Keanu Reeves: lasting action hero(also published on June 19 under the title 'Keanu Reeves is a Hot Action Property, Thanks to 'Speed')
by Sara Voorhees
'Speed' star says no he likes eclectic range of roles
KEANU REEVES is a new man. After carrying the crown for five years as the most incomprehensible interview in show business, he is now thoughtful and coherent. Where once he appeared for interviews covered ("dressed" is too elegant a word) in a dirty T-shirt and torn Levis, unshaven and hair greasy, he is now handsomely turned out in a loose-fitting Euro-trash suit. He's very thin and lanky from his movie "Little Buddha," and his rambling, jittery answers have been replaced by an intriguing and understated body language.
It's easy to understand what it is about him that fascinates directors. His hands are clasped casually in his lap, but his face is expressive, and his shoulders move excitedly as he talks about "Speed," which opened Friday. The movie is destined to make him the hot new romantic action property.
Reeves plays an ace SWAT cop who leaps on board a speeding city bus when a psychotic ex-cop rigs a bomb to explode if the bus drops below 50 mph. His character, Jack Traven, performs a hundred acts of amazing derring-do and then falls in love with one of the passengers, Annie, played by Sandra Bullock. In the movie he's muscular and pumped up, and he insisted on doing a lot of his own stunts, including a jump onto a moving bus from a racing Jaguar, an excruciating moment.
"I'm a BULLDOG! I lifted weights for eight weeks, took gymnastics and spent time with my stunt coordinator, Gary Hymes, who had just finished doing 'Jurassic Park', where the actors were very much involved. I liked that. What was cool was the element of having to be aware. If the stunts were too dangerous, if you're not linked up with the bus going 45 mph, don't jump!"
Reeves is reunited with Dennis Hopper, who also starred in "River's Edge" at the beginning of Reeves' career. "I had to trade punches with Hopper, who's a man I love, and he was much better at it than I was. My fake punches missed him by a country mile. (Director) Jon De Bont was always yelling at me "Closer to his face! Closer to his face!" Finally I got about an inch away, but it wasn't easy."
Reeves said that first-time director De Bont changed the original script dramatically and made it more appealing.
"I like his clean aesthetic, and yeah, his taste. There isn't a lot of blood and gore. The script was a hodgepodge . . . Annie and Jack weren't interesting, there was no emotional curve to the piece. It said things like "a bad guy with one eye sits in the shadows in a bar eating a boiled egg.' What? But the title, 'Speed,' made me laugh. They called it 'Speed!' Incredible!"
Incredible as it seems, "Speed" has critics hailing Reeves as the new action hero.
"That's something that is fiction," he says. "It's not my ambition to be an action hero. I don't see myself as an Arnold Schwarzenegger. To me it's an ensemble piece, not a hero piece. The protagonist isn't in the prow."
It's a generous statement, but Reeves is definitely the hero, and it's about time. He has made the most oddly disparate series of movies of just about any actor in Hollywood, from "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" to the young prince Siddhartha in "Little Buddha."
The critics have not always been kind to him, no matter what he's tried. "Toasted!" he says. "I've been toasted! And now, on 'Little Buddha' and I guess on 'Speed,' they're all saying, "Doesn't it seem like a lifetime ago since you did 'Bill and Ted?'" And all I can say is 'No!' It seems like only yesterday because everybody keeps reminding me."
He says the range of his roles was an accident rather than a deliberate effort not to be pigeonholed.
"Really, I've only had a few mainstream films. I've done mostly independent films. My ambition was to act . . . in any genre. I was shocked when Bernardo Bertolucci said he wanted me to play Siddhartha. I asked him why, and he said, 'Your innocence!' and he shaped a mountain with his hands and put my innocence at the top. He didn't realize that my whole mountain was innocence. He was just amazed that someone could be that innocent."
Reeves' experiences working on "Little Buddha," he says, were some of the best days of his life. "It was a filling experience, in the sense that it had something to it . . . the connection to the audience was profound. I'm a very simple guy, but it sensitized me to what I am and what's around me, and to suffering. When I got back, my friends all said, "Gosh, you're skinny, but you haven't changed.'
"I have changed, I think. I haven't put down my jolliness to help the starving and the sick, but I've changed. I didn't grow up with any particular faith. I mean, I know about the Ten Commandments and the Virgin Mary. But halfway through the film I started thinking, 'Am I here to act, or am I on a spiritual quest?' I definitely am here to act.
"I started acting when I was 16 years old. My mother was a theatrical costumer, and my stepfather was a director. I was surrounded by actors, and I remember looking up at them the way young boys look up at firemen and saying, 'I want to be that when I grow up.' "
Regardless of the respect he's finally found in movies, Reeves is going back to theater. In January, he will play "Hamlet" on stage in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and he can't wait. "Part of me is thirsty for challenge. It's a great part, a really good play."
He stops himself, having realized how insipid he must sound. "I can just hear it," he says with a British accent. "Someone telling Shakespeare, 'Mr. Keanu Reeves mentioned that he felt your play "Hamlet" was a great play!' 'How very kind of him,' said the Bard."