Prince of Speed
After Speed, they're calling him the new hero for the '90s, the thinking person's action man. He talks of getting older and wiser, and quotes Shakespeare to calm himself down. He looks totally buff in his action hero crewcut and t-shirt, but Keanu Reeves can't help it - he just wants to play Hamlet.... in Canada. All aboard for Keanu's excellent adventure. Photography by Steve Shipman.
by Jean-Paul Chaillet
Keanu Reeves turns 30 this month, the age when sex symbols, particularly ones with large teenage followings, have to retool their image. At first sight, Reeves is not, it must be said, the most obvious successor to Schwarzenegger or Stallone: he has some 20 movies on his CV but there is little among them to suggest a pistol-pumping mutha in the machismo vein. Looks can deceive. His hard-man performance as SWAT cop jack Traven in Speed has inflamed the American box office and put Reeves on Hollywood's Most Wanted List.
In one fell swoop his fee, hitherto hovering around the million-dollar mark, has leaped to seven million a picture, a change in fortunes which seems, at least outwardly, to have left him unperturbed. Smart (the California dude speak is misleading), softly spoken and not a scenester by repute, he has moreover founded a career on the exotic features of his birth (his father is half-Chinese, half-Hawaiian, and his name translates as cool breeze over the mountains), the antics of a guitar-playing nerd called Ted and unbridled sex appeal (for both men and women). Neither good looks nor airhead reputation has served him well in the quest for serious career credibility, however, and now that his moment has arrived, Keanu is having no small difficulty digesting the hype. It's been a long time coming.
Born in Beirut, the young Reeves had an unsettled childhood skipping from one country to another before finally settling in Toronto. At 16, he appeared in a TV commercial for Coca-Cola and, more significantly, landed a role in a local TV show and several other parts on the stage where he experienced his first, enduring love for the works of Shakespeare. They were inauspicious beginnings, but several modest Canadian features later, including the ice-hockey tale Youngblood (1985) in which he played support to Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze, he got his first real break in River's Edge (1987), a bleak portrait of alienated teens which - though he distances himself publicly - forever associated the actor with the Brat Pack and the theme of teenage angst. So convincing was his portrayal of anti-social youth in that film that a string of high-school pubescents followed - from Permanent Record to The Prince Of Pennsylvania, both in 1988, to the time-travelling burnout who personified slackerdom before the media had invented the term in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989).
The Ted phenomenon completely overshadowed two of Reeves's more interesting performances from the period: his winning appearance as Martha Plimpton's stoned boyfriend in Ron Howard's Parenthood (1989), and as the vacant but harmless hitman in Lawrence Kasdan's I Love You To Death (1990). Both showed that Keanu had more up his repertoire sleeve than had so far been plucked out. There were mistakes too, of course: Reeves came unstuck in costume in Stephen Frears's Dangerous Liaisons (1988), and he has always undoubtedly been more relaxed onscreen in contemporary roles, floundering in the '90s in period romps like Bram Stoker's Dracula and Much Ado About Nothing, while capitalising on his heartthrob youth appeal in Point Break, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey and, perhaps most memorably, My Own Private Idaho.
Gus Van Sant's low-budget road movie cast Reeves and his late pal River Phoenix (who described Reeves as being "like an older brother") as a pair of teenage hustlers in the Pacific Northwest. Considered career suicide by stargazers at the time ("Hurt my image?" Reeves quizzed one interviewer incredulously. "What am I - a politician?"), the movie merely propelled Reeves's star upwards, gathering him some arthouse cachet and hinting yet again at a shrewd mind behind the pretty mask. Coppola subsequently nabbed him for Dracula and Kenneth Branagh for Much Ado and, while neither film enhanced his reputation as an actor of brilliant technique, his bankability was unassailable. By the time Bernardo Bertolucci cast him as Prince Siddhartha in the arthouse epic Little Buddha, Reeves was a million-dollar man on the make.
In Reeves, Bertolucci says he sought and found "an extraordinary inner peace", while Keanu gushed in interviews that he had gleaned some spiritual comfort from his close encounter with Nepal. Reeves's time as empty youth looked to be up, but it now seems a short-lived detour. Next year, Reeves will be seen as a 21st-century information courier in the cyberpunk feature Johnny Mnemonic. But right now Keanu Reeves is poised for the ultimate development in his most(ly) excellent career: as the next great action hero in summer blockbuster Speed, directed by Jan De Bont (who Reeves bizarrely but characteristically calls a "beautiful warrior master").
Hair cropped tight, and pecs pumped tighter, he's the LAPD SWAT team hero who gets the girl and saves the day when a Los Angeles bus is wired to explode if its Speed drops below 50 miles an hour. He packs a gun with the best of them, a new, younger action hero with a vulnerable streak. The studio is already talking sequel - and the rest of Hollywood is talking Gibson/Stallone/ Schwarzenegger/Willis II. The only one who isn't convinced is Keanu. Perhaps he's too busy dreaming about Shakespeare, or merely wiser than we think. Throughout it all, Reeves has managed to keep an extraordinarily tight lid on his private life, giving rise to wild rumours (and incessant questioning) about his sexuality and drug intake (although those close to him say he has undergone a radical transformation since Phoenix's death), but somehow Keanu always manages to maintain his cool, and keep his ego in check. As the man himself once said: "When my life is over, I'll be remembered for playing Ted."
You almost turned down Speed. What finally made you want to do it?
When I first read the script it was that wonderfully silly premise of the bus that has to stay above 50 miles an hour that appealed to me. It was so over-the-top. But there were tons of problems with the original script. The dialogue, especially with a lot of the other characters, was really bad. My character was making jokes that were almost perverse. He was just kind of flippant and not believable as a police officer, whereas in DIE HARD Bruce Willis' character was believable because everything around him supported it. I didn't believe in the character in Speed at all when I first read it. The other danger was not having a director who really loved the genre, you know, going with someone who had done it before and knew how to make an action film but didn't really care about the genre. When I met with Jan De Bont he seemed genuinely excited. I had seen a few of the movies he worked on and thought he had a very unique take on things, the way his shots are always looking up at people, the constantly moving camera, the vibrant colours. He has a very strong style. We had the same concerns about the script. For instance, in the original script, my partner Jeff Daniels turns out to be the bad guy.
An action movie cliché, in other words.
Yeah. You really started to like the Jeff Daniels character and then at the end of the film you found out that he was the bad guy. Jan De Bont wasn't really interested in that. He wanted to make it really pure - he wanted bad guys to be bad and good guys to be good in a very cartoon-like way. Not cartoony, but uncomplicated - no need for useless, dramatic gestures. He didn't want people walking out feeling bad : Oh no, the good guy's evil!
De Bont also steered clear of the cliché of the maverick cop haunted by his past that crops up in 99% of Hollywood action movies. In fact, your character has no past at all.
I'm really glad about that. That was another reason I decided to do the film. The film doesn't try to do more than it needs to. The only back story going in Speed is the story that's living on the screen in front of you. I mean as an example, did you ever see In The Line Of Fire? They had this deal going on with the Eastwood character and John F. Kennedy. Like he's never lived down the fact that he didn't prevent Kennedy's assassination. I found that completely unfair, you know, to draw upon such a rich, deep, complex, painful event in American history and then use it as way to make you empathise with the character. It was so parasitic. In Speed there's nothing like that.
How has the enormous success of Speed changed the way Hollywood perceives you?
I got a couple more scripts. It also offered me the chance to do my next film, A Walk In The Clouds, which Alfonso Arau is directing. He did Like Water For Chocolate. Walk In The Clouds was at another company, but because of the success of Speed, Fox picked it up for me to star in at an exceptional Speed. They green-lighted it, put the money up, negotiated the deals etc. really quickly. They wanted to capitalise - I mean, I feel that Speed is very much an ensemble between Jan and Fox and the scriptwriters. They continually tried to improve the script. Fox went out and cast some great actors. They put extra money into the special effects. They just kept trying to make the film better and I was just lucky to be there. I did a pretty good job and it's there on the screen but I really don't feel like it's my film. It's not mine in the sense that I didn't feel the pressure that Jan felt and that Fox felt to make the film a success. I mean, it was great to be in such a successful film but I don't know how much of that success is down to me.
People are now offering you an astonishing amounts of money to star in their films.
Does that give you more freedom or less freedom when it comes to choosing parts?
What it gives me is the opportunity for freedom. It's giving me the opportunity to create better roles for myself. At the moment, I don't have any stories that I'm dying to do personally but I have to take this opportunity that I've been given by Speed's success to try and find some. Yes, it is very liberating. I mean, if I can come up with some cool stories and get some people to help develop them for me...because in quote unquote Hollywood, their minds work in strange ways. The way they see it, the kid did one scene and he did it pretty good but let's wait and see what else he can do. In that sense I do feel pressure. It's not over yet. I don't think it'll ever be over. It's always going to be: What are you doing for me now? What have you done for me lately?
Is it a constant battle to get Hollywood to take you seriously?
I've been very lucky in my career to be able to do so many different kinds of roles. It's something that I try to do as much as possible, to expand my range, and I've just been lucky to have the opportunities. I don't know how Hollywood sees it. I mean, someone like Tom Cruise, he's a movie star. I hope I don't - I mean, you know, he's good, I think he's a really good actor as well. But he is a movie star on the old-fashioned tradition of Hollywood movie stars.
Do you see yourself going in that direction?
No, not me. I don't have that desire.
Now that Speed has made you a much bigger star than you were before, do you think Hollywood wants you to go in that direction?
I don't know. I don't think there's a direction that they could put me in.
When you began your career, did you consciously strive to create an image that no other young male actor had?
I can't say that I have been totally different from other actors my age. I mean, I've always played the kind of male equivalent of the female ingenue. You know what I mean? I've always played innocents. That has been recurring theme throughout my career. There's only been a few instances where I didn't play that role. I Love You To Death was one example. And Speed. Maybe My Own Private Idaho. My career through-line is innocence, in a variety of different genres.
I read that you weren't happy with your performance in Dracula. Does that have anything to do with the fact that the critics singled you out for some merciless target practice when the film came out?
No, I just felt that I could have done more. The other actors performances were so operatic, and I didn't hold up my end of the bargain. My performance was too introverted and closed-in and safe. Since Dracula came out I've always felt that I could have played it much more aggressive. Maybe aggressive is the wrong word. Riskier. I could have taken more risks. I could have given a riskier performance.
Somehow I get the feeling that creating believable characters wasn't one of Coppola's priorities on Dracula. Were you hampered by what he was telling you?
Actually, Francis tried to spur me on to greater heights, but I could not reach them. I didn't act very well. I'll leave it at that.
One thing your supporters always single you out for is that you don't try to suppress your sex appeal. Do you agree with that?
I don't know. I'm glad if people give me the benefit of the mind and the cock.
You've worked with some great directors -Bertolucci, Coppola, Frears. What do you look for in a director?
I really don't have a list of things I'm on the lookout for. I just go to the meetings and listen to what they have to say. I'll ask questions about my character, about what they feel the film is about and why they think I'm right for the role. I mean, with Dracula, I didn't go up to Coppola and say, "So what does this film mean?" I probably could have and should have, but instead I just kind of hung out on the set and watched what he was doing with the camera, looking at his storyboards. He does a lot of preparation beforehand and the studio made him do storyboards and, of course, Francis took it a step further and made the storyboards into a kind of cartoon so you could actually flip through these cards and see the entire film. My way of working is very intuitive and collaborative, and then as questions come up during rehearsal or during the shoot, hopefully the director can answer them for me. Hopefully, I'll be directed. I've worked with a lot of voyeurs, directors who don't really direct the actors, they just kind of leave you to it.
No, Bernardo gets in there. No, I'd say more like Gus Van Sant. Stephen Frears let me go too. It's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes I don't mind being left alone. It all depends on where I am personally and the feeling of the piece. In I Love You To Death Lawrence Kasdan let me go and I just went flying. On Dracula, I wish that someone could have put strings to my arms and my face and made me go somewhere because I couldn't go anywhere.
Do you enjoy the physical side of acting?
You mean like pretending to be under a bus? I enjoy it very much. It's simpler. It's less complex. In Speed I just wanted to really express the exertion, you know, show the audience the sheer physical effort it takes to get under a moving bus. I wanted to make these really stupid faces like, This is so crazy.
What is the pleasure for you of being an actor?
Oh, boy. There's so many. I mean, the pleasures of being a working actor. The bottom line for me is having the chance to play. That's amazing, having the opportunity to do what I do, to act and to earn a living and to pretend and to investigate, it offers - I don't know what. I mean, you're investigating the whys and wherefores other people are who they are and there's the collaborative aspect of searching and finding and pretending and coming together and acting out these stories. When it's at its best it just increases your sensation of being alive. When the director says "action" and you're on and hopefully you have some great thing happening between you and the other actors, then all of a sudden I have a sense of freedom - unconscious freedom in the sense of just being - and in that being there's a divine thrill. It comes to me and goes out and hopefully when it goes out to the audience, it will make someone laugh and cry .... feel.
In the eight-month gap between doing Little Buddha and Speed, what did you miss most?
Acting. Working. I mean once you do a film like Little Buddha the rest of life is pretty...it's ok, but I'd rather be working.
Do you keep up with the performances your peers are giving?
I watch other actors, yes. I like to see what everyone's doing. I go through fits and starts. Sometimes I don't want to see anything and sometimes I want to see everything.
What is the worst piece of advice you've ever been given pertaining to you career?
Take the money and run. People still say it to me, either directly or in metaphors.
Do you find much of a difference between the approach of American filmmakers and European filmmakers?
I've only worked with Bernardo and Stephen Frears. There's more poetry on their work, and what do I mean by poetry? I guess that there's - not a romantic - but a more obvious sensibility to sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and how profound all of those senses are. And in the relationship between speaking and moving, they seem to be closer to that part of moviemaking.
You've taken the brave, some might say foolhardy, decision to play Hamlet on stage. How are you preparing to play the role?
I read Hamlet in high school and then I remember being shown Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, but I guess the first thing that drew me to Hamlet was the angst. You know, just being a teenager and having to read "to be or not to be". That was the hook that has drawn me into the path of Hamlet, and also my love for Shakespeare. It was funny because a month ago - I start rehearsals for Hamlet in December - I started learning the lines and reading criticism and theory. I couldn't put Hamlet down, but now I've had to put all of the Hamlet books away so I can do my World War II research for A Walk In The Clouds. But my thing with Hamlet has grown to the battle this man faces - to be or not to be, the emancipation of the individual, the responsibility you have for your own actions and having the sense that they are your actions. In the end Hamlet says we're not responsible for our actions. He's fatalistic. But up until then the journey that he goes through to search his own soul is fascinating. He talks about himself, he reveals his thoughts, his feelings before he goes and does what he has to do, which is complete the revenge. Hamlet can't premeditate revenge, he needs to investigate his actions and that's what I see right now.
At what point did you decide that you were ready to take on Hamlet?
I don't know that I'm ready now. It's very audacious of me to take it on. I haven't played Romeo. I haven't played any of the larger parts in Shakespeare. I've played Mercutio and I've played Trinculo from The Tempest and I did a kind of abridged Don Juan [sic], so to play the second largest part in Shakespeare is probably one of the greatest pieces of dramaturgy in the history of western literature [laughs] - it's a bit daunting.
You must be doing it for yourself, since you're probably not going to impress the critics.
I'm not playing Hamlet for the betterment of the world. No, that's not true. I am doing it for the grander scheme but, sure, I'm doing it for myself and hopefully my performance will make people look around and perhaps be more compassionate. My generation, at least.
Do you feel you have a responsibility as an actor?
Only to the story. I'm not interested in doing stories that have gratuitous or ugly extremities that serve no purpose in the story, that are just pornography or gratuitous violence. But I won't hesitate working in a film that responsibly depicts topics of that nature. In the American pulp media, there seems to be a kind of burden of culpability on performers for their art. I find that very interesting because I don't know if there's any connection between that and the sense that the world is in a total state of crisis, and that therefore we should no longer be showing errant behaviour or actions. This argument is getting very serious now and there's this new pressure on artists and politicians to show purer examples of the righteousness that everyone wants to hear and feel, not righteousness but the responsibility in, I guess, showing human life in a more positive light. Not in an imperialistic or fascist light, though.
Is it difficult to escape?
Yeah, but my point of view is that as long as art is responsible, in the sense that if you're going to show paedophilia or some severed head that it's not just a gratuitous act, a performance that's just....not to say that thrill seeking is bad but, you know, watching a snuff movie might be very powerful in the way it makes you feel, but it's bad. I don't want to be involved in anything like that. But even when I watched In The Line Of Fire or Jurassic Park, I thought those films - more Jurassic Park than In The Line Of Fire - were bordering on evil. These films come into our lives and our minds, and to be so irresponsible and ugly with that power, and with the impulse to please. It was - it made my stomach sick.
It upsets you that Hollywood makes cynical entertainment under what you consider false pretences?
Yeah, I think that Hollywood should be better than that. I mean, Speed is pure entertainment and doesn't pretend to be anything else or try to be more. We're not investigating the genre; but it's worth your time because it'll transport; it'll entertain. Jan De Bont was so sincere and altruistic in his respect and desire to entertain.
As opposed to True Lies, which seems to be the sort of thing you're criticising. They've spent over $100 million, and then James Cameron says he was trying to deliver a message.
I haven't seen it, but he shouldn't say he's trying to get a message across and then say sorry for spending all those millions.
He says it's a film about relationships.
Well, to be very profound, I mean, an action avenger who...the relationship between what? Not machismo power and mystery and the Dionysian thing with the Mother Earth and daughter coming together.
Anyway, tell me a little about Johnny Mnemonic.
Johnny Mnemonic is a science fiction film written by William Gibson, directed by Robert Longo, the artist. I worked in a kind of epic Japanese cartoon aspect, dealing with squares and angularity and the removal of the heart. Robert Longo showed me a lot of Malevich [Russian constructivist artist], and Japanese stills from cartoons with a kind of film noir aspect. I play a man who's got the capability of a computer in his head to store information. In order to make room for the space I've cut out my childhood, so the man is his work. Then through this kind of struggle going on in his mind, he finds the cure to a disease called nerve attenuation syndrome, which has a parallel to cancer and conspiracy theories and to AIDS in the way it's treated by society. The pharmaceutical company wants the cure back, and the amount of data it takes to store it is larger than my capacity, so it's killing me to stay in my head and it's going to kill me to get it out of my head. What do I do? [laughs] You have to see the film to see.
Speed is released in the UK on September 30.