Much Ado About Keanu
Karen S. Schneider & Natasha Stoynoff in Toronto and Kristina Johnson, William Plummer and F.X. Feeney in Los Angeles
Adrift and adored, Keanu Reeves is Hollywood's hunk of the hour, proving that speed doesn't kill.
No one knew the guy in the dirty wool cap and battered shin pads who showed up with Evan Williams at the vacant parking lot in Toronto one Sunday morning last year. But as long as the stranger could handle a hockey stick -- and he could -- it didn't matter. "This is an old friend of mine from out of town," was the only explanation Williams, a 31-year-old science teacher at Toronto's Upper Canada College, offered the 10 other road-hockey regulars. A few first-name introductions, a couple of handshakes, and the game was on.
"Hey, Keno, pass it!" shouted one player.
"Over here, Kinno!" called another.
"Kayinu?" ventured a fireman named Scott when Williams tried to help him sound it out.
"It was funny and kinda embarrassing," says Williams with a laugh. "He kept saying it over and over, and he kept getting it wrong."
Give the road-hockey warriors a break. No, they never did realize they were skating against Hollywood's hottest slacker-star. Yet getting Keanu Reeves right -- even for those who have mastered the pronunciation (KEY-ah-noo) -- is no easy task. The Beirut-born, Toronto-bred onetime pro-hockey hopeful is a guy who keeps people guessing: about his home (lately, a room in a Hollywood hotel); his love life (he has had only one steady in his life); even how he came to have his passion for acting. "I don't know anything, man," Reeves once said when asked about his craft. "I don't know what I'm saying."
Yet in his own odd way, Reeves seems to know what he's doing. Last summer, in the smash hit Speed, the 30-year-old actor pulled off a beefcake-on-a-bomb-rigged-bus act that transformed him overnight from the quirky kid in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure into the full-grown, full-blown $7 million-per-picture superstar every agent dreams of.
How did he capitalize on his newfound clout? Actually he didn't. After Speed, Reeves promptly nixed an offer to work alongside Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in their upcoming movie Heat -- and opted instead for a pair of tights and a $6,000 gig playing Hamlet onstage for three weeks at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg. His handlers may have scratched their heads, but Reeves's reviews were respectable ("He is never less than interesting onstage," said the Vancouver Sun), and his decision to do Shakespeare only enhanced his reputation as an actor who can play anything, in his fashion -- except maybe the celebrity game. Reeves travels with no entourage, attends almost no Hollywood parties and is often practicing with his bar band Dogstar when he might be promoting his movies. "I don't want to be super-famous, man," he told New York's Newsday in 1991. "That would be awful."
Reeves may not want fame. Heck, he may not even have earned it. But he can't seem to stop it. In his current techno-thriller, Johnny Mnemonic, adapted from a story by William Gibson, Reeves stars as a 21st-century smuggler who downloads data into a computer chip implanted in his brain -- and winds up with a deadly headache. Though it will surely send a chill down the electronic spine of the nation's cyberpunks, the movie is not up to Speed; indeed, at least one wag has called it Johnny Moronic. Then in late July comes A Walk in the Clouds, a World War II-era love story billed as Reeves's first adult romantic lead. Set in the California wine country, Walk, which features Keanu as a traveling chocolate salesman who falls for the vineyard owner's beautiful daughter, is the cinematic equivalent of vin ordinaire: fruity but trivial. No matter. Keanu's legend will endure.
Reeves's acting style -- a detached deadpan somewhere between artful and awful -- has never been the primary reason for his success. So how to explain him? At the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., instructor Stephen Prina taught a course last year called the Films of Keanu Reeves. Prina's students read Hegel and Foucault to understand the appeal of an actor who began his ascent to stardom as an amiable dimwit. Prina's take: "He has a peculiar detachment that doesn't allow for the kind of psychological relationship you have with a traditional method actor." Perhaps, but he may be overthinking things a bit. The great philosophers, after all, never touch on three reasons why Reeves may be the biggest thing to happen to Brooding Boys since James Dean: beautiful dark, brown eyes, perfect white teeth -- and a soul that whispers the blues.
"He's very quiet, very introverted," says Dina Meyer, who plays Reeves's bodyguard in Mnemonic. "You look at him, and you can see the wheels are turning, but you can't figure him out -- if he's happy, if he's sad . . . you just want to say, 'What's happening in there?' "
Few know. Reeves was born in 1964 in Beirut to Samuel Nowlin Reeves, the half-Chinese, half-Hawaiian son of a wealthy island family who was vacationing in Lebanon -- then a sort of Middle- Eastern Riviera -- when he met and married Patricia, an English-born showgirl at a local club. From his father, Reeves got his exotic first name -- Keanu means cool breeze over the mountains in Hawaiian -- and, it seems, little else. His parents split when he and his sister Kim, now 29, who shows and breeds horses at her Shady Ranch home outside L.A., were still toddlers. Sam Reeves settled in his native Hawaii (where last year he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for cocaine possession ) and saw his son now and then until Keanu was 13, but not at all after that.
Patricia, meanwhile, took her kids and headed for New York City, where in 1970 she married Broadway and Hollywood director Paul Aaron. Before long, they moved to Toronto, where they felt they could raise a family more easily. Reeves and Aaron split less than a year later, and the Reeves clan embarked on what was to be an interesting but hardly easy family life. They moved five times ("I have no idea why," says Kim. "It's not like the houses got bigger or anything"), Patricia changed partners almost as often, and Keanu switched high schools practically every year. Through it all he conducted himself, by all accounts, like a good-natured houseguest: polite, charming, happy-to-be-here-but-just-passing-through.
"I don't think he ever got to a class on time," says Paula Warder, a teacher at Toronto's Jesse Ketchum Public School, which Reeves attended from kindergarten through eighth grade. "And when he did arrive, he wasn't quite, well . . . with it. He always left his books at home or forgot his homework. But he'd just smile and go back home to get them. And somehow he did pass his classes."
This was clearly one laid-back child. Even in the Yorkville quarter of Toronto (think Haight-Ashbury in the late '60s), the Reeves household seemed Out There. With a client list including David Bowie and Dolly Parton, his costume-designer mom was often called out of town at the last minute. Visiting stars dropped by, giving Keanu and his sisters a firsthand feel for late nights, loud parties -- and celebrity rug wrestling. "I remember once, Keanu and I trying to take on Alice Cooper," says Reeves's childhood pal Williams. "He tied us up like a human knot."
Usually the strangeness suited young Keanu just fine. He entertained himself much like any other latchkey kid: stuffing himself with peanut butter and crackers after school, playing with his bull mastiff Jupiter and sneaking into the local second-run movie theater after his paper route to watch an afternoon's worth of Bruce Lee films.
Kind and quietly charismatic, Reeves never lacked for friends. Nor did he lack for father figures. After Patricia split from Aaron, she married local rock promoter Robert Miller, with whom she had Karina, now 18 and a freshman at the University of Michigan. The couple separated about five years later. Husband No. 4 was Jack Bond, a Toronto hair-salon owner who was divorced from Patricia last year. Each man, says Kim, left his imprint. "How we lived our lives depended on the man of the moment," she says. "When mom was married to Paul, we dressed in white every Friday night and sang Shabbat songs, and we went to Jewish camps in the summer."
But for the most part, she says, the kids were left on their own. "We never had anyone to play with us, to watch me riding horses or Keanu playing hockey," says Kim. They got along as best they could, she says. "You can't miss what you never had." But Keanu's friends say he did feel the absence. "He never talked about his real dad," says his childhood friend Shawn Aberle. "If he ever came up in conversation, Keanu would change the subject. There was a lot of love in the family, certainly from the female side," adds Aberle. "But from the male side, Keanu got much more of a tough love. He felt a little bit alone."
Teachers at North Toronto Collegiate school, where Reeves attended 9th and 10th grades, noticed a vague sadness. "I don't think he was a happy child here," says his drama teacher Paul Robert. Reeves's "independent spirit," he says, clashed with the school's emphasis on structure. Reeves focused his energy not on academics but on theater and hockey -- sometimes at the same time. "Even when he was tending goal," says his former coach Scott Barber, "he would start reciting Shakespeare." But in acting class he was frustrated by his peers' reluctance to explore their own souls. "He wanted to push farther, do some heavy-duty role playing," says Robert. "But most students at that age didn't have the maturity to do it."
Reeves spent more than five years bouncing from one high school to another. He spent a year at De La Salle College, a private school where he was voted Most Valuable Player as goalie for the hockey team and briefly flirted with the idea of turning pro. He studied a year at the Toronto School for the Performing Arts, where "he was booted out," says Williams, after a teacher ended an argument by telling Reeves "he'd just have to bite the bullet," and Keanu responded, "Yeah, but I don't have to eat the whole rifle." He also put in time at a couple of alternative schools. By 1983 he had given up, dropped out of high school for good and enrolled in the Leah Posluns Theatre School to become an actor.
He was not the most polished prospect. Posluns' director, Rose Dubin, says she was "blown away" by the Shakespeare soliloquy Reeves performed during his tryout. But judges at the Stratford Festival in Ontario were less impressed, twice rejecting his applications to join their summer Shakespeare troupe. Toronto's John Palmer, who directed Reeves in his professional stage debut, Wolfboy, in 1984, was also unwowed by the unkempt kid in ripped jeans who showed up at the audition. "His diction was a mess," says Palmer. "He would skip words and say lines like he was trying to figure out what they meant."
Yet moved by what he has called an energy and a glow, Palmer cast Reeves in Wolfboy anyway. For Reeves's costar, Carl Marotte, it was a memorable experience. Playing a street prostitute who befriends and then kills Reeves with a sensual bite to the neck, Marotte took the play's homoerotic undertones in stride, he says. But during a publicity-photo shoot, he and Reeves were asked to get more explicit. "We asked them to test the boundaries," says photographer David Hlynsky, who sprayed the bare-chested boys with water "for a sweaty glow" and suggested the actors kiss and caress each other. "They were both apprehensive about it," says Hlynsky, "but they understood the sexual tension in the parts they were playing."
So did the Toronto gay community, which helped make Wolfboy a cult hit. Over the next several years, Reeves's ambition -- and a beat-up 1969 Volvo -- took him from small-town triumphs in Toronto (including a bit part in 1986's locally filmed Youngblood with Rob Lowe) to Hollywood. His sensitive performance as an alienated teen in 1987's River's Edge gained the attention of directors and landed him roles as varied as the villainous Don John in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, the ethereal Siddhartha in Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha and, of course, the Speed stud Jack Traven.
Through it all, the legacy of Wolfboy -- speculation about Keanu's sexuality -- has remained with him. The gossip has grown so bizarre that this spring, gay entertainment mogul David Geffen commented on the innuendo publicly. "I hear that I'm supposed to be married to Keanu Reeves," Geffen told TIME in March. "I've never met or laid eyes on [him]." Reeves himself seems little bothered by the bisexual buzz. Says Kim: "He doesn't care one bit about it." Indeed, the talk brings out his mischievous side. Asked by Interview magazine in 1990 if he is gay, Reeves said no. "But," he coyly added, "ya never know."
Those who know Reeves say his romantic life is less intriguing than his fans might imagine. As a teenager he was simply too shy for romance. Since then, he has had only one real relationship, says Kim. "It was an on-again-off-again thing a few years ago that lasted about a year," she says. "His philosophy is, 'If it's not real, why bother?'" But friends say Reeves remains as fascinated with what he calls "righteous babes" as his Excellent Adventure alter ego Ted. He just can't believe, friends say, that women would be interested in him. "He thinks he's a nerd," marvels Mnemonic's Dina Meyer. "I couldn't believe it. He really thinks he's just some schmo off the street who loves to act."
He's right about one thing: he is an off-the-street kind of guy. Reeves neither owns nor rents a home. Between films he sometimes takes a room at the Chateau Marmont hotel or crashes at Kim's home, where they ride horses together, rent videos or just cook dinner and talk over a bottle of red wine. "My brother is my prince," says Kim. "He listens to every word, to every comma after every word, that you are saying."
When he does settle down, Reeves has said he hopes to start a family. For the moment, though, he spends much of his free time playing bass guitar with bar band Dogstar and riding his Norton 850 Commando touring motorcycle. He can be as sweet and polite as a Cub Scout: After a concert at the Hollywood American Legion Hall two months ago, a fan managed to lock her arms around Keanu's waist. "Would you give me a kiss on the cheek?" she asked as her friend aimed the camera. Reeves obliged, but the flash didn't go off. "Oh no," she screamed. "Would you please, please do it again?" With a smile, he did.
But for all his good-natured generosity -- and a spirit Kim says is "content" -- a great sad space in Reeves's heart still belongs to his close friend River Phoenix, who died in 1993 of a drug overdose. "I think of it as an accident," he said recently. "I can't make sense of it."
Yet in a way he has. "Keanu was as wild as anybody," his manager, Erwin Stoff, says of Reeves's own experience with drugs. "Like the rest of us, he experimented." But the loss of a friend he loved, and his passion for his work, says Stoff, has sobered Reeves up: "He loves acting. And you don't do the kind of work he has done unless you put the past behind you. The simple story is that Keanu has grown up."