Goodbye cool world
Rachelle Unreich catches up with Keanu Reeves Speed-ing into manhood
As soon as SPEED became a runaway smash, all men, it seemed, wanted to be Keanu Reeves. It's unlikely they'll get the almond-shaped eyes without plastic surgery; even the buffed bod is going to take some long hours at the gym. The haircut, though, is possible. The haircut - a single millimetre chop that lies on its wearer's head less like a 'do than a thin layer of stubble - embodies more than just a kamikaze approach to hair. It represents the transformation of Keanu Reeves from teen heart-throb to box office star, from loser airhead (as the latter half of the duo in BILL AND TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE) to winning dynamo (hero cop Jack Traven in SPEED).
Four weeks after its opening in America, the vibe on SPEED is not that it has earned U.S.$75 million or blown star-vehicle rivals I LOVE TROUBLE (with Julia Roberts), THE SHADOW (with Alec Baldwin) and WYATT EARP (with Kevin Costner) out of the water. Rather, everyone wants what Keanu got: a chance to reinvent himself, a sudden rise of popularity, a personality. And now, even when some guy in Knoxville, Tennessee, walks into his local barber shop and asks for a "Keanu," everyone knows exactly what he means.
No one suspected that SPEED was going to be this big, least of all the star himself. In fact there was no shortage of doomsayers; as one movie magazine wrote in its preview of the summer cinema line-up, "the title instills confidence that this movie will have no more character development than TOP GUN, no more thematic depth than POINT BREAK, no more acting than DIE HARD... A movie with this plot, which provokes immediate guffaws, should star Steve Martin."
The forseeable problems with SPEED were, in no particular order: a leading man who had not even proved himself as a leading boy; a female actress, Sandra Bullock, who was less ornamental looking than studio heads would have liked; a genre which already seemed exhausted; a first-time director who had thus far only worked as a director of photography, despite the fact that he did so on films such as THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, LETHAL WEAPON 3 and DIE HARD; and a screenplay that sucked ever so slightly.
"I wasn't happy with the script," admits Keanu. "The predicaments were very cool, but some of what the characters were saying was not very good. It was trying to be witty in the DIE HARD tradition, I guess, but it didn't fit the script."
But when SPEED - which is about a cop, played by Reeves, who boards a bus which has been rigged by a mad bomber (Dennis Hopper) to explode if it slows down to less than 50 miles an hour - was screened for preview audiences, it tested through the roof. So much so that Twentieth Century Fox wanted to release it with as much impact as possible. This meant bringing its opening forward from August to early June, giving it the potential to be the summer's first big smash in America. Literally hours before its scheduled release, director Jan De Bont was working tirelessly in the editing room, trying to get it ready on time.
"It was a nightmare," he admits. "Basically the whole timetable was cut in half. We worked seven weeks, day and night continuously, to finish it. The studio kept telling me this was a great movie, which was nice, but there was so much pressure - all this expectation when the movie wasn't even finished. We were ready two hours before the lab started printing the film."
Dutch born De Bont had nothing to lose except his reputation, the chance of ever making a movie again and roughtly U.S.$35 million. It was easy for him to convince the powers that be to let Reeves star. The tomboyish Sandra Bullock, however, was another story.
"Keanu and Sandra were always my first choice, because I wanted to get some new faces in there and make my action film younger and more contemporary. For the female part of Annie I wanted to have somebody who was really feisty and strong, who could stand up to Keanu and defend herself. From the moment she came in to the casting session I knew right away that it had to be Sandra, she was so great. But it took me a long, long time to convince the studio, because they wanted to have a 'Real Star.' They said no, they wanted somebody who was a much bigger name, and who was very pretty. I wanted someone who could really drive the bus."
It's not hard to see why Bullock, who has previously been seen in DEMOLITION MAN, made the executives uneasy: on film she has an energy that translates well, but in person it comes across as a mania that can't be controled - over the course of a 30 minute interview she spews forth a torrent of information, censoring nothing. Some of it, like her monologue about River Phoenix's death is relevant. Other parts of her conversation - for example, a ten minute soliloquy about her childhood ballet teacher who only spoke German and humiliated her in front of the other eight year olds - is not. Bullock could really drive that bus though. She has the driver's licence to prove it. "I got a class C licence three days ago," she reports.
As Annie, a commuter who is forced to use public transport after getting too many SPEEDing tickets, Bullock is at the forefront of the action, getting behind the vehicle's wheel and driving its passengers through an obstacle course of mishaps.
"It's a very strong part, which is why I took it," she says. "I would never have taken it if I was just an arm-piece. I've read so many scripts that say, like, 'and the beautiful, blond damsel comes strolling in with her long, cascading hair and her bare breasts.' This script didn't give a physical description of Annie - it just said that she was headstrong. Thank God there wasn't this preconceived notion of what the writer thought was the perfect woman."
Casting Dennis Hopper as the deranged bomber was easier; it's not as if he has a history of playing emotionally stable characters, especially after films like BLUE VELVET. When the script calls for someone who will viciously knife a man in the first few minutes of the film, who can play the kind of person who'd trap innocent people in a boobytrapped elevator, who might get his kicks by strapping a bodysuit made from detonators to a young woman, who chuckles psychopathically every now and again just so you think, my God, he's really enjoying himself, then Hopper's your man.
"There is no evil in me, I just wear tight underwear," claims Hopper, despite the fact that Jodie Foster has said that he has an "I'm-so-busy-being-me-that-I-don't-notice-what-a-rotten-time-everyone-else-around-me-is-having personality." Hopper, who has watched contemporaries like Harvey Keitel and Jack Nicholson snap up all the desirable roles, decided to do SPEED because "you can get into a price range that's unaffordable to a lot of people, and because of that you can fall through the cracks and miss out on great parts."
After all, ever since Anthony Hopkins put fava beans on the map with his Oscar-winning psycho-turn in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, there is no shame in playing blood thirsty murderers. So Hopper put all his reservations about SPEED aside: that you never know who his character is, why he's doing these terrible deeds, and why the hell he has this particular beef with Reeves's character. "You never know anything, really," says Hopper. "But this is an action movie so, quite frankly, you don't need to know a lot."
When SPEED was in production, insiders widely held that Keanu Reeves was the wild card. Although De Bont wanted to create "a new, more vulnerable action hero - someone who wouldn't be afraid to shed a tear or show he's in pain," not everyone was convinced that Reeves was that person.
De Bont claims that he hired the 29-year-old actor because "he is attractive to both men and women. Women love his eyes, his honest face. And he's accessible to men, because he doesn't have over-the-top biceps or a neck that's crazy."
The fact that Keanu didn't command the U.S.$15 million salary of a Schwarzenegger or Stallone had something to do with it too. As De Bont admits, "Normally the biggest costs of a movie like this are the actors. We had very little above-the-line costs because we didn't have any big stars. All the money we had we could spend on the movie, basically. So in the end more was spent on the technical aspects and the look of this film than we spent on LETHAL WEAPON 3, which cost U.S.$65 million. I could spend all the funds on the screen, instead of giving it to people's bank accounts. The funny thing is, this movie is going to make Keanu a big star, and it's absolutely true that from now on I won't be able to afford him."
In fact it's been rumoured that Reeves is already being offered U.S.$10 million to do SPEED's inevitable sequel, and word of mouth was so strong from the set that he was hired for the mega-budget cyberpunk thriller JOHNNY MNEMONIC, which has since wrapped. Reeves's response to this coup is, well, interesting. "I play men named Johnny and Jack a lot," he says, before cryptically adding, "There's an energy responsibility to that."
The irony here is that while Reeves spent the last decade trying to prove himself as a serious thespian, it is only now that he has garnered credibility - in the lowbrow Land of the Action Hero. For years he tested his mettle in everything from Stephen Frears's DANGEROUS LIAISONS (as a love-smitten 18th century musician) to Gus Van Sant's MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (as a Shakespeare-rhapsodising hustler) to Coppola's DRACULA (as a poorly-accented Englishman). At least he harbours no delusions about his performances, which have ranged from the promising to the abysmal. "The opportunity for maturity is definately there. I'm very interested in becoming a better actor. But I'm still kind of floating along."
His last pre-SPEED venture was Bernardo Bertolucci's LITTLE BUDDHA, in which he played Siddharta, the Indian prince who eventually becomes Buddha. The movie was awful, and seeing Reeves in it as The Enlightened One didn't help. To be fair, though, even if Tom Cruise could apply the necessary makeup so he looked Indian, you wouldn't want to see him in the role either.
Reeves is not anonymous enough for that part, and so it becomes high comedy to see him meditate by river beds, having dieted himself to reed thinness, caked in orange make-up and eye-lining kohl, speaking in an accent which does not so much resemble Siddhartha as it does Peter Sellers in THE PARTY. Audiences didn't flock to the film in droves either, leaving Reeves with a blighted scorecard and a new quest for spirituality.
"Reading Buddhism works," he said when LITTLE BUDDHA came out. "The elements of compassion and wisdom, the impermanence, the four noble truths, the eightfold path. Bernardo said he hired me for my innocence. That's changing. But I'm still innocent, because I'm a fucking idiot. That's a drag."
He is the first to admit that part of the reason people hung the "Ted" label on him ("When my life is over I'll be remembered for playing Ted," he once lamented) was his own doing; it was easier to hide behind a layer of "cools" and "excellents" than it was to face critics head on. To some extent he remains there. It is impossible to converse with Reeves and not hear him use the word "cool" at a ratio of approximately once every three minutes. The adjective intrudes like a conversational hiccup, a word to be used when no other word will suffice. Which usually happens.
UNREICH: How do you feel about being a sex symbol?
REEVES: I think it's cool.
UNREICH: What did you like about the script when you first read it?
REEVES: I opened up the page and it said, SPEED, and I went, "Cool, I like that." The situations were very cool.
UNREICH: There's a lot of emphasis on your looks though.
REEVES: I think that's part of the genre, it's cool.
UNREICH: You really rode well in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.
REEVES: Really? Cool.
UNREICH: One of my favourite scenes of yours is in MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, when you are by the fire embracing River Phoenix.
REEVES: I'm just listening in that scene, which is cool in itself, but his vulnerability is what you notice.
UNREICH: What was it like shooting JOHNNY MNEMONIC in your home town in Canada?
REEVES: I saw a lot of friends from when I was a kid. It was cool.
UNREICH: Are you at a different stage of your career now that SPEED has been made?
REEVES: Fox got the green light on my next film, A WALK IN THE CLOUDS, exceptionally fast. I guess because of the word on SPEED, so that part's cool.
It would be too easy to say that Reeves is as much of a mental lightweight as ever, that you can take the man out of the excellent adventure, but you cannot take the Ted out of the man. He is not dumb. As prone as he is to Tedspeak, he can just as effortlessly deliver grand sweeping statements.
He describes De Bont as "beautiful warrior master," he is turned on by the works of Don DeLillo and yearns to play the mythological figure Dionysus. He is an atypical action figure to be sure: if he was made into a doll, it would have to come with a torch (he's afraid of the dark) and a claustrophobia kit (he's never been trapped in an elevator, as happens to several people at SPEED's beginning, and says he'd "rather do anything else than go spelunking").
When asked about what he likes, he replies "white table cloths," since apparently they appeal to his aesthetic sensibilities. He studies ballroom dancing. Although he advices his partner in SPEED that, in the event of a hostage situation, one should "shoot the hostage," Reeves says the thing he hates most is "senseless acts of violence." In fact, he wasn't even able to do an adequate mimicry of it. His fight scenes with Hopper, on the roof of a subway car, consumed a multitude of takes because, "I didn't want to hit Dennis, a man I love. My fake punches are missing by a country mile."
Even though he did most of his own stunts, there were others he baulked at. "When I had to jump from the car to the bus, the first time, a stuntman was driving the car.He had a wig on that was completely blowing in his face, so he couldn't see. And I said, 'I'm not going. I'm not jumping. I'm not doing this'."
His critics argue that he contributes little more to a project than looking good in it, and it's true that the mere mention of his name sets off a collective sigh amongst teenage girls and adult women alike. In his defence, Reeves points out that when he won his first major role - a messy, street-smart high schooler in RIVER'S EDGE - "they didn't find me on the street because I had a good look."
With SPEED he's had more publicity about his physical metamorphosis than anything else; it's a bulkier Reeves that appears on the screen, with the cropped cut replacing his trademark straggly locks. "I wanted a real jarhead buzzcut," he says, although De Bont was the one who insisted on the change. "I wanted Keanu to look totally different," says the director. "I didn't want the audience to think of Ted."
And despite those rumours that go hand-in-hand with sudden ascension - that Reeves can't speek comprehensibly, let alone act - he has reached a point where he has few rivals. After all, who would they be? Bruce Willis? The guy has a gut. Arnold Schwarzenegger? Fine for an older crowd, but he doesn't exactly have those 18-year-olds sweating in their seats. And when was the last time he did a Branagh or Coppola film? Sure, Christian Slater's an accomplished actor, but he's currently getting a tiny fraction of Reeves' salary and his last hit was ROBIN HOOD, PRINCE OF THIEVES - playing the sidekick.
Only Tom Cruise is getting better roles offered to him for comparable cash, but no one has lined up just to see Nicole Kidman's husband wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt in a long time.
If there was a moment of panic during the shooting of SPEED, it was when the cast and crew received word that River Phoenix had died of a drug overdose. Reeves and Phoenix had been like brothers - the two had played lovers in MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, and had a private kinship between them unusual in Hollywood. Sandra Bullock too, had just finished shooting THE THING CALLED LOVE with Phoenix, and almost thought that SPEED would come to a halt. "Our job is our private life," she explains. "There's no way you can keep something like this out of your work."
For Bullock, a difficult situation was aggravated because her co-star reminded her of her late friend. "River was a product of his own goodness. It was almost like he was too good to be on this Earth. Like, everyone else steps over the homeless people: River could not step over a homeless person. He had to rehabilitate them and give them a life."
"And he was incredibly honest - one minute I'd want to club him because he was driving me crazy, and then he'd say something that was out there. I'd be like,'I have to go to my room now and recover from that statement.' On set he'd throw himself on you and say, 'I like you so much,' and you never meet people like that. But when I met Keanu, I was like, 'Oh my God. This is exactly like River".
Dennis Hopper enjoyed making the movie, but he is blunt enough to say, "I tell you when I had the most fun. It was when I saw the rough cut." Giving a crafted performance has its benefits, but most of Hollywood would easily admit that they'd rather have Jim Carrey of ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE in their movie than Robert De Niro. When you're talking gross points, there is nothing quite so grand as being in a money-making, bona fide hit movie.
De Bont knew he couldn't compete with the technical mastery of TERMINATOR 2, so instead he set out to make an old-fashioned thrills-and-spills slice of entertainment. He achieved this, and then some - even SPEED's U.S. trailer, showing Keanu trying to dismantle a bomb to the strains of Pat Benatar's RESCUE ME gets you bopping. As De Bont says, "I wanted to show that you can have a more exciting movie for a lot less money - that you can have scary, effective scenes that don't cost millions of dollars."
The film also employs little violence or gore, and you're hard-pressed to even find frequent swearing. As Hopper points out, "This movie is very different to a lot of films which have been coming out, like Quentin Tarantino's work, which has incredible violence. It's beyond violence - it's violence without any remorse or justification."
And it's true. In a span of several years that has brought us a man slicing off a cop's ear to the tune of STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU by Stealer's Wheel (RESERVOIR DOGS) and rapists sodomising a nun in a church (BAD LIETENANT) here comes SPEED, which has merely one decapitation in it which you could miss if you blinked. Even De Bont admits, "I held off on showing a lot of blood. I wanted my film to be fun, not shocking. You have a laugh behind some of the scenes and that makes it lighter."
Which is exactly what SPEED is: Action Movie Lite. It's the kind of movie you go to where the popcorn quotient is high, brain movement is minimal and you feel like you've got your money's worth by the end. De Bont found it easy to re-enact the roller coaster ride feeling, courtesy of one motivation: "Fear. I can identify with the audience ecause I was scared shitless just watching the stunts behind the camera. There was one scene in which we couldn't use a stunt double - because the camera is so close to Keanu's face that it has to be him - when he is hanging on a dolly, underneath the moving bus. I tried getting onto the dolly myself once, just to see how it was. And to be honest, I was scared shitless. I didn't want to tell Keanu how scary it was."
For his own part, Reeves enjoyed the adrenalin rush that acting in SPEED gave him, all the while understanding that he wasn't doing Chekhov. "There's a rush: you're doing it, you come out, you're eating your muffin in the scene and all of a sudden -boom!- the bus is on fire and it's cool. But if you don't get it one take, people will be very concerned. You can't say, 'Hey, hold it, I don't like the way I bit into the muffin'."