There's much ado about Keanu. Not since Valentino has an actor oozed such universal sex appeal, desired by teen screamers, women of all ages and confirmed bachelors alike. Jeff Hayward talks to this enigmatic star who chooses his roles and words with caution.
Two years ago, I read an interview Keanu Reeves (then aged 25) gave to a British youth-culture magazine. The reporter described how this burgeoning young talent teetered back on his chair, exposing a wispy tuft of belly hair, a not yet faded scar and the beginnings of a rather pale tummy. Reeves scratched his middle and mused on the rapid advance of middle age: "I'm getting slothful. I'm 25, and I'm gonna try and get buff before I'm 27 -- man, as much as I can in a positive way otherwise it's gonna be over."
Now, as I watch him cross the foyer of the Santa Monica Hotel to greet me, I can see from his muscle-bound, tummy-less, but by no means bulky physique that Reeves is a man of his word -- no matter how few and far between those utterances may be. His reputation as a reluctant and reticent star certainly precedes him.
Reeves is wearing the uniform of the grungy anti-hero: a shock of scruffy hair, road-weary biker boots, a suede jacket that is at least second-hand and crotch-worn jeans -- an ensemble that looks decidedly out of place in this pastel, chrome and glass palace.
As he settles into a plush pile and very peach sofa, I remind him of his comments two years previously and his fear of ageing. He grins sheepishly, "It's been a radical experience, man. I was going along in my early 20s doing fine, then suddenly I pass 26 and I start thinking, 'Hey, I'm going to die someday'. I start looking at my mother differently. I start thinking, 'Who am I? Why am I here?' It's been weird. It was like I woke up one morning with a different mind. Know what I mean?" He pauses to draw breath and sighs, "I wish I still had the other one, man."
And therein lies Reeves' dilemma. At 27, with major movie stardom his for the asking, he's experiencing the problem faced by other actors of his generation. He could capitalise on the large but infamously fickle teen audience he won with his endearingly goofy portrayal of that most bodacious dude, the gormless Ted, in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and inevitably become the oldest man ever to play a 16-year-old on the silver screen; or, risk losing fans by going for roles that will put his craft to the test.
The path plotted by Reeves' past roles indicates an inclination toward the latter. The signs were there in his first major role: the tautly directed, low-budget chiller, River's Edge. His ball started seriously rolling with his portrayal of Scott, the rich-boy hustler in the critically acclaimed Gus Van Sant film, My Own Private Idaho. Reeves is proud of this film which deals with open roads, disrupted families and inner fears. He didn't mind playing second fiddle to buddy River Phoenix's disturbing portrait of a narcoleptic street kid on a journey through a Jungian dream landscape. "That was a dark, European-style drama and I'm proud of it. Roles like that make you think about things. I always tell my agent, look, if it's a good part in a small film, show it to me. Don't be scared."
Idaho generated its fair share of controversy when the movie's homoerotic rough housing resulted in some uptight puritans walking out during the screening. However, my own experience of the film saw a jam-packed cinema rally behind one of the first commercial instances of ambivalent male friendship to appear on the big screen, since AIDS provided the catalyst for a reactionary backlash in the arts community. There was more than one gruff sigh at the camp-fire scene. Keanu is philosophical: "Every actor has his own battles and mine right now is coming from being a younger man trying to get more mature parts in cool films, man. Idaho is an example of 'Keanu moving on,' you know, a really cool part in a really great film. I heard some people in the theatres were going nuts, just losing it, but I'm glad they were not doing it out of boredom. As long as they were confronted and challenged, then it's worth it."
Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula is Reeves' biggest box-office hit to date. It gave him the opportunity to work with a director universally renowned for the manic, all-consuming zeal with which he approaches his directorial ventures. Despite there being no shortage of Drac-flicks (Reeves cites the silent classic Nosferatu and Nicholas Cage's Vampire's Kiss as just *two* of his favourites), Reeves believes that Coppola's passion and extraordinary vision are enough justification to trot out the blood-sucking Count yet again. "Coppola made me feel I could fly. Francis brings joy to his work. I take that back, he brings joy. Period." His enthusiasm also runs to the method behind the carefully choreographed madness: "We went back to the old school of film making. Old school in the sense that Terminator 2 is all computer graphics and this is, like, all ropes and mirrors. It was extraordinary."
Reeves is now in production for another Van Sant movie, due later this year, an adaptation of Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which is probably best described as a hitch-hiking Thelma (or Louise), who stumbles across a lesbian dude ranch. The film boasts a star-studded line-up, including Uma Thurman, River Phoenix and sister Rain, Lily Tomlin, Faye Dunaway and Roseanne Arnold.
Other projects due for release are the Kenneth Brannagh production of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, and a film from the director of The Last Emperor, Bernardo Bertolucci, entitled Little Buddha. This project would appear to suit Reeves' exotic looks, a blend of Hawaiian and Canadian parentage, which have redefined the accepted Hollywood notions of masculine glamour and aesthetics. Perhaps Reeves' most radical departure from the mainstream in the next 12 months will be in comedian Alex Winter's black comedy, Hideous Mutant Freekz. Reeves plays Ortiz the Dogboy, leader of a pack of freaks in a Central American sideshow. So how did Reeves prepare for this unusual part? "Well, I based my character upon Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Tom Jones."
For someone whose outward appearance points to a young man with a healthy disrespect for public opinion, Reeves does a helluva lot of fidgeting. He has mastered a complex shuffle that involves repeatedly tugging at his freshly shorn hair, rocking back and forth, and going through the motions of standing up and then, mid-flight, sitting down. He seldom looks you in the eye. This seemingly ceaseless cycle of movement seems to be his best defence in the face of questioning, and is only intermittently broken by guarded one-line answers to what seem like perfectly straight forward questions. "Cool" and "wow" are sometimes all you get. It is this reserve and its accompanying blank expression that has sometimes led journalists to question his ability to transcend the display of the hapless, shambling youth. Still waters run deep, but they don't make good copy.
The only time Reeves appears to relax is when the conversation turns to his motorbikes, his bass-playing for band Dog Star (which despite their unbridled enthusiasm will never hold the same global implications for the music world as bogus band Wyld Stallions from Bill and Ted), and an affinity with the great outdoors. His idea of a good time is chasing the Los Angeles shoreline on his 1974 vintage 850 Norton Commando, or cruising with friends.
While Los Angeles has been his base for the past seven years, Reeves has still not laid down any firm roots. Life seems to revolve around a rented house in the west of the city that is home to him, his bikes and a mountain of sound equipment. "I have been living in the same place in Los Angeles for a couple of years and it's just now becoming a home," he explains. "I like the idea of being free and unfettered. I like the option of being able to do anything and go anywhere, anytime. I like to have my house open. A lot of my friends have keys to my house and I like to have everything, you know, 'what's mine is yours', and to drink wine, talk and hang out." Despite his status as a star on the ascendant, Reeves is adamant that extravagance doesn't figure much in his world. "I'm kind of a homebody really," he confesses. "I've been working a lot. I haven't got much of a private life. Once you get a certain amount of success, people just think that you have this glamorous life, hit all the good places. It's just not true."
The interview winds down. Reeves looks relieved and suddenly beams a grin and lets out a smug sounding "cool" -- another interview successfully navigated. Reeves is off downtown to hang out with friends and he's running a little late. As he lopes out to his bike, he pretends not to notice the shock wave of attention he is causing through the few people still in the lobby. The mantle of fame sits awkwardly on the shoulders of this young actor. But I guess, beneath his oafish facade, that's exactly the fit he's after.