-hoot way, you could amuse yourself by keeping a score on which Hollywood actors can manage Shakespeare (eg Denzel Washington, in a pair of leather trews that were surely above and beyond the call of duty given the hot weather) and which can't (eg Michael Keaton, beyond atrocious as comic relief Dogberry). You could speculate as to whether Ken and Em's appearance as Bea and Ben, a couple who are celebrated by everyone as frightfully amusing and clever but are actually something of a pain, indicates the dawning of self-knowledge on the part of the Renaissance couple. You could ponder whether that's fake tan or bad make-up running down Emma Thompson's cheeks during the tearful happy finale. Or you could just mark time and wait for Keanu to waltz on again.
Given that his character is little more than a thinly disguised plot device, he doesn't have to act, just look mean, moody and magnificent. Getting his priorities right, Branagh busies himself not so much with advising Keanu on how to handle the verse as with finding new ways to show off his looks. He shoots him strutting towards the camera, scowling into the middle distance, terrorising his henchmen. The highlight comes when Keanu is enjoying a massage from one of his sidekicks. Naturally, he picks that moment to get up and strut about, which means the audience has a chance to check the baby oil dripping from the bodacious one's glistening torso.
Advance word on Little Buddha suggests that its director Bernardo Bertolucci may also be on the right track when it comes to getting the best out of Keanu. Sure those on-set shots of him kitted out in oriental finery look a little silly. But his role as Siddharta (a prince seeking inner illumination) functions as a kind of flattering gloss on his persona, beefing up the dreamy internal drift with intimations of deep spirituality. Clearly it struck a chord with Keanu, who since then has started reading up on Buddhism and learned how to meditate. THE FACE caught up with him in Cannes, where he came to do the press for Much Ado and asked him about the Bard, Buddha, Bill & Ted and his band. This is what he said.
Before Much Ado, you'd played Shakespeare on stage in Toronto. What's it like doing Shakespeare?
I'd say excellent! I did Trinculo in The Tempest. And I always thought about Bill And Ted as a sort of Shakespearean clown show.
What was it like working with English actors?
They fully embraced us! It was like a sunny holiday in Tuscany with fantastic guys.
Was it difficult for you to work in words rather than actions?
Because this play's mostly in prose, with a little verse here and there, it makes the Shakespeare "demands", but Kenneth told us to use whatever accent we felt best with. I think the acting of Shakespeare demands certain focus upon the technical aspects of speaking and breath, where it comes from. But that comes back to the primal communication, y'know?
Is it a test for an English-speaking actor to do Shakespeare?
I guess it depends on how you're reacting to what you're watching. Certainly some actors have more clarity than others. I just tried to cultivate the right emotional and psychological realm for Don John.
Why this part?
I love Shakespeare and I wanted to work with Kenneth. My agent heard that he was mounting a production of Much Ado so I told him to see if he was interested in meeting me. It turned out that he wanted to work with American actors, so I rang him and asked if there was anything he saw me doing in the film. I guess I fit the bill with him for Don John.
You appear to chase roles very carefully.
I've had the luck and opportunity to have diversity. That's the plan, that's what I enjoy. I've played many ingenues. My innocence is something that is used very often in films. Perhaps Don John comes from a place of less adolescent innocence or adolescent angst. But I've had varied themes in my work, from My Own Private Idaho to Point Break. I want to continue that cinematic diversity.
So, you're back with My Own Private Idaho director Gus Van Sant.
In Even Cowgirls Get The Blues [the movie version of Tom Robbins' novel about a hitchhiking girl whose odyssey takes her to a lesbian dude ranch], but it's only a very small part. It was nice to work with him again. I enjoyed working with Uma Thurman, but it was terrifying for me. I'm overwhelmed by her personality. I'm a great fan of her acting.
How does that compare with, say, Patrick Swayze?
Have you ever met him? He's a very complex man. During Point Break he was doing very brave work. For him to take on parachuting, doing flips in the air, jumping out of planes, was brave. When you commit to an action film, the line between actor and stunt man is really thin.
What do you look for in a role?
In the beginning the opportunity to act was enough. I was 17 and I was so pleased to do anything - Coca-Cola commercials, television, radio, theatre and stuff. In the past couple of years I've worked with some auteurs and master craftsmen and artists. Hopefully that tradition will continue and I won't have to do a commercial.
Was Idaho a turning point?
I've had so many turning points. River's Edge, Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure, Dangerous Liaisons, Dracula, Point Break: all of those to me have been certain kinds of opportunities.
Do you think you've been brave to do certain roles, such as playing a male prostitute in Private Idaho?
Sometimes. I think my performances have not been shocking.
Which of your movies is the most underrated?
Tune In Tomorrow was a very successful film but very underrated. To me the relationship between my character and Barbara Hershey [older woman, younger man] was something you don't see very often. Very mature and very complex. Maybe that's why the film didn't go. I like it very much.
What about bad films?
Except for the second half of the second Bill And Ted, I really haven't had a bad experience on film, so far. I think it's better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven't.
What do directors see in you?
I guess, in the past, it's been the innocence aspect of my being. Hopefully I'll move on. Maybe Don John will help with that. I am 28! My traditions come from Ruda Hagen, Stanislovsky and the breath techniques of Kristin Linklater, and working with Alexander techniques and singing techniques have been my training. And improvisational techniques of Second City from America.
Tell us about your band, Dog Star.
We've just started to play live, in my friend Laura's bar, the old Hollywood Gaslight. I play bass guitar. Our second gig was in a rock club. We play straight-up music which people, hopefully, will dig and will dance to. The best part for me is playing live with these people.
Do you live in LA?
Yes, but I'm a Canadian citizen born in Beirut, Lebanon, of Chinese, Hawaiian and English roots. My mother was English, a clothing designer involved in rock 'n' roll.
Do you mix with the Hollywood crowd?
What's the Hollywood crowd? Who's that? I don't know. It seems to be a title to describe a place, like "Welcome to the Hollywood Crowd". I don't go to a lot of parties. I have to really be in the spirit to play. I read a lot: Thomas Mann, Dostoyeysky. Most of my friends are actors, but more popular acting, like socialising, no.
Are you offered a lot of scripts?
No, I'm not - except for about three weeks last year in Los Angeles when I swear I'd be walking along the street whistling or I'd be coming out of the gym and they'd say: "Here's a script." Or I'd be getting changed: "Here's a script." Or I'd be in a bar: "Here's a script." I don't know how they found me. I was even once at a gas station and somebody leapt up and said: "Here's a script." "Oh, gosh!" I said, and my heart sunk. I don't want to hide or wear a hat and big glasses, but I do not want to read scripts unless it's come to the point when it's going to be made or I'm working on it. I'm not a critic. I don't want to have to say, "Well I think this, this 'n' this..." It involves so much time and energy, and I'm still very undeveloped with that - just a cog in the wheel. Los Angeles will screw you up if you let it.
Who'd you rather be: a bad guy or a good guy?
As I have no hunger for any genre, I'm just looking for a good story, really good entertainment or something with more substance. The allure of a director is very strong because that is the situation that gives me the sensation of, I dunno, a deeper pleasure in work, I guess.
Are you a very solitary actor?
I only speak about acting to a couple of friends on rare occasions. There are a lot of movements in Los Angeles among actors to start production companies and try and create situations to write and to make films. I don't know of any that have made it to the screen yet, but I know lots of my friends would like to emancipate somehow from just having to wait for work and to try and generate their own.
Is your family into drama?
One of my stepfathers is a producer/director and my younger sister is directing her first college play.
What influenced you?
Hawaiian cinema! Surfing, but I haven't been in the water for a few months. Some of the acting of Robert Duval and Nicolas Cage and early Peter O'Toole. And the acting of Charles Laughton and Christopher Walken and the films of Coppola and Gus Van Sant. And in my youth, films like The Red Shoes, which was extraordinary. And Freaks. And some Jim Jarmusch cinema was surprising to me. And Wim Wenders. I can't just quote off the top of my head what influences me. I guess maybe I should be able to for interviews. My "Interview Preparation". Let's get a list, put a frame around my head. Y'know - "this was influenced by this" [in deep voice] and have like, 55 pages. Arrow: "Chocolate: in the summer of '83 moved me with the hunger of a girl", then arrow: "Directors: directors I would like to work with" and so on. That'd be good.
Are you best when you improvise or when you're strictly guided?
Most of the work I've done has come from the script. I leave the work to the writer. If it comes to a situation where I have to improve in contemporary work, it's easier; that's my context. In terms of hands-on, hands-off, I really haven't done much.
What's the best thing about film?
The euphoria of when it all comes together.
How did you like Little Buddha?
Just a simple question, man [laughs nervously]. You can ask. I don't have to answer. Your dream answer. Playful, huh! [he stays silent, smiling].
Much Ado About Nothing opens in the UK on August 27. Little Buddha is stated to be released here in spring '94