Shakespeare gives solace to shy actor: Keanu Reeves brings maturity to 'Speed'
by James Ryan, ENTERTAINMENT NEWS WIRE
New York - It happened somewhere between signing autographs for screaming teeny-boppers and placing his handprints in fake cement prior to a screening of his new action movie "Speed." Keanu Reeves suddenly began reciting passages from Shakespeare.
The unscripted mutterings added a surreal twist to one of those already bizarre dog-and-pony shows - this one at New York's Planet Hollywood restaurant - that actors tolerate as a price of stardom.
As it turns out, Reeves was using the impromptu recital to reduce the discomfort he felt in the glare of the spotlight, not to flaunt his mastery of iambic pentameter.
"He uses Shakespeare to calm himself," explains director Jan De Bont, who says that the 29-year-old actor resorted to the same device whenever the going got tense on the set of "Speed." Reeves stars as a SWAT team explosives expert who races against the clock to defuse a bomb wired to the speedometer of a commuter bus. Dennis Hopper plays the villain.
"It's kind of weird having an actor sit on a bus reciting Shakespeare in the middle of the freeway," says De Bont, who adds that for Reeves, "it's a way of practicing everyday. He really wants to become a good actor. He's absolutely determined to become a good actor."
Despite acclaimed performances in movies such as "River's Edge" and "My Own Private Idaho," Reeves hasn't been taken seriously by critics.
Directors don't seem to have the same problem. They love him. Though they were taken to task for their casting decisions in some quarters, Francis Ford Coppola hired Reeves to play a young Englishman in "Bram Stoker's Dracula," Stephen Frears cast him as a French nobleman in "Dangerous Liaisons" and Kenneth Branagh tapped him for a role in his Shakespearean comedy "Much Ado About Nothing." Most recently, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci weathered criticism for casting Reeves as Prince Siddhartha in "Little Buddha," having failed in his search for a Tibetan or Indian actor to play the role. Because Reeves is of Chinese-Hawaiian ancestry, both actor and director insist it's not that much of a stretch.
The image problem can be traced in part to starring roles in such airhead fare as "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" and "Point Break." But it's also due to Reeves's uncooperative relationship with the media. Until the past year or two, the Toronto-raised actor was notorious for skipping interviews, or showing up unshaven and unwashed and answering questions in monosyllabic mumbles.
Though still not the most articulate interviewee, Reeves has made a quantum leap in professional attitude as shown by his appearance at the Planet Hollywood event sporting a suit and crew cut.
"He's very serious, very shy, very introverted," says De Bont. "He's been typecast for a long time to be that Bill-and-Ted-type character. The first thing I did was have him cut his hair off. I didn't want people to think of Bill and Ted anymore. I want them to think of Keanu as an adult actor now."
Indeed, a good case can be made that officer Jack Traven is Reeves's first adult character. It's also his first lead role in a mainstream movie.
Initially reluctant to portray an action hero, Reeves gradually warmed to the part. "It was more fun than I thought it was going to be," he says. "Though that was more due to the relationship with the actors and artists involved with the film."