Shake! (NZ), August 1994

Keanu Reeves - Life in the Fast Lane

Speed Kills

(Previously published in April 1994 as a shorter version under the title 'A Star is Reborn', and shortened and edited in August 1994 under the title 'We love you Keanu...')

by Lesley O'Toole

The tacky American supermarket tabloids have just one word for Keanu Reeves: "Hellraiser."

"Cool!" laughs the 29-year old actor, grinning from ear to ear, "but I'm not a hell-raiser by any stretch of the imagination. To a certain extent, I wish I could be once in a while - it would be a nice flash of life. But I haven't been able to achieve that."

Frankly, I don't believe a word of it. There's a mischievious glint in his eye and, let's face it, Keanu has always been regarded as one of Hollywood's young party-animal brigade. But perhaps he really has changed. After all, he hasn't been photographed at any of the currently trendy meeting places for some months now. In fact, he has been keeping a spectacularly low profile since the death of fellow party-animal and close friend River Phoenix last November.

Certainly the Keanu that greets me today oozes togetherness and he looks nothing at all like the dishevelled grunge-God of recent public appearances. His hair is short and spiky, and he's wearing a smart black jacket with almost matching black trousers. He doesn't smoke during the interview either, which is unusual for a young Hollywood thespian these days. In general, smoking is definitely not de rigeur in Los Angeles, but actors seem to be the only section of the populace going against the tide.

In previous magazine profiles, journalists often alluded to the fact that Keanu seemed stoned or spaced out or simply not quite there. Today, in a swanky suite at Los Angeles' plush Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel (the one where most of Pretty Woman was filmed), he is articulate, funny and extremely self-effacing.

Close followers of the recent Reeves output might wonder if it's anything to do with the last two films he's made - Much Ado About Nothing with Ken and Em (that's Branagh and Thompson to the uninitiated) and the about-to-be-released Little Buddha for which he spent several months in Nepal and India, and also immersed himself in Buddhism. Could Britain's leading couple of the cinema really have sorted Keanu out? Or was it veteran and illustrious Little Buddha director Bernardo Bertolucci imparting a little wisdom to the young actor?

Keanu reckons it's neither. "I've just been through so many years and experiences, I guess - and they've worn on my back," he sighs. "Maybe it's just time. I'm getting older, I'm 29 and I turn 30 this year. No I haven't been struck by that yet. 30...."

He ponders the figure for a moment. "I guess something inside of me is just waiting to take hold," he says finally.

I tell Keanu that a lot of guys nearing 30 might be considering marriage, thinking of course that he's definitely not the marrying kind. So I'm shocked when he purrs, "Oh yeah, definitely. Oh my God, it's driving me crazy - I don't know where it came from, but all of a sudden it was like 'I need a mate'."

And do you have anyone in mind?

"Oh no, I guess I'm still single..."

And unlike Johnny Depp (who's less than a year older than Keanu with a similar lifestyle and demeanour), he doesn't have a string of broken engagements behind him.

"I've been lucky, though," he chuckles, almost apologetically. "I've known some incredible women but I've never come close to marriage. I've never proposed and I've never been proposed to..."

Keanu explains the first time he met Bertolucci - whom he respectfully always refers to as "Mr Bertolucci" - the director was friendly, if not exactly effusive with an offer of work.

"He told me the story of Little Buddha and said he'd seen My Own Private Idaho and liked it. But I guess I wasn't right for the part and he told me so. He said, "Well, it was nice to meet you, but now I have to go off and cast this film.'

"Then we met again a few months later when I was in Tuscany (filming Much Ado About Nothing) and he offered it to me. I later found out that he cast me because of my innocence. But he didn't know if I was a complex innocent or just an innocent."

And which are you?

"I'm not a complex innocent, unfortunately and fortunately."

He's very clever with words, this Mr Reeves.

In the movie, Keanu's character - the Little Buddha of the title - is born to an American couple, who don't suspect there's anything unusual about their child until confronted by the unsettling news that he is the incarnation of Buddha, the religious founder of Buddhism.

"This film's about this innocent princely life, this man-boy who knows nothing of the harshness of life - suffering, death and old age," explains Keanu. "He's protected from it but awakening too."

Although definitely not a recent convert to Buddhism (despite wild claims in recent British tabloid reports), Keanu is now thoroughly immersed in the religion and the culture. It has become his current pet subject.

"The more I read about it," he gushes, the more I contemplate some of the questions it puts forward. I never took refuge though {'taking refuge' is the official term for converting to Buddhism}. In a sense, playing the role was confusing because in Buddhism there's no ego. You're putting forward a play in a sense which Buddhism tends to instruct you not to do. Mr Bertolucci always used to tease me and say, 'You're an actor and yet you're not supposed to have an ego!' It was fun..."

Bertolucci was less impressed when he discovered one of Keanu's fatal flaws.

I was very embarrassed that I couldn't do the lotus position for the film," he admits. I worked very hard at it, but I just couldn't get it. I guess it was because of my upbringing and the sports I had played and the non-attention I had paid to that kind of stretching. It was tough.

"When Mr Bertolucci realised, he said disbelievingly, 'You can't do lotus?' He was aghast, And I was like 'Oh my God!' He sat on the ground and just went into it immediately. I said to him, 'You fiend, you mean horrible fiend.' Another guy who worked on the film could do it without using his hands!

"I actually did manage the position once for about 20 seconds, but not for the film. They ended up covering my legs for a certain amount of time. It was just almost impossible for me."

Much more impossible was one of the film's most bizarre scenes, where Keanu wades into water and practically has a conversation with a water buffalo.

"Yeah, wasn't that great?" he almost squeaks, his eyes lighting up in wonderment. "The buffalo came up to me. Oh my God, Mr Bertolucci was in love with the buffaloes. He loved their eyes. There's one incredible close-up shot of their eyes. In India, the cow is sacred and their eyes signify wisdom. So I got in the water and this buffalo just turned to me. I had to go up and talk to it."

One not-very-muscular Keanu and a whole herd of massive water buffalo? Sounds as though it was dangerous...

"Oh no, not at all. I wasn't scared. What was funny was that the place where I went into the water had a little beach and then there was an eyelet of sand, a little bank. In between they'd put cages to prevent crocodiles getting there. At least, that's what I was told after I get out of the water. After is the key word!" he laughs. He is clearly having a good time.

Keanu evidently has a good time meditating too.

"Have you heard of chakhras?" he asks brightly. "They're energy centres. I had an experience of that, which basically, in the beginning, was just a feeling of magnitude. I was meditating in Tuscany and I felt as big as a valley. I'd move my arm and it would feel like it was 18 miles long. The man who taught me to meditate said to me, 'As soon as you think you know something, you don't know it.' I was thinking, 'Oh no, doomed again! Just doomed...."

Back in 1991, Keanu said of his career goals, "I don't want to live a stupid life. I know I'm doomed. I'm just a dog." So, has this master plan changed in the subsequent three years?

"Actually I'm thinking of coming back as a cat," he replies perplexingly. "That way at least I'll have nine lives. No - it's basically the same in 1994. I have worked on not leading a stupid life but I'm still doomed. I'm trying though.

I know I don't want to cover ground that I already have covered. I don't want to play Ted from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure again - although it might be interesting when I'm 40! I don't want to repeat myself, because I'm learning from the characters I'm playing."

And was moving to Hollywood from Toronto when he was 20 the most sensible thing he's ever done?

"Yes, definitely, I'm very lucky."

Was there a single moment that really defined his career?

"Oh, I'm still waiting for it," he insists. "I still haven't arrived. That's just a cliched way of saying I don't have the maturity yet and I'm working on my career as an auteur. I wouldn't project that aura that someone like Robert de Niro has. I'm still learning, I'm still figuring it out."

Keanu explains that he's learned to be more altruistic since completing Little Buddha. "I don't do many causes, I'm not out on the streets helping to feed the homeless," he admits. "I get to a few charities, but at least in my own small world I have become totally sensitised to other people's pain. And I have become more patient."

At the inevitable mention of River Phoenix, Keanu's sunny mood visibly falls. Among River's friends, Keanu was probably closest to him, both in private and in public, by virtue of the pair's appearance in the much-revered My Own Private Idaho. When River died, not a single member of his peer group made a public statement mourning his passing (although two more mature stars, Harrison Ford and Dan Ackroyd, did offer condolences). Maybe his friends shied away from the drug connection, maybe they were all simply in shock. It seems Keanu certainly was. Discussing River is the only time in our interview when he seems stuck for words. Pausing for careful reflection, he finally makes the painfully intense statement: "I wish he wasn't dead."

So how did Keanu hear the news?

"I was downstairs in my house and a friend was there who heard it on the TV upstairs."

A further question about how he felt at the time prompts no real answer at all, with the distraught Keanu mumbling "I miss him very much."

Since re-incarnation is one of the basic beliefs of Buddhism, does Keanu think River is still out there somewhere?

"Mmm, where is Mr Phoenix going?" he muses, cheering up considerably. "I don't know... I guess what I've come to believe, from what I've read, is that I almost take re-incarnation for granted. It never seemed to me to be something that couldn't happen. There is definitely transmigration of energy.

"What's really amazing is that these Buddhist lamas meditate on their deaths every day and when they pass away, they can control their bodies so they don't lose heat for seven to ten days. Someone told me that when Sid Vicious' body was found, it was already rotting and he had only been dead for two hours. He was decaying from the drugs in his body."

On a more earthly note, I ask Keanu how he fared in the devastating LA earthquake.

"I jumped out of my bed and fled my house," he recalls. "I live on a hill so it shook - but it was nothing compared with what the people of Northridge felt."

(He's playing the drama down really, as the 'quake was terrifying for everyone in Los Angeles). "So I left the house," he continues, "then I ran back in and got dressed first."

I wish I'd been there, I say.

"What, to help me find my things?" he asks softly. It doesn't seem to occur to this genuinely modest young man that thousands of hot-blooded women all over the world might relish the prospect of seeing his naked body in the flesh!

Back in the acting world, Keanu has just completed his next but one movie, Speed. "It's an action picture concerning a young SWAT policeman who's a special tactics law enforcement officer," he reveals. "It also stars Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock."

When he's not filming or cruising LA on one of his motorbikes, he's probably to be found jamming with his band, the quaintly-named Dogstar.

"Actually, it's the end of the jamming for now. We used to do it in my garage, but now I've moved house. The neighbours!" he laughs, throwing his hands in the air.

"So Dogstar is without a place to play. But we want to go on tour, so we'll see..."

Article Focus:

Little Buddha


Much Ado About Nothing , Little Buddha , Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure , My Own Private Idaho , Speed , Dogstar

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