Keanu, a most excellent enigma(also published on June 10 in a longer but less updated version under the title 'The Next Action Hero?')
by Melina Gerosa
Speed's new action hero is a walking mystery with a foggy history
LITTLE FRIDA'S, a lesbian coffee shop in West Hollywood, may be one of the few places in America where the androgynous beauty of Keanu Reeves is lost on the locals. Its sole customer, who's wearing a nose ring and has a large, colorful tattoo crawling up her back, barely offers a bored glance as Reeves glides by, singing along with piped U2. Soft-spoken and courteous, Reeves has a china-doll complexion, black beads for eyes, and a worn leather book with handwritten notes on Hamlet poking out of the pocket of his scraggly suede jacket. Sipping his cranberry juice and appearing politely horrified by the femo-phallic artwork on the walls Reeves appears more like a slacker poet than the next great action hero.
Looks can deceive. In Speed, Reeves' nerves-of-steel performance as LA Police Department SWAT cop Jack Traven has Twentieth Century Fox so excited that it sped up the film's US release from August to June 10. Co-starring Jeff Daniels as Jack's partner and Dennis Hopper as the madman who has rigged a bus to explode if its speed falls below 50 mph, the action thriller has generated such a buzz that Fox is already talking of a sequel, and insiders are lauding Reeves as the next Sly/Arnold/ Bruce. The Speed star's response: Thanks, but no thanks. "I don't have any ambition to do that," says Reeves. "I'm not averse to working in the genre again; it was good, clean fun. But my ambition is variety." (He may have since changed his mind. A source close to Reeves says the actor now "wants ro do" Speed 2, but "only with script approval" and with his take upper from Speed's $2.3 million to "at least $9.5 million".)
The scruffy, skinny guy with a military haircut is not the most obvious choice to muscle into testosterone territory. Nor does he have the resumé. With 20 films to his credit, Reeves, 29, is best-known for his portrayal of the burn-out Ted in 1989's Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and its '91 sequel, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. He did Shakespeare last summer in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, and he plans to play Hamlet next January on the Canadian stage. Indeed, Reeves's present role as Prince Siddhartha - the last inaction hero - in Little Buddha may be better suited to his gentle, somewhat otherworldly demeanor.
But that doesn't stop the makers of Speed from touting their star's dude-of-steel credentials. "I've worked with Mel, Bruce, etc, etc, but people are ready for a new, younger action hero, especially one young people can relate to," says Speed's first-time director Jan De Bont, previously the cinematographer for Lethal Weapon 3, Basic Instinct, and Die Hard. "I always felt Keanu would be perfect after seeing Point Break [in which he played a surfing undercover FBI agent].... What is nice about him as an action hero is that he's vulnerable on the screen. He's not threatening to men because he's not that bulky, and he looks great to women." The Dutch director nonetheless felt that Reeves needed an image makeover. "To me he represented something too young, too cool-hippie. He's represented too much the grunge look for too long. I felt like he had to grow up. In this movie he is really coming of age."
Keanu. In Hawaiian it means cool breezes over the mountains. Named after his great-uncle (he thinks) Reeves and his sisters - Kim, a parttime model in her mid-20s, and Karina, 18, who just finished high school - were raised by their mother, Patricia, a British-born designer of theatrical costumes, and stepfather in Toronto. Their father, Samuel Nowlin Reeves, a geologist of Hawaiian-Chinese descent, left the family when Keanu was a child. (He dropped out of sight for years - he hasn't communicated with his children in more than a decade - only to re-emerge as a convicted criminal. Last month, Reeves Snr. was sentenced by a Hawaiian court to 10 years' jail for cocaine possession.) In Toronto, Keanu attended four high schools in five years before dropping out. After working at a ice-hockey rink and in an Italian food store, he took acting lessons and worked in community theatre, local television, and commercials. At 19, the fledgling actor got into his "thrashmobile", a 1969 Volvo, and drove to Los Angeles, where he has lived ever since.
Reeves soon landed a TV movie with Lindsay Wagner, but his first real break came as an alienated, road-to-nowhere teenager in Tim Hunter's '86 Generation-X forerunner River's Edge. Directors took note: He has since worked with Ron Howard in Parenthood, Lawrence Kasdan in I Love You to Death, Francis Ford Coppola in Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Gus Van Sant in My Own Private Idaho.
Once he took the Speed role, Reeves had to transform physically. "I really didn't want [Jack] to have long hair," says De Bont. "I wanted him to look strong and in control of himself." So the actor pulled a Sinead O'Conner and shaved his head almost completely. "Everyone at the studio was scared shitless when they first saw it," says the director. "There was only like a millimetre. What you see in the movie is actually grown in." Although he never approached Stallone-like proportions, Reeves did manage to fill out his lithe frame by pumping up for two months at Gold's Gym in Los Angeles.
But this is an action hero with some chinks in his armour. Sandra Bullock, who plays Annie, the passenger Traven recruits to take the wheel, was surprised by his introverted personality. "I was expecting this stud-muffin who was wild but the Little Keester sits back and listens to everything," she says. Bullock thinks she knows the source of Reeves' sensitivity: He has gone through harder times than he's willing to admit. "I think there's a lot of pain," she says. "I would see him go off by himself, and there's a hint of sadness in his eyes that makes you want to go, 'What is it?'... But he keeps it to himself, and that makes you want to know even more about him." Hopper, who has known Reeves since they costarred in River's Edge, agrees. "He's always been very serious about his work, and he's always been very distant.... He has some inner turmoil that he deals with. I haven't questioned him, [but] certainly he's got something there."
The turmoil that Bullock and Hopper specifically noticed on the Speed set may have something to do with the death of River Phoenix. His overdose last October (while Speed was in production) is said to have devastated Reeves, a close friend and costar in My Own Private Idaho and I Love You to Death. Immediately after Phoenix died, De Bont changed the shooting schedule to work around Reeves and give him easier scenes. "It got to him emotionally," he says. "He became very quiet, and it took him quite a while to work it out by himself and calm down. It scared the hell out of him."
"It happened one day, and the next day we were working and he never brought it up, and I never brought it up either," says Hopper, who also knew Phoenix. "I thought it was admirable on both of our parts. Hollywood's a very glib kind of town, and it's easy to have dialogue, and it's easy to make serious things light. I felt that not talking about River Phoenix's death didn't put it in a common place."
It is not a topic, even months later, about which Reeves has much to share. "Oh, I miss him," he says quietly. "I miss him greatly."
Keanu Reeves doesn't really live anywhere. He owns a flat in New York but says that a dispute over the LA building where he rented a town house forced him to leave. Reeves, who lives alone and is said to be unattached, moved his belongings into storage and sought refuge at the Chateau Marmont, the Hollywood hotel best known as the place where John Belushi died. In the empty, shabby-chic dining room, Reeves presses a buzzer on the wall and within minutes is enjoying a late-afternoon snack of hot chocolate and croissants. He is wearing a gunmetal gray Issey Miyake suit complemented by tube socks and Timberland boots ripped at the seams, and he has a red motorcycle helmet with him that has obviously smacked its share of gravel.
In some ways, Reeves seems typically boyish. He enhances stories by making sounds of cars crashing and planes taking off, plays hockey in his spare time and enjoys jamming on his bass with his folk band Dog Star. But the actor has a less accessible, less explicable aspect as well. He tends to lapse into detached, almost Shakespearean actor-speak, which is punctuated by passionate, if unusual, descriptions of people (on Jan De Bont: "He is a beautiful warrior master!") He can become almost rhapsodic discussing the ballroom-dancing lessons he's taking for fun. But when he doesn't want to discuss something, he can defend himself with an impenetrable shield of words. Reminded that a Keanu Reeves film class is being taught at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, he says: "I guess I'm not really involving my imagination to that of a circumstance or happening - I'm just kind of acknowledging it as an existence." Exactly.
The class, which uses Reeves' films as a departure point for discussing culture and philosophy (the students read Michel Foucault's essay on Nietzsche for Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure), will have two more films to add to next year's syllabus. Reeves has just finished shooting Johnny Mnemonic, artist-turned-director Robert Longo's cyberpunk thriller; he stars opposite Ice-T as a messenger who has a disease cure implanted in his head. And this month he starts filming A Walk in the Clouds, a romantic story of a soldier returning from World War II, to be directed by Alfonso Arau (Like Water for Chocolate).
Reeves' reserve is never more evident than when he's asked whether Phoenix's death affected how he looks at life. He sits silently for a 10-beat eternity. Turning his face to the window, he sniffs, then sniffs again, and parts with a hoarse "No." On his face, however, a range of intense emotions flash by like film being projected on a moving target. When reminded that he doesn't have to answer the question if he's not comfortable, he replies, "I answered the question. No."
With the interview finished, Reeves heads outside to unlock his vintage Norton motorcycle. Tucking his identification into his helmet, he hops on and zooms off to a bookshop to buy essays on Hamlet, clearly thrilled to be making a getaway. "Keanu is always very charming," says Dennis Hopper. "But I think he would be more content if he could get away from people."