Up to Speed(also published in October 1994 as a longer, slightly different version under the title 'Action Man?')
As Speed hurtles ever onwards to being one of the biggest grossing movies of the year, Keanu Reeves reveals the highs and lows of being an action man.
by Roald Rynning
Shy and soft spoken Keanu Reeves seems an odd choice for a new Hollywood action hero. After all, there's widespread belief that he really is the pea-brained Ted he played so convincingly in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and the sequel, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. But first-time director Jan De Bont, previously the cinematographer for Die Hard and Lethal Weapon 3 wanted somebody young and cool as LA cop Jack Traven in the action thriller Speed.
In order to fit the action part the 30-year old teen idol cut off all of his unruly hair and filled out his lithe frame by pumping up at a local 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 hand stands, trampoline work and high bar. Just trying to know my body better. That training put me in good stead."
Keanu also began rehearsing his own stunts with stunt coordinator Gary Hymos.
"I did everything except for three shots," he enthuses. "Jan wanted to put me as close to the action as possible and he and the stunt coordinator knew I was willing to do whatever I could do." With five cameras watching, Reeves actually performed the flying leap from a Jaguar convertible into the bus, one of the more stirring sequences in a movie brimming with them.
"The first time we were to do it, I didn't dare," recalls Reeves. "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 in 45 miles an hour.
"I was standing on the side of the car and it was going back and forth. I so much wanted to be Tam-ta-rah!, but no way."
Having spontaneously jumped out of his chair to demonstrate the dreaded stunt, his body collapses disillusioned back into the chair by his failiure to achieve it at first take.
"The second time," he adds proudly, "the stunt man was more coordinated and experienced and suddenly I leapt."
Reeves's other feats included strapping himself to a dolly undeneath, the moving bus, jumping onto a moving subway train, and being lowered upside-down a 100-foot elevator shaft.
"We never put him in danger," says De Bont. "But so many actors wouldn't have done those stunts. He was fearless."
In Speed Reeves tries to save the passengers on a Los Angeles bus rigged to explode if it goes slower than 50mph. When he was first offered the script, he wasn't happy with it.
"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 often leads to a reputation as being difficult but Keanu had no qualms about doing so. "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." When Keanu gets past his initial shyness, he is an enthusiastic interviewee, especially when talking about A Walk in the Clouds, a romance directed by Alfonso Arau, the creator of Like Water For Chocolate, now shooting. Or Johnny Mnemnonic - Robert Longo's cyberpunk thriller that was filmed back-to-back with Speed. Keanu seems to be constantly working.
"The past six months have been very intence," he admits. "Filming Johnny is the most tired I've ever been. It's not like I'm trained for a marathon. It takes a lot of energy go from such a physical film as Speed and another physically and demanding experience. But I like my life when I'm working. It makes sense."
He finds it hard to drop his characters and they stay with him a long time.
"The first two weeks after I've wrapped a movie, I'm out in space," he explains. "I can't speak about anything. All my life has been work and my work isn't like carrying bricks up a staircase, it's emotional life."
Having been on location for much of the past two years, he has moved out of his house in L.A. and is currently homeless.
"I don't know where I'm gonna live. For the time being I'm staying at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood [best known as the place where John Belushi died]. I just want to hang out, learn my lines and work on Hamlet (he'll star in a Canadian stage production of Hamlet in January), I don't feel I need a home right now."
Keanu's gypsy lifestyle is perhaps rooted in an unusual upbringing that involved a lot of travel. Born in Beirut in 1964, his family bounced from Beirut to Australia to New York City before settling in Toronto. At 14 he began landing parts in Hollywood movies shooting in Canada. It didn't take him long to realize his ambitions were bigger than the country in which he lived and he moved to Los Angeles.
In a career spanning just ten years, he has appeared in a wide range of films, everything from period dramas (Dangerous Liaisons, Much Ado About Nothing), teen flicks (Bill & Ted) and Horror films (Dracula) to gritty underground independents (My Own Private Idaho).
Of his teen idol status, he 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 smilingly, "I think it's cool, and I'm glad that people find me attractive in the films - for when it's necessary."
So it hasn't affected his ego?
"Well, it has and it hasn't," he answers with usual sincerity. "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."
Despite all the media focus, he claims to a normal life.
"I can walk on the street with no problem. Once in a while people say 'Hello' and that's it."
Keanu is committed to film the Speed sequel next year.
"I had a really bad experience the one time I did a sequel, Bill & Ted's Bogus Adventure. I call it 'Bill & Ted's Omitted Journey' because they cut out so much of the script. At the same time, there have been good sequels. The second Indiana Jones, Godfather 2 and Evil Dead 2. It's no reason Speed 2 wouldn't be good. But it all depends on the script."
Despite Hollywood declaring him the next action hero, Keanu laughs at the notion and says he doesn't think Speed will make him into an action star.
"My part isn't as showy and strong as Schwarzenegger's action heroes. The highlight isn't on the hero in the same way as the performances that Schwarzenegger or Stallone have given us. Speed might get me adult roles, but I don't think Arnie's worried."