REEVES ENJOYS THE ROLE - ANY ROLE(also published on July 6 as a shorter version under the title 'Reeves Proud of Diverse 'Little Buddha', 'Speed' Roles')
by Jack Garner
Keanu Reeves is described as "a reluctant star" by Mark Gordon, the producer who paid him to be the lead in his summer action film, "Speed."
But reluctant or not, Reeves is definitely a star. So says Dennis Hopper, his "Speed" co-star. Hopper also worked with Reeves in the younger actor's first major film, "The River's Edge," in 1986.
And Dennis Hopper knows about young stars - his first and greatest friend was the legendary James Dean. "Most of the good actors are introspective," Hopper says. "And Keanu's that way. Of the actors who began with me in films in 1955, 98 percent were gone from the business after three years. After that, all they could get were good tables in restaurants," Hopper says. "Only 2 percent went on to have careers."
"But Keanu has worked his way through that phase," he says. "He's already done an amazing body of work. He's going to stick around."
Ask Reeves about stardom, though, and the response is more basic. He laughs. Loudly.
"Stardom just isn't a reality to me," he explains after regaining his composure. Besides, I don't like to count my chickens . . . and all that.
"It's nice of people, though, to say that about me," he quickly adds.
Those quotes sum up the way Keanu Reeves is perceived by his co-workers and friends - a shy, humble, gracious guy. And on this day in Manhattan, the 29-year-old actor lines up with that image. Although, of course, he also objects to the idea of "image."
"I don't work out of any reaction to my ‘image,"' he says. "Image is something that comes from someone else, after the fact.
"I'm more interested in the process of acting, and in the characters I play. I don't want to do the same character again and again."
That's why Reeves is clearly proud to be seen in "Speed" and "Little Buddha" within the same month. The former offers an action hero in a summer thrill ride, the latter features Reeves as Siddhartha, the prince who becomes Buddah, the most peaceful and restrained human being on the planet.
The two films offer viewers a virtual ying and yang of human experience.
"It's good that they're both out now," Reeves says, simply. "Diversity is something I'm interested in."
In truth, Reeves has achieved considerable variety in less than a decade of work, in such films as "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," "Parenthood," "Dangerous Liaisons," "Point Break" and "My Own Private Idaho."
Reeves is part Hawaiian - the part that gave him his name. (It means "cool breezes over the mountain.") He was raised in the snows of Toronto, however, by his mother and stepfather. After attending four schools in five years, he dropped out and worked at odd jobs while taking acting lessons and performing in community theater and commercials.
He left for Hollywood at age 19, landed a TV movie with Lindsay Wagner, and then was cast in Tim Hunter's "River's Edge."
As an actor, Reeves has earned a wide range of responses, including some that have been negative from critics unable to accept the "Point Break" and "Bill & Ted" surfer dude in period pieces like "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and the Shakespeare film, "Much Ado About Nothing."
However, Reeves is not deterred. He's intently studying "Hamlet" for a performance as the moody Dane with a Canadian stage company.
And the early responses to his work in "Speed" and "Little Buddha" have ranged from respectful to laudatory. Meanwhile, a professor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., has even begun teaching a course in the films of Keanu Reeves.
"My response to that was to ask why," Reeves says. But when he was informed that the teacher uses the films to prompt a wide-ranging open forum, he was pleased.
"They even read essays in Nietzsche for ‘Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure,"' Reeves says, with a rather stunned look on his face.
Asked to compare his efforts in his two current films, Reeves says, "‘Speed' was just jumping and running and playing."
Others on the film report, though, that Reeves insisted on improvements in the script and worked diligently on the set, even frightening his director by spontaneously doing some of his own stunts.
"Little Buddha," on the other hand, required Reeves to immerse himself in Buddhist reading and philosophy for four months. As the young prince who searches for fulfillment, Reeves says, "I tried to communicate a princely aspect, which meant that he was confident in knowing the world in which he lived.
"However, he didn't know about pain and what that does to human behavior, and that's the journey he goes on."
Reeves seems proud of both films, but "Little Buddha" has a special place in his heart.
"Art is about trying to find the good in people, and making the world a more compassionate place," he says.
He offers no apology for such open sentiment. But that's the way it is with Hollywood's new - and most unlikely - action hero.