Despite his image as a brain-exempt, one-note teen pin-up, Keanu Reeves has taken on hefty roles for Coppola, Branagh and now Bertolucci with Little Buddha, showing depth behind the dude-isms. "Since I've stunk in some films," he tells Joshua Mooney in Los Angeles, "I guess I have something to prove..."
THERE ARE NO FEWER THAN three publicists stalking the Beverly Hills hotel suite as the Japanese writer and the Empire scribe wait as patiently as they can for Keanu Reeves to show. When publicists outnumber journalists at an interview, said hacks can legitimately wonder: what are they afraid of? One of them is even placing a tape recorder on a table, and it doesn't take a paranoid to read this as a subtle caveat to the scribes: be careful not to misquote anyone here.
Just how dangerous do they expect these questions to be? Or is it Reeves they're worried about. The actor is known for occasionally flipping out during interviews - at times reaching a head-banging level of frustration and anxiety at the unguarded, stream-of-consciousness answers he gives but which he clearly cannot quite control. This reinforces the popular image of Keanu Reeves: he's an ordinary young guy, a typical laid-back American dude who, quite naturally, can get bent out of shape by the rigours of the interview process. The spin doctors have reason to be cautious: Keanu is also a movie star, and people listen to what he has to say. Today he'll be letting fly on nothing less than Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha, the $30 million epic that's been raising eyebrows ever since it was announced that Reeves, 29-year-old teenage goofball that he is, was the choice to play Siddhartha, the 6th Century B.C. Indian prince who became the Buddha.
Then the publicist fiddling with the tape recorder says a curious thing.
"Okay, now, let's see. River will sit here..." He freezes. "Keanu!" he corrects himself. "Keanu will sit here." Er, right. Because River Phoenix is dead. He's done with sitting and interviews and everything else. On one level this morbid little slip-up is understandable. Phoenix and Reeves have been cosmically linked in the minds of many since they made My Own Private Idaho together in 1991. Both gave arguably their finest performances as best friends living on the streets in Gus Van Sant's risky, darkly humorous ode to Shakespeare, Orson Welles and Pacific Northwest male hustlers. But in every other way the two actors would seem to be worlds apart. Phoenix was the golden boy of his generation. From Stand By Me, made when he was 15, through Running On Empty (an Oscar nomination at the age of 18), Idaho and beyond, he could do virtually no wrong. Phoenix was the heir-apparent to Dean, Brando and Clift without - it was presumed - their self-destructive streaks; he was a younger, cuter, male answer to Jodie Foster. He was unstoppable - and then he stopped himself. Reeves, on the other hand, has always been a conundrum. He's a popular star, despite bombs and bad notices, with a large, primarily youthful, following. But, quite frankly, is he an acting talent?
For the most parts he's played variations on a single riff: the scruffy, troubled, semi-articulate American teen in films like Parenthood, River's Edge, The Prince Of Pennsylvania, Permanent Record and Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure. Only the latter, the charmingly idiotic comedy about a couple of dim-witted, goofy so-called teens, was a hit. Most curious of all, despite a consensus that Reeves has a limited range, he's again and again been cast by renowned filmmakers in roles that would seem to require more talent and a defter touch than he's yet shown. He played an 18th Centuny French musician in Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liasions, a l9th Century British estate agent for Francis Coppola in Bram Stoker's Dracula, a Renaissance ltalian in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing. Critics have gleefully noted his trouble with accents and period dialogue, and his seeming inability to exorcise the late 20th Century surfer-boy inflexions from his onscreen demeanour. And now comes Bertolucci's Little Buddha. Airhead Ted as living deity? The critics will be ready. But is the actor ready for them?
Keanu Reeves lopes into the room the way he often lopes on to the screen, with the slouching arms-akimbo gait that suggests he can't possibly be worried about much at all.
"Greetings!" he offers genially, and plops into a chair, considerably less expectant than the gaggle of publicists leaning against the wall.
What was the most intense aspect, Reeves is asked, of filming Little Buddha, a project that sounds like it might have been downright bizarre? There he was, working with the legendary Bertolucci on location in the Himalayas surrounded by monks and monasteries, not to mention having to portray the spiritual leader of millions. Weird?
Reeves nods and lets rip.
"l was embracing everything so much," he says. "I was looking for it and I found it and I was glad. You know, I packed one suitcase - most of it was books - and just went. The falling away of the accoutrements was easy. I was very happy to be in Kathmandu. Have you been?
"It was incredible - cows in the road. It's described in Dharma Bums (written by Jack Kerouac), but that was 25 years ago... But now, you know, down these 900-year-old city streets with cows and children and houses that barely have electricity, you know, Mercedes-Benz tourist buses with windows that don't open full of a hundred tourists totally enclosed in their own environment, which I guess is good as opposed to a hundred people marching through some village. I don't know. There's no happy medium. The population seemed to cause chaos but, uh, that's a very trite thing to say with your question. You know I went to Bhutan as well..."
Ah yes, Bhutan - perhaps that's a tale best saved for later. If there's time. Here we begin to see the dilemma of Keanu Reeves in an interview. It's not that he's shallow. Far from it: he's just flung out about a dozen ideas in a single monologue. But his passion and desire to explain everything at once sometimes trip him up. Like a guy trying to write a philosophy degree paper on the Meaning Of Life 15 minutes before class.
There is nothing to be gained here by making poor Keanu's head explode. Alas, there remain some heavy questions to toss his way. Like, for example, did he delve into the Buddhist Way while making the film?
"I never took refuge," he says, succinctly. "I realised that in order to continue being an actor, I couldn't do that. But, um, there's certainly that attraction to go over the hill and become a yogi. I mean the higher lamas like Khyentse Rinpoche, who was this man who helped Bertolucci, he's Venerable. You'd go to town and the leader of the army prostrated to this man. And I'm going, 'Hey man, how's it going?' "
Reeves laughs. The image of Reeves high-fiving a holy lama might work in Bill And Ted Part Three: Rock 'N' Roll Nirvana. But if Reeves is aware of the Ted-ness of his response, he shows no sign of it.
The Japanese journalist perks up. "This must have been a challenging role for you," she says. Keanu smiles.
"I'm 29. Siddhartha was 29 when he began his quest. So I'm historically, traditionally in my life at the beginning of the quest for spirituality."
Not to mention the quest for better roles. Essaying Siddhartha is certainly the most complex undertaking of Reeves' career. How does it fit into the young actor's inevitable attempt to establish himself as an adult in Hollywood?
"I have no idea," he says. "The innocence comes across in the performance. I'm certainly not playing the commander of an army or the father of eight. But in general, I don't want to be in high school or losing my virginity any more. Or that kind of virginity, at that time."
One can't help but wonder how Reeves' appearance in a profound film like Little Buddha will strike his young fans. Will they get it?
"Do I have young fans?" retorts Reeves. "Do I? Does anybody care out there? Hello?"
He seems sincere, but it's a stretch to believe he is ignorant of his image among the world's younger cinema-goers. Is he further unaware that Coppola admitted he picked Reeves for Dracula hoping he'd attract a youthful crowd? Bertolucci told Reeves he was making a film "for the children." Is it appallingly cynical, then, to see his casting of Reeves as a calculated effort like Coppola's? Look, what we need to know is: was Reeves surprised that the maestro chose him?
"Uh, surprised? Definitely. There was about eight minutes of feeling that 'This is very audacious.' But in the end that disappears and you're like. 'Great, let's begin.' But I had lots of people saying, 'You can't play this part.' "
Any moment now, Reeves will turn 30, an age at which one begins to ponder the fact that life is...
"Short?" asks Reeves, with a clipped laugh, which just may be a reference to his friend River. Okay, life is short, and serious. and so, increasingly, are the choices an adult actor makes about his career.
"The opportunity for maturity is definitely there." says Reeves. "I'm very interested in becoming a better actor. But I'm still kind of floating along."
At least the days of Bill and Ted, we might safely surmise, are behind him.
"To a certain extent." says Reeves cautiously. "You know I thought Bill and Ted was great clown work."
Actually, that's an astute observation. Ted is an idiot, but one with almost Dostoevskian dimensions. Or possibly not. In any case, Reeves' lunatic portrayal of that Bozo was dead funny.
"The only consistency I can see in my work upon reflection is that there's always an innocence to my characterisations," he says. "That's changing. But I'm still innocent because I'm a fucking idiot. Which is, you know, a drag."
The self-deprecation continues when he's confronted with the hostile critical assessments of his work, which he admits prevent him from being as confident as his star status might allow.
"I feel like I'm just beginning because I've had some successes and some failures. I got killed in Dracula. I got slaughtered."
Indeed he did - like in this broadside, from venerable American film critic Stanley Kauffman: "(Reeves) behaves like a quite nice high school boy in the senior class production of Dracula."
"I didn't think the accent was that bad," Reeves moans, "but supposedly it was. I won't ask you what you think. Because I can tell. But since I've stunk in some films, I guess I have something to prove..."
"Japan is a Buddhist country," notes the Japanese writer suddenly. "What will they think of Little Buddha?"
"I do not know," he whispers thoughtfully. "I do not know."
On the plus sid,. Buddhists are, by definition, a peaceful people. No need to worry, then, about fatwahs or anything like that. But, more to the box office point, what will the rest of the world think of Bertolucci's long, leisurely paced paean to all things Enlightened? Buddha is hardly a guaranteed hit. The half of the film set in the modern world, in which a gang of Seattle monks determine that the son of Bridget Fonda and Chris Isaak is a reincarnation of a high lama, seems miscalculated at best. Of the film's three stars Reeves is the one who takes chances. And hey, his accent isn't terrible.
"I thought the film was very poetic," concludes Reeves. "And also what about the whole aspect of prophets, karma and reincarnation? And then your place in all of that? Oh my God! Complicated! I dunno."
Maybe the critics will spare him out of some kind of, you know, karmic debt.
"If you believed in reincarnation," says the Japanese writer, "what do you think you were in a past life?"
"In my human reincarnation?" Reeves asks cagily. "I don't think I've always been human. I'm not that old and I'm not that young. I'm 29 in my reincarnations."
"Isn't it?" Reeves laughs. "Whew! Synchronicity. What's 29 - a crocodile? No, they're older. But they're also young - the way they eat."
Reeves leans back, serenely pondering that particular metaphysical mystery. See, there's the essence of Keanu Reeves right there: able and willing to make an odd, even silly off-the-cuff observation like that for the record. In any case, the actor's made it through the interview with no anxiety attacks. There's a seriousness to Reeves now that just might have something to do with maturity, and travelling a bit further down the path.
In a dozen-and-a-half films, the thing Keanu Reeves has yet to do with any consistency is play to his strengths. Despite the consencus that he was out of his depth in Branagh's Much Ado, the fact is that the part of Don John allowed him to bring a villainous dimension to his characterisation, something which he also did to fine effect in Idaho. There's an edge to him which he's yet to really exploit. Having survived his twenties, Reeves may yet turn his star status into something more enduring. When asked if he's looking forward to the next decade, Keanu nods.
"Yeah, sure," he says vaguely. "What's going to happen? What's going to happen?..."