Action Man?(also published in October 1994 as a shorter, slightly different version under the title 'Up to Speed')
He's into ballroom dancing, riding thoroughbred horses and Hamlet. And they're trying to call Keanu Reeves the next Bruce Willis? Roald Rynning meets Reeves in New York. Photographs by Stephen Hamel.
Keanu Reeves is currently homeless, a fact which will have a few people cleaning out their spare room - after two years away on location he's had to move out of his house in Los Angeles. "I don't know where I'm gonna live," he says, shaking his head. "I'm staying at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood [not such a trial, surely, the Marmont being the kind of place Evan Dando stays when he's in town]. I just want to hang out, learn my lines and work on Hamlet [he's due to star in a Canadian stage production in January]. I don't feel I need a home right now."
Dressed in a grey Issey Miyake suit and matching T-shirt, Reeves meets me at the Essex House Hotel in New York, a few streets south of where he's staying on Manhattan's Upper East Side. With that slightly other-worldly air familiar from his film performances, it's hard to think of him as the Next Action Hero, especially when he reveals that his latest passion is for, er, ballroom dancing. Still, he also does slightly more action-hero-like things like playing basketball and ice hockey and riding horses at the LA Equestrian Centre in Burbank. He still doesn't own a car and drives his much-fallen-off red-and-black vintage Norton motorbike up and down Sunset Boulevard.
"Keanu isn't the most obvious choice to muscle into testosterone territory," admits Speed director Jan De Bont. "But after seeing him in the few action scenes he had in Point Break I knew he'd be right.
"Keanu will be a big star now," De Bont continues. "The other action stars have been around too long. We need new faces. And normal faces. People have had enough of the cliched, old-fashioned hero." OK, Sly and Arnie might not be ready for retirement just yet, but De Bont has a point: it's time for new action stars to take up their lethal weapons.
The first-time director, previously the cinematographer for Die Hard and Lethal Weapon 3, didn't want somebody too young-looking to play LA cop Jack Traven, who tries to save the passengers on a Los Angeles bus rigged to explode if it goes slower than 50 miles an hour. "I didn't want the audience to see Bill & Ted. So I asked Keanu to cut off all of his hair, bulk up his body and get rid of his clumsiness. I wanted him to look strong and be in control of himself."
Known for immersing himself in his parts ("The first two weeks after I've wrapped a movie, I'm out in space. I can't speak about anything. My work isn't like carrying bricks up a staircase - it's emotional life"), though not to the lovey Method-acting extent of our own dear Daniel Day-Lewis (no standing for hours in freezing rivers for Keanu) - Reeves took the image makeover seriously. First he had his hair cut really, really short over at a friend's house. "It's called a 'one-cut' and it's done with a razor. I had no hair left and when I came back the studio was horrified," chuckles Reeves, who also filled out his wiry frame by pumping up at the famous Gold's Gym in Los Angeles. Of his physical transformation he says, "I ate a lot of food and did a lot of heavy weights. I took gymnastic classes for six weeks, three times a week. I was doing handstands, trampoline work and high bar. Just trying to know my body better."
It worked. His chest and arms are bigger and beefier. Speed co-star Dennis Hopper, who also worked with Keanu on River's Edge, was so amazed by the change he noted, "In Little Buddha Keanu looked like a beautiful young woman. Suddenly he's this bulldog." Er, quite, Dennis.
Still, despite iron-pumping and a crew-cut, Reeves apparently wasn't entirely convinced he could do an action film. But once he started working with stunt co-ordinator Gary Hymes and began rehearsing a few of his own stunts, he really started getting into the whole action hero thing. "I did everything except for three shots," Reeves says. "Jan wanted to put me as close to the action as possible and he and the stunt co-ordinator knew that I was willing to do whatever I could do."
One of the most spectacular stunts involved Reeves leaping up from a Jaguar convertible onto the speeding bus. "The first time we were to do it, I didn't dare," Reeves recalls. "The stuntman who was driving the car couldn't look at the bus where I was jumping, because then he'd look into the camera. He had to drive one-handed and keep a constant speed of 45 miles an hour. I was standing on the side of the car and it was going back and forth. I so much wanted it to be, like, 'Tam-ta-rah!'" - Reeves leaps out of his chair - "but no way!" - he slumps back down again. "The second time, though," he says, "the stuntman was more co-ordinated and experienced, and suddenly I leapt."
Reeves' other stunts included strapping himself underneath the moving bus, jumping onto a moving subway train and being lowered upside-down down a 100-foot lift-shaft. "We never put him in danger," says De Bont, "but so many actors wouldn't have done those stunts. He was fearless."
For all his enthusiasm, Reeves was far from happy when he was first offered the script. "I thought the situations were cool - the bus, the bombing, the predicament - but some of what the characters were saying wasn't good. They were trying to make it witty in the Die Hard tradition, but it didn't fit the script. Things had to be done to it."
Demanding rewrites might not seem a very Keanu Reeves thing to do, but he says: "If you have a problem, you should speak up. It means that you either don't understand it yet, or it really doesn't work. It's not about power. It's part of the gig."
Halfway through the filming of Speed came the death of Reeves' friend River Phoenix. De Bont immediately changed the shooting schedule in order to give Reeves less demanding scenes. "He became very quiet," the director says. "It took him a while to calm down - it scared the hell out of him." "River was a product of his own goodness," says Reeves' love-interest in Speed, Sandra Bullock, in true LA-speak fashion. "He couldn't step over a homeless person; he had to help. He gave and gave and was incredibly honest, and so is Keanu. When he first walked in the room, I thought, 'He's like River. They're both too sweet for this world.'"
But River Phoenix isn't a topic about which Reeves has much to share. "It was a terrible shock when he died," is all he'll say, "and I miss him very much. I think of it as an accident... I can't make sense of it." Talking about Phoenix, Reeves has one of what he calls his "excellent panic attacks", and his china-doll complexion becomes whiter than white; his brown eyes turn black. Time to change the subject.
Getting close to Keanu Reeves is still a pretty difficult job, as Sandra Bullock found out during filming. "I think there's a lot of pain in him," she says. "There's a sadness there. He's gone through harder times than he's willing to admit." Dennis Hopper, meanwhile, says: "Keanu's always been very distant. He has some inner turmoil that he deals with."
Once he gets over his initial shyness Reeves has a charmingly freewheeling conversational style. He talks with unbridled enthusiasm about Little Buddha ("When I fasted throughout the shoot, I dreamed about bread and cheese and pouring wine on my head while I rolled naked on the dirt"), or about A Walk in the Clouds (a romance directed by Alfonso Arau, maker of the arty Like Water for Chocolate), which Reeves is currently working on.
"I'm a soldier returning from the Second World War to a wife who is more interested in him earning money than in spending time with her," he says. "As a travelling chocolate salesman, I meet an unmarried Mexican girl who is pregnant and returning home in disgrace. So I pretend to be her husband for the night, and of course, we fall in love." Of course.
"Urinating, it's the heart of the earth, the nature of the grapes," Reeves burbles on. "It's so nice to do after Johnny Mnemonic, which was very straight-edged, push-away, my own gig kind of thing." Johnny Mnenonic is artist-turned-director Robert Longo's cyberpunk thriller which was filmed in Toronto, Canada, where Keanu spent his teenage years. "It was nice to be back home," Reeves says, "hanging out with my younger sister and my mother. I saw some friends I hadn't seen in a long time. It was nice to get back to my stomping-grounds when I was a little boy and say hello.
"The past six months have been very intense," says Reeves. "Filming Johnny is the most tired I've ever been. It's not like I trained for a marathon. It takes a lot of energy to go from such a physical film as Speed and into another physically demanding experience. But I like my life when I'm working. It makes sense."
This is the kind of fact that won't go unrecorded by the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, whose Keanu Reeves course recently featured in Sky Magazine. "I heard about it from someone who had taken the class," says Reeves. "It seemed strange to me, but the teacher used it as a launching-point for many other concerns. Bill & Ted was used as an accompanying work to Nietzsche [mad 19th-century German philosopher]. There are 500 pages of required reading of philosophers like Michel Foucault [bald French sex-philosopher] and Walter Benjamin [up-his-own-bottom German Marxist art-historian]. I think it's cool."
Most people, however, don't appear to have to justify staring for hours at pictures of Keanu Reeves by ploughing through hundreds of pages of obscure philosophy. But though a whole generation looks on him as some kind of sex god, Reeves still seems to find it hard to find himself a partner.
"I'm single and I enjoy it sometimes," he says. "But it would be great to find somebody special. It would be very important to me to have a home and a family, but this work is on the road a lot..."
As for being a babe magnet, Reeves says: "I don't really experience it except in journalists. I don't have people at my door. The sex symbol business is not real to me; it's an idea that has no practical reality for me." He adds, smiling, "I think it's cool, and I'm glad that people find me attractive in the films - for when it's necessary. I'm fairly vain but I'm trying to keep it under control. There isn't really an impulse to let it go out of control." And despite all the media focus, Reeves claims to lead a normal life. "I can walk on the street with no problem. Once in a while people say hello, and that's it."
His punk band Dog Star is a thing of the past. "We're not performing any more," Reeves says of the band that was booed off the stage during last year's Milwaukee Metal Festival. "We haven't played for quite a while. A year. Half a year. Three years. Ten years. I don't know. I don't even remember."
Now Reeves says he prefers reading and daydreaming. "Performances come back to me and I think, 'I could have done that, couldn't I?' Sometimes I go and see one of my films in a review theatre or catch them on video. When I'm feeling melancholic and want to say hello to my friends I can just go, 'I remember that day. We were doing this or that.' It brings back good memories."
De Bont is committed to direct a sequel to Speed some time in 1995, but although he is rumoured to have signed on the dotted line for part two, Reeves is already saying that he doesn't want to get stuck in action films. "I don't want to stay in the same spot and repeat. At the same time, there have been good sequels. The second Indiana Jones, Godfather 2 and Evil Dead 2. There's no reason Speed 2 wouldn't be good, but I had a really bad experience the one time I did a sequel, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. Alex [Winter, his co-star] and I fondly called it Bill & Ted's Omitted Journey because they cut so much out of the script."
Despite Hollywood insiders calling him the best new action hero to emerge since Bruce Willis (that's a compliment?), Reeves shrugs off the Willis/Arnie/Sly comparisons and is unfazed by the idea that Speed might make him into a major action star. "I don't think that I'll have the success of Bruce Willis in Die Hard," he says. "My part isn't as showy and strong as his action hero. The highlight isn't on the hero in the same way as the performance that Bruce has given us. Or Schwarzenegger, or Stallone. Speed might kill the airhead dude label. It might get me adult roles, but I don't think Willis or the others are worried. Their portrayals are still very virile and strong." Sure, but somehow we can't imagine them playing air guitar.