Keanu: the star they can't pin down
by Susan Granger
'My acting parts have paralleled my personal growth, from kid to young man to responsible adult '
Hollywood can't pigeon-hole Keanu Reeves. He epitomised the totally excellent dude Ted in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and its goofy sequel Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey; film-maker Gus Van Sant transformed him into a male prostitute in My Own Private Idaho; Ron Howard saw his comedy potential in Parenthood: and Lawrence Kasdan used him in I Love You To Death.
Keanu Reeves has made 20 films and, most recently, he embodied the spiritual innocence of Prince Siddhartha in Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha, and played the intrepid Los Angeles SWAT cop in the high-velocity action adventure Speed.
"My acting parts have paralleled my personal growth." he observes, "from a kid to a young man to a responsible adult." Even his name is unusual. In Hawaiian, Keanu means cool breezes over the mountains.
Part-Hawaiian and part-Chinese, he was raised by his mother and stepfather in Toronto, where he attended four schools in five years before quitting entirely. He took acting lessons and found roles in community theatre and Canadian television before making his way to Los Angeles where Tim Hunter cast him as an alienated teenager in River's Edge.
Keanu, 29, is known as an actor who delves so deeply into each part he plays that he actually starved himself over the course of several weeks to make his body gaunt to typify Siddhartha's emaciated physique after a long fast in Little Buddha.
For Speed he lifted weights for about eight weeks.
He took some gymnastics classes and spent time with the film's technical adviser, Randy Walker, who spent 21 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, 14 of them as a SWAT cop.
Why did he choose action adventure at this stage of his career? "I had finished Little Buddha," Reeves says, "so I was an actor looking for work. I met with the director Jan DeBont and was impressed with his passion for Speed. It turned out to be an ensemble piece, not a star turn, and there's not a lot of blood, bodies, and gore. I admire the clean aesthetic look of the film."
DeBont is lavish in his praise for Reeves: "What's most unusual about him as an action hero is that he's vulnerable on screen. He's not threatening to men and appeals to women. In Speed, he has come of age."
Does that mean he will leave behind his forays into the rock world?
Keanu simply shrugs but, in recent years, young screen idols have been making the music scene on the Sunset Strip. Reeves' friend Johnny Depp was a struggling rocker before he became an actor. The late River Phoenix, whose untimely death Reeves still mourns ("I still don't know what happened to him...") had his own band, Aleka's Attic, and Reeves' folk group calls itself Dog Star.
Although for many years he was known for his grungy clothes and long hair, Reeves has, consciously, changed his image. He's no longer a rebellious kid; he's a man.
When DeBont suggested that he cut his scraggly mane. Reeves impulsively shaved his head almost completely. Now he actually goes to a barber for haircuts. For interviews. Reeves wears a gunmetal grey Issey Miyake suit, white silk shirt, open at the collar. with tan tube socks and beige Timberland boots.
In preparing for Little Buddha, he was impressed with what he read about compassion and wisdom.
"They are very complex terms but, to me, being very simple, wisdom is in name and form and compassion is giving of yourself and being able to receive with responsibility," he says.
"Being in Nepal really sensitised me to what I have and to what is around me and to suffering. I have not put down my joy to, perhaps, help the starving and the sick. I do it another way: by entertaining."
Reeves did not grow up with any particular faith. "I knew about the Ten Commandments, Jesus on the Cross, and the Virgin Mary but that was about it. But when you get into it (the study of religion), you hear about experiences like talking in tongues.
"In Buddhism, what I read and experienced is a vigorous, incredible, sharp, keen mind. Their training in dialectic and philosophy is incredible and unparalleled.
"For me, it did engender a belief in different levels of energy because I experienced it. Halfway through the film I had to ask myself, 'Am I here to act or am I here on a spiritual quest?'
"I didn't have a teacher but I initiated some practices of the beginner... like looking at the nature of your mind. They call it 'Monkey Mind'."
Reeves lives alone and claims to be unattached. He has an apartment in New York and in Los Angeles he lives at the Chateau Marmont Hotel, where John Belushi overdosed years ago.
He gave up driving a car six or seven years ago. Instead, he rides a vintage Norton motorcycle which he's crashed a few times, "like five or six but only one when I woke up and thought. 'Where am I? How did I get here?'"
Because of the strict laws in the United States. he now wears a helmet when riding his bike but "outside America and the authorities," he eschews the added protection.
"Back in '92, before the law came into effect, I wore a helmet during the day when I was picking up scripts, going to the bank, you know? Doing business. Then, at night, when I partied, I would just wing it.
"But who I was and what I thought in the past is no longer relevant. Today is now and I am me. I'm different and every day I am changing," he said.