KEANU REEVES: QUIET POWER
(Previously published on June 13 as a shorter version under the title 'Call it the cult of Keanu Reeves ' and as a longer version on June 26 under the title The Importance of Being Keanu')
by Carrie Rickey, Knight-Ridder News Service
"Speed" star Keanu Reeves takes his acting chores seriously. But it his nonthreatening sexuality that captivates fans. And those eyes.
Keanu Reeves' 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 film "Speed," in which the actor plays an Los Angeles SWAT cop who saves the passengers on a booby-trapped runaway bus, thus making America safe for mass transit. Dubbed "'Die Hard' on wheels" by preview audiences, "Speed" marks Reeves' 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 of the most beloved follicles since Samson, the anti-coif does not diminish Reeves' uh, powers. All the better to see the Hostess-cupcake eyes, the angular face with its ethnic and sexual ambiguities.
"He has a beauty," marveled his "Little Buddha" director Bernardo Bertolucci, "that's not Eastern or Western," a product of Reeves' Chinese-Hawaiian and English ancestry. The actor's enigmatic face suggests a computer-generated composite of every known race and gender. His affect is pansexual and so is his appeal. At the trill of his name - say key-AH-noo - fans female and male heave libidinal sighs. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
From the ankles up, the reedy 6-footer who was grunge before grunge was cool holds court today in a Manhattan hotel suite looking spiff as a GQ coverguy. His Issey Miyake suit, the color of an iridescent black pearl, is accessorized with suspenders and a crisp, white shirt worn tieless.
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 totaled 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' 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' 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 'traveling different ways.' " And with the sudden melancholy that tinges many of his performances, he adds, "My name is not born 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 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 Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., where professor Stephen Prina used Reeves as a "device" to focus on modern culture. To discuss the subtext of "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," Prina assigned readings such as Michel Foucault's essay on "Nietzsche and History."
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 Theater Center in Winnipeg in January, reading every interpretation of the tragic hero he gets his mitts on.
"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."
Ask some of his most ardent fans to explain Reeves' 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 nation's highest-circulation gay magazine.
"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.
Groaning that "I'm beginning to sound like a teenager," Radakovich proceeds to cite hard facts. "Two years ago, Details put him on the cover and when the magazine immediately sold out, we did an analysis of newsstand purchases. Eighty percent were by women."
"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."
It is the blankness and calm of Reeves' beatific face, Yarbrough thinks, "that allows people to project their fantasies onto him, big-time."
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.
"Keanu is a very underrated actor," says De Bont, the "Die Hard" cinematographer who makes his impressive directorial debut with "Speed." "From one side, he's very childlike and innocent like Cary Grant, and from the other side, he's so strong. Most important are his eyes: You can read emotion in them. There's nothing going on behind the eyes of most action heroes."
According to De Bont, there was even more behind Reeves' eyes than usual after his friend and "Private Idaho" co-star River Phoenix died of a drug overdose during the filming of "Speed" last fall.
"I didn't call off the shoot after River died," explains the director. "I thought it was better to keep Keanu busy. He said it was a good idea to keep working, but he did need a lot of time to himself. He wandered around a lot."
The actor also took solace in what Reeves calls his "voice work," a technique he studies with Kristen Linklater. "It's about channeling your breath for physical relaxation and to drop the sound into your diaphragm," he says, which explains why Mr. Cool Breeze Over the Mountain sometimes sounds like Mr. Hot Wheeze Under the Windpipe.
Apart from his work with Linklater and playing bass with a punk band called Dogstar, "the only continuity I've had over the past couple years is friends and family," explains Reeves, who remains close to his younger sisters Karina and Kim, and who over the last two years has vagabonded to Tuscany, Nepal, Los Angeles and Toronto to make "Much Ado About Nothing," "Little Buddha," "Speed" and "Johnny Mnemonic."
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.
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"Speed", Rating: R