Keanu's Excellent Adventure
Like a runaway bus, Keanu Reeves' career has only one speed - flat out. But, as Alana House reports, he's still driven by the desire to be taken seriously.
Keanu Reeves wasn't sure he had what it took to be an action star. When director Jan De Bont approached him about taking the lead role in Speed, he hesitated. Could he beef up to play the character, would he be able to do the stunts, did he really want to appear in an action blockbuster? The answer, fortunately for his fans, was yes on all three counts.
"I met with Jan and was impressed with his passion for Speed," Keanu explains. "It turned out to be an ensemble piece, not a star turn, and there's not a lot of blood, bodies and gore. I admire the clean aesthetic look of the film."
De Bont, on the other hand, had no doubts that Keanu was his man. "When I saw Keanu in the few action scenes he had in Point Break, I thought this was something he could be really good at. Physically, this is an extremely demanding part, and he wasn't completely convinced he could do it at first. But once he did a few of his own stunts, he loved it. From then on, he wanted to be involved in every little thing."
Still, getting in shape for those dazzling stunts wasn't easy. Keanu headed for the gym for two months beforehand, pumping iron for a few hours each day and doing the odd gymnastics class. The results speak for themselves. His biceps may not bulge quite as dramatically as Stallone's or Schwarzenegger's, but that's exactly his appeal.
"What is nice about him as an action hero is that he's vulnerable on the screen," says De Bont. "He's not threatening to men because he's not that bulky and he looks great to women.
His performance as LA Police Department SWAT cop Jack Traven, on the trail of a mad bomber (played by Dennis Hopper), helped propel Speed straight to the top of the box office. The film grossed more than $121 million and a sequel is already on the cards. While Keanu was paid $1.2 million to star in the original film, he's set to earn five times as much for the second instalment.
It's a long-awaited financial acknowledgment of his acting prowess. At 30, Keanu is only now getting the recognition, and pay checks, his fans have always known he deserves. Dogged by a "dumb dude" reputation forged in teen films such as Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Keanu had trouble getting the critics to take him seriously.
That hasn't stopped his peers casting him in a surprisingly varied array of roles in recent years. He played a bisexual hustler in Gus Van Sant's wrenching My Own Private Idaho; Winona Ryder's heroic fiancé in Dracula; a nasty piece of work in Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing; and Prince Siddharta in Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha.
Still, the desire to prove himself as a "serious actor" remains evident.
He's obsessed with Shakespeare, has appeared in a production of The Tempest, would love to do Romeo And Juliet or Macbeth, and, last month, acted on stage in a Canadian version of Hamlet. So excited were his fans by the prospect that ticket bookings came from as far away as Japan. So enamoured is Keanu with the Bard's work, director De Bont says he would recite Shakespeare soliloquies between takes an the set of Speed.
"I love it," Keanu enthuses. "I love the soliloquies. I read Shakespeare and I love to speak it. I love acting Shakespeare."
Surprising words coming from the man who inspires headlines such as "Jerk Or Pure Genius", "Keanu Has Dumb Act Down Pat" and "Keanu, The Meat Head". But Keanu insists he simply has a crazy side that tends to come out occasionally when he's dealing with the press. "I'd read what I'd said and go, "Wow, I'm a pretty goofy dude," he recalls. "But I got over it and now I'd say I'm just hopeless."
For Keanu, there's no desire to be "super-famous" - he's just working on improving his craft. Eager to enter the profession since the age of 14, Keanu eventually dropped out of high school to take acting lessons, work in community theatre and appear in local television and commercials in his home town of Toronto, Canada. At 19, he headed for Hollywood and, 11 years later, he's still waiting for his career highlight. "I don't have the maturity yet," he explains. "I wouldn't project that aura that Robert De Niro has. I'm still learning."
When he's not honing his acting skills, he's working an his other great love - music. Keanu plays bass guitar and provides vocals for a punk band called Dogstar. His musical prowess originally attracted much the same critical response as his acting - lousy. But these days people are sitting up and taking notice. The band is on the brink of signing a multi-million dollar recording deal, so we can expect to see an album featuring Keanu on bass guitar and lead vocals soon.
There's no special woman in Keanu's life right now, though he's rumoured to have dated Paula Abdul, Sofia Coppola, Lori Petty and even Sharon Stone - "I've known some incredible women, but I've never come close to marriage " - so he spends his free hours cruising around the streets of Los Angeles, or the nearby desert, on one of his beloved vintage motorcycles.
But Keanu admits that he's a much better actor than he is a rider. "I come off the bikes all the time," he says. "I think my insurance is a couple of grand right now. I am working just to pay off my insurance!"