A Star is Reborn(also published in August 1994 as a shorter, updated version under the title 'We love you Keanu...', and then in its longest incarnation, also in August 1994, under the title 'Speed Kills')
by Lesley O'Toole
Marriage, altruism, ego and Buddhism. Is this Hollywood's most excellent wild guy Keanu Reeves talking? The tacky American supermarket tabloids have only one word for Keanu Reeves: "Hellraiser."
"Cool!" he exclaims, grinning from ear to ear, "but I'm not a hellraiser by any stretch of the imagination. To a certain extent I wish I *could* be once in a while. It would be a nice flash of life. But I haven't been able to achieve that." Frankly, I don't believe a word of it. Reeves has got a bit of a glint in his eye and, let's face it, he's always been thought of as part of Hollywood's young party-animal brigade. But perhaps he really *has* changed. He hasn't been photographed at any of the current collection of trendy hangouts for some months now. In fact, he has been keeping a spectacularly low profile since the death of fellow party animal and close friend River Phoenix.
Certainly, the Keanu Reeves I meet today oozes togetherness, and he's not the dishevelled grunge-god he used to be. His hair is short and spiky and he's wearing a smart black jacket and trousers. He doesn't smoke during the interview -- unusual for a young Hollywood thespian, for whom the habit is practically de rigueur.
There has been a plethora of reports in the past that Reeves has seemed stoned, spaced out and just not quite there. Today, in a swanky suite at Los Angeles's Regent Beverly Wiltshire Hotel (the one where most of Pretty Woman was filmed), he is articulate, funny and extremely self-effacing. Close followers of the recent Reeves roster might wonder if it's anything to do with the last two films he's made: Much Ado About Nothing with Ken and Emms, and his forthcoming epic, Little Buddha (released this month), for which he spent several months in Nepal and India, immersing himself in Buddhism.
Could Britain's very own pseudo-royal couple really have sorted him out? Or was it Little Buddha's elderly and illustrious director, Bernardo Bertolucci? Reeves reckons it's neither. "I've just been through so many years and experiences I guess. And they've worn on my back. Maybe it's just time. I'm getting older, I'm 29, I turn 30 this year. No, I haven't been struck by that yet, 30." He ponders the figure for a moment. "I guess something inside of me is just waiting to take hold." I tell him that a lot of blokes nearing 30 might be considering marriage -- assuming, of course, that he's bound *not* to be the marrying kind. Wrong. "Oh yeah, definitely. Oh my God, it's driving me crazy. I don't know where it came from but all of a sudden it was like, 'I need a mate.' " And is there a potential mate on the horizon? "Oh, no, I guess I'm single."
Unlike his contemporary, Johnny Depp, who's less than a year older, Reeves doesn't have three broken engagements under his belt. "I've been lucky, though," he says, almost apologetically. "I've known some incredible women but I've never come close to marriage. I've never proposed and I've never *been* proposed to."
Reeves may be lacking in the proposals department, but since his debut as a small-town slacker in 1986's River's Edge, he's never been short of movie offers. Bertolucci, however, was slower on the uptake than most. "He told me the story of Little Buddha and said he'd seen My Own Private Idaho and liked it," Reeves says. "But I guess I wasn't right for the part and he told me so. He said, 'Well, it was nice to meet you but now I have to go off and cast this film.' Then we met a few months later when I was in Tuscany [filming Much Ado About Nothing] and he offered it to me. I later found out that he cast me because of my innocence. But he didn't know if I was a complex innocent or just an innocent." So which is he? "I'm not a complex innocent, unfortunately and fortunately."
He is very clever with words, this Mr Reeves. In Little Buddha, he plays the son of a Seattle-based couple (played by Bridget Fonda and Chris Isaak) who don't suspect there's anything unusual about their child until confronted with the unsettling news that he is the reincarnation of Shakyamuni, the original Buddha. "The film's about this innocent, princely life," says Reeves, "this man-boy who knows nothing of the harshness of existence; suffering, death and old age. He's protected from it and awakening to it." Although definitely not a newly converted Buddhist (contrary to a recent British newspaper report), Reeves is now thoroughly immersed in the religion and its culture. It also seems to be his current pet subject. "The more I read about it, the more I contemplate some of the questions that it puts forward." He says he never "took refuge" -- the term for converting to Buddhism. "In a sense, playing the role was confusing because in Buddhism there's no ego. You're putting forward a play in a sense which Buddhism tends to instruct you not to do. Mr Bertolucci always used to tease me and say, 'You're an actor, and yet you're not supposed to have an ego.' It was fun."
Mr Bertolucci, as Reeves charmingly calls him, was less impressed when he discovered one of the actor's fatal flaws. "I was very embarrassed that I couldn't do the lotus position for the film. I worked very hard at it but I just couldn't get it. I guess it was because of my upbringing and the sports I had played and the non-attention I had paid to that kind of stretching. It was tough. When Mr Bertolucci realised, he said disbelievingly, 'You can't do lotus?' He was aghast. And I was like 'Oh my God!' He sat on the ground and just went into it immediately. I said to him 'You fiend, you mean, horrible fiend.' "I did actually manage it once for about twenty seconds but not for the film. They ended up covering my legs for a certain amount of it. It was almost impossible for me."
Much more possible was one of the film's most bizarre scenes, in which Reeves wades into water and practically has a conversation with a water buffalo. "Yeah, wasn't that great?" he almost squeaks, his eyes lighting up in wonderment. "The buffalo came up to me. There's one incredible close-up shot of their eyes. In India, the cow is sacred and their eyes signify wisdom. So I got in the water and this buffalo just turned to me. I had to go up and talk to it." A herd of sizable buffalos and one not-very-hulk-like Keanu Reeves? Sounds rather dicey. "Oh not at all. I wasn't scared. What was funny was that the place where I went into the water had a little beach and then there was an eyelet of sand, a little bank. In between, they'd put cages to prevent crocodiles getting in there. And they had men with shotguns. At least that's what I was told *after* I got out of the water."
He laughs again. Clearly he's having a good time. Reeves evidently has a good time meditating, too. "I had an experience of that which, basically, in the beginning, was just a feeling of magnitude. I was meditating in Tuscany and I felt as big as a valley. I'd move my arm and it would feel like it was eighteen miles long. The man who taught me to meditate said to me, 'As soon as you think you know something, you *don't* know it.' I was thinking, Oh, no, doomed again. Just doomed."
Back in 1991, Reeves said of his career goals, "I don't want to live a stupid life. I know I'm doomed, I'm just a dog." Has his master plan changed at all? "Actually I'm thinking of coming back as a cat -- that way, at least I'll have nine lives. No, it's basically the same in 1994. I *have* worked on not leading a stupid life but I'm still doomed. I'm trying, though. "I know I don't want to cover ground that I already *have* covered. I don't want to play Ted from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure again, although it might be interesting when I'm 40. I don't want to repeat myself because I'm learning from the characters I'm playing." And was moving to Hollywood from Toronto when he was 20 the most sensible thing he's ever done? "Yes. Definitely. I'm very lucky."
Was there a single moment that really defined his career? "Oh no, I'm still waiting for it. I still haven't arrived. That's just a cliche I'd saying, but I don't have the maturity yet and I'm not working on my career as an auteur. I wouldn't project that aura that someone like Robert De Niro has. I'm still learning, I'm still figuring it out." He tells me that he's learned to be more altruistic since completing Little Buddha_. "I don't do many causes; I'm not out on the street helping to feed the homeless. I get to a few charities but at least in my own small world, I have become totally sensitised to other people's pain. I have become more patient."
At the inevitable mention of River Phoenix, Reeves's face visibly falls. Among Phoenix's peer group, Reeves was the closest to him, both in private and in public by virtue of the pair's appearance in the much-revered My Own Private Idaho. When Phoenix died, not a single member of that peer group made a public statement mourning his passing. (Public condolences were left to two of Phoenix's more mature co-stars, Harrison Ford and Dan Aykroyd.) Maybe it was the drug connection, or perhaps they were all simply gobsmacked. It seems Reeves certainly was. This is the only time during our conversation when he is stuck for words. He chooses them carefully, and makes the logical, if odd, announcement: "I wish he weren't dead." And how did he find out? "I was downstairs in my house and a friend was there who heard it on the news upstairs." Reeves can't even express how he felt. All he can mumble is, "I miss him very much." Reincarnation is one of the basic tenets of Buddhism, but does Reeves think Phoenix is still out there somewhere? "Hmm, where *is* Mr Phoenix going?" he muses, cheering up considerably. "I don't know. I guess what I've come to believe, from what I've read, is that I almost take reincarnation for granted. It never seemed to me to be something that wouldn't happen. There is definitely transmigration of energy."
On a more earthly note, I ask Reeves how he fared in the devastating LA earthquake. "I jumped out of bed and fled my house. I live on a hill so it shook, but it was nothing compared with what the people of Northridge felt. So I left the house, then I ran back in and got dressed first." "Ooh," I tease, "I wish I had been there." He bursts into uncontrollable laughter. "What? To help me find my things?" It doesn't seem to occur to him that thousands of hot-blooded women worldwide might relish the prospect of viewing his naked body, earthquake or no earthquake. Back in the acting world, Reeves has just completed his next but one film, Speed, "an action picture concerning a young SWAT policeman" co-starring Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock.
When he's not filming or cruising LA on one of his motorbikes, he's probably to be found jamming with his beloved band, Dogstar. "Actually it's the end of the jamming for now. We used to do it in my garage but now I've moved house. The neighbours! So Dogstar is without a place to play. But we want to go on tour, and we especially want to play London." We have been warned.