Call it the cult of Keanu Reeves
(also published on June 18 as a longer version under the title 'Keanu Reeves: Quiet Power' and as an even longer version on June 26 under the title The Importance of Being Keanu')
by Carrie Rickey
Toronto actor is speeding away from adolescence at a record clip
Keanu Reeves's hair, the 360-degree bangs that flounced promiscuously in movies as diverse as River's Edge and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, is sheared nearly to the scalp in a Pee-wee Herman buzzcut.
The reason for his makeover is the new, pulse-pounding picture Speed, in which the Toronto actor plays an LAPD SWAT cop who defuses a bomb underneath a moving bus, thus making America safe for mass transit.
Dubbed "Die Hard on wheels" by preview audiences, Speed marks Reeves's graduation from male ingenues (see Dangerous Liaisons and Dracula) and quirky screen adolescents (Parenthood and My Own Private Idaho) to offbeat action hero.
Despite this barbaric barbering, the anti-coif does not diminish Reeves's uh, powers. All the better to see the Hostess - cupcake eyes, the angular face with its ethnic and sexual ambiguities.
"He has a beauty," marvelled his Little Buddha director Bernardo Bertolucci, "that's not Eastern or Western," a product of Reeves's Chinese-Hawaiian and English ancestry.
From the ankles up, the reedy 6-footer who was grunge before grunge was cool holds court in a Manhattan hotel suite looking spiffy as a GQ coverguy. His Issey Miyake suit is accessorized with suspenders and a crisp white shirt.
It is below the shins that his keanuness asserts itself. Those bulky bundles that appear to be wrapped in battered butcher paper and tied with soiled string are, upon closer inspection, a pair of totalled Timberland boots, worn without socks and whimsically laced. Souvenirs of motorcycle adventures through Los Angeles "arroyos" and canyons, his hard-living footwear looks decades older than Reeves's 29 years.
Enjoying polite conversation with the creature who possesses a flawless complexion and a tensile poise, it's hard not to look at these bruised and scarred artifacts and wonder whether they're Reeves's equivalent of Dorian Gray's portrait.
In Speed, the man with the unusual handle - "keanu" means "cool breeze over the mountain" in Hawaiian - plays Jack Traven. In Point Break (1991), he was a Fed called Johnny Utah and in a forthcoming film based on William Gibson's novel, the cyber-courier Johnny Mnemonic.
"I play men named Johnny and Jack a lot," he opens, adding with homespun mysticism, "there's an energy responsibility to that." His voice is breathy and geographically non-specific, a deliberately affectless voice recalling that of fellow Canadians Donald Sutherland and Peter Jennings.
"When you say 'Jack'," Reeves sings, exhaling a burst of air through clenched teeth, "the shape your mouth takes, the breath it takes, signifies loner, hero, renegade. . . . Think John the Baptist, Johnny Guitar, Johnny Suede, Jack the Ripper, jack-o'-lantern."
Is there an energy responsibility to "Keanu"?
"It's full of vowels," he says, smiling like a benevolent jack-o'-lantern. "Perhaps it means 'travelling different ways'." And with the sudden melancholy that tinges many of his performances, he adds, "My name is not borne out in popular stories." Hard to imagine a guy named Keanu drinking a brew with his fellow hardhats.
With the earnestness of a young man trying to impress his date's mom, he launches into a brief genealogy. His father's forebears settled in Oahu, "where there are Reeves everywhere. I'm sure my ancestors were on the boat with Captain Hook. I mean Captain Cook."
Though in life, as in certain roles, Reeves has a way of looking emptier than a sock drawer on laundry day, just as often he radiates intelligence. It's self-taught. The Beirut-born Reeves attended four high schools in Toronto before dropping out to pursue an acting career.
Ironically, the man who never attended college was this past semester the subject of The Films Of Keanu Reeves, a course at Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., where professor Stephen Prina used Reeves as a "device" to focus on modern culture.
Despite being the subject of college-level contemplation, Reeves is dismissed by critics and fans as an airhead, an impression Speed director Jan De Bont would like to debunk: "Keanu's heard too many times that he's not taken seriously. But he is serious." So much so that, after completing an adrenalin-pumping stunt in his new movie, "Keanu would recite a Shakespeare soliloquy between takes."
Yes, the stage actor who essayed Mercutio at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., and the movie star who played Don John in Much Ado About Nothing and a modern-dress Prince Hal in My Own Private Idaho not only wants to play Hamlet, he's actually preparing for a production at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg in January.
"I'm nervous," he admits, flailing his arms in an impersonation of a windmill. Then he howls, "January is TOO SOON!" His mood downshifts to the merely melodramatic: "My stomach just dropped. Really." Then he slips into interview-neutral: "I had an actor's nightmare the other night. It's such a cliche. I dreamt that I was on stage doing Hamlet - and I didn't remember the middle of the play."
Apart from Shakespeare and motorcycles, the subject that most inflames Reeves's passions is not a paramour (he is "romantically uninvolved"), but "virtual reality". Reeves is "worried about the direction" that the computer-simulated, interactive adventures now in bars and malls might take.
"It fascinates me, VR, the crude aspects of it, these real-seeming 3-D images. But what happens when they add hormonal ingredients to the mix, where it's not just you in the middle of this pretend movie but it's you being charged up with hormonal responses to what you're seeing?"
Is he aware that the cult of Keanu, which includes both women of all ages and gay men, might enjoy some VR sheet time with its lust object? He seems genuinely amused and amazed at the question, which means he's either a better actor than people give him credit for or more ingenuous than anyone believed. Surely he's read those confessions of Keanu-aniacs in Interview magazine and Sassy? Surely he reads his fan mail?
"I haven't read any fan mail in a long time," he admits, "because to open the letter brings great responsibility. I have greater responsibility to family and friends that comes first."
Ask some of his most ardent fans to explain Reeves's appeal and there's consensus among these otherwise-stable, mortgage-holding adults.
"He has an interesting sexuality, an unthreatening sexuality," observes Jeff Yarbrough, editor-in-chief of The Advocate, the highest-circulation gay magazine in the United States.
"I think his appeal is that he's . . . unthreatening. He's soft-looking rather than controlling and macho," opines Anka Radakovich, author of the widely quoted "Sex" column for Details, a magazine for men.
"He's like a lost puppy who needs caring. . . . He has that warm, unthreatening quality," says Kim France, who edits the arts-and-entertainment pages of Elle and formerly worked for Sassy, that bible for precocious teenage girls.
"The thing about him is that he's very, very attractive. Some don't see it, but if you do, it's staggering," says France. "At Sassy, he was our perennial heartthrob, even among the more cynical teenagers."
But can he act?
Many prominent directors think so. After his acid-etched portrait of juvenile angst in River's Edge (1986), Reeves was cast by Stephen Frears in Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Ron Howard in Parenthood (1989), Lawrence Kasdan in I Love You To Death (1990), Francis Ford Coppola in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and Kenneth Branagh in Much Ado About Nothing (1993). Except for Dracula, where Reeves has admitted he wasn't at his best, he made the most of these ensemble performances, closely observing his more seasoned co-stars during what became a decade-long apprenticeship.
The actor who fasted to play the ascetic Siddhartha and bulked up to play the muscular Jack Traven in Speed is preparing for another kind of actorly reincarnation. Next up is his role as a soldier in the World War II romance A Walk In The Clouds.
Sounds like a natural spot to find Keanu Reeves on the stroll.