'A WALK' WITH KEANU
'SPEED' STAR STROLLS INTO ROMANTIC ROLE
by Amy Longsdorf (A free-lance story for The Morning Call)
Keanu Reeves is too polite not to play along. A reporter wants to know if making "Speed" and watching it zoom to the top of the box-office charts was an "excellent adventure."
Reeves smiles wearily. He stares into space. And with mock enthusiasm, he exclaims, "Most definitely!"
Truth be told, now that "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" and its sequel, "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey," are part of the video archives, Reeves has left most of the surfer slang behind. He occasionally lets a "groovy, man" slip into his conversation, but he's more apt to be discussing Shakespeare than skateboarding.
"Have I changed?" he says. "I don't think I have much. I think I'm growing up and gaining more experience. People who say I've changed just didn't know me before. If they looked at my performances in 'Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure' or 'Permanent Record,' they would have seen that I was always serious about acting."
While his varied work in "River's Edge," "Parenthood," "Point Break," "My Own Private Idaho" and "Little Buddah" speaks for itself, it wasn't until last summer's "Speed" that Hollywood began taking Reeves seriously as a bankable leading man.
"I guess 'Speed' was a turning point, but I seem to have so many turning points," he says. "Now, I guess I'm due for another one. The success of 'Speed' is wearing off. My estimation as a bankable actor and all that kind of thing is shifting already."
Dream on, Keanu. Reeves might be the only actor in Los Angeles who yearns to de-escalate his career. Despite his best efforts, Reeves is "Fugitive" director Andy Davis' first choice for "Dead Drop," an action thriller going before the cameras next year. And then there's "Speed 2," follow-up to the world's most famous bus movie, which 20th Century Fox envisions as a franchise of "Die Hard"-like proportions.
"If we do a sequel, I think Sandra (Bullock) and I have to be married," theorizes Reeves. "I think we should be on our honeymoon and something happens. Maybe we could get stuck on a hijacked ambulance. Or wind up in Europe on the Autobahn."
After "Speed," Reeves could have written his own ticket, so to speak. Instead, he selected three eccentric projects he hoped would stretch his skill as an actor.
First up was "Johnny Mnemonic," a spring flop which Reeves says was mistakenly marketed as an action thriller when, in fact, it was "an anti-hero, anti-action, anti-sci-fi" movie.
Coming next year is "Feeling Minnesota," a dark comedy that revolves around a woman ("The Mask's" Cameron Diaz) who falls in love with an ex-con (Reeves) the same day she's supposed to wed his gangster brother (Vincent D'Onofrio).
And opening on Friday is "A Walk in the Clouds," an old-fashioned romance about a chocolate salesman who returns from World War II to a wife he no longer loves. On a train bound for the Napa Valley, he meets a pregnant Mexican woman (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) who touches his heart. Gallantly, he agrees to help her deal with her winemaking family by pretending to be her husband. Of course, the couple fall deeply in love. Co-starring in the 1940s-set film are Anthony Quinn and Giancarlo Giannini.
The tale's innocent sensuality appealed to Reeves. "In mainstream Hollywood movies, there's a cruder sensibility at work," he muses. "It seems to be more about coitus than the kiss. There's very little gentleness. It's either like 'Forrest Gump,' where the romantic aspect is put on a pedestal and distorted -- that whole movie was about whether (Jenny) would let Forrest sit next to her -- or it's just explicit sex. ('A Walk in the Clouds') seems to go beyond what we usually see in movies."
In person, the Beirut-born Reeves is laid back, earnest and charmingly modest. At 6 feet, he's quite a bit taller than one would expect, and he has such good posture that he sometimes seems to be leaning backward. For this interview, he's dressed in a taupe suit jacket, T-shirt and black jeans.
Reeves can be maddeningly evasive. Often, his conversation wanders off into some quasi-mystical twilight zone. But other times, he's capable of wit and sharp insights.
Ask Reeves, 30, if he's a romantic guy and he quips, "Well, I have at least one romantic bone in my body. Ha ha. I would say I'm a fledgling romantic."
What's his idea of a romantic evening? "Would this be a courtship-type romance or a relationship-type romance?" he queries. "It's been so long for me since I've been in a relationship, I can't speak about that. As for courtship, I learned about serenading on this movie. I've got that Call-A-Mariachi card, man. I'm set. I know about wine and mariachis. I'm almost a Renaissance man."
At the moment, the Renaissance man lives out of hotel rooms. His possessions are limited to his two Norton motorcycles, a sports jacket, a couple of pairs of jeans, a pair of shoes, his bass guitar and a sword he lifted from his stint onstage as Hamlet. "I actually left the sword in a box at my sister's house," he teases. "It's not easy to get through airports."
While Reeves recently bought his sister a home outside Los Angeles, he has no desire to settle down himself. "I don't want to concern myself with painting the house or mowing the lawn. Sometimes I miss my couch. I gave my couch to my sister so I can visit it. Before it was in storage so I couldn't even get to it. Sometimes, I'd be clawing at the building, 'Let me in! I just want to see my couch!'"
Comfortable with generalities, Reeves prefers not to be too specific about his personal life. His evasions have, over the years, have added fuel to the rumors that he's gay. Last spring, various gossip columns began insinuating that Hollywood mogul David Geffen took Reeves to Barney's department store for a $15,000 shopping spree. Next, the word was that Geffen and Reeves had secretly wed on a private beach in Mexico.
Geffen told Time magazine he's never met Reeves. Reeves says he's never laid eyes on Geffen. "None of the things I read about myself are that outrageous," shrugs the actor. "I'm either on drugs or gay. But reading that I was married to David Geffen -- that was pretty dumb."
Did he at least get a good laugh out of the Geffen rumor?
"A good laugh?," he sighs. "I think my friends got a good laugh out of it more than I did. I didn't even know about it. I was in Winnipeg playing Hamlet. I was told that (rumor) and I was, like, 'Oh.' Then, I went on. Then, it just became ridiculous when so many of my friends were like, 'Are you married? How come we weren't invited to the wedding?' "
Reeves is less forgiving about a People magazine cover story which dredged up his family's complicated history, including his estrangement from his father and his father's arrest last year on drug charges. "It's like getting punched and not being able to punch back," he says. "I tried to find out where they got their information. And I did. But it made me want to disappear a little more."
Disappearing has gotten harder and harder for Reeves. When he turned down a role opposite Al Pacino in "Heat" to play Hamlet for three weeks at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg, media from around the world descended on the town to catch Reeves in action. "I dug that," he says unconvincingly. "I really do think that kind of scrutiny will only make me a better actor."
Reeves received mostly mixed reviews for his turn as the Prince of Denmark, but the actor has learned how to take bad reviews in stride. "The critics said thumbs down and I couldn't blame them," he says, shuddering at the memory of opening night.
"I was like a deer in truck lights. And it was a Mack truck. The second night I was better. At least I turned and got out of the way of the truck. By the end of the run, I was driving the truck. I liked that. And a couple of critics even came back later and were very kind in talking about my performance."
There were other rewards, as well. "When you tap into Shakespeare, it's so energizing. Sometimes in the soliloquies, if I was on the breath and with the verse, it would take over. It was like putting your hand into a socket of electricity. The verse just came flying out."
This month, it'll be music that comes flying out of Reeves. The actor and his folk-thrash quartet, Dogstar, recently embarked on a 25-city Dog Days of Summer tour. One of their first stops was Philadelphia's Theatre of Living Arts, where they performed before a sell-out crowd on July 22. "I've been in Philly before," Reeves says dreamily. "But I don't remember where, when or why."
Dogstar, a Los Angeles-based outfit that's been described as a cross between Green Day and Dinosaur Jr, features Reeves on bass, Robert Mailhouse on drums and Gregg Miller and Bret Domrose on vocals and guitars. "I don't sing in the band," says Reeves. "Actually, I sing one song. It's called 'Isabelle.' And it goes something like this: 'Isabelle is a girl/Isabelle loves her world/You can tell by the way she smiles/Cutest girl by a country mile/Isabelle.' "
So, who's the lucky Isabelle? "A friend of mine's 3-year-old. The first verse is always the same, but the second and third verses change every night because I sing about what she was doing the last time I saw her."
Reeves, who lists Robert Johnson, Dylan, Sham 69 and The Clash as musical influences, smiles when he remembers his best moment ever onstage with Dogstar.
"We played the Belly Up in San Diego," relates the actor excitedly. "I played the bass and sang 'Isabelle.' I was missing her so much. So, when I sang the song, I got such a thrill that my blood tickled. No kidding. My blood really tickled."
2 PHOTOS by UNKNOWN. CAPTION: Keanu Reeves' post-World War II romance, 'A Walk in the Clouds,' opens Friday.
CAPTION: Aitana Sanchez-Gijon is Victoria Aragon and Keanu Reeves is Paul Sutton in 'A Walk in the Clouds,' an old-fashioned romance.