(Previously published in March 1995 as a longer version under the title 'Keanu Reeves: the US interview' (~5200 words), on March 11 under the title 'Keanu's A Scream!' (~ 1500 words) and in July 1995 under the title 'Keanu - the slacker prince comes of age' (~4400 words))
While Keanu Reeves may be the hero of our hearts he's certainly no Joe Normal. In this exclusive interview, Margy Rochlin discovers the stranger side to Hollywood's golden boy, from his unexplained and explosive outbursts to his relationship with a tow truck driver called Chuck.
Keanu Reeves is on the set of A Walk in the Clouds, oblivious to the fact that ersatz fog is slowly enveloping him. As he stares at his scuffed brown wingtips, the fog wafts up the sides of his rust-coloured Forties-style suit and creeps over the peak of his beige felt businessman's hat. By the time the vapour-makers stop puffing out the eerie smoke, all that will be visible on this Hollywood soundstage is the tip of a fake mountaintop, an exact replica of a Napa Valley promontory, right down to the scratchy weed clumps and red dirt.
Only Keanu can be located without a homing device as an earsplitting hog call shatters the silence – just one of the many concentration techniques he's developed. Others include stretching, deep knee bends, aerobic-like wrist twirls… When all else fails, he blurts out random lines from the script as he tries to internalise the fears tormenting Paul Sutton, the sweetly-befuddled GI he plays in A Walk in the Clouds, Mexican director Alfonso Arau's first American film. Arau is best-known for Like Water For Chocolate.
Not that long ago, Keanu's unself-conscious prep work would only have added to his public persona as a total bakehead. But these days, as far as studio execs are concerned, he can make any noises he wants. Last summer, the blockbuster Speed unexpectedly turned Keanu into the action hero to end all action heroes. Women the world over fell in love with the abrupt but caring cop who would risk his own life for a busload of total strangers. He called Sandra Bullock "Ma'am" and put her in the driver's seat. Then to cap it all, when she was trapped in a runaway train, he valiantly refused to leave her. Such gallantry. Sigh.
Speed hailed Keanu's arrival as a mature screen presence after a decade of playing vulnerable youths, and Arau intends to make the rite of passage permanent. He told the 30-year-old star: "This will be the movie where, for the first time, you'll play a man. Not a boy, not a boyish man, not a manly boy – but a man."
As if to emphasize the point, Keanu turned up for the first day of our interview smoothly-shaven. Of course, he was still in his regulation black motorcycle helmet and dirt-creased black jeans with rips that revealed thin white boxer shorts.
You've been characterized as something of a vagabond.
I guess I'm just looking for a place to live. It's not like I've got this gypsy-bohemian philosophy like: "I don't want a home because I don't want roots." I've been at this hotel for a couple of months while working on A Walk in the Clouds.
Arau brought a personal astrologer on location. Did you seek her advice?
Well, I met her, and she held my hand and then she prescribed some Bach remedies. Alfonso's assistant would make daily drinks for him, the photography director and myself. Are you familiar with Bach flower essences? They help with mood and a sense of well-being.
Did the drink work?
Uh. I don't think so. But if I hadn't taken them, like, maybe I would have felt another way. Who knows?
Did you talk to World War II veterans when you were preparing for your role in A Walk in the Clouds?
I met this man, a Marine, who had fought in the Pacific. And I asked him: "What was going on?" And he said: "Well, I didn't take my socks off for three months. I was always hot and wet. There was fungus and dysentery and disease and hunger." And I was trying to lay these kinds of feelings on myself.
I was trying to figure out what made my character care about life so much and what he wanted out of life. I imagined this experience where I was approaching this Japanese stronghold with my partner. I imagined that he was beside me, and then I heard this sound. And I looked over and… his jaw was gone. And there was all this blood, and he was making these sounds.
Arau told you that he wanted this to be the first movie where you played a man. How did you decide to interpret his request?
I'll speak for the person I played in the film. For him, it was about taking responsibility for himself and for the others around him.
And for you?
I don't have any maxims on manliness or what it is to be a man. You know, nature will push you there, as nature pushes you to most places. Wooooo!
In the past, you've insisted that no one ever recognizes you. Did Speed change all that?
Yeah, I get recognized a little more often. Once, after the film had opened, I was playing hockey and my defence man came up to me and said: "OK. A guy is coming in on a breakaway. What do you do? What do you do?" (Laughs.) Usually, people come up to me and say: "Weren't you the guy from Speed?" And then we talk about the film.
Last year, you worked non-stop. Do you find this pace gruelling? Or do you enjoy it?
Sometimes it's been really tough, but I've enjoyed that. There've been moments when I've just had to preserve my energy.
I remember working on Johnny Mnemonic. It was right after finishing Speed, which was very physical and demanding. And Johnny Mnemonic turned out to be a very intense, quick shoot. I was in every scene. And I remember being so… I could quantify the energy it would take me to get up off the couch. I was trying not to move so that I could save my strength.
But it was great, and I feel very alive. It's been a really good year.
Was this concentrated period of work actually part of a carefully thought-out career plan for you or was there something more involved?
I don't really have a game plan in that sense. It really depends on the situation, but my game plan right now – if I have the luxury to afford one – would be more artistic than anything.
You have a reputation for being all work, no socializing.
That's been my nature for the past year and a half. I do go out once in a while. It's not like I'm a monk. It's not like people would say: "Before, he was footloose and fancy-free, and then he became a monk."
(In a Shakespearean voice.) "I'll wipe away all trivial, fond records / All saws of books / All forms, all pressures past that youth and observation copied there." So that's not what happened. I've always cared about acting.
Let's try an exercise. What sequel can you envisage for Speed?
Sandra Bullock already has a plot: Her character, pregnant with your child, is rushed in an ambulance through the streets of Paris. You show up, and you have to locate a preacher before her water breaks. What's your ultimate fantasy version?
Hers. And I don't even mean that as a cop-out.
Oh, try again. Would a mere speeding ambulance really be enough for you?
Would I end up driving the ambulance, trying to find a priest?
I don't know. This is supposed to be your dream scenario.
I mean, I could weave through traffic. Maybe terrorists try to hijack the ambulance. It's the Olympics! Terrorists come from everywhere. (Laughs.)
Often, when directors are asked why they cast you, they say: "He has an innocence." Is this a reaction to your openness towards new situations?
I'd love to say yes. But it's not true. (Pause.) I do have an open nature, I guess. My Mom told me that after "No," the second thing I ever said was "How come?" So I guess it's in my nature. It drove her crazy.
But your mother must have encouraged that openness in you.
(Leans towards my tape recorder.) Thanks, Mom. Thanks a lot. Good job. I know you know that already. But thanks.
Do you want to get married and have kids some day?
You know when?
(Shakes his head.)
What kind of father do you think you'd be?
I would probably try to, first of all, be around. And then to be, hopefully, a nurturing, positive presence.
Did your father's departure from your family at an early age significantly affect how you feel about marriage and relationships?
Of course. (Sighs.) I think a lot of who I am is a reaction against his actions.
Do you have any kind of relationship with your father now?
I knew him up until I was six. Then, uh, I saw him occasionally when I would go to Hawaii on holidays. The last time I saw him was when I was 13.
What happened then?
It was at night. We were in Kauai. And I remember him speaking about the stars. Something about how the world is a box. And I looked up, and I had no clue what he was talking about.
You've chosen to star in a relatively low-budget film, Feeling Minnesota. What's it about?
Um, what's it about? (Sigh.) It's a romance. What do I say? It's…
(He makes a retching noise and suddenly leaps up from his chair, shoving it backwards with a crash. He rushes toward the centre of the courtyard. Facing a wall, he lifts his hands into the air, flings his head back and lets loose with an unhappy howl. Then he begins an energetic conversation with himself, complete with wild gesticulations and frantic head-bobbing. Just abruptly, he walks back to his chair, sits down and resumes the conversation in a clear, confident voice.)
You have two brothers, Jack and Sam. You have a mother. (Pause.) I'm too tired to describe the whole story. (Puts his head in his hands.)
We can skip this one, all right?
Yeah, uh, I would just say that it's a tough romance, um, about change. These people in a small town, trying to get out, better their lives. It's about their struggles. That doesn't mean anything. Go see the film!
You're tired. Should we order some coffee?
It won't help.
(Eventually.) Let me make a better effort. Even if my demeanour doesn't indicate it, I am excited about playing the character. But right now, my descriptive powers aren't at their peak.
You're doing fine. Go on.
I'd say it's like Beckett meets Sam Sheperd in Minnesota in winter. With an element of romance. Yes, there's a woman in the middle who is trapped in this small town, and, uh, she's been caught stealing money from this guy named Red, who is the bigwig crime lord. My brother is his accountant – he discovers the theft and he's forcing her to marry him.
I've just come back from prison. The woman and I look at each other, and we fall in love. And we make love in the bathroom during her wedding banquet. And she says: "Take me away," and I can't. And then she goes: "F—k you, man. I'll do it another way."
And then in the end, I come back. And I have to steal money from my brother. We fight. He bites my ear off…
Gruesome… Pick out a scar on your body, and tell me the story behind it.
Let's see, which one should I choose? (Jokingly surveys his entire body before rubbing his left knee.) I have a scar on my knee, a very small one. I was on my motorcycle, and I got hit by a car on the corner of Hollywood and Normandie. The car was making a left, and I jumped from the motorcycle just before the guy hit me. I did a somersault and landed on the sidewalk on my back. Then I jumped up.
That must have been quite a sight.
The man, who eventually drove me to the hospital, said to me: "I'm coming out of the liquor store, my friend, and you are in the air! And I think to myself: ‘That boy, he is dead. And then you jumped up! I could not believe it!'"
As I was waiting for the ambulance, these two boys, about eight or nine, came by and they had big, wide eyes. And I looked up and them and said: "I flew, didn't I?" And they went: "You were in the air, bro." (Grins.) I was totally laughing. That was fun. I remember thinking I could have landed on my feet.
Were you badly injured?
No, no. It was only this long. (Measures off about 2 inches.) But it was deep. You could see ligaments. I totalled my bike.
So is it safe to say your presence is common in emergency rooms throughout LA?
No, but I do have a relationship with a tow-truck driver named Chuck.
The Reeves Dossier
Parents: English mother. Half-Hawaiian, half-Chinese father. Father and son have been estranged for years.
Born: Beirut, Lebanon.
Raised: Toronto, Canada.
Schooldays: Discovered drama classes and local theatre as a senior. Held down various odd jobs as ice-skate sharpener and tree trimmer.
Entry to Hollywood: Mid-Eighties. Instantly proved to casting agents that he had energy to spare and, according to one TV producer, "more acting tics than a cheap watch."
Culture shock: When he played in the 1986 TV movie Under The Influence, he had to report for duty at 8am. "I though this was unfair. It’s hard to act in the morning. The muse isn’t even awake."
Work ethic: No nonsense. Unfailingly polite. Observed a colleague from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, who demanded anonymity: "Even back then, he was incredibly professional. He was always on time. We always knew where to find him. On the other hand, his trailer always looked like a bomb had gone off."
Public Image: Looks hopelessly shaggy. Fumbles painfully on talk shows.
Best Buddy: His 1972 Norton 850 Commando motorbike. Periodically totals it.
Movie Credits: Parenthood; River’s Edge; Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure; Point Break; Little Buddha; Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Displays an unnatural talent for playing the vulnerable unwashed. Excels at throwing himself into his roles, even when he’s in over his head. Directors love that lingering trace of youthful innocence.
Full SPEED Ahead
Since he starred in Speed, which has grossed more than US$121 million in the US alone, Keanu's already busy work schedule has gone completely haywire.
Johnny Mnemonic, the cyberpunk thriller written by William Gibson and directed by artist Robert Longo, is out this summer. This fall, 20th Century Fox will team Keanu up with director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) in Dead Drop for a reported fee of US$7 million.
Somewhere in between, Keanu finds time for low-paid labours of love. He has just finished a run as Hamlet at the Manitoba Theatre Centre. ("Reeves simply lacks the equipment to sustain such a role," declared The Ottawa Citizen, but added: "He is never less than interesting onstage.") He has just started work on the indie flick Feeling Minnesota.
Ah Keanu, Keanu
Did you know that the action hero almost called himself Chuck Spidina?
When Keanu first hit Los Angeles, he had to audition as KC Reeves 'cos "Keanu" was too ethnic.
He recalls: "That was a terrible, terrible phase, which lasted about a month. I had driven across the country, and the day I arrived, I was informed that my manager and my agent were having trouble getting me in to see casting agents because of my name."
"It had an ethnicity to it that they found was getting in the way. So they said I had to change my name. And that freaked me out completely. I came up with names like Page Templeton III. And Chuck Spidina. My middle name is Charles."
"Eventually, they picked KC. (Shivers.) Ugh, terrible. When I went to auditions, I would tell them my name was Keanu anyway."
These days, the once-despised monicker is worth millions.