KEANU REVS IT UP
Having taken on everything from Buddha to a speeding bus in his recent films, one-time himbo Keanu Reeves has finally escaped the dude ol' days of Bill and Ted
But as Rachelle Unreich finds out, he's still one bodacious babe on a totally excellent adventure
To interview Reeves is to want to go through his garbage in the hopes of getting the information he won't proffer. Prone to short, dirt-free answers, one imagines that anything -- a thrown-away letter, a studied contents of his fridge -- will be more enlightening than a conversation with him, especially when that exchange is unlikely to yield anything worthy of a note.
Here is a typical dialogue:
JOURNALIST: Do you hang out with any actors? Johnny Depp? Tom Cruise?
REEVES: I've never met Johnny Depp or Mr. Cruise.
JOURNALIST: What would you ask Cruise?
REEVES: I don't have any questions for him. (Journalist laughs; Reeves is dismayed)
REEVES: What? Why are you laughing? I don't mean (what I said) in a derogatory sense at all. I think he's a very good actor.
Here are the things, in no particular order, that Reeves deems cool: white tablecloths, motorcycles, ballroom dancing, ice hockey, lying in bed with a lover, Shakespeare ("Shakespeare is physically thrilling," he says, "It goes into my brain and into my heart.") Cool is, years after playing the floppy-haired, inarticulate Ted, the adjective of choice; if there was a Keanu Reeves doll (and the way things are going, this is within the realm of possibility), you could pull a string on its back and hear many hybrids of "cool," in all its infinite variations: he uses the word eight times in twenty minutes - - I know this, because I have timed him. Other than this conversational quirk, little else remains now that he has left the kingdom of dudehood for the fertile Land of the Action Hero.
The first time I caught a glimpse of Keanu Reeves was roughly four years ago, when I pulled up at a traffic light on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Next to me was a guy on a motorbike, his woolen beanie pulled down over this eyes, looking dirty and unwashed and disheveled. Behind him, her arms linked tightly around his waist, was a breathtaking blonde -- her kilt riding up to her waist revealing long, black-stockinged legs. I was afraid to get too close to this motorbike man, lest he smell too bad; she, on the other hand, kept trying to wrap herself around him more. "Look at that," I said to my companion in amazement, "Why is that homeless man with a model? And how did he get that bike?" As the traffic light turned green, he turned towards me and I saw him face-on: Keanu Reeves, in all his filthy splendour.
Today, years later, you still notice Reeves, but for entirely different reasons. As he walks into the room and sits down beside me, there is not a stray hair on his head, a wrinkle in his suit or an unwanted spot on his clean-shaven face. Unlike other actors who disappoint you in their shortness, their mediocrity, their very unspectacularness -- Reeves is truly beautiful to behold. At over six feet tall, he seems to be towering above everyone else around him, but the incredulity with which he greets this bedazzled journalist implies an ignorance of the impact he makes. He smiles guilelessly, rather than flirtatiously and introduces himself. "Hi, I'm Keanu Reeves," he says, enunciating each syllable carefully, as if there was a chance I hadn't heard of him and I may not know his name.
Keanu Reeves is so famous that people not only know how to pronounce his weird-sounding name properly (Kee-ah-noo), they also know what it means (cool breeze over the mountain in Hawaiian). He has inspired at least one song ("Kenuwee-head" by British punk band Voodoo Queens, with lyrics like "I really cried when you cut off your hair/ You looked so square ... Keanu, Kanono, Kenuwee, Kanono? How do you say your name? It doesn't matter anyway! 'Cause you look good in in a wetsuit") and has lately become an entire topic of study, ever since the Arts College of Design in California offered a class called The Films of Keanu Reeves. The 29-year-old actor doesn't really know what to make of the latter. "It was strange to me, but this man who had taken the class explained that my films were just used as a launch point for many other concerns... I hear that with "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure", the teacher was using accompanying work like Nietzsche and various tragedies. It sounds cool."
Since the release of his latest film "Speed", Keanu has been caught up in a wave of success that has a momentum of its own.
Just look at him. Everybody else does. As he walks through the door of New York's Essex Hotel, he turns heads, raises eyebrows, incites riots as lesser-looking citizens clamour to be around him. "But you're divine," says one Italian lady, as if surprised. "Have you been working out?"
He is unrecognisable from the days when he looked like he needed nothing so much as a bath --- or at least a wardrobe that didn't beg its wearer for prior proof of a tetanus shot. Back then he was Actor-As-Homeless-Guy: bedraggled, unkempt, lazily carefree. Today a more serious Reeves sits down in his chair: back straight, Issey Miyake suit unwrinkled -- only his boyish Timberland shoes make him look less like a stockbroker. But it's true that few Wall Street players could ever look this good: with his newly buffed body and military-style crew cut, Reeves has had "Speed" audiences literally screaming for more -- and not just for the thrills and spills of elaborate car chases alone.
His hair was cut at the behest of "Speed"'s director Jan De Bont and he did some gym classes so he could build up his body and have greater control over it. "Because he used to be a little clumsy," explains De Bont.
Co-star Dennis Hopper, for one, was amazed at the transformation. "We have the same trainer, and I saw him at Gold's Gym, beefing up, and I said: 'Boy, what's he getting ready for?' We did "River's Edge" together years and years before, so I'd watched his career for a long time. When he did "Little Buddha" he got really thin -- he looked like a beautiful young woman in that. For "Speed" he beefed himself up: now he looks like a bulldog or something."
And it's this particular bulldog who has metamorphosed into something completely different from grungy hippy to breast-jacketed gentleman; from slang-spitting actor to carefully-enunciating box-office draw. Knocking out other movie hopefuls in the first round in America, "Speed" has exceeded all expectations (it has grossed more than $US100 million in the US alone) and its film-makers are already talking sequel -- something which Reeves is not exactly thrilled about. "I'm ambivalent about sequels," he admits. "I think some sequels have been good -- the "Indiana Jones" films, "Godfather Part II", "Evil Dead II"..." he says, trailing off.
Reeves, always considered an aesthetically-pleasing addition to films such as "Dangerous Liaisons", "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and "Much Ado About Nothing", will admit his acting skills have at times left something to be desired: "I didn't give a performance in "Dracula"," he says bluntly. Still, he has made some offbeat career choices thus far, stretching himself to play Prince Siddhartha in "Little Buddha", or a rich-boy turned-Shakespearean-spouting-hustler in "My Own Private Idaho". It's not much of a surprise that with "Speed", fans were more interested in his bod than his brain -- as he says: "I'm fairly vain. Still, it hasn't affected my ego. I'm trying to keep it under control, but there really isn't an impulse to make it go out of control. Only journalists call me a sex symbol; on the street, I don't really get it much in the sense that I don't have people at my door. lt's not real to me -- it's an idea of something that really has no practical reality for me. I think it's cool -- I'm glad that people find me attractive in the films for when it's necessary."
Indeed, his Jack Traven character is a far more appealing brand of action hero: prettier than Bruce Willis, more realistic than Arnold Schwarzenegger, (decades) younger than Harrison Ford.
Given this criteria, Reeves was the right man for the job. By all accounts, he is different from everyone, not just from the Hollywood heartthrobs who make up his contemporaries. A free spirit since birth -- he was born in Beirut to a Hawaiian-Chinese father and British mother, who split when he was a child, then moved to Australia, New York and Toronto -- he now lives out of a suitcase in LA's famed Chateau Marmont hotel. Restriction is his enemy: he loathes the California helmet laws, and is even averse to turning on his headlights when he's riding his motorcycle at night.
For fun he'll mount a horse at the Los Angeles Equestrian Centre or sing with his band Dog Star ("We really suck," he laughs). For kicks he decided to do the bulk of his own stunts in "Speed". "So much of me wants to be like, this superman," he says.
"He's not like anybody I'd ever met, except maybe River Phoenix," confirms "Speed" co-star Sandra Bullock, who starred with Reeves' close friend Phoenix in "A Thing Called Love". "When I met Keanu, he walked into the room, and I was like, 'Oh my God -- this is like River' in the sense that there's a specialness to those two."
It was during the shooting of "Speed", in fact, that Reeves and Bullock received word that their friend Phoenix had died, the victim of a drug overdose. "I'm very respectful of Keanu's space, and Keanu's a very private person," explains Bullock, "but the day River died it hit me first. I wasn't sure how Keanu was going to react to it, but he was handling it really well and he had a very philosophical view about it ... but you could tell that it wasn't going to last very long. So the first day I had my thing, and the next day it hit him... It was very, very hard on Keanu. He's very strong about it, though, and he doesn't talk about it. He just keeps it quiet."
Reeves, who allegedly heard the news from a journalist and then burst into tears, clenches his jaw when Phoenix's name is brought up. "I miss him," is all he will say, adding that the scene in which he and River embrace by a fire in "My Own Private Idaho" is one of his favourites. "I think River's performance was exceptional in that. I'm okay in it, but he's the activator of that scene -- he's giving the great performance in it."
Perhaps losing an intimate was the experience that accounted for his dramatic change; at any rate he knows that tomorrow is not a guarantee. Ask him how he sees himself in 20 years and he simply says: "Older."
Next up for Reeves is the big budget "Johnny Mnemonic", a cyberpunk action adventure which is hoping to cash in on Reeves' popularity. He's currently shooting "A Walk in the Clouds", about a WW2 veteran who returns home to a wife he's fallen out of love with and meets a pregnant woman on a bus who convinces him to pretend he's her husband for a day. True to his tastes he's got other, less typical dream roles in the pipeline: he wants to do "Hamlet" on stage, "Great Jones Street" (based on the book by Don DeLillo) and play Dionysus from the myth of King Midas. Above all he's trying to keep his feet steady and harbours no delusions that he's flawless. Near-perfect in appearance and seemingly walking a Midas-like path himself, he laughs when asked what his weak point is: "Ah, if only I had one...", he says.