Following the success of the sensational box-office hit Speed, KEANU REEVES would appear to have Hollywood at his feed. This month he appears in Kenneth Branagh's superb Much Ado About Nothing on The Movie Channel, and Elizabeth Leslie spoke to the young star.
Keanu Reeves, now 30, may still be best known as the teenage Californian airhead he portrayed in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, but he's truly a citizen of the world. Born in Beirut in September 1964, he grew up in Australia and Now York before his mother remarried and settled in Toronto, where Keanu became a Canadian citizen. But he still hasn't shaken off his global wanderlust: although he has lived in Los Angeles for the past ten years, in recent times he has travelled to Italy to film Much Ado About Nothing with Kenneth Branagh and Nepal, to star in Bertolucci's sumptious-looking Little Buddha.
But he recently returned to Toronto to star in Johnny Mnemonic, adopted from William Gibson's cyberpunk novel, and he can currently be seen on video in the fast-moving action flick Speed. Dubbed 'Die Hard on a Bus' by many critics, this exciting thriller has catapulted Keanu into the topflight of Hollywood stars, and he is now able to command fees in excess of $5 million per movie. And yet, in the past he has taken on projects just for fun, because he wanted to work with a certain actor, or simply because he liked the title!
"First of all, that's what appealed to me about that film - the title 'Speed'," he laughs, pursing his lips as he repeats the word with a grin. "And then, in reading the script, it was the situations that occurred to me - they were fairly fantastic, that's the word! I mean, it's normal life and yet heightened: there wasn't a lot of blood and gore, and I thought it was good fun."
With previous movies - such as Parenthood with comic master Steve Martin, and the surf'n'sky-diving adventure Point Break with Patrick Swayze - Keanu was keen to work with different actors in different types of films so that he couldn't be typecast as just the goofy time-traveller Theodore Logan in the Bill and Ted romps. "I tell ya," he laughs, "Bill and Ted demanded all my skills as an actor, but I went to try new things ... I want to fall in all categories and no categories!"
Which is why fans of Keanu shouldn't have been surprised when he pursued actor/director Kenneth Branagh all the way to Italy, virtually begging him to cast him as Don John, the half-brother of Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing. Keanu wasn't put off by little obstacles like the fact that most of the actors already cast were classically-trained British actors (such as Branagh himself and wife Emma Thompson), that Keanu was best known as Ted the airhead and that the actor chosen to play his half-brother was the noted black American Denzel Washington (of Malcolm X fame).
"To be perfectly honest," explained Branagh at the time, "I really wanted Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington - I thought about the colour thing afterwards but I decided, 'Nah, f**k - it doesn't matter!' It's an emotional thing, it's a family thing ... colour isn't an issue in Shakespeare's plays."
As for Keanu, this was by no means his first stab at Shakespeare. He once claimed that his favourite role of all time was Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet ("because he's so full of passion and wisdom and anger...") and he's done several of the bard's plays in the theatre, including his recent run in Winnipeg starring in Hamlet. "I love the play, and I really enjoy acting Shakespeare in the theatre, so part of me thirsts for that. He's telling stories of humanity, of human nature - they have a timeless quality and actors will want to play these roles for as long as we're here."
As for highbrow critical dismissal of Americans tackling Shakespeare's greatest roles, Keanu sighs and says: "If the criticism is valid, I don't mind it - good or bad, it's OK."
His recent performances include a fleeting performance as an asthmatic Mohawk Indian in Even Cowgirls Get The Blues - "just a cameo - a cowgirl cameo!" he chuckles - the innocent Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker's Dracula, and his wonderful portrayal of Prince Siddartha in Little Buddha, but it's the overwhelming success of Speed that has propelled Keanu into the mainstream, alongside other action stars like Bruce Willis and Jean-Claude van Damme.
"On my part I have no real ambition to become an 'action hero'," he says somewhat defensively. "I had to work out really hard for the film. I lifted weights for about 8 weeks and took some gymnastics classes.
"I think I'm only a closet thrill-seeker!" he laughs. 'I mean, I don't really like jumping out of aeroplanes, and I haven't sailed across the Atlantic by myself, Learning to sky-dive for Point Break was a big thrill for me, falling out of a plane at 12,500 feet was great, but I don't do it any more. But surfing at 55 miles an hour over a 45 foot wave was fun, and I still surf once in a while.
"But I'm not a thrill-seeker. I know real thrill-seekers! I mostly just enjoy riding my motorcycle, that's how I got around. I haven't had a car for about six or seven years, but I'm a bad driver - I keep crashing."
I asked what was the more exciting role for him - a special agent in Speed or the prince in Little Buddha.
"Well, I was playing Prince Siddartha - it's his princely life, and it's a fable. But as an actor the concerns are the same - there's the scene, and you went to play it in a certain way. The only way that the Buddhism kind of affected me was because I come into contact with it for the first time and I was so naive in wanting to throw myself into it that, halfway through the film, I found myself in conflict between giving a performance and exploring a spiritual aspect that would clash with it. You just can't do it, so I had to find the middle path that came in from the other side was just to do the performance, and not go into the hills.
"People would ask: 'Where did Keanu go?', 'He's in a cave!'. So that element was difficult, but in terms of the acting process there were many similarities, really. For Siddartha, just generally working on physique, doing the Alexander technique to try to get his physical energy to play the part, and then, of course, the emotional aspect where you use the imagination and intellect.
"I learnt some beginning practices in Buddhism - trying to still the mind and sitting in postures, which I've been told is transcendental meditation - and I had a couple of Kundilini experiences. It was some of the best days of my life, having the opportunity to act the part of Siddartha in Kathmandu. He's a profound man, and his journey - from prince to enlightenment - is something that was very special for me.
"He was like a child that comes into contact with suffering and death for the first time and - hopefully - learns about those things, is sensitised to life, and compassion and wisdom is born from that experience. To be involved in something that gives back to the audience in such a beautiful and altruistic way was very fulfilling."
Keanu seems to have discovered the secret of having fun these days. It's as though the passing of great friend River Phoenix (who he starred with in My Private Idaho) has taught him the value of treasuring each day as it comes.
"I miss him very much," he says softly. "For me it was a very special friendship. I'm sure he wishes he was here as well." Having gone through the experiences of studying Buddhism, and facing the death of a dear friend, what are his thoughts about the importance of a spiritual search and the taking of recreational drugs?
"The danger of drugs is very relative, and a spiritual life is very important. It's fairly obvious in the way it goes. It's a harsh world and I've been very fortunate to travel the world and meet some exceptional people and artists. I've tried to keep that with me in my life. Reading the Buddhist texts, about compassion and wisdom, has taught me about responsibility. Being in Nepal has sensitised me to suffering, but I'm still an actor, so I haven't put down my joy to perhaps help the starving and sick, I'm doing it through entertaining them."
Throughout his career, Keanu Reeves has continued to confound those critics and fans who thought they had him pegged as the alienated adolescent in the disturbing River's Edge or the goofy dude in the Bill and Ted adventures. Career sidesteps such as Dangerous Liaisons (period costume drama), Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare) and Bram Stoker's Dracula ('horror') have established him as one of the most respected - and adored - actors of his generation, But how did he get here after that first appearance in a TV Coke commercial at the age of sixteen?
"I don't know what was in my head when I said to my mother I wanted to be an actor," he admits, shaking his head. "I was about sixteen. From then on I just started taking acting classes and doing exercises. I'm a high school dropout! I went to Performing Arts High School, I studied Stanislavski techniques with Uta Hagen, and Shakespeare.
"I come from a broken home. My mother's English. She moved from Now York City to Toronto after the divorce, and I grew up there for thirteen years. Sometimes we'd have cooks and other times we'd have generic foods. It was weird - it was like a bourgeois existence with pretensions for more, but having less.
"My mother is a clothing designer and my stepfather a director, so as a young man I was surrounded by artists - musicians, performers, exotic personalities - and that had an effect an me. I remember looking up at actors as a little boy would look at a fireman: 'I want to do that!."
With so many films about the so-called Generation X, does he feel that his age group is accurately portrayed by Hollywood?
"Generation X is a book written by a Canadian. I don't think that in the past five years there have been really that many Hollywood movies about that. There was Slacker, although that's not really a Hollywood picture, I find, at least in mainstream films, that most of my friends are leading much more interesting lives that what's being portrayed on film! "
Now that he's outgrown the Bill and Ted films and played adult roles, can he see how they reflected the youth culture?
"They were just trying to be funny films, crazy and outrageous comedies, so you shouldn't go too deep into it. But I guess they're a product of our culture, so you can interpret it that way. Bill and Ted got a lot of grief from their parents, who tell them: 'You're not going to succeed, give it up', so they bounce against that: 'You're not going to sell my instruments, I'll sell my blood if I have to'.
"That's not just questioning authority, but feeling that if you've got something that you feel is valid, and it's the way you want to live, you should go for it - as long as you're not hurting anybody. Bill and Ted appeal to me on a lot of different levels -the child in me can enjoy watching it, but I also find a lot of the words and what they do very clever. These guys are non-judgemental which I think is cool, their philosophy is beautiful: be excellent to each other, and party on ... have a good time." Amen to that!