by James Cameron-Wilson
Although Keanu Reeves has made a career playing gormless young men (brain-dead or otherwise) he has also, uncharacteristically, appeared in his share of costume dramas. He is, however, perhaps best known as Theodore Logan, the time-travelling high school moron in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. These were a pair of wildly popular adolescent comedies that overcame the spectre of their self-conscious trendiness through an irresistible energy and enthusiasm. They even spawned a Saturday morning cartoon series. Keanu, who, previously, was best known as the sullen Matt in River’s Edge, was a revelation as Ted, the bone-headed student who couldn't keep still for a moment. Whether playing air-guitar with co-star Alex Winter (as Bill) or Romancing some 'medieval babes' from Olde England, his frenzied, infantile bonhomie was infectious.
In fact, Ted Logan was far more in keeping with the real Keanu, whose concentration and syntax are all over the place. He positively exudes a boyish excitement and speaks in a street lingo as fresh as his name (Keanu is Hawaiian for 'a cool breeze over the mountains'). And yet he has been commandeered for a number of serious period pieces in direct contrast to his personality. But whether he's playing a straight-F student or a far-from-straight street hustler, he invariably conveys a sense of upstanding propriety. Recently, he has been seen on the stage as Trinculo in The Tempest, played the righteous, profoundly Victorian Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker's Dracula, played the lead in Bernardo Bertolucci's Himalayan epic Little Buddha and was Don John in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing. Even Scott Favor, the male prostitute in My Own Private Idaho, had his genesis in Shakespeare -- or, as Keanu eloquently put it 'Yeh, Scottie's based on ... Hal? Prince Hal? From, um, Shakespeare.'
Like his syntax, Keanu Reeves is from all over the place. Born in Beirut, Lebanon, on 2 September 1964, to a Hawaiian-Chinese father and English mother, he lived for a while in Australia and New York and was raised in Canada. Confessing to 'a safe and sheltered upbringing', he dropped out of high school at 15 to study acting. A year later he made his professional debut in the Canadian TV series Hanging In and earned himself a handsome income from a Coca-Cola commercial. He then attended Toronto's High School for the Performing Arts. 'It was a fun year,' he says, 'but I got kicked out and failed. I was rude and stuff -- talking too much.'
He then spent a summer at the Hedgerow Theatre in Pennsylvania and studied with Jaspar Deeter. His favourite role at that time was Mercutio -- in, um, Romeo and Juliet. On TV, he played a psychotic assassin in the HBO movie Act of Vengeance, with Charles Bronson, and had a good part in the highly acclaimed TV movie Under the Influence, with Andy Griffith.
He made his theatrical film debut in Youngblood, an ice hockey melodrama with Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze, in which he drew on his reputation as Most Valuable Player on his school's hockey team. He then had the lead in the slick TV movie The Brotherhood of Justice, as Derick, a hunky, privileged kid who not only drives a flash red sports car but is captain of the school football team. Derick is also nominated captain of a vigilante gang that gets out of control. Kiefer Sutherland played the good guy.
Next, Keanu joined Drew Barrymore for an overlong TV version of the Victor Herbert operetta Babes in Toyland, with a new score by Leslie Bricusse, and was in the CBS Disney 'Family Movie' I Wish I Were Eighteen Again. Then came River’s Edge.
Both a critical success and something of a cult, River’s Edge was a disturbing, honest drama inspired by a true murder case in 1981. Not since Francis Coppola's The Outsiders had a cast of unknowns exhibited such an ensemble force. Reeves was simply superb as Matt, the story's conscientious anchor, who reluctantly comes to terms with his moral duty. Although both Crispin Glover and Dennis Hopper enjoyed showier roles, it was Keanu who had the toughest part to play.
Marisa Silver's Permanent Record covered parallel ground, but failed to find an audience, and a similar fate befell the teen comedy The Night Before, in which Keanu played a high school nerd suffering from alcohol-induced amnesia. He had a supporting role in Dangerous Liaisons, cast against type as the French nobleman Chevalier Danceny, and then landed the part of a rebellious teenager in The Prince of Pennsylvania, a genuine oddity. Still, it allowed Keanu to have a rare crack at comedy, although with lines like, 'I don't want to be a tadpole, I want to be a dolphin,' it was hard to distinguish between what was meant to be funny and what wasn't. The director, Ron Nyswaner, certainly took a risk with his casting.
'I loved Keanu in River’s Edge,' Nyswaner ventured, 'but it was a very serious drama, and I had no idea whether or not he could be funny. So I had him up to the hotel in LA to talk about the part, and he made us laugh for a solid 45 minutes. After that, I knew he had to be ideal.' Although the film was not a hit, it mustered a small following and even prompted a dance called the Keanu Stomp, enthusiastically enacted by Toronto punks.
Keanu Reeves had found his own feet and, leaving teen angst behind him, started on a new career in comedy. First there was the phenomenally successful Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and then the even bigger hit, Parenthood, with Steve Martin. In the latter, Keanu played Martha Plimpton's compassionate boyfriend and a prospective parent, and delivered the film's most poignant line: 'You have to have a licence to have a dog, even to catch a fish, but you don't need a licence to be a father.'
He had another supporting role in the starry, sporadically hilarious I Love You To Death (as a reluctant hit man, partnered with William Hurt), and then played the idealistic young writer, Martin Loader, in Tune in Tomorrow (based on the novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa). The director was the London-born Jon Amiel.
'When I first met Keanu, his hair was shaved bald on one side and long on the other,' the filmmaker remembers. 'The hair had time to grow before rehearsals, but on the first day he turned up swathed in bandages and was limping after yet another tumble off his motorbike.' Reeves is a self-confessed speed freak, and doted on his various sets of wheels -- his rented Harley, his 850 Norton Commando, his Moto Guzzi ... And, as a confirmation of his first love, he has a prominent scar running from his navel to his chest and another on his calf. Cheerfully, he admits, 'My body's a wreck, man.'
He indulged in more dangerous sport when he took on the role of tough rookie cop Johnny Utah in Point Break, a part originally earmarked for Matthew Broderick. The part demanded that he not only learn to surf and fire a gun, but also jump out of an aeroplane. Till now, Keanu had steered clear of the action genre, but made an imposing, fast-talking cop in what turned out to be a popular, muscular get-up-and-go thriller. Patrick Swayze co-starred (as the villain), and Kathryn Bigelow signed on to direct.
'I've been an enormous fan of Keanu since River’s Edge,' the director explained. 'When this film came up, I thought Keanu's innate physicality, intelligence and charm would make him perfect to play Utah. He holds the screen, and he's got a magical ability to put the audience in his back pocket. In addition, the role was a departure from the work he'd done in the past. We all felt it would be a fresh approach for the picture.'
He returned to familiar ground with Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, and then starred opposite River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant Jr.'s dark, pretentious My Own Private Idaho. While the gimmick of mingling Shakespearian text with contemporary slang was a fatal mistake, the film did have its moments, not least the affectionate fireside confession between the two stars. Next, he was all but swallowed by the grisly special effects in Bram Stoker's Dracula (but who could refuse a Coppola movie?), and then did a cameo in Hideous Mutant Freaks, which his friend Alex Winter co-wrote and co-directed. Next came Much Ado About Nothing, alongside Branagh, Michael Keaton and Denzel Washington, and then he returned to the quirky world of Gus Van Sant Jr for the latter's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, based on the cult novel by Tom Robbins. The actor's subsequent performance in Bertolucci's Little Buddha promised to be the biggest move in his career. It wasn't.
And if Keanu Reeves's stream of movies weren't enough to keep boredom at bay, the actor started up his own rock band, Dog Star, which his manager Jay Davis describes as 'Nirvana mixed with The Sex Pistols'. He also appeared in a Paula Abdul video and acted in a couple of student movies.
In his spare moments he confesses to an insatiable appetite for reading, and favours Dostoyevsky, Philip K. Dick, T.S. Eliot and Greek mythology. Such workaholism and devotion to post-college education, not to mention his dedication to researching his roles, has left little time for Hollywood parties and the inevitable inclusion in the gossip pages. But, he insists, 'I dig going out, but I don't get many invitations. It's just kind of whatever happens. I'll go see art, buy a drink, dance, play. Have fun. I dig the blues, man.' And then, with a mischievous twinkle, he brushes off his apparent lack of famous girlfriends with, 'No, I'm not gay -- but you never know.' However, just to set the record straight, in 1993 he was dating Sofia Coppola, actress daughter of the Brat Pack guru.