Keanu Reeves, State of Grace
(Translated from French)
He's Buddha! In Bertocucci's film, he confirms that he's one of the most charismatic actors of his generation. And one of the most secretive. He unveils himself for STUDIO. Nepal, Hollywood, River Phoenix, innocence...
by Michel Rebichon
The directors of today in ever greater numbers, are being seduced by the blend of romanticism, fever, strength and tenderness that Keanu Reeves radiates. We have already seen him this year in Coppola's Dracula where, awkward lover, he let Winona Ryder, who preferred the claws of the bloody Count, slip from his grasp. And also in Much Ado About Nothing where he plays a machiavellian, swaggering chevalier who spreads hate and treason. He returns to the screen this month in Little Buddha, Bertolucci's al fresco fable, where he plays Siddhartha no less, that is to say Buddha himself!
The one who, at 29 years of age (the exact age Keanu Reeves is today) fled from his palace in search of Truth. It was only after strict asceticism that he finds it in the renunciation of self and the complete negation of desire. Even if, as he himself says, Little Buddha transformed him internally, his desire for cinema is all the greater. His voyage is just beginning.
After having traveled from Beirut (where he was born) to Australia to New York, Keanu Reeves and his family settled in Toronto. He made his TV debut, then snagged his first movie role thanks to Stephen Frears who entrusted him with one of the secondary roles in Dangerous Liaisons. The same year, thanks to Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, a loony comedy that gained enormous success across the Atlantic, Keanu Reeves became one of the favorite actors of American teenagers. Since then, we have seen him flying on the waves and through azure skies in Point Break, hustling together with River Phoenix (who passed away less than a week prior to this interview) in My Own Private Idaho and even reviving Rebel Without a Cause in Paula Abdul's video Rush Rush.
In 1985 he decided to settle in Los Angeles and try his luck. With infectious enthusiasm and a touching lack of pretentiousness, Keanu Reeves received us on the sun drenched terrace of a building on Wilshire Blvd. in LA. Very different from Bertolucci's hero certainly, but still on the whole, possessed by that character encountered on the roof of the world...
Were you surprised that Bernardo Bertolucci thought of you for the role of Siddhartha?
Keanu Reeves - Of course! He called me, told me he saw me in My Own Private Idaho and that he'd like to meet me. He met me in New York at a hotel and from then on he talked to me about his new project - a film about Buddha's younger days while he was still Prince Siddhartha. I didn't know anything about all of that but I was fascinated by his storytelling ability and by his ability to convey his emotions. Anyway, back then he was still looking for an Indian actor to play the prince. He was traveling a lot. As for me, I went to Italy to film Much Ado About Nothing. Nevertheless I brought with me some books on Buddha just in case... I saw Bernardo Bertolucci again twice in Rome and one day on the phone he asked me if I would accept the part. I jumped for joy!
Bernardo Bertolucci claims he thought of you because of the innocence you project, whatever you may have done or experienced...
Keanu Reeves - That's what he told me too when I asked him "Why me?" I think by innocence he includes youth, ignorance and naiveté... That said, I think that in fact this innocence is one of my dominant characteristics. The same way you have some people who exude intelligence and others sensuality and like, when you meet them they actually are intelligent or sensual. Besides, if I really look, most of the characters I've played bear the stamp of this innocence... Danceny in Dangerous Liaisons, the cop in Point Break, my character in Bram Stoker's Dracula, they were all innocents. Even when you look back at River's Edge. The first part where I'm not at all innocent, I mean not at all, is in Much Ado About Nothing. But if for Little Buddha I actually had at the beginning the bravery of innocence, as soon as I started to get into the character, I felt more and more the weight of responsibility.
Because its hard to play a mythic figure?
Keanu Reeves - Not physically anyway. On the contrary, that was more like a pleasure. The real difficulties of course are of a psychological nature. Once you ask yourself how, in this fairy tale, (because it is a fairy tale were talking about) to bring this person into existence with dignity and honesty...
How did you prepare?
Keanu Reeves - First by never watching TV and never listening to music! (laughs) Then, doing a lot of research. I read a lot. A whole lot. I studied the Four Noble Truths, I did yoga, I met with holy men, and then I meditated. On the set in Bhutan, I had what you might call a technical adviser or more precisely a spiritual counselor, who gave me lessons in Buddhist principles and practices.
What was the experience like, going over there for the first time?
Keanu Reeves - A little while before filming we made a preliminary trip to India. I remember, in Kathmandu, on the shores of the Ganges, I saw my first cremation. The parents were placing wood on a funeral pyre where a woman's body was burning... The sun setting on the temples... Saddhus (hermits) chasing monkeys... Children playing with the dogs who were running around the fire... Life in all it's diversity! The old, the young, Indians, tourists, pain, joy... There, I felt something of Buddha, something of the cycle of being. Birth, death, birth, death, birth, death. In the West, we do everything we can to distance ourselves from the sight of death.
Furthermore, we're really into plumbing, we're into sewers! Shit, we don't want to see it. Shit and death don't exist in our world. That whole cremation scene really struck me because of this mix of celebration, sorrow and suffering. As if, just like Siddartha I had to go through stages of awareness. I was overcome.
Did you sense over there any concerns over that fact that an Italian director was telling the tale of Buddha's life and an American actor was playing him?
Keanu Reeves - Yes and no. I remember, while passing through Bangkok to rejoin the filming, the airline stewards and people in the street would ask me what I was there for. I would tell them, Little Buddha. Ah very good, and what part will you be playing? Prince Siddhartha. And each time their mouths would fall open. I could read surprise in their eyes. During the filming they even had to change the title to Little Lama so as not to antagonize certain Buddhist sects that were a little irate. Some threw stones at us.
There were demonstrations in Nepal during certain scenes. But on the whole the monks were very welcoming and cooperative. Like I learned from a Lama, we all have a little Buddha deep in our souls that only wants to be awakened...
Physically, also, you did an enormous amount of preparation...
Keanu Reeves - In a poem by Buddhist philosopher Ashvaghasha, Siddartha is described as being like a lion. I wanted to give him that allure, that presence, that force, that physical aspect... but I also had to think that later, he has his ascetic period. And I had very little time to go from one period to the next.
But Bernardo Bertolucci was prepared to find you a stand in...
Keanu Reeves - That was out of the question. I wanted no part of that. So I went into retreat and for several weeks all I ate were oranges and water. But I think that I also had to pass through this stage in order to find a certain kind of truth... Besides, one of my favorite scenes - apart from those that were cut! No, just kidding! - is the one where, in the Nepalese jungle, after having been for 6 years a veritable ascetic and having passed through numerous mortifications. Siddharta submerges in the water and discovers the illumination, the way of the Middle. And on the bank, these ascetic priests tell me, 'We can no longer follow you! You have abandoned the Way!' And me I tell them, 'No, listen to me, I've discovered something else...' It's great! I love that scene.
Which of Buddha's teachings did you take to?
Keanu Reeves - The basic precepts are very close to some of the 10 Commandments, notably, Thou shalt not kill and Thou shalt not lie.
Tough for an actor not to lie eh?
Keanu Reeves - That's what Bernardo Bertolucci kept telling me! He'd say "Attention! Buddhism is the negation of self, the negation of the ego." You could say that, thanks to this film, I've become more... How do you say, open to life... I don't mean fatalistic, anyway, it's a big mistake to construe fatalism from Buddhism. Now, thanks to meditation, which I had never before practiced, I have a tendency to believe, speaking as a Westerner, which I am, in a higher power... I even tend to believe in reincarnation. Not in the sense of a total transfer of conscience from one being to another. Let's just say I now believe that all that is Keanu will change when it leaves the body that I now inhabit, but there'll still be something of me elsewhere... such a role, in a such a country, with such people forcibly obliges you to reevaluate your hierarchy of values.
This if the first major production on Buddhism to be seen in the West, do you feel a particular responsibility?
Keanu Reeves - I think the audience will make the same symbolic voyage that I did to realize Siddhartha. Like me, most Westerners know nothing of this legend. Bernardo Bertolucci says about this film that it'll be a Buddhist bomb, maybe so. When I read the script, what captivated me, rather than Siddartha's actions, which are grandiose, was his singular way of comprehending the world. The way he communicated at the level of intuition, of emotion. Above all, the cinema, is also that.
What are Bernardo Bertolucci's qualities as a director?
Keanu Reeves - He's a master! The earth and the sky at the same time. Or rather a rainbow that joins the two because he's a poet, a painter and an intellectual. He's cerebral and emotional at the same time, and he holds these two facets. I think that of all the directors I've worked with, the one who resembles him the most is Gus Van Sant, who also shows great sensibility. Bertolucci is voice, animation, noise, Gus is more silent, calm. Bertolucci directs a lot. Gus leaves the reigns loose, he directs by osmosis... In fact, I'm very proud to have worked with them both.
As for your career is concerned, do you have any idea what direction you'd like it to take? A strategy?
Keanu Reeves - No, or if there is one, I don't find out about it till it's too late! (laughs) Most of all I look for diversity. Looking at the movies I've made, they already offer a pretty wide variety of roles! To tell the truth, I can lose myself in a bunch of genres and characters. I can be equally at ease in a so called serious film, a major studio production, or an unpretentious comedy, independently produced. My equilibrium as an actor and as a person resides in the exercise of this freedom. Even if I sometimes make mistakes.
Keanu Reeves - I don't like myself at all in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Coppola's film is very good, its me who's bad in it. Sure my role was passive, but I was too passive. Even so it was still a good experience. And I learned from it. After Little Buddha I hooked up with an action movie Speed, Jan de Bont's first film, (Basic Instinct & Lethal Weapon 3). The story of the passengers of a bus taken hostage. I'm a cop, a fighter, and this time, action guy! (laughs). But you have to remember that you have to look for good projects further and further afield. The Hollywood mentality is very traditionalist in the way it tells stories, what characters should and should not say. This conventionality is saddening. You've got some who see Hollywood as a place to do business and those who think of the cinema as art. The hardest thing is to make the two work together.
You once said in an interview "Being an actor is very involving, especially between projects. When you take on a role, you're liberated." (Note: actual quote is "For me, acting is very self-involved, especially between projects. Once you get a part, you're liberated." Source: "Keanu Reeves". - Ani) What did you mean by that?
Keanu Reeves - It's been almost ten years since I chose this career, I love it more and more. Real happiness I find on movie sets or on stage. My fictional life, that of my characters nourishes me, the same way my real life nourishes my characters. But after filming, it takes me a while to get back to normal. That's tough to live through, Between films I have a hard time understanding why I don't really have the impression of existing. That may be due to the fact that I'm still a novice and it's normal that everything revolves around the cinema! I'm learning. In a few years, maybe I'll have a life. For now, my life is a little like the book - I am Picasso's Notebook, where everything is jumbled together, reality and art. (laughs)
What do you do when you're not filming?
Keanu Reeves - When I'm not acting I work! I go back to class. I do improvisation. I do voice exercises to control my breath better. I learn monologues. I work on Shakespeare. I'm also always telling myself that I could go back to visit my family who still live in Toronto, but I haven't set foot there in ages!
Is there camaraderie amongst you? This new generation of actors?
Keanu Reeves - No, we don't hang out. The only one I was friends with was River (Phoenix)...
His untimely death plunged Hollywood into shock and placed him in the same galaxy as Marilyn Monroe, James Dean... Can stars escape tragedy?
Keanu Reeves - You have to forget their tragic death and remember that they were great actors, exceptional talents, who shone in heaven, on screen... So much beauty, so much emotion, so much sorrow... If people felt close to them, it's because these stars were magnificent actors and their passing is all the more painful, frustrating. That's the tragedy. But I also think, and I'd like to believe, that thanks to them, actors are born and will continue to be born...
When did you and River Phoenix meet?
Keanu Reeves - River and I met during Lawrence Kasdan's I Love You To Death in 1990. We hit it off right away. We were on the same wavelength. During the filming, we both got the script for Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho and immediately ate it up. We had finished Larry (Kasdan's) film, and one night in LA it must have been half past midnight, River and I were cruising down Fairfax toward Hollywood and I said to him, 'So are you gonna do the movie?' And he said 'I don't know, I will if you will'. And I said 'me too, lets do it!' We met up again in Gus's film! Really I wouldn't have done it if River hadn't, it was really for the both of us.
You weren't afraid to endanger your image by playing a couple of druggy hustlers?
Keanu Reeves - Not for a minute. First of all, the script was marvelous and neither River or me had this notion of our image, of respectability or this awareness of risk.
The declaration of love by the fire is overwhelming...
Keanu Reeves - .... (long silence) River was an exceptional person, incredible... Where is my Juliet? (1) Bullshit, Fuck! (Another long silence) He was a really good guy.
What do you think of the young people who placed flowers and poems on the sidewalk where he died, and the tabloids who talked of nothing but drugs?
Keanu Reeves - I like that people brought flowers in front of the VIPER. That they showed their affection... As for the tabloids, all the stuff they've been saying, I think it's disgusting, it's to sell papers, that's all!
Isn't living in Hollywood tougher on young people?
Keanu Reeves - Yeah, for sure...
How does one go about maintaining one's equilibrium?
Keanu Reeves - You have to know where to put your feet. Its been 8 years since I've lived in LA, I know where I'm going. Also, from time to time, you have to know when to go to bed early, and now and then, when to get up early. I don't remember who said this, a critic from the forties: 'I think you have to live in Hollywood to not believe in it'. It's still true.
Legend has it that you love speed...
Keanu Reeves - Its not a legend. I love biking... Feeling the wind... I've already had several accidents and I've got scars kind of all over. But that doesn't keep me from doing it... The way I drive is very simple - never let anyone get in front of me. If there is no one in front of you no one can crash into you... And once you've got the road to yourself, then you can cruise.
You spoke of wind... Keanu means...
Keanu Reeves - Cool breeze over the mountains, yes. Its a Polynesian name, a name with lots of vowels... It may even be an Indian name if you go back to before the continents broke apart. (laughs) When all's said and done, you know, doesn't everything come from the East, like Siddhartha?
(1) In an interview given by Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix (Interview, Nov. 1991), Reeves said "I really would like to do Shakespeare with River... 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' or 'Romeo and Juliet'." "I'll be Juliet," River Phoenix answered.
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Interview with Bernardo Bertolucci
How did you think of Keanu Reeves to interpret Prince Siddhartha who became Buddha?
At first, I was thinking of an Indian actor. A casting director went over there. But nothing came of it. The actors they presented me with looked either like mini-Rambos or mafiosi... I was a little desperate. Then I remembered My Own Private Idaho and I met Keanu in New York. He's someone who has a profound innocence and for me, that was essential. At the beginning of the film, Siddhartha has never heard the word "suffer", the word "old age". He's a being of extreme simplicity, almost to the point of idiocy, in the noble sense of the word. Now, Keanu possesses that kind of innocence. Regardless of whatever his life may have been like, he has in spite of all, maintained a profound innocence. A few months later, I again saw Keanu in Tuscany where he was filming Much Ado About Nothing. He was reading a lot on Buddha and had learned how to meditate. Keanu joined us on the set 3 weeks before filming was scheduled to begin, I was planning on using a double for the scenes where you see Buddha's ascetic body. He said to me, "No, I'll do it myself." And he began a draconian diet. Making do with one orange a day. Later on, when we were filming the American segment of the movie in Seattle, I learned the US critics were very hard on Keanu for Dracula. I think people are going to be very surprised by his ability to transform himself.