by Garth Pearce
Keanu Reeves is suddenly where he hates to be - in the spotlight. For starters, his new film Speed which opens here on Friday - has won rave reviews as America's action hit of the summer. And secondly, his dad has been jailed for 10 years on a cocaine charge.
Such events would usually send Keanu scurrying for cover. He is shy, avoids parties, has a mysterious love life and prefers to spend time alone in a mansion high in the Hollywood Hills. "I don't like talking about myself or being the centre of too much attention," Keanu admits. "I do have a problem with it, which is unusual for an actor. I'm more comfortable in the role I'm playing rather than anything outside."
However, here he is in a New York hotel suite, trying to get used to the fact that he's about to leap from adolescent pin-up to adult star. He's standing on the brink of the very big time with Speed, having already won many fans for movies like Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure, Point Break and My Own Private Idaho.
"I guess I've read too many rumours and things about myself which are just not true," he continues. "So I thought it was about time to put the record straight on one or two."
One allegation is that he doesn't really like women. In 1985, photographs of Keanu's gay role in the Toronto theatre play Wolfboy, showing him kissing another man, were leaked. And an American magazine recently ran a headline which read, "Once asked whether he was gay, Keanu replied, 'No, but you never know.'"
Says Keanu, "I'm not seen around with a woman on my arm, because I don't always go to the right receptions, parties and restaurants. I don't go out much, period. I lead a very quiet life away from gossip columns and scandals. Maybe it's that I'm not worth the gossip.
"But I arrived in Los Angeles with a woman - my friend Penny," he continues. "In 1985, I got into my 1969 Volvo in British racing green and drove more than 3,000 miles across the country from Canada with her.
"Where is she now? Back in Canada. She didn't want to stay in California, whereas I liked it and decided to make a home here. And, sure, a woman has got close in my life. For a time."
So how has he kept it quiet? "I'm telling you, man, I haven't led a rock 'n' roll existence. The things I do for fun would probably bore most people, so it's really no big deal.
"I play bass for a folk band called Dog Star. I like to study, take ballroom dancing lessons and horseback ride. I love looking at the ocean or the desert, hiking in the mountains and I work on my Shakespeare. Vices? Well, I like to drink red wine. But I never took refuge in it."
Keanu has so far refused to be drawn on the sudden death last year of his actor friend River Phoenix, of an overdose of drink and drugs after a night in a Hollywood club.
But, again, he decides to talk briefly on the issue, "It wasn't always the case that River went crazy and I stayed clean," he says. "I haven't always been so clean-living myself. I have experimented with some drugs and drink, but never as a lifestyle. That's the difference. It's not in my nature to get hooked on anything, so I've come away from all of that."
Keanu, who celebrated his 30th birthday on September 2, was born in Beirut to his British mother, Patricia, and Hawaiian-Chinese father, Samuel, and raised in Australia and New York before settling in Toronto when he was seven. His father, now a 52-year-old geologist, walked out on the family when Keanu was in his teens. His mother remarried - to her third husband - and Keanu has two younger half-sisters.
In June, his dad was jailed for 10 years by a Hawaiian judge for possessing and supplying cocaine. "I haven't seen my father since I was a child and I cannot answer for anything he has done in his life," says Keanu.
Meanwhile, from his prison cell, Samuel says of his son, "I'm not very proud of myself as a father, but I am proud of him. I hope we can be reconciled, so I can explain why he didn't have a father as a young boy."
Keanu would rather talk about his mum. "My mother is a remarkable person. She is a great spirit and a large personality. I wish I had her taste. She left England looking for a better life. My sisters and I were constantly fed culture and art. We were not rich financially, but we were rich in many other ways."
He still talks to her regularly by telephone. "But if I have one person to confide in, it's Josh Richmond," he says. "He's an actor, writer and director who was in one of my early films, River's Edge, eight years ago, and has been a friend since. We discuss the larger questions of life."
On his movies, too, Keanu is remarkably frank. "Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure was well performed, written and directed," he says. "The follow-up film, Bogus Journey, had a good first half and really sucks in the second.
"In My Own Private Idaho," when he played a gay male prostitute, "I wasn't very good. I was disappointed with my performance. I was bad in Dracula, as well. Anthony Hopkins and Winona Ryder were great, though.
"I also felt out of my depth with Kenneth Branagh in Much Ado About Nothing, despite the fact that he made the film such a great experience. As for my part in Even Cowboys Get The Blues," which is yet to be released, "I have been gratefully cut down."
Even with Speed - which was number one in America for weeks and has made more than $50million so far - Keanu's cautious. "It's more of a team effort than the sort of thing that Sly Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger perform," he says of the thriller in which he plays a Los Angeles cop, locked in a war of nerves with a blackmailer and explosives expert (Dennis Hopper).
What has appealed to America is that the action is non-stop, from the moment Dennis Hopper's manic bomber plants explosives in a lift - which plunges frighteningly in a 50-storey building - to the last drama on a runaway train. The tension reaches breaking point on a bus. A bomb is primed to explode the moment the bus's speed falls below 50mph.
Keanu's character - tough young cop Jack Traven - has to somehow get on to the bus and then work out how to stop it without blowing everyone to pieces. He enlists the help of one of the passengers, played by Demolition Man star Sandra Bullock, and the frightening race is on along jam-packed freeways of Los Angeles.
Keanu did as many of the stunts as he could. "I was warned of the dangers. The thing that was really scary was having to jump from a car to the bus at 50 miles an hour. This is when the stunt man asked me, 'Are you comfortable with this?' and I joked, 'Not really.'
"I was grateful at that point I'd done some training. I worked with weights to get the body tight and did gymnastics and trampoline work. I now have a centre of gravity. You know when you put your socks on in the morning and you are hopping around the bedroom? After I did gym classes, my socks went on right away. Zoom! Zoom! Without moving."
This is Keanu Reeves at his most relaxed. Co-star Sandra Bullock says, "There is a lot of pain there. I would see him go off by himself and there's a hint of sadness in his eyes. But he keeps it to himself."
Dennis Hopper, who also worked with a younger Keanu in River's Edge, reports, "He has always been very serious about his work. He has some inner turmoil he deals with. I don't know what it is."
Keanu is not saying. He is convinced he's revealed enough. It is now back home - and back to keeping clear of the gossip columns and scandals he obviously dislikes so much.