Being the teen dream made flesh is great for Hollywood box office but a bit wearing for the soul.
Alex Kadis mets a thoughtful Keanu Reeves.
Keanu Reeves hangs his head in his hands and sighs. Exhausted and addled, he rubs his good eye irritably. The other peeper is lost behind a shining corker which has turned most of the right side of his face big and purple.
'I, uh, I was playing street hockey in Los Angeles and a ball hit me in the eye,' he says before heaving another huge sigh.
'I'm doing a 10 day mini publicity tour for Speed,' he explains, 'but I don't know if I'm going to able to be carry on. I'm so tired. I know I'll disappoint people if I cancel, but is it better to disappoint or to give them the shell of a man?'
So here we have him, Hollywood's current Mr Bankable, slightly damaged goods, maybe, but none the less impressive. Sporting newish maroon brogues and an understated outfit of plain black T-shirt and finely cut trousers held up with crocodile skin braces, he has that rare quality among the famous and overpublicised of being as beautiful in the flesh as he is on screen. (Note: John H Richardson wrote the same in that marvellous US Premiere article - Gardeners out there who have met Ke....can you confirm this?) Let's face it, you would sell your soul, your grandmother and a great number of your very good friends to the devil for just one night with this man. But trying to get Reeves to admit to his indisputable physical assets is near impossible.
'Uh I uh....that's just headlines,' he mumbles into his chest, 'that's not real. It's fiction.'
Despite his recent success as a blockbusting box office champion, Reeves appears genuinely bewildered that anyone would find him interesting or want to pay a fortune to have him star in their movie. As Jack Traven, the caring yet sharp action hero of Speed, he has become the modern woman's (and man's) alternative to Arnie, Stallone and Steven Seagal.
These are the sort of roles that require sensitivity as much as they do bravado, with a mild sexuality rather than arm-splitting biceps to back him up. This is a man who will save the world, but will still change his share of nappies at the weekend.
'No, no, no, no, no,' he protests with genuine alarm. 'That's not so. I'm no action hero. Speed is Jan de Bont, the director's movie. I was just lucky to have a part in it. For me, it's just an ensemble piece, it's not a star turn. I know what they're saying, that I'm the new action hero, but that's all fiction.'
Reeves swears this is not false modesty speaking: when it is proposed that he should be able to have his pick of what films he appears in these days, he shakes his head ferociously. 'Not at all, no. Really. Sometimes the movies come to me, sometimes I have to petition for them. Sometimes I don't get them.'
Perhaps his reluctance to revel in his own glory as the man who can command fees as high as $7 million a film (Note: he commands $9 million now (!) if he'll go for the Warner Bros big-budgeted Soldier. Personally, I'd like to see him in that role - which kind of brings Waterworld and Stargate to mind) is the result of the somewhat circuitous route he took to superstardom. As a teen idol noted more for his exotic looks than his acting prowess, Reeves got his big break in the Canadian ice hockey tale Youngblood where he played a minor role in support to Patrick Swayze and Rob Lowe. Many teen angst roles followed: River's Edge (1986), Permanent Record and The Prince of Pennsylvania (1988), and the ultimate post-surf-generation celluloid bible, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.
Thus he was cast as the eternal pubescent. While his fellow bratpackers (most of them whom he has never actually met) were becoming publicly embarrassed about their schoolkid roles, Reeves said nothing. While Christian Slater, Michael J. Fox, Lowe and their ilk were being heralded as the kids who would go on to greater things, Reeves was quietly appearing in films which were teaching him his craft - playing roles such as Martha Plimpton's boyfriend in Parenthood and the rich-kid-turned-hustler in Gus Van Sant's low-budget My Own Private Idaho. There were, too, a couple of public humiliations - his English accent in Bram Stoker's Dracula, for example.
But now, at 30, he has emerged as the biggest star of the batch, leaving the rest of the team far behind. But he balks at anything which might border on flattery.
'Oh, I don't know how it happened....I just plugged away. I've been fortunate. I've tried to improve my acting. I mean, that's all I know how to do.'
The attraction for most of the prestigious directors who have worked with Reeves is the actor's innocence. Bertolucci spoke of the great inner peace he discovered in Reeves during the filming of Little Buddha. And, true to form, Reeves returned from his stint as Prince Siddartha in Nepal profoundly altered.
'I guess I had never known anything about Buddhism,' he says, gesticulating wildly. His rhetoric and mannerisms are all over the place. One minute he is calm and still, the next waving his arms in frustration. On the one hand a touch of the luvvies creeps into his speech, on the other he lapses into dudespeak and punctuates his sentences with Stallone-style uhs and ers. Either way, it is clearly important to Reeves that he is understood.
'I had the opportunity to speak to some lamas, and to spend concentrated time reading Buddhist texts. It really altered to a certain extent my perceptions of phenomenal existence. By practising meditations which focus on loss it engenders the loss experience in your own person, and I'm more compassionate and sensitive to those around me. It gave me the belief that there is more to life than this (knocks on the table top in front of him) and this (pinches his skin and tugs at his clothes). The shell.'
Carrying this sensitive load, how does he cope with the cut and thrust of the shark-infested film industry?
'Well...it gives me a living. I must admit I've never been very 'industry'. That's why I very much doubt that people really want a new type of action hero. Have you seen True Lies? That seems to be doing very well, and that's very much in the traditional Schwarzenegger vein.'
He leans forward and whispers candidly, 'What did you think of it? Terrible....I didn't make it to the end of the film, I had to leave.'
Speaking up again, he adds: 'But if you ask the director of True Lies how he feels, from what I've heard, he'd feel like he was giving life lessons. So, one man's garden path is another man's vision of salvation. There is a certain amount of moral compromise required in this industry, but....I try not to do it.'
Right now he's definitely not doing it. He has just finished A Walk In The Clouds directed by the Mexican Alfonso Arau. Next up is Johnny Mnemonic, a film about a man who has the cure to a fatal disease stored in a computerised part of his head. In between, he will be starting rehearsals in Canada in December where he is to play Hamlet. Contrary to popular opinion, Reeves is no meathead, he is actually pretty smart, and a well-informed Shakespeare buff to boot. On the set of Speed he often read Shakespeare out loud to calm himself down between takes. Still, he could be earning some serious wedge in sunny Hollywood instead of freezing his nether regions off in Winnipeg for buttons.
'Yeah, I suppose. Ah, Shakespeare!' he thunders suddenly. He laughs nervously. 'I very much like doing Shakespeare. I find Hamlet the most modern of his plays. From what I can discern he was experimenting a lot with verse and prose and just going way out there. It allows for more free play perhaps. I have played Mercutio and Trinculo, but never Romeo, and I guess you should really cut your teeth on Romeo before your play Hamlet, but I had the opportunity to play the part because a director I had worked with knew the artistic director of this theatre who approached me. And I said yes.'
There is something odd about Reeves. One doesn't expect to find such an endearing combination of self-deprecation and painfully gentlemanly behaviour in a Hollywood hero. Were Reeves an Englishman we would appreciate his modesty. As an American, he appears vague and often secretive. It is this which has, in part, led to speculation about his sexuality. People assume he has something to hide. Does he have a current girlfriend?
'No.' He shakes his head sadly. 'I have had a few relationships but...they haven't lasted.' He is, I put it to him, never pictured attending premieres and the like with a girl on his arm, unlike many, if not all, of his peers.
'Well, they're lucky,' he says, somewhat cryptically.
Aren't you part of the scene?
'No, I don't have enough of a personality.'
I give him enough time to turn this into a joke. He doesn't.
'It's true. I lead a very simple and small life. I do go out. I have visited that scene once in a while and I have enjoyed it. I'm always working anyhow.'
And when you aren't working?
'I sit on the couch. And indulge whimsies. My current whimsies are coming home, talking to friends and taking voice classes.'
And playing with your rock'n'roll band, Dog Star?
'Ah, the folk rock band! It's not rock'n'roll - it's folk trash. It's just some fun and some free beer with friends. I still can't play what I want to hear. I'm not good enough yet. I'm still just learning, but I'm working on it.'
So we won't be hearing about Keanu Reeves the rock star then?
'No. I mean, what is a star? A megastar? It's a word to describe people who have gleaned large success in entertainment. I don't wanna be so popular as to be recognised wherever I go. And I don't think that's going to happen. If it's something I can get around doing and still act in popular films, then I will. Then I'd like to hopefully do some radical, experimental, independant films. I don't see my career as some altruistic journey, but all stuff about megastars it's....it's...'
'Yeah, it's fiction.'