The Next Action Hero?
HE WAS POPULAR, NOW HE'S A STAR.
HE WAS CONSIDERED NOT WHOLLY UNATTRACTIVE, NOW HE'S MOVIEDOM'S NUMBER ONE LUST-OBJECT. HE USED TO EARN A MILLION A PICTURE, NOW IT'S SEVEN. AFTER THE FANTASTICALLY SUCCESSFUL SPEED, KEANU REEVES IS ONE MAJOR MOVIE PLAYER. "AM I REALLY?" HE ASKS MARK SALISBURY. "HOW KIND OF YOU TO SAY. I DIDN'T KNOW. . ."
Keanu Reeves laughs a lot. "Hahahahahahahaha!" he cackles, descending into paroxysms of laughter which come at you like mirthful machine-gun fire as he sprays out a barrage of guffaws. "Heeheeheehee!" This merriment, from the godfather of dudedom, sneaks up on you quite unexpectedly, mid-conversation, betwixt sentences that could scarcely be described as funny, a yack-yack-yacking that's somewhere between a howling hyena and a half-throttled chicken.
If one were either a) crass or b) desperate to seek out a reason for this glee, one might theorise that Keanu Reeves is currently, and with good reason, laughing all the way to the proverbial bank. Since Speed crashed into US cinemas in June trailing unheard of hyperbole for films that are generally defined by the words "action" and "movie", Keanu Reeves the self-confessed meathead star of the Bill & Ted films, My Own Private Idaho and Little Buddha has been usurped by Keanu Reeves the new action hero. He's been called the successor to the Arnie/Stallone/Willis mantle. He's now worth $7 million a picture. That's a 600 per cent increase on his pre-Speed pay-packet. But Keanu is having none of lt. Witness the following:
So how does it feel to be the new action hero?
"I didn't know I was the new action hero." Well, since Speed, it seems like you've been offered every action movie going.
"It's not real", he insists, "it's just one of those Hollywood things, a great success and they immediately see Keanu in another action movie. I don't pay any attention to it.
"My ambition is not to be the next Generation of action hero. It was one film called Speed and I'm interested in a variety of work, so that's where I was coming from. To me it comes across as an ensemble piece really, rather than the "Hero Action Guy" and I really have to put disclaimers every time you say that."
One report said that Warner Brothers had offered you $5.5 million to keep two months free later this year. They didn't even have an actual film for you to star in, they just wanted you.
He seems to be genuinely perplexed by this information.
"I didn't know anything about that. They offered me what? Five million to keep what ... ?" Two months free towards the end of the year. "I see ..."
Speed is Jan De Bont's first film as director. Previously a cinematographer who specialised in action movies - he has Die Hard, Lethal Weapon 3, The Hunt For Red October and Basic Instinct to his credit - De Bont, after years of shooting other people's movies, wanted to direct his own. It was inevitable, he says, that his debut would be an action movie, but when he read the script for Speed he saw in it an opportunity to bring a fresh approach - and a fresh face - to a well-worn genre.
"I had worked with Bruce and Mel and Stallone," the Dutch-born director explains from beside a canal in a gloriously sunny Amsterdam where Speed received it's European premiere yesterday evening." And I wanted to find a new face because I felt like we'd seen all those other actors for so long now."
De Bont wanted his action hero to be tough but vulnerable, a sensitive strong guy, and not a macho control freak.
"A lot more like a real person," he says, "and not looking giant and muscular all the time." He had seen Keanu Reeves as a FBI agent in Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break and deemed him perfect. "I had seen scenes in it where I had gone 'Oh my God, if he grows up a little bit he might be really good.' "
But Keanu wasn't thrilled with the script. As written, he felt it was too much in the mould of Die Hard with his character apt to mouth flippant one-liners with jaw-droppingly monotonous regularity. But he liked the premise - a Los Angeles bus is rigged with a bomb that will explode if its speed drops below 50 m.p.h. - and he liked the director, whom he describes as a "master warrior".
"The bus and bomb, fantastically fantastic," grins Keanu. "It was so silly I thought it could bomb hahahahaha, but, with the right guy ... and Jan, he had an actual - I guess the word is vision - he knew what he wanted to do, and it actually seemed like that would be fun. I don't mean to use such a coy term, but he had a real enthusiasm for it. He seemed like a man with a mission." De Bont was in agreement with Reeves' concerns about Graham Yost's original script and brought in screenwriter Ross Whedon (sic - Joss Whedon) to tailor it to suit its star and make his character more of a yeoman.
Initially (and rather ironically in retrospect), Fox wasn't convinced of Reeves' action movie credentials, and insisted on his pairing with a big-name actress. De Bont, needless to say, was totally against the idea.
"Because they think he's not a star yet, they said if we take him we have to get a famous actress next to him, so at least audiences have something to build on. I told them, "You cannot look at it that way. You have to find the perfect combination. I want someone who is going to drive a bus and you can believe in, not a beautiful face, but a strong feisty woman.'"
As the female passenger who takes the wheel of the bus and steers it through downtown L.A. traffic while Reeves' SWAT cop figures out what the hell to do next, he chose Sandra Bullock, who had starred opposite Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man. Even then the studio wasn't happy.
"Fox didn't want to go with it for a long time," bemoans the fiftysomething De Bont, who, with his silver hair looks vaguely professorial, "and only two weeks or less before shooting they agreed to go with her. It was like a nightmare. But they're a good combination."
"I definitely appreciate the fact Jan fought for me," remembers the ever-gregarious Bullock, "He fought for a lot of things in this movie. Nothing was proven, and I think because he went the real way as opposed to the way that was conventional is the reason that you have a different flavour. And it's just nice, I admire somebody who artistically sticks to his guns and rides out a vision whether people hate it or not."
It was important for De Bont that Reeves look more like a normal guy, and while he pumped up slightly for the role, the director insisted he crop his hair for verisimilitude.
"The thing with Keanu is that he looks very boyish and I wanted him to be like a young adult," says De Bont, "I didn't want him to be like a kid - and he loves to be a kid.
De Bont's one stipulation was that he went to the barber's with Reeves.
"I told him, 'You're not going to go by yourself.' He said it was a great idea to cut his hair and he left." An hour later Reeves returned ... with very little hair.
"I had what they call a one-cut," laughs Keanu, "and then I took the one off on the clippers. Some people thought it was too extreme because they could see my scalp."
The studio, not to put too fine a point on it, went mental.
"They saw him walking on the lot and they called me right away," recalls De Bont, "they said, 'Who told him to cut his hair? We have to get him a wig - now.' I said, 'No way are we going to get him a wig.' They called his manager, they called his agent, they said, 'We're going to have to postpone the movie now, and I said, "No no, we have two more weeks, and in two weeks his hair will grow this much. It's great, it's what I want." They were totally upset."
The Keanu Reeves haircut. Not since the days of Tony Curtis has the public flipped over a movie star's follicle matter in such a big way.
"It's not a big thing," he insists. "Haahaaaahaa!"
But the word is that men are going into their barber's and asking for a "Keanu" when they want a crew-cut.
"NO. No. NO. NO. No. No. No!" he rants good-naturedly, "that's ridiculous."
Well, it makes a good story.
"Yeah, but it's not true. See, this is how it starts," he laughs. "This is how 'Keanu Reeves as next action hero' starts. It's you . . ."
De Bont says that at the beginning of filming Keanu just didn't believe that action movies could be interesting.
"I had a problem," he recalls, "so I had to get him into my movie." This he achieved by having Keanu do as many of his stunts as possible. "I said, 'You drive the Jaguar during the scenes swerving through the cars.' And when he did it he started to like it so much. He said, 'Oh my God, action movies can be fun', and he got some kind of adrenaline rush, and from that moment on, every day, he was there all the time, and whenever possible he wanted to do it all himself because it is exciting. That's the young character in him who wants to experience everything himself first hand." Reeves, De Bont estimates, did 90 per cent of the stunts himself.
"I got to be pretty involved," the actor admits. "It was one of the lessons I learned from Point Break: that the more you can have me in there, the better it is. And Gary Himes, the stunt co-ordinator, and Jan were very good about setting up situations that looked like I was in situations of peril and let me get in there and do it."
While he did an unused jump between a moving car and a moving bus, he says driving the Jaguar was the most fun ...
"We were filming on the 105 which is a new freeway in California," relates Reeves, becoming increasingly excited, "and Gary Himes would set up like a pattern with cars, so there would be maybe 15 stunt people and myself and the cinematographers and then he'd take Tonka toys on the highway and he would draw with chalk another highway, like a semblance, and he would say 'Okay Keanu, here's your path, you're going to go through this car and this car . . .' and I'd be surrounded by stunt drivers and he would say to me 'Keanu, you can't hit these guys, even if you tried to hit these guys, now go for it." And so I'd just go vrrooom, and stop, and they would go eeeerrrrk and get out of the way. That was fun. That was good, good fun..."
If Keanu Reeves isn't the next action hero, then how should we see him? He first came to attention as the disaffected teen in Tim Hunter's haunting 1986 drama River's Edge, while as the Ted half of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure he seemed to have found the perfect outlet for his surfer-boy persona, giving rise to several subsequent spaced-out performances. But Reeves is smarter than he gives himself credit for, revealing his substance with winning performances as Martha Plimpton's problem boyfriend in Ron Howard's Parenthood and as an empty-headed hitman in Lawrence Kasdan's I Love You To Death. By Point Break, he had come of age, though it was in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, in which he played a rich kid slumming it as a hustler on the streets of Portland, that he delivered on his promise with a performance of depth and maturity that signalled to the world that here was an actor who wasn't about to go away. Coppola, Branagh and Bertolucci were among those impressed enough to pick up the phone - "It seemed to me they've all felt that my innocence or perceived ingenuousness was appropriate for a part" - and cast him in period horror (Bram Stoker's Dracula), Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing), and a loincloth (Little Buddha), although not altogether successfully. Variety is clearly the spice of this actor's life. So how does Keanu Reeves the actor see himself?
"That sounds good right there," he answers. "That's about it. Keanu Reeves the actor."
Yet some people still have this impression of you as this surfer-dude who says "excellent" rather a lot. Is that a misperception then?
"I don't know," he shrugs. "I'm like that sometimes. Sometimes I'm not."
So is that why you take roles as different as Jonathan Harker in Dracula and Prince Siddhartha in Little Buddha? To prove your versatility, to illustrate that you're something other than Ted "Theodore" Logan?
"No," says Keanu Reeves evenly. "I don't know the reason."
He's currently filming A Walk In The Clouds in the Napa Valley, home of Paul Masson wines and Francis Ford Coppola's vineyard. A love story set after World War II, it is directed by Alfonso Arau, who made Like Water For Chocolate and co-stars Anthony Quinn.
"I wanted to work in a romance," he explains, "and the script was very good romantically. More important, to go from Speed I wanted to work on the heart and emotions and belly."
This time, I suggest, he can be romantic without having to risk his neck.
"Oh man, this is even more tough," he sighs. "Jumping out of a car has got nothing on falling in love. I'm trying to connect to my belly, and it's been a fight. I'm all stuck in my throat. I've got an emotional blockage in my head."
It was the success of Speed, he says, that helped push his latest film into production.
"Fox was very cool in the sense of they're doing this picture," he says, "and they gave this film a greenlight very quickly. Because of the grapes, we needed to really know whether they were going to make it or not, and to their credit they really went through their whole process extraordinarily for that to happen."
The death of River Phoenix, Reeves' co-star in My Own Private Idaho and I Love You To Death, and a close friend, came during the middle of filming of Speed. Reeves has made no secret of his teenage dalliances with drugs, and following the release of Idaho rumours circulated of his enthusiasm for his role spilled over into real-life. One wonders whether Phoenix's death affected his attitude or outlook on life.
There's a long pause before he answers.
"All I can say is that I have never felt a thing like that before in my life," he says quietly. "I was very sad, and something beyond sad. I don't know what it is, just that you sob for hours . . .
Keanu Reeves has been pin-up material for the best part of a seven years now. His onscreen vulnerability and good looks have made him a heart-throb to both men and women, something he classes as "fun", while other stars of his Generation, Johnny Depp for one, have actively voiced their dislike of the whole teen heart-throb/pin-up scene. "I never really saw much of that," he admits.
His co-star in Speed, Sandra Bullock, calls him "a kind, beautiful person".
"There are so many beautiful people in this world, and that's not what gets me," she enthuses. "That's a dime a dozen and it gets old. Then you meet somebody who happens to be blessed that way and is one of the kindest, most respectful people that you'll ever meet and that's Keanu. He was so great to work with, because he didn't have be there at five o'clock in the morning for my reversal shot, but he walked out of his trailer and there he was and he said, "I just waited because I knew you needed me for that scene." And that's rare. People go crazy over him, and they have every reason to, because he's good-looking on the inside too."
Keanu Reeves will be 30 next month, a psychological hurdle to some, just another day to others.
"I should probable be looking over my shoulder for the younger action guy," he laughs, "threatening my action guy."
Are you consciously seeking more adult roles? "Yeah," he deadpans. "It's just that I can't find a really good adolescent, lose-your-virginity script, so I feel like I have to move. They just don't write them like they used to. Heeheeheeheehee."
Does he still get offered stuff like that?
"Not really. Maybe I'm too old. Heeheehee," he quips, adding an extra bit of commentary: "'Mr. Reeves certainly does act too old.''
One of the offers he declined in the wake of Speed was Carolco's much-delayed big-budget pirate yarn Cutthroat Island. He turned it down, and its multi-million dollar paycheque, because he had already committed himself to playing Hamlet on stage in Canada in December.
"It starts so quickly after the film I'm doing right now," he explains, "and it would have been very hard to work in. To do that picture and prepare for Hamlet would have been impossible."
He's acted on stage before, in Toronto where he was brought up, and where he was first exposed to the Bard, and in Pennsylvania.
"I love to act Shakespeare and I think it's a good play. Hahahahahhaha," he cackles, adopting an English accent that's even worse than the one he affected in Dracula and saying, " 'Mr. Reeves thinks Hamlet is a damn fine play . . .'"
It's quite brave, I suggest, turning down a high-profile, well-paid film for a small theatre production.
"Yes," he mugs, "brave and audacious."
Especially now you're a major movie star.
"Am I really? How kind of you to say. Hahahhaha. I didn't know..."
Earlier this year a Californian college ran a course based on the work of Keanu Reeves.
"I found out about that through somebody who had actually gone to the school a couple of years before - and was familiar with the instructor," he explains, "so it wasn't like, 'There's a course about you.' The teacher generally works with directors and what he does is take someone's work and uses it as a jumping off point for a variety of other topics. He would say, 'Comedy and drama from Bill & Ted ... let's look at Nietszche and the birth of tragedy.' He uses these films or this actor as a flashpoint for going off in different directions of study, whether it be theory or philosophy, sociological, semiotic, and I was told he used my past career because of its variety in genre and director."
Were you flattered or did you find the whole thing embarrassing?
"Embarrassing? No, not embarrassing. It was funny I guess, and curious."
Keanu Reeves says he would like to do "some physical broad comedy" and, after his turn as the glowering Don John in Much Ado, another villainous role - "to grow that diablo beard and just to be bad was the way to go hahahahha! - though he rules out a return for Bill & Ted 3 until he and Alex Winter are well into their 40s. He will next be seen in artist-turned-filmmaker Robert Longo's Johnny Mnemonic, based on a novel by cyberpunk guru William Gibson, in which he plays a man with the cure for a devastating disease locked inside his brain. As for the inevitable Speed 2, he says it would depend on the script and financial situation.
"I think Jan De Bont is a master, an artist. And he proved to be respectful and kind and thoughtful. So to work with him would be an honour and in terms of working with Sandra Bullock again that would be a delight. So if the script was right on, righteous, then I'll be there."
And do you think you're worth $7 million?
"No, not at all. That was a good tag line for you, wasn't it? That kind of money was offered for a picture that was even more actiony than Speed. So they're not offering me that kind of money for a romance, because they don't see their money coming back. But maybe for Speed2 I am worth it. But maybe not. I've been told I'm bankable, but there's also a lot of wait and see, let's see if this is real or not.'
"It's so funny," laughs De Bont, whose own career has received a meteoric boost and is next directing a big-budget version of Godzilla, "all of a sudden he's a big star and can ask so much more money for any of his movies. Two hours can make so much difference in someone's life...