Keanu Walks In The Clouds
"I'm just an actor geek," says Hollywood heartthrob Keanu Reeves
by Peter Stack
Enigmatic actor Keanu Reeves massaged his forehead and looked as if he were preparing to jump off a cliff.
"Some critics say my acting seems detached, but I'm not a detached guy," said Reeves, who is 30, 6 feet tall, and looks like a real-life prototype of all the fashion and cologne ads you see with stubbly-bearded young men wearing nubby work boots, black jeans, dark T-shirts and sports jackets. He's one of those actors who are more striking off the screen than on it.
The star, at William Hill Winery on a 20th Century Fox press junket for his new film, A Walk in the Clouds, described himself as an "actor geek."
He looked away with a shy, self-conscious smile. There was an awkward pause, a little laugh. Then the dark eyes lit up.
"I think I know why they say I'm detached," said Reeves, as if he'd never considered the issue before.
"They say it because sometimes I'm beyond acting, and into the reality of the moment. In the movies they always want the hero overplayed with that big jolt of the dramatic, the theatrical. But say you took a guy in real life and looked hard at the reality of him. A guy faced with the most devastating circumstances is often the coolest guy around. He looks detached, but his whole being might be on fire," said Reeves.
Ten minutes with Keanu Reeves gives you an impression of a man who stays a bit mysterious because otherwise his whole being might be on fire in front of the world -- and he can't exactly walk through life that way.
"I don't try to be mysterious or anything. I just don't have a lot to say about the obvious everyday stuff."
It is true that Reeves does not have a permanent home, though he lives in Los Angeles, usually in hotel rooms (sometimes he stays with his sister, Kim). He travels with only one suitcase plus the bass guitar he plays in his pop-rock band Dogstar, which recently had gigs in Japan and cranks out a mean version of Neil Young's Rockin' in the Free World, as well as 19 original songs.
"I've been traveling a lot lately, and I've got maybe a touch of something," said Reeves, apologizing for a hacking cough. "Do I sound like I have a smoker's cough? I was working on a film in Minnesota and I had to smoke in it."
Reeves, a nonsmoker and former hockey goalie who once considered going professional, said he learned to smoke for the part in the small-budget Feeling Minnesota, a black romantic comedy by first-time director Steven Baigelman.
"I can feel the effects. I feel like a smoker. Damn, I hate this," he said, breaking into another coughing spell.
Reeves said that contrary to reports, he doesn't like to live dangerously. But he likes "to feel real and live a life." He does ride a monster Norton 850 motorcycle (owns two, has had serious accidents), and it is true that the Chinese-Hawaiian father he hasn't seen since he was about 13 is serving a 10-year sentence for drug dealing in Hawaii. Reeves doesn't talk about his father -- "He isn't anyone I really know," he said.
"I come from a broken home. I had no choice about it, and I'm not necessarily in favor of it. I've heard of families staying together for the good of the kids, but that wasn't my situation."
Reeves was raised in Toronto by his English mother, who was once married to a theatrical producer, and who has worked as a costume designer in theater and films.
The name Keanu, pronounced Kay-ah-nu, is Hawaiian and means ''cool breeze over the mountains.'' But if one minute Reeves seems like that cool breeze, a minute later he is more a bundle of nerves. Then he grows painfully shy and may laugh suddenly or leave an alarmingly silent gap in the conversation.
A NICE GUY
Through every mood, Reeves is polite, a quality that seems to run entirely counter to his image as an unrefined hero of the so-called slacker generation. He sometimes quotes Shakespeare, then apologetically mentions a fascination with the Bard, as if no one would ever connect Reeves with the celebrated Hamlet he performed recently in Winnipeg.
Reeves' $ 22 million new film, A Walk in the Clouds, is an intense romantic drama that was directed by Alfonso Arau, the Mexican director who made Like Water for Chocolate.
The film, shot in Napa last summer, is about the 1940s wartime romance of a soldier who is on a train and meets the beautiful but troubled daughter of a vineyard owner. When Victoria, played by Spanish actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, tells Reeves' Paul Sutton that she's pregnant but has no husband or lover, he agrees to pretend to be her husband for a night to protect her from the wrath of her stern father (Italian superstar Giancarlo Giannini). A romance develops.
The role could have been a challenge for the derring-do hero of Speed, Johnny Mnemonic or Point Break, or characters he played in Bram Stoker's Dracula, My Own Private Idaho or Little Buddha. "I'm not supposed to say it, but it wasn't a challenge, really, to play the romantic man. It came easily, in fact. One reason was that I felt good about the tone of the piece, and about playing a stranger who just feels the need to care for somebody," said Reeves.
TRAPPED INTO CELEBRITY
It is a pattern sometimes played out in Reeves' own life. Strangers constantly approach, ask for autographs, request pictures or just want to chat with him. More often than not, Reeves obliges, citing a belief that he's just an ordinary guy trapped in a movie star's body.
"I don't lead the life of a celebrity," said Reeves. "I don't hang around with anybody famous. In fact, I don't hang around much at all, except with a few friends, and guys in my band where I'm just trying to play the bass. I appreciate people who have seen my acting and like it, because I'm really just an actor geek," he said.
The actor geek says he constantly worries about his work, about what he calls auditions (but nowadays are more just meetings to read and hammer out aesthetic details), and he is sensitive, almost sad, about criticism that he's a lightweight or doesn't reveal depths of passion.
"I'm a physical type of actor, and I realize it. But I'm not afraid to try anything. I think sometimes in films they don't want actors to take real risks that might complicate the image they are hoping will sell a few more tickets. I like to show my insecurities, but I find more often than not they cut them. A hero with doubts, who brings real life to the screen, well, maybe they're not sure they want such a person," he said.
With A Walk in the Clouds Reeves says he's as proud of the work he did helping design the costumes as he is of the acting. "I love the dressy look, the '40s style, the Army uniform," he said.
"And I learned a lot from Giannini and Anthony Quinn, who in the story has a big part as the one person who wants me to hang around."
"Giannini in particular showed me how you can invent as an actor. He's such a technician, a scientist, but he's got that Chaplinesque quality too. Talking to him about acting is like talking to Van Gogh about colors. When the camera is turned on he brings into the picture a wonderful invention of humanity, and he's a man who's lived a life. I was star-struck and I felt like a kid who didn't know anything," said Reeves.
Reeves dropped out of several high schools and never went to college -- he says he was young and foolish -- and took up acting at age 15, working in community theater, doing TV and movie bits in Toronto. He has show-business connections through his mom. At 20, he said, "I took the big plunge and drove cross country with a girlfriend and buddy in my old Volvo 122 to hit Los Angeles and try my luck at acting. I went to every audition I heard about, finally got in a TV movie of the week, then got River's Edge." Reeves makes no pretense about the emotions he feels whenever the subject of his River's Edge and My Own Private Idaho co-star, River Phoenix, comes up. He simply cannot and will not say much about Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose in 1993 and who was one of Reeves' closest friends.
"I knew him very well. It was devastating," said Reeves. His eyes welled up and he stared at the floor.
"Oh, gosh," he finally said, with an uncomfortable smile. "I should be talking about this movie, A Walk in the Clouds."
GRAPHIC: PHOTO (3), (1) Alfonso Arau, director of Keanu Reeves' new movie, A Walk in the Clouds, in Napa recently, (2) Keanu Reeves, at a Napa winery to discuss A Walk in the Clouds, said he's an ordinary guy who happens to be an actor, PHOTOS BY LEA SUZUKI, THE CHRONICLE