(Previously published on June 10 as a shorter version under the title 'Keanu Reeves: He is Called 'Action Hero of the '90s'')
This is Keanu Reeves' breakthrough summer -- from Bernardo Bertolucci's art house epic "Little Buddha" to the action adventure blockbuster "Speed".
by Eileen Daspin
Keanu Reeves, Hollywood *ur* dude, is lunging, thrusting and dancing around a Toronto parking lot. He's lean as a greyhound, elegantly dressed, with hair cropped in a ruff, "Repo Man" style.
And he's quoting the Bard.
"When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate..."
"It's a sonnet," explains Keanu, named for a cool breeze over the mountains, who fell in love with Shakespeare at 14 and now recites it to calm himself down "Shakespeare is physically thrilling, it goes into my brain and into my heart. It compounds so much love and hate, heaven and earth, heart and soul..."
At the moment, the actor is being watched by Dina Meyer, his costar in "Johnny Mnemonic", a cyberpunk action adventure in its final days of shooting. Her mind is not focused on Elizabethan verse. As Reeves spins, leaps and tosses off a few more lines of iambic pentameter, Meyer darts across the parking lot to pin him against the trailer. She feigns an embrace, and later bemoans that she and Keanu "only have one almost kissing scene," in the whole movie. "I know the scenes I've done and I can imagine people watching and saying, 'When are they going to get it on?'"
For Reeves, the instant was just a breathing exercise. "Gotta go," he pronounces. He shakes off Meyer, does a few deep knee bends, then exits, off to costume and makeup for his first morning call -- calm and relaxed.
Ever since he played Ted, the totally excellent dude of the "Bill and Ted" adventures, it's been assumed Keanu Reeves is Ted -- airhead, air guitar and all -- which is to say, he isn't always taken very seriously. Even Reeves admits, "The line has definitely been blurred." He's known more for his sex appeal -- to both men and women -- a wild streak, dirty jeans and hair than for his film performances, which have been uneven, at best. He did teen angst, well, in "River's Edge" and "My Own Private Idaho". He was winning in "I Love You to Death" and "Parenthood". He was perfect in The "Bill and Ted" adventures. On the other hand, he was out of his depth in "Bram Stoker's Dracula", awful in "Dangerous Liaisons" and really awful in "Much Ado About Nothing". This summer he won praise for his role in the long delayed "Little Buddha" and a small part in the uneven "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues".
But now, Keanu Reeves seems poised for the ultimate unlikely development in his most unlikely career: to break out as the next Arnold-sized action star with the summer release of "Speed" and next year's "Johnny Mnemonic".
"He's an action hero for the Nineties," gushes "Speed" director Jan De Bont, who set Reeves up with an Olympic gymnast trainer to effect the transformation from dude to stud. "He looks so great. I think he easily can go up against [Bruce and Arnold]. What makes him stand out is that he dares to let emotions show. We've had enough of the cartoony type action heroes."
Pare away the Hollywood hype, and you still have a phenomenon. Like his fellow dirty chic-sters Ethan Hawke and Johnny Depp, Reeves has a gentle, nonthreatening magnetism. "He is absolutely attractive to both men and women," says De Bont. "To women, because he has great eyes and his face is so honest. For men, because he's not over the top with biceps like crazy or a neck that's crazy. He's more accessible." Keanu himself is non-plussed by the idea he appeals to both the sexes. "You mean most actors don't?" he asks.
A few signs of his curious popularity: For the spring semester at the Arts College of Design in Pasadena, California, there was a 12-week course in the 29-year old's oeuvre, "The Films of Keanu Reeves." Students viewed a film a week, along with assigned reading. For example, to accompany the original "Bill and Ted", the class read "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" by Michel Foucault. "The first time I heard about it, I didn't say, 'Oh cool,'" says Keanu. "It was just something that existed. I hope it's interesting. I hope the kids learn something worthwhile." When his garage band, Dogstar, made its debut at a Northern California bar last fall, 75 percent of the audience was women. One threw herself on the stage and had to be carried out. "That must be the same concert where we had 80,000 people," says a skeptical Keanu. He tools around L.A. on a Norton motorcycle and sports serious scars to prove it. He doesn't really hang with the "in" crowd, and there are so many wild rumors about his personal life that at movie premiers he's often besieged by TV crews asking "Are you gay?" and "Are you a drug addict?"
The basic facts about Reeves' life include: His mother is English and his father is half Chinese and half Hawaiian (thus the name Keanu). He was born in Beirut, then moved to Australia, New York and Toronto. He stays at the Chateau Marmont when he's in L.A. He also has an apartment in New York. He has two sisters and was voted the most valuable player on his high-school hockey team, but dropped out before graduation. While he denies being part of the Hollywood "scene," or even knowing what it is ("I'm as familiar with it as your readers," he demurs), he names two of L.A.'s hippest eateries as his favorites: Cafe des Artistes, a funky bistro, and Quality Foods, a Generation X hangout.
So, who is Keanu Reeves, really?
"He's like a really sweet, kind person, and I wouldn't say that about many people in this town," says L.A. tastemeister Sofia Coppola. "He has his own group of friends, and he's not a scenester. He's a cool guy. He keeps his distance from all the bullshit. ... He's smart, too. People don't give him credit. He's definitely not like Ted. But he sounds like him sometimes."
Bearing up under the comb and gel of a stylist on the set of "Johnny Mnemonic", Reeves is gaunt, but sunny, genial as Ted. In fact, it would be easy to confuse the two -- except for the fact that in costume, a tattered snakeskin suit, white shirt and skinny black tie, he looks more like Ted's evil twin. Reeves slips into Californiaspeak and his preferred adjective is "cool." He's animated, but can't remember the author or title of the book he's reading (Oriana Fallaci's "Interview With History") or the names of the films director Robert Longo suggested that he watch to prepare for his role as Johnny, an "information courier" living in the 21st century.
"A lot of the characters I've played have had good hearts and are altruistic in some way," Reeves says. "It seems to be what I get hired for." Johnny, on the other hand, is a "yuppie gone berserk," who lives only for his work -- which involves carrying data on a computer chip stored in his brain. "There is a lot of playfulness in William Gibson," says Reeves, referring to the author whose short story "Johnny Mnemonic" inspired the film. "In the movie, my character needs more memory, so what I do to get more memory is to have my childhood erased. ... I like Johnny. ... He's cool."
On the "Johnny Mnemonic" set -- with its eclectic cast of Dolph Lundgren, Ice T, Henry Rollins and "Beverly Hills 90210's" Meyer --there's a bit of hysteria surrounding Reeves. The unit publicist is overly protective, and a huge fuss is made over his availability to be photographed. Meyer confides, "I loved him as Ted. I told him the first day." Director Longo adds that girls from Toronto have been hanging around the set trying to get a glimpse of the young star. "All the psychos come to see Dolph," he says, "but my nanny wanted to see Keanu." At meals, Reeves is left respectfully alone to eat with an ethereal waif, who the actor insists is "a longtime friend." But the hysteria rarely stops. "Anytime we'd be anywhere, you'd see salivating men and women," says Sandra Bullock, Reeves' costar in "Speed". "They'll all be like, 'Oh, my gawd, it's Keanu Reeves.' He doesn't get off on it ... he's got a good balance."
In a town where everyone knows everything about everyone else's business, Reeves has been remarkably successful in keeping his private life under wraps -- mostly because he dates women who are not famous. "He has lots of girl friends," says Bullock. "But he's very private about his life." Reeves' standard line is: "I don't have a girlfriend."
The general consensus is that since River Phoenix died of a drug overdose, Reeves has undergone a marked transformation. "I think that [wild] period is over," says "Speed" director De Bont. "What happened to his friend from "My Own Private Idaho" helped settle him down. He's calmed down a lot. He's very much at peace with himself." When she auditioned for "Speed", Bullock says she "expected a long-haired, lanky Keanu. Instead, here was this beautiful, incredibly strong, silent person. I didn't know him before, but it's obvious he's reached a really good place in his life."
"I knew [Phoenix] fairly well," says Keanu. "I shared some special times with him. But in terms of his death changing me, no, it didn't. I'd say I've gone from loose and fancy free to less so. It's just what happens when you get older and wiser."
Beyond the death of River Phoenix, Reeves was also affected by his experience shooting "Little Buddha" in Nepal. The movie, which opened to wildly mixed reviews, intercuts two tales: the story of Siddhartha and the search by Tibetan monks for the reincarnation of a lama. "The movie had a huge impact on me," says Reeves, who fasted for two weeks to better resemble Siddhartha. "I didn't take refuge in the Darma, like some people in the cast, but I learned about meditation and what that involves. I learned about the four noble truths. I learned about Tibetan monks and their lifestyle. It introduced to me the concept that what appears to be solid isn't solid. ... All of those things touched me, but a couple of friends said I haven't changed."
Bertolucci, who cast Reeves after a failed two-month search for an Indian actor, believes the Tibetan lamas who coached Reeves brought out an existing spirituality. "...I think in some way, Keanu must have been a bit Buddhist before the film," says the director. "I saw him facing a difficult task in a way that only someone who had a Buddhist quality could. ... Siddhartha is a young man of 26 who has never known the world of suffering. I needed someone with an extraordinary inner peace in his face. Keanu must have done everything in his life, but he has the most amazing innocence in his face."
Buddhic karma aside, it will be his role in the summer action flick, "Speed", that will accelerate Keanu's career. Director De Bont, who was the cinematographer for "Lethal Weapon 3" and "Die Hard" has found a side of Keanu that no one would have expected existed. "I saw him in all of his movies," says De Bont. "I knew he'd be perfect. He's young, he's attractive and I thought there was a need for a new, young action star."
What's more, "Speed" answers the question producers ask: "Can Keanu carry a gun?"
The response: Without a doubt.
As Jack Traven, a member of the L.A.P.D. S.W.A.T. team, Keanu not only shoots with authority, he saves the riders on a Los Angeles bus, hot wired to explode if its speed drops below 50 miles per hour. He is sexy and tough, gets the girl (Bullock) and saves the day. "He has this strong silence," says Bullock. "It's what was great about Mel Gibson in the first "Lethal Weapon", that quiet turbulence, that makes [Keanu] such a great action guy."
Reeves, who thought the Traven character was "flippant and annoying" when he first read the script, is more circumspect about his action career. "Are they really saying things like that?" he asks, when told he's being compared to Bruce and Arnold. "It's not my ambition to pursue that."
And he's not. Reeves' next project is a romantic drama, "A Walk in the Clouds", directed by Alfonso Arau ("Like Water for Chocolate"), which follows a World War II hero who returns to San Francisco and falls in love with a Mexican patrician. After that, he's planning to do "Hamlet" at the Manitoba Theater Center in Canada.
What remains to be seen is if the young actor can also make the leap from action star to full-fledged romantic movie lead. Certainly, few actresses would protest starring opposite him. But more important, will it make a difference in his reputation, or will it all end as Keanu himself once predicted? "When my life is over, I'll be remembered for playing Ted."
Only the box office will tell.