Totally Cool Keanu
Keanu Reeves is divine. No, really! Not only does he get to play Buddha in one of his new movies, he almost meets his maker in the action-packed drama Speed. Dan McLeod catches up with Hollywood's most excellent dude.
Aside from a reckless desire to leap into danger (which netted him several speeding tickets and a couple of car crashes in his early 20s), you'd never bet on Keanu Reeves making a Bruce Willis-like leap to action film stardom. But that's exactly what he's done. And, with the success of his latest film Speed (which insiders have dubbed Die Hard on a bus), Keanu's shown there's more to his talent than meets the eye.
Although he's made 16 movies in just eight years, Keanu's always had a hard time peeling off the dopey label he copped after playing the goofy hero in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and its sequel. He's still a favourite target of critics who are unwilling to accept his serious performances in dramatic films such as Much Ado About Nothing and Little Buddha.
Life in the fast lane
Fortunately for Keanu, the role of Los Angeles SWAT cop Jack Traven in Speed is about a billion miles away from Ted, or most other roles Keanu's played for that matter. Trapped with innocent passengers on a city bus that's wired to explode if it goes under 90 kilometres an hour, Keanu's called on to provide non-stop heroics - and still manages to look pretty good in the process!
When Girlfriend catches up with Keanu in a plush Manhattan hotel room, his short hair's longer than the buzz cut he sports in Speed, but still sticking out every which way - it's not quite long enough to tame. Just under 180cm tall, he's dressed more stylishly than usual in a loose-fitting, white shirt and brown suit - although the beaten up brown motorcycle boots peeking out from the bottom of his trousers show that stardom will never change some things about this grungy dude!
After seeing Keanu in Point Break (Die Hard goes skydiving!), Speed's director, Jan De Bont, just knew the young star could tackle the action genre. As for Keanu, he'd been sitting at home bored off his brain for eight months after finishing Little Buddha when the script for Speed arrived, so he was ready for a challenge.
"When I first opened it and read the title it made me laugh," Keanu says of the original script. I think Speed is kind of audacious for a film title and I liked that, and I also liked the realistic fantasy stuff."
Asked what he did to prepare physically for the role, Keanu says jokingly in a bad Chinese accent, "I am a Ninja warrior." But seriously, he took some martial-arts training, lifted weights for eight weeks and took three-and-a-half-hour lessons in gymnastics to bulk up from his Little Buddha starvation look.
"I'm a very physical actor," he says. I always enjoy using my body in a role. This cops-and-robbers genre is primal, so there's really a sense of playing."
And play Keanu does, to the point of being crazy! He actually did many of his own stunts, including a dangerous jump from a Jaguar onto a bus travelling at 90 kilometres an hour. In Little Buddha, he insisted on losing an incredible amount of weight for just one scene, which resulted in kidney damage. But Keanu seems reluctant to make a major deal about his dedication to acting. Taking chances is so natural to him that he doesn't even question the possible danger.
"Haven't you always wanted to jump from a speeding car?" he asks with excitement. "I'm always driving along the highway wondering if I can jump from my bike into a car. When I was a kid in Toronto, I used to roof jump. My friend lived in the East End, where all the houses had little laneways between them and, at night, we would run and jump. " But just when you thought nothing could surprise you, get ready for Keanu's latest stunt - ballroom dancing!
"I've always wanted to learn how to dance," he explains. I really like the Fred Astaire tradition. Ever since I was a kid, I've always found myself jumping around, dancing and twirling while waiting at bus stops. Maybe you'll find me dancing and singing like the grand jester fool in 10 years."
But it was his innocence, not his physical grace, that landed twinkle toes Keanu the role of Prince Siddartha in Little Buddha. "I read all the Buddhist works I could find and I got a taste of it," he says. "And by practising meditation, I really have the belief now that everything is not all that it seems. I don't do meditation everyday, but I'm working on it."
Keanu may have turned a mature 30 last September, but he's always led the life of a vagabond. He was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a British mother and an Hawaiian-Chinese geologist father, who lived a bohemian lifestyle and enjoyed "cavorting around the world", as Keanu puts it. Among their many pitstops in Keanu's first five years were Australia and New York. Then his mother, a costume designer, divorced his father and married film director Paul Aaron. They settled in Toronto, where Keanu and his two younger sisters were raised. He dropped out of high school at 16 to pursue his acting career and moved to Los Angeles four years later.
Keanu's been on the road so much lately that he moved out of his LA home and doesn't know where he'll move to next. In the meantime, the homeless star stays at hotels in LA or with his sister, who looks after his precious vintage motorcycle - the only vehicle he owns. "It's a 1979 850 Norton Commando, Mark IIA, SS cam, with Coney rear shocks," boasts Keanu.
River runs through it
Keanu has his fans and his critics, but no matter how you rate his acting talent, there's no doubt he's successfully cultivated an image of rebellious youth, both on screen and off. But his brush with Buddhism and the death of his close friend, River Phoenix, have brought him down to earth.
"River was one who knew how to turn it on. He worked in a way that just jazzes me," Keanu admits. "You can't blame Hollywood for what happened. River had his own very personal problems. He had a dark, destructive side. He was angry and hurt that he couldn't have a private life once he became famous. I know it'll take me a very long time to grieve him out of my system."
Perhaps that's one reason why Keanu keeps throwing himself into his work. He's just spent two months in Toronto playing the lead role of a cyberpunk in Johnny Mnemonic. The exhausting role had him moving in a rigid, robotic way while conveying other people's data through the computer in his head. Now he's researching his role in A Walk In The Clouds. He stars as a battle-weary soldier who returns home to his wife but unexpectedly falls in love with a Mexican girl. And, in January, he's off to Canada to star in a stage production of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Despite reports, he says he's not doing it to repay the director, who hired him, at 18, to play Mercurio in a production of Romeo and Juliet. He just loves Shakespeare. After that, Keanu's committed to the sequel to Speed, if it goes ahead.
"I'm going to have script approval for the second one, and the money's important too," he says. "I have certain responsibilities and it's nice to be able to take care of them. I'm not moving around in the multi-million dollar realm yet - the bottom line is you do certain acting performances in order to get the parts you really want."