Current Biography (US), May 1995
Reeves, Keanu (kee-AH-noo)
Sept. 2, 1964 -- Actor.
Since his impressive performance as an alienated teen in the 1987 film River's Edge, Keanu Reeves has been regarded by many as a talented young actor. On occasion he has also been described, less charitably, as one who "has a way of looking emptier than a sock drawer on laundry day," to quote one bemused critic. What some perceive to be "emptiness" may instead be a result of Reeves's singular approach to his craft. His willingness to "be filled" by his characters, as one movie reviewer phrased it, rather than animate them with aspects of his own personality is perhaps what has allowed him to be cast in such disparate roles, including that of a blissfully ignorant, time-traveling high-school student in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and its sequel, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey; a French nobleman in Dangerous Liaisons; the spiritual leader Siddhartha Gautama in Little Buddha; and a cop struggling to save a busload of passengers from death in the box-office smash Speed.
Keanu Reeves was born on September 2, 1964 in Beirut, Lebanon. His father, Samuel Nowlin Reeves, a geologist of Hawaiian and Chinese descent (the name "Keanu," shared by his paternal grandfather, means "cool breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian) (Note: Untrue. His paternal grandfather's name was Samuel Nowlin Reeves Sr. And while I'm at it, it's 'kay-AH-nu', not 'kee-AH-nu'. - Ani), abandoned the family when Keanu was very young. He grew up primarily in Toronto, Canada, where he lived with his mother, Patricia, his younger sisters, Kim and Karina, and his stepfather, Paul Aaron, a film and theatre director. Reeves's mother, a British-born costume designer, provided her children with a life that was "long on love beads, incense, and visits from clients ... such as [the rock star] Alice Cooper -- but short on discipline," as Natasha Stoynoff put it in People (July 11, 1994).
That lack of discipline seems to have been reflected in Reeves's attitude toward school. Stoynoff quoted one of his teachers at Jesse Ketchum grade school as saying that Reeves was rarely, if ever, on time for his lessons but that when he did arrive, "he had a smile on his face." In high school Reeves was more concerned with his position as goalie on the hockey team (his prowess earned him the nickname "the Wall") than with his studies, as evidenced by the fact that he changed high schools four times before dropping out altogether in 1984, after unsuccessfully repeating his senior year. "I even flunked gym," he recalled in a conversation with Lynn Snowden for Rolling Stone (March 9, 1989).
While Reeves's upbringing did not incline him toward scholarship, it spurred his interest in the performing arts. He was impressed early on by the "exotic" people, to use his word, with whom his mother and stepfather associated. He has also recalled being captivated by such films as Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Peter Medak's The Ruling Class (1971), and he regularly attended screenings at Toronto University's Repertory Cinema, where he was exposed to a wide range of genres. At the age of fourteen, Reeves began landing bit parts in Canadian television series and American productions filmed in Canada. One of the secondary schools he attended was the High School for the Performing Arts in Toronto, and his first substantial theatrical outing came in a student production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. A Coca-Cola commercial brought the budding actor his "first big paycheck," as Lynn Snowden put it. Reeves studied acting at the Hedgerow Theatre, in Moylan, Pennsylvania, during the summer that he was eighteen, and he later appeared on stage in Toronto in a production of Peter Charlton's play Wolf Boy. Deciding eventually that his dream of becoming a movie star could not be realized in Canada, in 1984 he moved to Los Angeles.
Among Reeves's earliest Hollywood credits was the feature film Youngblood (1986), a forgettable vehicle for Rob Lowe about a young hockey star. In the same year, he turned up in three made-for-television movies: Act of Vengeance, in which Reeves, as an assassin, became only the second person ever to kill a character played by the cinema tough guy Charles Bronson; Under the Influence, a drama about alcoholism; and the Christmas musical fantasy Babes in Toyland, a remake of the 1934 film. Evaluating Babes in Toyland for the New York Times (December 19, 1986), John J. O'Connor wrote, "Mr. Reeves, who in earlier television appearances this year was impressive as a young alcoholic ... and a psychotic killer ... looks understandably embarrassed each time he is required to join in another dreary song."
The actor's first attention-getting performance was in River's Edge (1987), Tim Hunter's disturbing tale, based on an actual incident, about a clique of affectless high-school students, one of whom, John, casually murders his girlfriend. Reeves's character, Matt, ultimately defies the leadership of Layne (Crispin Glover), who exhorts his friends to conceal the killing from the authorities. In the New York Daily News (September 14, 1988), Jim Farber pronounced Reeves to have been "so credible in his part that he seemed less an actor than some kid they ripped out of a Motley Crue concert."
On the strength of his work in River's Edge, in the following year Reeves appeared in several films. He essayed the supporting role of a young nobleman in eighteenth-century France in Stephen Frears's acclaimed Dangerous Liaisons (1988), which Christopher Hampton adapted from his own play based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Choderlos de Laclos's 1782 novel about games of sexual intrigue played by the aristocracy in pre-Revolution France. Reeves played the Chevalier Danceny, an earnest music teacher who falls in love with the young Cecile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), a convent-reared pawn in an erotic power struggle waged by the decadent Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close).
In Thom Eberhardt's slight comedy The Night Before (1988), Reeves portrayed a nerdy teenager trying to remember what transpired at his high school prom. More serious was Marisa Silver's 1988 release Permanent Record, in which the actor appeared as Chris, the best friend of a popular and gifted high-school student (Alan Boyce) who, without warning or apparent provocation, takes his own life. "Chris's gradual coming to grips with his sense of self gives the film its only point of interest, largely due to Keanu Reeves's performance, which opens up nicely as the drama progresses," a writer for Variety (April 20, 1988) declared. In The Prince of Pennsylvania (1988), a quirky comedy by Ron Nyswaner, Reeves took the part of a teenage free spirit trying to find himself while contending with his eccentric father (Fred Ward) and conducting a romance with an older woman (Amy Madigan).
The year 1989 was an equally busy one for the up-and-coming young actor. Directed by Stephen Herek, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure was an unpretentious comedy about two high-school boys (Reeves as Ted and Alex Winter as Bill) who are on the verge of flunking their history class when they discover a magical telephone booth that allows them to travel through time and meet such epochal figures as Socrates and Sigmund Freud. Although Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure failed to impress the critics, it was a financial success, raking in more than forty million dollars. In Parenthood (1989), Ron Howard's gentle comedy about family and the complex ties between parents and children, Reeves was surrounded by an able cast that included Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Dianne Wiest, and Jason Robards, and he turned in a strong, nuanced performance as a young husband. He also starred in Life Under Water, a made-for-television movie, based on the play by Richard Greenberg, about wealthy, cynical residents of Long Island.
Reeves demonstrated his ability to play a credible romantic lead in Tune In Tomorrow.... (1990), Jon Amiel's screen adaptation of the celebrated Mario Vargas Llosa novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Set in New Orleans in the early 1950s, Tune In Tomorrow.... starred Reeves as an impressionable radio newswriter and aspiring novelist who falls in love with his sexy, older aunt by marriage (Barbara Hershey). Julie Salamon of the Wall Street Journal (October 26, 1990) felt that Reeves embodied his character "with just the right mix of innocence and smarts." Reeves and William Hurt were amusing as a pair of bumbling, drug-addled hit men in I Love You to Death (1990), Lawrence Kasdan's farce about a woman (Tracey Ullman) who puts out a contract on her philandering husband (Kevin Kline). A reviewer for Variety (April 4, 1990) pronounced Reeves to be "pleasantly dippy" in the movie. In director Kathryn Bigelow's offbeat action flick Point Break (1991) Reeves played Johnny Utah, a maverick FBI agent who goes undercover in a Southern California surfing community to investigate a series of bank robberies but falls under the spell of a charismatic gangster (Patrick Swayze). "A lot of the [film's] snap comes ... from Mr. Reeves, who displays considerable discipline and range," Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times (July 12, 1991). "He moves easily between the button-down demeanor that suits a police procedural story and the loose-jointed manner of his comic roles."
Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (1991) found Reeves and Alex Winter returning as the sublimely vacant duo from Southern California, facing in this outing a villain (Joss Ackland) who attempts to alter history by having Bill and Ted killed, thus sending them on a journey through "a Dante-esque progression of Purgatory, Inferno, and Paradise, with side trips to several local mini-malls," as Dave Kehr summarized the plot in the Chicago Tribune (July 19, 1991). Roger Ebert, offering his opinion of the movie in the New York Daily News (July 19, 1991), praised Reeves for bringing "more artistry to this cretinous role than might at first meet the eye." He wrote in addition, "I have seen Keanu Reeves in vastly different roles (the FBI man in the current Point Break, for example) and am a little astonished by the range of these performances."
Reeves and River Phoenix starred in My Own Private Idaho (1991), the independent filmmaker Gus Van Sant's ambitious portrait of male street hustlers plying their trade in the American Northwest. Reeves was Scott, an upper-class vagrant slumming in the male-prostitute demimonde while waiting for the inheritance he will receive upon the death of his wealthy, powerful father, and Phoenix played the sweet-natured, narcoleptic Mike, who falls in love with Scott while searching for his long-lost mother. Van Sant layered My Own Private Idaho with conceits that, in the view of many critics, detracted from his lyrical and tender story of the two main characters, such as modeling Reeves's character after Prince Hal in Henry IV and burdening the actor with slang-ridden, modernized versions of Shakespearean speeches. Although David Ansen, writing in Newsweek (October 7, 1991), was impressed by Reeves and Phoenix, he noted that an "unmistakable self-consciousness comes over the movie in its boisterous Shakespearean passages, and you can feel Reeves, a good naturalistic actor, clenching whenever he shifts into Elizabethan rhythms." In the New York Times (September 27, 1991), on the other hand, Vincent Canby declared simply, "The performances, especially by the two young stars, are as surprising as they are sure."
Although Reeves was, by his own admission, not at his best in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) in the part of Jonathan Harker, the young attorney whose fiancee (Wynona Ryder) is the vampire's principal object of desire, director Francis Ford Coppola's erotic and visually striking film was well received at the box office and by many critics. Showing his versatility, Reeves followed his portrayal of the scheming Don John in Kenneth Branagh's high- spirited Shakespearean romp Much Ado About Nothing (1993) with a turn as a South American freak-show performer in Freaked (1993), a comedy directed by Reeves's "Bill and Ted" costar, Alex Winter. Reeves played Julian Glitche, a love interest of Sissy Hankshaw (Uma Thurman), in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1994), Gus Van Sant's critically unsuccessful screen version of Tom Robbins's cult novel about a sexually liberated hitchhiker with oversize thumbs.
To prepare for the job of playing the young Siddhartha Gautama, who would go on to become the founder of Buddhism, in Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha (1994), Reeves read extensively about Buddhism, learned the practice of meditation, and fasted while the film was being shot. "I knew people would find this an outrageous choice," Bertolucci said of his casting of Reeves when he spoke to Kristine McKenna for an article in New York Newsday (June 5, 1994) (identical article (I think) from the Los Angeles Times). "How can Keanu, the idol of American teenagers, be Buddha? I tried to put such things out of my mind, and I'm enchanted with what he came up with -- he seems as though he's not touching the ground when he walks in the film. Keanu has an innocence I felt was crucial to the role of Siddhartha -- his innocence is on his face, and it goes to the core of his personality, and that's why I cast him."
The consensus of reviewers of Little Buddha was that the choice of Reeves was a good one. "Reeves's slightly blank aura is ingratiating here," Robert Horton wrote in Film Comment (July 1994). "He seems ready for anything, ready to be filled, ready to jump from his own private Idaho to the Himalayas -- you can feel the happy energy of a young Hollywood actor asked to play one of the world's great spiritual leaders. So often in his movies Reeves gives you the feeling he hasn't quite found his own voice.... Here, he isn't required to say all that much, which helps, but even his uninflected voice is appropriate to his unformed character." That backhanded compliment was echoed by Janet Maslin of the New York Times (May 25, 1994): "Despite the fact that Mr. Reeves ... retains traces of surfer-boy body language at the most unexpected moments, he more than commands interest during those sections of the film that depict Siddhartha's evolution. When a huge cobra magically appears to shield Siddhartha from rain, for instance, Mr. Reeves need only sit in meditation and look serene. That he can do."
After fasting to play the ascetic Siddhartha, Reeves pumped iron for the part of the police officer Jack Traven in Jan De Bont's popular thriller Speed (1994). Traven's nemesis is Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper), a bitter ex-cop who rigs a city bus with a bomb set to detonate once the vehicle's speed reaches, then drops below, fifty miles per hour, and Traven tries to save the day as the bus hurtles wildly down the crowded streets and busy freeways of Los Angeles. Evaluating the film for the Washington Post (June 10, 1994), Hal Hinson wrote, "With his brush-cut [hair] and pumped-up physique, [Reeves] is barely recognizable as the loose, eager-puppy actor from his earlier films. As Jack, he reads every line as if he really, really cares, and though he's undeniably hunky and cute as a button, he's so earnest that he has no electricity, no life." In contrast, Jack Mathews of New York Newsday (June 10, 1994) felt that Reeves struck "a refreshingly different note" with his portrayal of Traven. "Using none of the pun-filled wit that has become the common denominator of the modern action hero, and with an intensity that may be a meditative hangover from Little Buddha, Reeves goes about his business with the concentration of someone actually trying to stop a killer."
Carrie Rickey of the Chicago Tribune (June 26, 1994) described the dark-haired Keanu Reeves as a "reedy six-footer" whose "enigmatic face suggests a computer-generated composite of every known race and gender." Rickey went on to say, "His affect is pansexual and so is his appeal. At the trill of his name ... fans female and male heave libidinal sighs." Although he has been perceived as inarticulate and vacuous, largely because of his tendency to lapse into the "valley" slang of his Ted character, Reeves has been said to read widely, and he is "very, very smart," in the opinion of Gus Van Sant, who was quoted by Chris Willman of New York Newsday (July 23, 1991) (identical article form the Los Angeles Times). "He's the archetypal troubled young American," the actor John Malkovich, who appeared with Reeves in Dangerous Liaisons, told a reporter for People (July 11, 1994). "He's like your younger brother, someone you should be helping out in some way. He doesn't invite it. I don't think he would like it much. But if you're older, you feel you should protect him."
Reeves recently played the lead in a stage production of Hamlet at the Manitoba Theatre Centre, in Canada. His upcoming films are A Walk in the Clouds, directed by Alfonso Arau, which was scheduled for release in mid-April 1995, and the thrillers Johnny Mnemonic and Dead Drop, due in theatres in the summer and fall of 1995, respectively. The actor's screen work has been used as a focal point for a study of modern cinema in a course taught by the artist Stephen Prina at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Reeves currently lives at the Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. He relaxes by riding his motorcycle at high speeds (he bears numerous scars from crashes he has suffered) and by playing bass guitar with his "folk-thrash" band Dog Star, at small clubs in Los Angeles.
c/o Todd Smith,
Creative Artists Agency,
9830 Wilshire Blvd.,
Beverly Hills, CA 90212