THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING KEANU
(Previously published on June 13 as a shorter version under the title 'Call it the cult of Keanu Reeves ' and as a slightly longer (but shorter than this one) version on June 18 under the title Keanu Reeves: Quiet Power')
The heartthrob hero of "Speed" talks about his transformation from airhead to man of action
by Carrie Rickey
NEW YORK -- 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 buzz cut.
The reason for his makeover is the new, pulse-pounding film "Speed," in which the 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' 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', uh, powers. All the better to see 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 effect 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 cover guy. 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 Keanu-ness 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.
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 says, 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 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 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, he radiates intelligence just as often. 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 many 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 adrenaline-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."
Apart from Shakespeare and motorcycles, the subject that most inflames Reeves' 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 3D 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?"
Conjuring a paranoid scenario that might have been imagined by Aldous Huxley, he continues, "What happens when they can give a true-seeming sense of anxiety or love? What happens when they can give you true- seeming memories?"
Worried that VR might replace reading as a pastime, he muses glumly, "I hope in 50 years there are still books." He is concerned that what drives VR development is the porn industry.
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' 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."
Reeves, who fasted to play the ascetic Siddhartha in "Little Buddha" 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.