THE YEAR KEANU BECAME A MAN
In his twenties he personified the laid-back young American dude and became every teen's pin-up. Now, 30 this year, Keanu Reeves explains to OK! how challenges - both on and off the screen - have finally seen the sexy star come of age
by Jane Thompson and Susan Granger
Keanu Reeves clings to the roof of a car as it hurtles along beside a speeding bus. With a great effort, he pulls himself to his haunches and jumps. Thankfully, his landing on the roof of the bus is a safe one.
This is just one of spectacular stunts the 29-year-old actor put himself through for his latest film, Speed, already a box office smash in the States and due to be released here in September. In the action-packed movie, which co-stars Sandra Bullock, Keanu plays a police officer hero trying to stop extortionist Dennis Hopper who has planted a bomb on a city bus. The bomb is set to activate when the bus goes above 50mph and will explode if the speed then drops below that mark, forcing the driver to race along the crowded streets and freeways. Hence the stunt.
"I certainly wasn't fearless, but I knew it was important that I really be there in the shots," says the enigmatic young star. "My stunt co-ordinator on Speed did the stunts for Jurassic Park and, in that film, I saw how particularly important it was for the actors to be personally involved. To do the jump from the Jaguar to the bus at 45 miles an hour, he told me over and over again, 'If they're not lined up, don't jump'. It was cool but, of course, I had fear. The cop I was playing would have known he was in peril so it was good to get into his head."
Perhaps it is this attitude which sums up why Keanu has become one of the young actors most in demand in Hollywood today. He certainly does nothing by halves. As well as performing his own death-defying stunts, he also prepared for his latest role by doing punishing work-outs, taking gymnastic lessons and spending time with the film's technical adviser, Randy Walker, who was a member of the Los Angeles Police Department for 21 years.
Keanu, whose Hawaiian name means 'cool breeze over the mountains', was born in Beirut, Lebanon, but lived in Australia and New York before moving to Toronto. His Chinese/Hawaiian father left home when he was two and Keanu and his two sisters were brought up by their British costume designer mother and stepfather.
After taking acting lessons, Keanu moved to Los Angeles when he was 20 where he was cast in the lead role of the taut drama River's Edge. A succession of 'young man coming of age' roles followed before he really cracked the big time in 1989, starring as the inept, but lovable, teenage time-traveller in the wacky hit comedy, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. A Sex God was born.
Now, some five years later, Keanu seems intent on leaving the scruffy, laid-back young American dude he so successfully portrayed in films such as My Own Private Idaho, Parenthood, River's Edge and Point Break firmly behind. Gone are the torn jeans, grungey leather jacket and long hair. Instead, these days he favours a close crop, Issey Miyake suits, silk shirts and Timberland boots.
He currently lives alone and claims to be unattached. He has an apartment in New York and, when in Los Angeles, lives at the Chateau Marmont Hotel. His only apparent concessions to those teen idol years are his band, Dog Star, in which he plays bass guitar, and his passion for motorbikes. He gave up driving a car six or seven years ago and, instead, rides a 1972 Combat Norton.
So is the transformation to all-action hero for his latest movie an indication that he's finally settled for Hollywood glory? "I liked acting in the film," says the undeniably sexy actor, "but I don't plan on repeating myself. My ambition is to act in many genres and I've been very fortunate to have that opportunity."
Realising his potential, top directors have not wasted time in beating a path to his door. He played an 18th century French musician in Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons, a 19th century estate agent for Francis Ford Coppola in Bram Stoker's Dracula, a Renaissance Italian in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing and, most recently, the young boy prince in Bernardo Bertolucci's $30 million epic, Little Buddha.
"I'm still exploring, to be clear about what I can and cannot do," he says. "My acting parts have paralleled my personal growth from a kid to a young man to a responsible adult."
And while the reviews have sometimes been mixed over Keanu's performance, his conviction has always been rock solid. Taking the lead role as Siddhartha, the 6th Century Indian prince who evolved into the Little Buddha, was a huge test. "My challenge was to radiate the emotions of this sheltered man-child, this prince who has been protected from even the possibility of anxiety," says Keanu. "Then suddenly, he encounters death, old age, disease. The result is an unprecedented spiritual search. And the discovery, the miracle, is overwhelming compassion.
"I was touched by the Buddhist faith but never converted. I'm far too attached to the material world - not diamonds and gold, but work. Making Little Buddha and being in Nepal really sensitised me to what I have, to what is around me and to suffering. I have not put down my joy to help the starving and the sick. I choose to do it another way - by entertaining."
Shortly after he'd finished work on Little Buddha, Keanu received a deep personal blow; the death of his close friend and co-star in My Own Private Idaho, River Phoenix, from a drugs overdose. He still hesitates to talk about him. "What do I say? I miss him very much. River was a remarkable artist and a rare human being. I miss him every day."
For Keanu, at least, life goes on. Having finished filming Johnny Mnemonic, a sci-fi film directed by Robert Longo, he is now working on a World War II romance, A Walk in the Clouds, directed by Alfonso Arau. Early next year, he is also lined up to play Hamlet in a stage production in Canada.
"It's scary but the stage is the actor's forum. A part of me is thirsty for that. I've had some successes and some failures and I'm very interested in becoming a better actor. It's a great part in an interesting play." Realising what he has said, he immediately launches into a parody of himself with a British accent: "Reeves thinks Shakespeare is jolly good, eh, what?' 'How very kind of him,' said the Bard."
He may have put his teen pin-up days firmly behind him, but on the eve of his 30th birthday, it's good to see that Keanu Reeves, the responsible adult, can still have a laugh at his own expense!