Star Keanu Reeves takes on Hamlet, one of Shakespeare's toughest roles, in Winnipeg
Keanu's Excellent Adventure
by Lyle Slack
When the Manitoba Theatre Centre made its announcement last spring, the idea seemed just short of ludicrous -- Keanu Reeves, air-guitar player extraordinaire, would perform the title role in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Were they planning some experimental production, subtitled A Prince's Excellent Adventure? The melancholic Dane as a surfer dude?
Well, no. Both the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) and Reeves, the 30-year-old star of such featherweight entertainments as Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Point Break and the blockbuster Speed, were dead earnest. "Shakespeare," rhapsodized Reeves last summer, "is physically thrilling. It goes to my brain and into my heart." Last week, ticket-holders from as far away as Argentina and Australia -- and critics from The Sunday Times and The Guardian in London -- got to see just what constitutes the heart of Keanu's Hamlet when he took to the stage in Winnnipeg (page 54).
From the start, MTC artistic director Steven Schipper understood the skepticism. "Keanu's had a very successful film career, because that's what he's pursued," he says. "But I have no doubt, had he pursued a career on stage, he would have established an equally impressive body of work." No doubt Schipper is sincere in that belief. No doubt he was also aware of the public relations bonanza, not to mention box-office sales, that would likely follow the casting of Reeves in a major MTC production. As it turned out, probably not even Schipper could have guessed that Reeves fans from 60 different cities, from as far away as China, would order tickets.
Schipper first auditioned Reeves when he was a 16-year-old kid just starting out in Toronto. The director was looking for a juvenile for a Sam Shepard play he was mounting at Toronto Free Theatre. And while Reeves turned out to be too tall for the part, Schipper recalls that he was "awed by his talent -- by his honesty, his sensitivity. And he had extraordinary courage, to go for it, whatever the situation."
And so 12 years and 16 major motion pictures later, Schipper finally offered Reeves a role -- any role he wanted, more or less. Reeves consulted an old friend and associate, Toronto-based stage director Lewis Baumander. After considering Caligula by Albert Camus and The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, they settled on Hamlet. "You know," suggests Baumander, who is directing Reeves in the current production, "it's so easy for people to lock an actor in, to say he can do this and only this -- particularly in film. But Keanu's not the first that has happened to. It happened to Tom Cruise for the longest time -- until people eventually conceded, no, this is a serious young man. I think Keanu's time will come."
Not everyone agrees. And to many it is a mystery why Reeves, so young and inexperienced on stage, would take on a role universally viewed as the ultimate test of a serious actor's mettle. They wonder, too, why he would risk such a public failure just when the runaway success of the booby-trapped-bus movie Speed has catapulted him into the status of hot new action hero, complete with a per-movie fee of as much as $ 7 million.
But then, much about Reeves is a mystery. In an industry where a prestigious home and showy automobile are de rigueur, he lives in a hotel room and does not own a car. Instead, he roams the streets of Los Angeles, often in the early morning hours, on a beloved 1974 Norton Commando English touring motorcycle. And although Vanity Fair dubbed him not long ago "Hollywood's hottest heartthrob," Reeves has never been linked publicly with a steady girlfriend. Conversely, although his good looks have helped convince a vocal gay following that their idol is in fact homosexual, Reeves flat out denied that in Interview magazine four years ago, coyly adding: "But you never know."
Reeves, through his personal manager, declined an interview with MacLean's. But others who have known the screen star since he was a fledgling Toronto actor believe they have some keys to understanding Keanu.
He was born on Sept. 2, 1964, in Beirut, the only child of "bohemian" parents, as he has described them. His mother, Patric, was English, his father, Samuel Nowlin Reeves, a geologist of Hawaiian-Chinese descent. His parents divorced when Keanu was an infant, and in 1970 Patric married Paul Aaron, an American stage and film director. Keanu was 6, and they lived in New York City, where Aaron directed off-Broadway musicals starring, among others, the not-yet-famous Bette Midler. But Patric was concerned that Keanu and his younger sister, Kim, grow up in a more family-friendly environment, and they all soon moved to Toronto. There, Patric continued her work as a costume designer for celebrities including Dolly Parton and Alice Cooper. Keanu attended downtown Jesse Ketchum public school and remembers a mostly well-behaved childhood building go-carts. "We did sling chestnuts at teachers' heads," he has recalled, "and in Grade 8 hash started to come around, and LSD kinda."
But for the adolescent Reeves, there was only one passion: sports. "Keanu was major hockey. That's all he talked about, thought about," says Aaron, now divorced from Reeves's mother but still close to both his ex-wife and Keanu. In 1981-1982, Reeves played goalie on the team of De La Salle College, a Roman Catholic high school, earning the nickname "The Wall" and the designation of most valuable player. He even thought he might try to play professionally.
But slowly that changed. Aaron moved to Los Angeles, and Reeves would fly down for school vacations. There, he hung around the set of whichever film his stepfather was shooting, including an Emmy Award-winning NBC version of The Miracle Worker starting Patty Duke. Also, because of her design work, Patric's Mends tended to be artistic types; Reeves lived in a highly creative environment. So Aaron was not surprised when Keanu told him he wanted to audition for the new High School for the Performing Arts in Toronto. Even though he had never acted before, Reeves was one of only 25 students accepted. "Then," recalls Aaron, "like everything else he does, that became his sole abiding interest. I mean, every part of it -- the voice, the movement, the contemporary, the classical. This was never a lad who said, 'Gee, I think I'm good looking, maybe I'd like to star in a TV series.'"
Reeves left high school one credit shy of graduating and auditioned for the acting school at Leah Posluns, a community theatre in suburban Toronto. When he arrived in 1983, recalls the school's director, Rose Dubin, he looked unimpressive: torn jeans, old sweats and running shoes that were untied, hair over one side of his face. "But we sat there and he just blew us away. He just had such energy." Dubin remembers another salient quality -- goofiness. "Bill and Ted and Parenthood -- those are the films where he's very much Keanu," she says. "Goofy and sort of macho and sort of uncertain. On the threshold of growing up but not quite there."
Allan Powell, also a student in Leah Posluns at the time, noticed Keanu right off. "I thought he was kind of an idiot at first," laughs Powell, who saw a tall, gangling, jock-looking boy with a short attention span. But after the two partnered in a scene study, Powell realized Reeves was genuinely passionate about performing. "It was straight from the heart," says Powell, 31, now an entrepreneur living in Caledon, just north of Toronto. "He didn't really know what he was doing -- but he knew what to do, if that makes any sense. And even though it was raw, people seemed to like it."
Colleen Murphy wrote a workshop play that Reeves and other students performed at Leah Posluns. And she remembers that, when he was focused, he rivetted people's attention. But Murphy admits that she also found Reeves "inarticulate," with a voice just slightly "disconnected" from his body. "I don't know if we're talking a great actor here," she says, "but we're talking a great personality who's very open with his feelings, who has a face audiences can project a lot of stuff into. There's a mystery -- when he doesn't speak too much."
Reeves began doing television commercials in addition to getting supporting parts in various Canadian TV series and low-budget movies. He was instantly salable and undeniably enthusiastic. Up for a commercial in which he was to play a cyclist, Reeves bounded into the office of talent agent Tracy Moore and proudly displayed his legs, which he had shaved in imitation of Italian Grand Prix racers. But Moore also recalls that the actor was frequently incapable of doing things simply to please others. More than one director complained about Reeves showing up needing a shower. Or he would go to auditions wearing shorts that used to be dress pants. "The guy wore work boots all the time -- he probably wore them to bed," recalls Moore. "So I had to say, 'Keanu, put on a pair of running shoes, you're going to an athletic commercial!' We didn't want him to be remembered as a sloppy, smelly kid. But his attitude was, that didn't have anything to do with acting ability."
In the spring of 1984, Reeves was cast in his first professional stage production, Wolfboy, at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille. He played an innocent kid who has been placed in a psychiatric institution. There, he meets a disturbed boy who ends up sucking blood from him, vampire-style. The play, by Brad Fraser, became a cult hit in Toronto's gay community. The audition, recalls director John Palmer, "was ludicrous. I mean, he had no technique and no training. He couldn't handle two consecutive sentences." What he did have, however, was "an energy and a glow" that Palmer knew would fascinate an audience.
Reeves was 21 and still living at home with his mother and sisters Kim, then 20, and Karina, 9 (all have since left Toronto). He drove a decrepit 15-year-old Volvo that friends were constantly having to jump-start. To supplement his sporadic acting income, he ran a one-man outpost of a pasta chain called Pastissima, closing the shop whenever he had to run out to an audition.
For fun, Reeves would shoot baskets, dance all night at various Toronto alternalive-music and after-hour clubs, or talk about acting over dinner with a small group of close friends. "He knew he was undisciplined," says Powell, "but he also knew he had this passion that was going to work for him. He'd work out the discipline thing later."
Reeves's passion did seem to be working for him. From guest shots on such shows as Night Heat and The Comedy Factory, he graduated to TV movies and more prominent roles. As his career grew, so did complaints about his self-absorption. Reeves would show up late on the set or not take direction. Eventually, Reeves" s agents sat him down for a talk. "The substance," says talent agent Lisa Burke, "was either shape up or ship out. Slowly, I think, he began to realize he loved this business and started taking it seriously. From there on, everything was fine."
In the spring of 1985, still taking classes at Leah Posluns, Reeves was cast in the senior student production of Romeo and Juliet. He played Mercutio, Romeo's exuberant and reckless best friend who dies defending Romeo's honor. The experience was a turning point for Reeves. In all the years since, in interview after interview, he has cited Mercutio as his favorite role ("He's so full of passion and wisdom and anger"). Baumander, a senior teacher at the time, directed the production. In his experience, young actors were mostly in love with the idea of being the lead in a show. "Keanu was different. There was something essential about himself that he needed to express through Mercutio. There's a profound sadness ultimately to that character that manifests itself in a kind of manic energy. And Keanu had access to so many primal kinds of impulses and feelings." Playing Mercutio seems to have implanted the desire in Reeves to perform the classics, to be an actor of depth and substance.
In 1986, Reeves packed up his old Volvo, drove to California and moved in with his stepfather. There, he was immediately taken in hand by Paul Aaron's talent management company, Elsboy Entertainment, and was soon signed by ICM, one of Hollywood's powerhouse talent agencies. In the eight years since, he has starred in a score of feature films and television movies. Those performances have been largely one-dimensional compared with the complex work of such contemporaries as Johnny Depp, Eric Stoltz or Jason Patric. Yet Reeves has thrived, principally because, as Robert M. Eaves noted in London's The Observer, "he has the indefinable essence that is called star quality. When he's on the screen, you watch him, however bad his acting may sometimes be."
The irony is that star quality is the thing that Keanu Reeves appears to care least about. He does not want to be just a personality. He wants to be Hamlet. He wants to perform the difficult roles, the parts that require immense training and great technique -- neither of which he has. That may be foolhardy, or it may be brave. Says Vancouver casting director Stuart Aikins, who worked with Reeves during the Toronto years: "He has the wonderful sense of wanting to push himself, and he doesn't have a problem with failure. If he makes a mistake or he flops, there's something else he can go on to. Whatever else, it's his game."