Enigmatic Actor Saves Best Lines For The Screen
by Jane Stevenson
Keanu Reeves squeezes his eyes shut, clenches his fists and throws himself to the ground.
Time is running out. It's "download or die" time for the Canadian-raised actor in his role as a 21st-century information courier carrying a highly sought-after secret in his brain with various bad guys in tow.
Reeves is starring in the $ 30-million futuristic thriller Johnny Mnemonic, based on a short story by Vancouver-based author William Gibson, who also wrote the screenplay.
The enigmatic star -- described by co-workers as "intense, private and a man of few words" -- keeps pretty much to himself as the crew prepares to shoot one of the movie's final scenes.
Johnny's female bodyguard (newcomer Dina Meyer of Beverly Hills 90210) has brought him to the headquarters of a rebel leader (rapper Ice-T) in an attempt to safely extract the information with the help of a techno-enhanced dolphin.
The action is shot on an elaborate elevated set in a massive warehouse in suburban Toronto. To film-goers, however, it will look like the decayed underside of a rusted-out bridge in Newark, N.J.
There are several rows of TV screens and cables hanging from the ceiling plus something that resembles an electric chair beside the dolphin tank. ("Batman directed by Fellini" is how first-time director Robert Longo, a New York artist, describes the look.)
Finally, the actors take their places and someone yells, "Playback," causing the TV screens to flicker to life while a spotlight washes over the set.
Reeves winces and falls to the ground (editing will make it look as if he was thrown from the chair).
"I've been a William Gibson fan since Neuromancer," Reeves said later. "And I liked the first part of the script enough (so) I petitioned them to appear in it." He didn't elaborate except to say he found the script on his doorstep after it had been dropped off by "a friend of a friend."
Welcome to Keanu's world.
Reeves, 29, gave away very little during a 20-minute phone conversation arranged after he abruptly cancelled a scheduled on-set interview. (Little is known about his background except he was born in Beirut, grew up in Toronto, dropped out of high school, got his first acting gig on the CBC series Hangin' In and later moved to Los Angeles).
But even if the actor doesn't like to talk, his varied body of work speaks for itself.
He has appeared in everything from offbeat films (River's Edge, My Own Private Idaho) to ensemble period pieces (Bram Stoker's Dracula, Much Ado About Nothing) to teen flicks (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Point Break).
This summer he's in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (as an asthmatic Mohawk artist), Little Buddha (as Buddhism founder Siddhartha, no less) and Speed (he plays a SWAT team member).
Johnny Mnemonic, recently shot in Toronto and Montreal with an eclectic cast that included rocker Henry Rollins, Dolph Lundgren and Canadian actor Dennis Akayama, is being touted as the biggest-budget Canadian film to date. Toronto-based Alliance Communications is co-producing with two Hollywood studios.
But the pressure of carrying an expensive film appears lost on Reeves.
"I'm thinking of it now that I'm 312 months into it, but it's been a good journey."
Longo said he had no hesitations about casting Reeves -- certainly no Schwarzenegger or Stallone -- as Johnny. "He's like one of the great gifts to the movie. We have all these big spectacular sets and all these wonderful-looking things -- they were nothing compared to the moment when I saw him in the suit, his hair cut. It was like some bizarre episode of Twilight Zone."
"The suit" that Longo was talking about is Reeves' costume -- a scruffy grey jacket with thin lapels and stovepipe pants. Together with a white shirt, thin black tie and buzz cut, the actor seems dressed for the wrong century except for his black cowboy boots.
Reeves' next project in Canada will see him in tights.
He has agreed to play Hamlet at the Manitoba Theatre Centre for a five-week stint starting in January. The moody self-involved prince of Denmark seems tailor-made for Reeves.
"He's a very intense person," said Meyer. "I find him to be extremely cerebral. A lot of the times he seems to be in his own world. Not like he's out of it -- he's always concentrating."