ENDEARINGLY AWKWARD AND YET BEGUILINGLY COOL, THE ACTOR KEANU REEVES INSTANTLY BECAME A HOLLYWOOD STYLE ICON AS WELL AS A YOUTH ROLE MODEL WHEN HE STARRED IN THE BILL AND TED MOVIES. NOW HE FOLLOWS PARTS IN "DANGEROUS LIASIONS" AND "MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING" WITH THE TITLE ROLE IN BERTOLUCCI'S "LITTLE BUDDHA"
COOL OR NOT?
by David Ritz
Freeways are falling in Los Angeles. Earthquakes are rocking the great city with disquieting regularity. In the aftermath of riots and fires and the trembling of the soil below, minds are rattled, nerves shattered. But in a suite at the posh Beverly Wilshire Hotel the 29-year-old actor Keanu Reeves shows no fear. He is not considering the apocalypse. With alluring cool, Hollywood's latest fashionable young thing is discussing his role as Prince Siddhartha, the man who evolved into the Buddha, in Bernardo Bertolucci's latest film.
Reeves is fresh-faced and on the tall and slender side, without a hint of self-consciousness. His choice of clothing is reminiscent of many of his film roles. The style is shaggy elegance, straddling the line between slob and sophisticate, or teen goon and yuppie prince. Wearing a suit, he appears slightly uncomfortable, as though he would prefer sweatpants; yet when he wears baggy pants and a grungy tank top, you imagine him donning a tux and holding a martini. In Bertolucci's "Little Buddha" he is down to bare essentials: stripped to the waist, his body sculpted to reed-like proportions, he comes on as the sexiest holy hero since Michelangelo's David.
For the past eight years Reeves has forged a remarkable career, epitomising the Young Man Coming Of Age in some 19 feature films. Halfway between heart-throb and nerd, rebel with and rebel without a cause, mainstream hero and counterculture clod, he has seduced his audience with disarming sincerity. His breakthrough came in 1987 with "River's Edge"; aged 20 he portrayed the teenage Matt (Reeves looks at least six years younger than his true age), whose conscience leads him to rat on a chum who has committed murder. In other roles - Winston in "The Night Before" and Danceny in "Dangerous Liasions"--he is the straight arrow, a model of ingenuous, even heroic youth. With "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure", released in 1989, he went the other way, achieving immortality as Ted, an inept and loveable high-school dropout, a wannabe guitarist who is neither bright nor talented yet beguilingly tender; a cartoon character with soul (and silly clothes).
"I love Ted", says Reeves "He has tremendous joie de vivre. And he's so non-judgmental - hyper-violent Japanese cartoons, John Woo movies... I can imagine Ted enjoying entertainment for the surface thrills without getting contaminated. Life's simple for him. He reacts with open-hearted wonder. He's easy with himself and the world. And that ease is something I found myself reluctant to give up."
And the idea of Reeves being a symbol for his generation? "That's a notion I reject", he says. "I certainly didn't have have a sense of myself--and still don't as some cosmic spokeman. But who does? Do you think Dennis Hopper knew what he'd come to symbolise in "Easy Rider"? When he was having his hallucination, did he realise how large a statement he was making? Maybe Ted's an archetype, but to me he's merely a sweet slob."
Reeves continued to switch between sweet slob and proper suitor, from "Prince of Pennsylvania" and "Parenthood" - films in which he played disillusioned dropouts - to "Tune In Tomorrow", in which, much like his character in "Dangerous Liasions", he was irresistible and hopelessly honourable. After the inevitable sequel to Bill And Ted, Reeves became a gung-ho FBI novice tempted by existential irresponsibility in "Point Break" and, in "My Own Private Idaho", an existentially irresponsible gay hustler, a slumming rich kid lured back to the straight life. Incorruptible in "Dracula" and deeply corrupting in "Much Ado About Nothing", he embodied youthful excess, demonstrating either too much or too little faith.
The question of faith brings us to "Little Buddha" (released April 29), in which Reeves' wild-eyed innocence is pushed to the metaphysical max. Bertolucci's fable operates on two levels: as a small American boy is courted by Buddhist monks who believe he is their reincarnated lama, the child, along with the audience, learns the ancient story of Prince Siddhartha. Watching the film I remembered something Bertolucci told me years ago: "I'm afraid that my films carry the stench of literature." Free of such pungency, "Little Buddha" seems accessible to children.
"I'm hoping millions of children will see it", says Reeves. "I approached my role from a child's point of view. There's no trumped-up suspense or cheap emotional manipulations, and the storytelling as a wondrous purity. My challenge was to radiate the emotions of this sheltered man-child, this prince who has been protected from even the possibility of anxiety. Then for the first time he suddenly encounters death, old age, disease. The result is an unprecedented spiritual search. And the discovery, the miracle of overwhelming compassion."
Was Reeves touched by meditative experience? "Touched, yes", he says. "But not converted. I'm far too attached to the material world--not diamonds and gold, but work. To be honest, I'm also a little lazy when it comes to spiritual learning."
He began his career in Toronto. Like other Canadian artists who absorbed Americana with relish - rockers like Neil Young and The Band, for example - Reeves enjoys an outsider's view of the culture of teenage angst. Asked about his childhood, he assumes a tongue-in-cheek British accent, addressing himself in the third person. "Mr. Reeves", he announces, "was born in Beirut. His father left when he was two. He was raised by his remarkable mother, moving to Australia, then the Upper West Side of New York City, only to settle in Toronto, where a technologically advanced children's hospital was able to cure young Keanu's rare blood disease."
"My mother", he continues, switching back to an enthusiastic first person, "was ahead of her time. She made certain I was born abroad so I'd avoid the draft. Mom's a clothing designer - married three times, by the way - and what she lacked in salary she made up for in taste. Richard Avedon took my photo when I was six. She surrounded my two younger sisters and myself with culture and art. We learned to love ideas, even if I was hating high school."
Reeves describes his theatrical training as formal. "It was rigorous: lots of Shakespeare, lots of old-school orthodoxy. When I dropped out of high school I fell into the world of Toronto community theatre. I swung between the wildly avant-garde and Romeo and Juliet. I read Stanislavsky, toyed with Artaud, but never took a very intellectual approach to the craft. My passion for acting always felt more physical and emotional than mental. From the start I tried to take my characters home, stay in their skin, lose myself in their imprint."
He stops and smiles, scolding himself for sounding too serious, then slips into his skittish mode. "I don't want to give you the idea it was all high art. Sure, I wanted to play Rimbaud. I loved mad, tragic poets. But I was also doing lots of commercials. When I headed out to LA in my beat-up Volvo it was 1986 and my teenage years were behind me. Maybe that's why I was able to play teenagers."
"The gods blessed me with work - first a TV movie called "Brotherhood of Justice", where I was a rich kid gone bad who ultimately goes good. And then there's "River's Edge", where I'm 'out' but want 'in' - only it's too nuts to get in. There were more confusion in this goofy comedy "The Night Before"--doing goofy comedy seems like an initiation rite in Hollywood - and then suddenly with "Dangerous Liasions" things got serious."
Reeves has spent his 20s making movies, averaging more than two films a year. Directors as diverse as Stephen Frears, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard and Kenneth Branagh ahve bought into his appeal. "All the non-stop work got crazy," he says. "About four years ago I was shooting the last scene for Point Break in Hawaii. Four days later I was in Portland to start My Own Priavate Idaho. My energy was lagging, my heart was sagging. Man, I was beat. Didn't think I could get through it. But the spirit of Gus Van Sant, a brilliant director and River Phoenix, a brilliant actor, drew me back into the fire. The creative spontaneity on the set reminded me what this process should be about - invention and discovery. I was disappointed in my performance. It was Gus and River who were incredible. River was a remarkable artist and a rare human being. I miss him every day." In discussing "Dracula", his subsequent film, Reeves is tougher on himself than most of the tough critics. "I was bad in that", he confesses. " I didn't have the juice. My colleagues in the cast - Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder, Gary Oldman - were beautifully operatic. I wound up with opera envy."
What music does Keanu Reeves, a bass player himself, listen to these days? "Fugazi," he reveals, "Erik Satie and John Coltrane. I'm sort of a half-assed autodidact in music and poetry. I've been grooving on Allen Ginsberg's Howl and TS Eliot's The Waste Land, but I'm always wishing for more self-discipline to catch up with the cultural landmarks I've missed."
Does his starring role in "Speed", a slam-bang action-adventure thriller due out this summer, mean he has settled down with mainstream Hollywood glory? "No," he says. "I've settled on not settling. I'm still exploring. But I'm also trying to be clear about what I can and cannont do. I'm just not as developed as some other actors my age. I'm not a producer or a director. All my energy is focused on acting. I'm limited. I'm still working to find a way inside my characters. But once you're inside, I'm learning, limitations seem to vanish."