Keanu - the slacker prince comes of age
(Previously published in March 1995 as a longer version under the title 'Keanu Reeves: the US interview' (~5200 words); also published on March 11 under the title 'Keanu's A Scream' (~1500 words) and in July 1995 under the title 'Daredevil Keanu' (~2600 words))
You air-guitared to Bill And Ted, puzzled over My Own Private Idaho and sniggered at Bram Stoker's Dracula, but with Speed you finally had to sit up and take notice. Meet the former slacker airhead.
by Margy Rochlin
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, it wafts up the sides of his rust-colored Forties suit and eventually creeps over the peak of his beige felt businessman's hat. By the time the vapor makers stop puffing out greyish smoke, all that will be visible on this Hollywood sound stage 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 Reeves, the romantic lead in director Alfonso (Like Water for Chocolate) Arau's first American film, due for UK realise in September, can be located without a homing device. For included in this golden-skinned actor's grab bag of concentration techniques - stretching, deep knee bends, aerobic-like wrist twirls - are lung-clearing shouts. And when ear-splitting hog calls don't do the trick, Reeves will blurt out thoughts that may help him empathize with the internal struggle of Paul Sutton, the sweetly befuddled G.I. he is playing. At this moment, for example, an anguished cry places him slightly northeast of the camera platform. "But I'm already married!" he is reprimanding himself furiously.
Not that long ago, Reeves' unselfconscious prep work would only have added to his public persona as a total bakehead. But these days, as far as film executives are concerned, he can make any noises he wants. Last summer, the blockbuster Speed unexpectedly positioned Reeves as the modern equation for an action hero - a pink-cheeked cop who doesn't have much to say, knows enough about the post-feminist world to let his female co-star do the driving and happens to possess enough physical beauty to make women (and many men) daydream about being wrapped protectively in his Popeye biceps.
Since then, Speed has grossed more than $121 million in the US alone, and Reeves' already busy work schedule has gone completely haywire: Johnny Mnemonic, the cyber-punk thriller written by William Gibson and directed by artist Robert Longo, is due out in the US this summer, with a US realise set for September. This autumn, 20th Century Fox - which recently signed Reeves to a development deal - will team him up with director Andrew (The Fugitive) Davis in Dead Drop for a reported fee of $7 million. Somewhere in between, he finds time for low-paid labors of love: he just completed 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"), and he's recently started work on the indie film Feeling Minnesota.
Confirming reports of his professionalism from a colleague on Bill And Ted, Keanu Reeves' interview style. Confounding all notions of flakiness, he showed up for both interview sessions early. For the most part, he aimed at being candid, although sometimes his demeanor telegraphed more than his words. (When asked how he was affected by the death of his friend River Phoenix, he rested his head on the table. "How was I affected? How was I affected?" he whispered to himself. Then he looked up to reveal cheeks reddened with emotion. "Uh, what do I say?" he mumbled. "I was terribly, terribly, terribly sad. Incredibly sad. And, um, I miss him very much.")
At our second meeting, I found him slumped in his dimly lit Los Angeles hotel lobby, appearing exhausted and depressed. His look only emphasized his low mood: a three-day beard and hair so grimy it was as malleable as sculpting clay. In fact, a thick tuft stuck straight up in the air, so it appeared as if a tiny missile silo was growing out of his head. Throughout our talk, his spirits rose and fell unpredictably: during one of his darker moments, he slunk off to watch a Johnny Mnemonic promotional reel I'd brought along. Five minutes passed, then 15, then 25. Just when I'd written him off as a walk-out, Reeves reappeared, looking refreshed. "Turn on the tape recorder," he urged me, then launched into a lengthy and slightly bewildering monologue about a type of meditation in which he imagines his own death.
All this was in sharp contrast to our first interaction, where a silky-haired, smooth-shaven Reeves bounded up in a black motorcycle helmet, fuzzy grey jacket and dirt-creased black jeans with rips that revealed thin white boxer shorts. Hoping to catch the last of the day's sunshine, he led me through a maze of short halls toward the hotel pool. Suddenly, as we approached a small alleyway darkened from an overgrowth of ivy and trees, he pushed himself in front of me. "Don't go!" he shouted in a mock-Shakespearean tone. "Let me first make sure it is safe." Reeves trotted a few inches up the corridor, then threw back a smile. "It is safe," he declared.
WHAT IS ONE OF THE FIRST SIGNS THAT A HOTEL IS NOT REALLY YOUR HOME?
[Crisply] "Excuse me, sir. Are you a guest in this hotel?" [Meekly] "Uh, yeah." In the past, I've gotten that very often. I remember once I was staying in London, and I'd been put up at the Hyde Park Hilton. That was one place where it was always [in upper-class British accent] "Excuse me, sir. Are you staying in this hotel?" "Yes." "May I see your key?" [Exasperated] "Yes." [Holding up imaginary key triumphantly] What was funny was that he checked to see if I had a key, right? Then I got in the elevator, and there was a woman who was, uh, a prostitute. And she asked me if I wanted to party. I thought that was kind of ironic.
YOU'VE BEEN CHARACTERIZED AS SOMETHING OF A VAGABOND. WHY DO YOU THINK THAT IS?
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 I've been working [on A Walk in the Clouds].
SOMETHING INTRIGUED ME ABOUT THAT SET: EVERYONE SPOKE SPANISH. DID YOU PICK UP THE LANGUAGE?
I picked up a few phrases. And I learned one Spanish song. It was called "Cerca Del Mar." [Breaking into earnest choirboy tones] "Cerca del mar/Yo me espume..." [Pause] Um, I knew it then. I guess I didn't learn it that well. [A light spray of water splashes on the pool deck near our feet. Reeves leans forward, concerned.] You're not getting wet, are you? What would happen if you melted? You know, you never really hear this talked about that much, but, spontaneous combustion? It exists! It's documented. A friend of mine is a researcher, and she was researching fire, and she got into spontaneous combustion. It happens.
YOU'RE SAYING THAT PEOPLE EXPLODE?
No, they burn. From within. And yet, sometimes they'll be in a wooden chair, and the chair won't burn, but there'll be nothing left of the person. Except sometimes the teeth. Or the heart. No one speaks about this - but it's for real.
ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT REAL-LIFE EXPERIENCES - LIKE THOSE PEOPLE WHO GO ON TV-SHOWS AND DISCUSS THEIR BRIEF VISITS TO HELL?
That's funny, too. Where is... [laughs self-consciously] Censored!
WHAT? WHAT WERE YOU GOING TO SAY?
It's a little too naive. Not naive. OK. I'll say it now: Where did the pope come from? Where in the Bible does it say there's a pope? And where is hell? Where did the whole aspect of sin and then going to hell come from? Where is it in the Bible?
WERE YOU RAISED WITH ANY SPECIFIC RELIGIOUS BELIEFS?
[Shakes head no]
DID YOUR FAMILY CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS?
[Nods head yes]
YOUR MOTHER WAS A COSTUME DESIGNER FOR ROCK STARS. WERE HOLIDAYS AT THE REEVES HOUSEHOLD IMPRESSIVE VISUAL EVENTS?
Well, Halloween was exceptional because I'd always get a cool costume. One year, I was Dracula and wore this really cool cape. Another year, I was Batman, and my sister was Robin. Once she made me this Cousin Itt costume, like, from The Addams Family. I wore this giant wig. [With mock seriousness] It rained that Halloween. I got wet. I just looked like a big bowl of pasta.
SO YOUR UPBRINGING WAS FAIRLY THEATRICAL?
Well, there were times when groovy people would come over. Like, Alice Cooper stayed at our house. I remember he brought fake vomit and dog pooh to terrorize the housekeeper. He'd hang out, a regular dude. A friend of mine and I, you know, wrestled with him once.... Let's see. What else? We got to go out to concerts and stuff. When I was 15, a friend of my mom's took me to see Emmylou Harris, and I got to stay up all night. It was the first time I ever saw a person come out of the bathroom with cocaine on their nostril hair - this guy with a mustache with cocaine all over it.
YOUR FIRST INTRODUCTION TO WHAT CERTAIN GROWN-UPS DO FOR FUN. DO YOU REMEMBER ANY OF YOUR EARLY QUASI-ADULT ADVENTURES?
When I was 17, I had my first car. It was a 1969 122 Volvo. British Racing Green. Bricks held up the front seat. Good stereo. I bought it from a man named Lester who'd taught me how to walk. [Comic pause] He ripped me off. [Laughs] Anyway, I remember being with some friends and driving in that car from Toronto to Buffalo to see the Ramones. That was very adventurous. You know, there was a punk rock girl in the back seat with a racoon on her shoulder. The Clash was playing so loud. And all those questions that run through your head: "Will we make it?" "Yes, of course." "We're under age. Can we get in?" "Yeah, cool." You know, drinking and watching the Ramones. It was such a good time.
A PERFECT GERMINAL EXPERIENCE FOR SOMEONE IN A GARAGE BAND. DOES YOUR BAND, DOGSTAR, PLAY OFTEN?
Yeah, we played the Whiskey two nights ago. We play, like, folk music. Folk thrash, maybe? But not quite thrash.
DESCRIBE A DOGSTAR MOMENT OF GLORY.
We were in Milwaukee playing the Metalfest. There were some incredible bands - it was a mixture of hard rock and Satan rock, perhaps. But we're a folk band. We should not have been there. They threw beer at us and told us to fuck off and [yelled], "You suck!" It was beautiful. It made me laugh. I said to the guitarist, "Let's do one of our Grateful Dead covers! " It was a glorious moment. Them going: "Fuck you! You suck!" Us going [sings in country twang], "Ah was born in the desert/doo-doo-doo..."
LET'S GET BACK TO 'A WALK IN THE CLOUDS.' I HEARD THAT ALFONSO ARAU BROUGHT HIS PERSONAL ASTROLOGER ON LOCATION. DID YOU SEEK OUT 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 Alfonso, the director of photography and myself. Are you familiar with Bach flower essences? They are essences of flowers that 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?
BEFORE THE SHOOTING OF CLOUDS BEGAN, ARAU TOOK THE CAST THROUGH A LENGTHY REHEARSAL. WHAT KINDS OF WORK WERE YOU DOING?
We designed exercises that reveal and, in some ways, use your fears. To help you think about your character. I had an exercise where I was trying to sensitize myself to how my character felt coming out of World War II. And I looked at photographs and tried to have an emotional relationship with them, like: "Wow, what is that expression on that person's face? What did they go through?"
DID YOU TALK TO WORLD WAR II VETERANS?
I met with this man, a Marine, who fought in the Pacific. 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. Through my imagination, I was trying to figure out what makes my character so sensitive. Why does he care about life so much? What does he want? I imagined this experience where I was coming up toward 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 YOUR FIRST MOVIE WHERE YOU PLAYED A MAN. HOW DID YOU 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!
LAST YEAR, YOU WORKED NONSTOP. DO YOU FIND THIS PACE GRUELING? OR DO YOU ENJOY IT?
Sometimes it's been really tough, but I've enjoyed that. There's been moments where 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 to get up off of the couch [mimes slouching on a couch]. I was trying not to move so that I could save my strength. But it was great, and I felt very alive. It's been a really good year.
WAS THIS CONCENTRATED PERIOD OF WORK PART OF A SPECIFIC CAREER PLAN?
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 this game plan - would be more artistic than anything.
SO HOW DOES JOHNNY MNEMONIC FIT IN? WHY DID IT INTEREST YOU?
I love [director] Robert Longo. And I was, and am, a fan of William Gibson. I got to do some stuff in that film that was... that was bitchin'. [Giggles] Like, the physical aspect of the character and its portrayal. I was doing really precise, straight lines. Investigating that shape with emotion.
I was doing a whole thing of, like, mother equals round [draws a circle in the air]. Anger equals straight [draws sharp line in air]. I saw the heart as a round notion. The journey of this character starts out very angular and straight. By breaking him down, compassion is born. And he gains responsibility and compassion and a warming. Then he's open for an embrace [gives himself a bear hug].
THOSE SOUND LIKE TERMS THAT A VISUAL ARTIST MIGHT USE. IT MUST HAVE BEEN INTERESTING TO WORK WITH ROBERT LONGO.
Yes! Yes! And that's what we were doing. And that's why it was fun. Wooooo! [At this point, Keanu springs from his chair and dashes toward the left side of the courtyard. He jumps up and down, waving his hands over his head and whooping loudly. After a half-minute, he returns to his chair, still flushed from his impromptu callisthenics. Without missing a beat, he resumes speaking.] Because we were working that way for that particular film! And that's great as an experience. But the most important part is: How's the film? Does it entertain? So, we'll see.
YOUR REPUTATION AS AN ACTOR IS, YOU'RE ALL WORK, NO SOCIALIZING.
That's been my nature for the past year and a half. [Pause] 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 and stuff.
OFTEN, WHEN DIRECTORS ARE ASKED WHY THEY CAST YOU, THEY SAY, "HE HAS AN INNOCENCE." I INTERPRET THIS AS A REACTION TO YOUR OPENNESS TOWARD NEW SITUATIONS. DO YOU AGREE?
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 spoke was "How come?" So I guess it's in my nature. It drove her crazy.
ON THE OTHER HAND, YOUR MOTHER MUST HAVE ENCOURAGED THAT OPENNESS IN YOU.
[Leans toward 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?
YOU KNOW WHEN?
[Shakes head no] >
WHAT KIND OF FATHER DO YOU THINK YOU'D BE?
To a certain extent, I would probably try to, first of all, be around. And then to be, hopefully, a nurturing, positive presence.
DO YOU FEEL THAT YOUR FATHER'S DEPARTURE FROM YOUR FAMILY AT AN EARLY AGE AFFECTED 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 ON THAT DAY?
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. [Laughs] "No, Dad, the earth is round. It's not a rectangle, man." No, I'm sure he didn't say that. But I remember him speaking about the stars as we looked up.
WHEN YOU FIRST CAME TO LOS ANGELES, YOU WOULD AUDITION UNDER A NAME OTHER THAN YOUR OWN: K.C. REEVES. WHY?
[Groans] That was a terrible, terrible phase, which lasted about a month. I had driven across the country, and the day that I arrived on these shores, I was informed that my manager and my agent at the time were having trouble getting me in to see some casting agents because of my name. It had an ethnicity to it that they found was getting in the way. And so they said that 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 would go to auditions, I'd tell them my name was Keanu anyway.
AND NOW KEANU IS THE NAME THAT GETS PROJECTS FINANCED. TELL US ABOUT HAMLET - WHAT DO YOU THINK IT'S ABOUT?
The issues of death, grieving. The, uh, issue of... [Pause] He speaks fairly often about the nature of living. And the nature of conduct. I mean, one of his soliloquies begins, "To be or not to be. . .," which, um, some people ask themselves. And about the choices that we make and the way that we make them. [Sigh] I guess I could put it succinctly and say that it contains elements of the human condition. [Laughs] But then, what doesn't?
YOU'VE SPENT TIME AT A SHAKESPEARE CAMP IN MASSACHUSETTS, RIGHT?
[Primly] It's called Shakespeare and Company. It's located in Lenox, Massachusetts. And I went there for a winter workshop, which is a month-long intensive study of breathing techniques and the acting of Shakespeare utilizing these techniques. The following summer I had a small part in The Tempest. I got to do some clown work. We did certain clown exercises: master-slave, improvisation. Stuff like that [giggles].
ARE YOU REMEMBERING SOMETHING FUNNY?
I'm just laughing at my memories. There was a scene with my character and another character, Caliban, who is a kind of human-sprite. We get caught underneath this blanket, and we have this whole dance, like a crab, and we keep trying to hide. I am remembering those nights, crawling around, toes in our noses. Doing things like, "Arggggghhh!"
THERE'S SOMETHING I'VE BEEN MEANING TO ASK YOU: ON THE SET OF A WALK IN THE CLOUDS, YOU WOULD FREQUENTLY MAKE NOISES BEFORE YOU'D GO IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA. WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT?
Noises before a scene.
I ASSUMED IT WAS A WARM-UP TECHNIQUE.
Alfonso brought this woman to the set, an acting priestess. [Laughs] She taught us this thing where you use sounds, you vocalize to put yourself into a certain emotional place and be ready to work.
AND ARE THOSE NOISES SIMILAR TO THE NOISES THAT YOU'VE MADE DURING OUR CONVERSATION TODAY?
[Shakes head no] That's expression.
WHY? DO THEY PUT YOU INTO A CERTAIN EMOTIONAL PLACE?
It doesn't matter.
JUST WONDERING. AFTER HAMLET, YOU'VE CHOSEN TO STAR IN A RELATIVELY LOW-BUDGET FILM, FEELING MINNESOTA. WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
The human condition [giggles]. Um, what's it about? [Sigh] It's a romance. What do I say? It's, uh... [He makes a retching noise and suddenly leaps up from his chair, shoving it backward with a crash. He rushes toward the center 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 as abruptly, he walks back to the 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. [Spiritedly] Go see the film!
YOU'RE TIRED -- SHOULD WE ORDER SOME COFFEE?
It won't help.
HAVE YOU BEEN WORKING HARD?
KEANU, I DON'T UNDERSTAND THE PROBLEM....
When you asked me about Feeling Minnesota, I said it was about the human condition [flustered]. And when I told you about Hamlet, it came down to "human condition."
WELL, THAT'S ALL RIGHT.
Let me make a better effort about Feeling Minnesota. I have to tell you that even if my demeanor doesn't indicate it, I'm excited about playing the character. But right now, my descriptive powers aren't at their peak.
YOU'RE DOING FINE.
I guess I'll go back into Feeling Minnesota. I'll say it's like Beckett meets Sam Shepard in Minnesota in the 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 thug crime lord. [Enthusiastically] My brother is his accountant - he discovered the pilfering of the funds. So, he's forcing the woman to marry him. I play his brother, coming back from prison. The woman and I look at each other, and we fall in love. And we fuck in the bathroom during her wedding banquet. And she says, "Take me away," and I can't. And then she goes: "Fuck 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....
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 defense 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.
BEING A GOALIE IS PUNISHING. EXPLAIN THE HIDDEN BEAUTY OF THE POSITION.
[In a Shakespearean voice] "For by my fey, I cannot reason." OK. I'll put it in barbarian terms: Stop the puck. No, no. Keep the puck out of the net. It is a thrilling game. Lots of drama, lots of physical contact. OK, OK. [Sheepishly] I'm getting into the semiotics of goal tending: the aspect of chasing the puck. Stopping a goal. Scoring a goal [giggles].
EVERY SCAR ON A PERSON'S BODY HAS A STORY ATTACHED TO IT. PLEASE PICK OUT A SCAR, AND TELL ME WHAT IT REMINDS YOU OF.
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 in the air 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, he said to me [in an accent of uncertain origin]: "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!" Also, 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 at them and said, "I flew, didn't I?" And they went: "Yo, homes! 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 [indicates two inches]. But it was deep. You could see, like, ligaments. I totaled my bike.
SO YOUR PRESENCE IS COMMON IN EMERGENCY ROOMS THROUGHOUT THE LOS ANGELES AREA?
No, but I do have a relationship with a tow-truck driver named Chuck.