Keanu Sets the Record Straight
by Tim Allis
KEANU REEVES IS A 90S TWIST on poetry in motion. He's got the soulful, "hey, whatever man" languor of the nameless generation (at 30 he skews a tad old for Gen X, but can pass) even as he has vaulted into the rarefied sphere of major box-office leading men, having proved with last summer's fun ride Speed that he can hold his own in the less-than-poetic action genre dominated by Bruce and Arnold. He's reinforcing that aspect of his talent with the recently released sci-fi thriller Johnny Mnemonic (TriStar), about a courier with a computer chip in his head, but returns later this summer to his soulful mode with A Walk in the Clouds (20th Century Fox), a romance about a soldier coming home from World War 11. Like the bus rigged with explosives that he commandeered in Speed, Reeves—and his career—can't slow down.
Only after Speed did the critics come around and acknowledge that the guy has range, in retrospect a slight slight that Reeves regards—or rather disregards—with humble honesty. "I've been trying to show some range for the past 10 years," he says, no attitude evident in his voice. In his ever-morphing screen image—from timetraveling Valley guy (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) and surfing FBI agent (Point Break), to hustler (My Own Private Idaho), spiritual leader (Little Buddha), and busbarreling SWAT officer—Reeves can seem all things to all people. Why he has caught the eye of gay men isn't such a mystery, given his tough-but-tender looks, his dude-acious boa, those eyes. But his often unorthodox film choices are also a part of the appeal—the loopiness of Bill and Ted, the sheer audacity of playing Buddha (of all people), and especially his portrayal of a mayor's son-turned-hustler in Gus Van Sant's Private Idaho, in which, by campfire light, he broke River Phoenix's heart. And ours.
What's a typical Keanu Reeves movie? There's no such thing—just as there is no such thing as a typical Keanu persona. His Valley days are blessedly behind him, the future a slew of plum roles not yet imagined. Reeves says he's not sending out an image, but if one is being received, then that image is part slacker, part Boy Scout, part angel in disguise. "He's the guy you want to get into trouble with," says one gay fan. "He'll go out and get the bad guys and then come home and cuddle."
As a major leading man for his generation, he is reinventing the action genre, casting away some of its aggressive machismo. But is that something he's striving for? "Not really," says Reeves, on location in Minneapolis, where he's completing the romantic comedy Feeling Minnesota, co-starring Cameron Diaz. "I've just been lucky with some of the parts I've had. I'm not really trying to create any one particular image at all. I'm interested in variety, but more than that, I'm interested in good films."
"Tired after a long and somewhat frustrating day of shooting, Reeves is unwinding in his hotel room, fielding questions with politeness and thoughtful consideration. His answers are sometimes obtuse, but the man who played Hamlet on stage in Winnipeg is nothing if not introspective. But it's not easy for him to do this—to open up about his work, his life, for the world. Why should he, first of all? "I really don't talk about my private life," he says. And besides—you get the impression that Reeves is actually shy.
The Feeling shoot is going well, but it's trying, too. "Sometimes it's super high and sometimes it's really low," he says. What constitutes high, especially for someone whose career is near the top of the world these days? "When the scene goes really well, and the acting's really good, that sort of thing," he says plainly. But unlike, say, Brad Pitt, who claims not to suffer for his art, Reeves takes acting extremely seriously and struggles with it at times. "It's hard," he says. "I'm constantly working at it." He ponders the suggestion that he represents a new kind of film actor, one who is redefining macho. "Maybe action characters have had that kind of archness to them," he says. "But then take Robert Redford, Mel Gibson—those guys aren't supermacho." Still, action heroes such as Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal let those movies harden their image, while Reeves seems in no imminent danger of turning to stone. His film roles continue to swing from the comic to the kickass to the sweet. In real life, too, Reeves isn't working a bad boy image. "I'm definitely not," he says. "But it's that word image—I guess I'm not trying to conjure up any image." Although he travels by way of a Norton Commando motorcycle, he doesn't carry concealed weapons through airports or break hotel furniture. "Or if I do, I change rooms before anyone finds out," he jokes. "But I guess my public life is pretty boring."
Boring or not, he has captured the imagination of women and men alike. Does he mind being thought of as sexy? Reeves just laughs. But does it get in the way of being taken seriously? "I don't know, I don't know," he says. "I mean, it's cool. Sometimes that's cool. Yeah, sure. There are worse things." And when he shows up on the top of, say, Playgirl's sexiest stars list? "That's another world, the world of magazines," he says. "That's something that kind of exists on a newsstand rack—it's out there."
Does Reeves think he's misunderstood? "I don't know," he says. "I don't really care. Outside of my friends and family and working, I don't really care."
Reminded that some gay men think he's sexy, Reeves laughs again, maybe a little embarrassed. "That's cool," he says. "That's cool." Of course he has heard last winter's rumor, which buzzed well beyond the hyperexcitable beehives of Los Angeles and New York, that he and music and film producer David Geffen were married in a secret ceremony on a beach in Mexico, followed by Reeves' mad shopping spree through Barneys on Geffen's charge card. "Oh, yes!" he says. "Oh, yes. I first heard it when I was in Winnepeg, on my answering machine. My friend Claire called. She said, 'I heard you got married, congratulations."' At this, Reeves' laughter turns to a surprising kind of heehee, versus ha-ha, as if the story fills him with childlike pleasure. Rather than being frustrated by the uberrumor—which of course says more about those spreading it than it does about Reeves or Geffen—Reeves says he found it silly. He joked to his manager, "I guess I should return the clothes."
"I didn't really think about it much," he says now. "I guess I have to say I've never met the guy."
As a Hollywood insider, does Reeves see the climate toward gay actors changing? "To tell you the truth, I don't have friends who are actors who are gay," he says. "I mean, I know a writer, she's gay, but in terms of the climate toward gay actors, I've never come across a prejudice for or against anybody— either in theater or film. But I'm not in the producing end of it. And I've never had anyone come up to me and speak about frustrations because of their sexuality." If that's hard to believe, believe that it's uttered with a voice of earnest sincerity.
Perhaps it's partly that earnestness that shone through in the campfire scene in Private Idaho, in which River Phoenix's character confesses his love for Reeves'. It's such a raw scene, the one that gay men couldn't stop thinking about, such an honestly acted reflection of a painfully familiar experience. "Well, River just was so amazing in that," says Reeves, adding that he himself has never been the recipient of such a confession. So what fueled the honesty of the scene? "I think it was on two levels," says the actor. "We were playing characters, and then also the friendship, the work that River and I were doing together. My character says, 'Well, just come over here, man. I can't love you, and I won't do it that way, but just come over here, man, we can hug, stay warm, we'll be together.' But you were seeing great acting by River, and also connected into that was our personal relationship." Asked if he misses the late star who died of a drug overdose at age 23 in 1993, Reeves falls quiet. "Oh, very much," he says, with nothing more to add but silence.
So even as he willingly embraces gay fans, we have to wonder, does gay mean anything to Reeves? Does he have any use for the words straight, gay, bisexual? Are these ideas—realities—he respects? "Yeah I do," he says. "I do indeed—I guess. I mean, it seems to be sometimes a battleground for people, it seems to be some people's lives sometimes. And it is and it isn't."
Does it play a part in his own life? He recalls his first roommates, in Toronto when he was 17 or 18, two women—a writer and an actress—who were lovers. "It wasn't really political for them," he says. "But I was around it a lot then, you know, hanging out, going to gay bars with them." Dyke bars? "Yeah," he says. "It was like 1985, and we'd go watch, I don't know, Dynasty or something. But that was just to get a beer and hang out. But since that time it's really something that hasn't been in my life in terms of being an issue. You know, I'm pretty much live and let live."
It's put to him, in the spirit of this straight-themed issue of OUT: What would be the best thing about being straight, aside from the sex? "Straight? I guess I can't even look at it like that," he says. "You mean what would I say to someone who's gay about what's the best thing about being straight?"
"Ha, ha, ha!!"—his laughter explodes. "But wouldn't whatever that thing is be the best thing for being gay as well? There are no lines. I mean it's humans, man. I mean . . . what would I say? . . ." Then he thinks of something. "We can go to different bathrooms in a restaurant!" And there you have it—the reason Reeves is not just another in a long line of macho swashbucklers who, try as they may, just don't get it. Reeves is a modern man. He gets it.
Which nevertheless means he will be the last one in the world to explain why he appeals to gay people as well as straight. The distinction is just too black and white for Reeves. "In using the term straight or gay . . . " He pauses. "It's all multileveled—about why someone enjoys a certain actor or actress's work. It's entertainment, it's escapism, it's sexual, it's political, it's social, it's human, it's nature. It's physical and it's the films, it's all of that together. I hope people—all kinds of people—like the films that I act in, that they enjoy my performances."
He is assured that many—all kinds—do.
"Cool," Keanu says. "Cool."'