KEANU REEVES: CALIFORNIA DUDE IS NEW ACTION HERO
by Mal Vincent
HE RACES THROUGH smoke and explosions to save the passengers of a bus wired up to a bomb. He climbs amid steel rafters to reach good citizens trapped in a high rise tower of hell. He matches wits with a villain as formidable as Dennis Hopper. On top of all this, he gets the girl.
Is it Ah-nold? Sly? Bruce Willis? Steven Seagal? Chuck Norris?
It's none other than that California dude, Keanu Reeves.
Keanu Reeves? Formerly one-half of the airhead team of "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure?" It's an awesome transformation, man.
Reeves, clad in an immaculately pressed linen sports coat with a close-cropped hairdo, delivered a fervent claim that he is not SEEKING to be the movies' next big action guy.
Nonetheless, he's the fastest-moving dude this side of surfdom in an abrupt career change called "Speed." It has viewers gasping - there's so much action that moviegoers sometimes sit and rest a few moments before leaving the theater. Before it was even released, the studio was talking about a sequel.
But Keanu, a name that in Hawaiian means cool breezes over the mountains, would rather be doing Shakespeare. He needs no encouragement to quote a line or a sonnet from the Bard. In January, he plays "Hamlet" at a Canadian theater. In the meantime, he's becoming the big new movie star of the summer season in a "Speed" flick that has become the surprise hit of the season.
Given his reluctance to attempt a big action hero role, why did he do "Speed"?
"I wanted to work," he said, simply. "I hadn't worked in eight months and they offered me this. It's that simple."
You'd never know he'd been unemployed from a list of his recent roles. In just the past year and a half, he has starred in Francis Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula," Kenneth Branagh's film of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," Gus Van Sant's outrageous "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" and Bernardo Bertolucci's spiritual epic "Little Buddha." The results, at best, have been uneven.
He got terrible reviews for his way-out-dude British accent in "Dracula." Of "Much Ado About Nothing," he derisively observed "it was much abridged - very abridged."
He was devastated when River Phoenix, his co-star in "My Own Private Idaho," died of a drug overdose. "I miss him more every day," he said, looking into the distance. Friends and co-horts say River's death changed Reeves' life, that the wild side is now a thing of the past. "It hasn't changed my life," Reeves answered, "but it changed the way I see life."
In "Little Buddha," opening this summer, he plays Prince Siddhartha, who gives up riches and power. For the role, he fasted until he was little more than skin and bones.
"My liver is still not right," he said. "Losing the weight was just part of playing the part. I learned that there is no self and no ego involved in Buddhism. I'm not Buddhist, but I certainly learned not to fear death - that death is a part of a new life."
The public most remembers Keanu Reeves for his roles in 1989's "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" and the 1991 sequel "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey."
None of it prepares us to accept him as a pumped-up action hero.
"We wanted an actor not identified with these kind of movies," said Mark Gordon, producer of "Speed." "For Keanu, it is a rite of passage. He is playing a man, not a boy."
Reeves, though, turned down the first version of the "Speed" script. "It had too many wisecracks," he said. "It tried to be too funny. The villain spoke out of the darkness like some mystic thing. It had no depth to it. I wanted it to be taken seriously."
Director Jan De Bont said: "Keanu did most of his own stunts. At first, he thought he couldn't even do the movie. Then, I won him over to my side. He tried things little by little and eventually he wanted to try everything. I was really worried. If something had happened to him, everything would have been over. The most dangerous thing he did was jumping from a racing sports car to the moving bus. I didn't know he was going to do it. He had been practicing it in secret."
"As a kid, in Toronto," Reeves said, "I used to jump from house to house, just to see if I could do it. I always knew when not to try it - when it was too far."
Born in Beirut, his mother is English and his father is Chinese and Hawaiian. He lived in Australia and New York before Toronto, where he was raised by his mother and stepfather. He has two sisters and was voted the most valuable player on his high school hockey team, but he dropped out of school before graduation.
His first film was as a troubled teen in the cult film "River's Edge."
Now on the brink of major stardom, he said, "I don't play the power game. I don't know what it's all about. Money is important, though. I have certain responsibilities. You hear of these huge salaries, but out of $1 million, I only clear $400,000."
Sandra Bullock, who plays his truck-driving sweetheart in "Speed," said, "He's not at all as I thought he'd be. He is very quiet. He knows how to use quietness. There were times when I needed just to talk to someone for a few moments and he would come over and rub my back and ask what was wrong. People say we have great chemistry on screen, but I don't know what they mean. We didn't do anything. We have one sorta love scene and we just looked at each other. I'm surprised people identify with it."
An Olympic gymnast coach was hired to train Reeves for 12 weeks, including a weight-lifting program designed to pump him up to action star mode. "There were three-hour classes," Reeves said. "I just did what I was told."
Now, 29, Reeves has just completed filming "Johnny Mneumonic," a sci-fi thriller in which he plays a messenger who has the cure for a disease implanted in his head. Ice-T will co-star.
In his spare time, Reeves is taking ballroom dancing classes. "I just always wanted to know how to dance," he said, "and I need to move with more grace. I'd like to be in one of those Fred Astaire musicals someday. That would be cool. But it would be about 10 years from now, at the rate I'm learning."
He begins working right away on "A Walk in the Clouds," directed by Alfonso Arau, director of the all-time champion foreign-language film "Like Water for Chocolate." It's a romance in which he plays a soldier returning from World War II.
"The next leap of faith," he said, "will probably be for me to play a romantic lead. I'm not going to do anything like an action movie for a while. I want to keep everyone guessing."