Hollywood wants an affair with Reeves but he's non-committal
by Jamie Portman
When Keanu Reeves is shown the June 10 Entertainment Weekly, he bursts out laughing. There he is, his portrait solemnly gracing the cover, beside the bold red letters of a caption asking -- "The Next Action Hero?"
Reeves opens today in a sizzling action movie called Speed in which he plays a Los Angeles cop who matches wits with mad bomber Dennis Hopper. Twentieth Century-Fox is convinced Speed will clean up at the box office and make the 29-year-old Canadian a big, big star.
But Reeves clearly has trouble with this kind of hype. He can't take seriously Entertainment Weekly's suggestion that the film could catapult him to the ranks of super stardom along with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone. The very idea provokes a sequence of staccato exclamations.
"Oooh! Entertainment Weekly! Oh my gosh! How old is this magazine anyway?" He shakes his head with amusement. "Well, I do feel a lot of responsibility to the picture I'm involved in. If there are opportunities to do so, I want to co-operate. So I did this interview for Entertainment Weekly."
He talked to the magazine because he'd been "told it was fairly good." That tells us something about Keanu Reeves. It tells us he doesn't read magazines like Entertainment Weekly -- he hadn't seen the recent cover story until it was shown to him.
Reeves is more likely to be reading and rereading William Shakespeare's Hamlet these days. After all, he'll be in Winnipeg next January, playing the melancholy Dane on the stage of the Manitoba Theatre Centre. That's an indication that Keanu Reeves doesn't fit into your conventional Hollywood star mold.
Just how different he is becomes more evident if you look at the other major film in which he's currently appearing -- Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha, playing Prince Siddhartha.
Throw in such earlier ventures as Much Ado About Nothing, My Own Private Idaho and Tune In Tomorrow -- projects dearer to Reeves's heart than such mainstream fare as Point Break or the Bill and Ted films -- and it becomes clear that this is an actor who won't be pigeonholed.
"I've been graced to work with excellent filmmakers and very good actors in some excellent, original films," he tells Southam News. "I think some of my performances have been good and solid."
But Keanu Reeves as the next big action hero? It's a billing he can't take seriously.
"Well, it makes good copy for the media and perhaps for the film," he shrugs. "But it makes good copy -- nothing more. It's not something I aspire to. It's not based in reality."
But Speed producer Mark Gordon thinks that both the film and Reeves's performance will take the continent by storm.
"We believed when we cast him that he had the ability to be an exciting new action hero," Gordon says. "And he's proved us right."
Today, Hollywood is abuzz with speculation that Speed is the movie to beat this summer, but ironically, during filming, it was regarded as something of a joke -- as one media wag put it, a "sort of Diehard Four-And-A-Half."
Paramount briefly had the project and then dropped it. Fox took it over, but didn't realize the property had the makings of a big summer hit until it started test screening earlier this year.
Audiences went crazy at the basic situation -- Reeves as a SWAT cop trapped on a runaway city bus that's set to explode if its Speed falls under 50 miles per hour -- and Fox advanced the release date from August to June 10 to capitalize on summer box-office.
Speed marks the directing debut of Dutch-born Jan De Bont, the acclaimed cinematographer of Lethal Weapon 3, Die Hard, Basic Instinct and Hunt For Red October. The supporting cast includes Dennis Hopper (as the sociopath who rigs the bus with explosives), Sandra Bullock and Jeff Daniels.
Reeves was the first person signed up for the film, but he did set a few conditions regarding his character.
"I did take out the swear words," he grins. He also wanted his character to be less of a wise-cracking daredevil: he'd met members of the Los Angeles police department's SWAT detachment, and didn't want to misrepresent them.
"I wanted to give my character of Jack Traven some sort of Everyman quality. I wanted him to be good, altruistic, imaginative, experienced in special weapons and tactics. I was more interested in those qualities than in just being another artificial hero."
Reeves does his share of daredevil stunts -- among them, transferring onto the Speeding bus from an adjacent Jaguar -- and he admits that making the film was "a fun experience." But although Fox is already talking about a sequel, he has yet to commit to it.
"For me, the film is of itself. I didn't do it for the continuum. I did it for this one project. I wanted to make an entertaining film. As for a sequel, well it really depends on the script and where I am in my life." Over the years, Reeves has become more serious, more reflective in talking to the press. He's shown up this weekend in a beautifully tailored black suit. This is in marked contrast to his major media outing in 1991, promoting Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey: on that occasion Reeves showed up grimy and unshaven -- hair greasy and uncombed, jeans matted with dirt, fingernails sprouting filth -- and greeted a table full of reporters by belching into their microphones.
"Well," he says apologetically, "I had a certain dissatisfaction with that particular film, and I was fairly immature, I think, in dealing with that feeling."
It's different now -- although Reeves still guards his privacy, which is one reason he seems ambivalent about the limelight of major stardom. He's reticent to talk about the late River Phoenix, a close friend and colleague, except to say that he misses him. Yet he knows the public will always want to know more about him than he wants to give them. "I think that's inherent in the relationship between the performer and the audience and the journalist," he says a trifle sadly.
Meanwhile, he just wants to continue seeking out new challenges. His next film, Mnemonic Man, is a science fiction thriller filmed in Toronto, in which he plays a messenger with a disease cure implanted in his brain. This summer, he'll be tackling an art house project -- A Walk In The Clouds, directed by Alfonso Arau (of Like Water for Chocolate fame), in which he plays a soldier returning home after the war.
Above all there's the role of Hamlet. Reeves has loved Shakespeare since he did a scene from Romeo and Juliet as a Grade 10 student in Toronto.
"It was a lot of fun, but beyond that there was this experience of coming to a place in your life that felt right, almost as though it was bringing a sense of wholeness, of happiness and comfort. I remember that playing the scene, I was so happy."
Later, Reeves played Mercutio in a production of Romeo and Juliet in Toronto. He even auditioned unsuccessfully for the Stratford Festival one year.
"I was suffering from lack of experience and technique," he says now. "I didn't have the tools to do Shakespeare."
But since then, he's studied the Bard at the famed Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Mass., and appeared last year in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing.
And now, at the invitation of Manitoba Theatre Centre, he's proposing to tackle Hamlet, for a fraction of what he earned for Speed.
"Well, it was a place I wanted to work," he says simply. "It has a continuing tradition of excellence."
There's another basic reason for tackling one of the most challenging roles in theatrical history.
"I'm very interested in becoming a better actor."