Much ado about Keanu Reeves
Hot young actor goes for Shakespeare and the quality of mind
by Barbara Shulgasser
VANITY FAIR and People have already reported everything anyone needs to know about innocent-but-hunky Keanu Reeves. Here it is: The 30-year-old actor hit the big time playing an idiot in the 1989 "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," and later repeated the role as a lunkhead boyfriend in "Parenthood." He dabbled in the avant garde in Gus Van Sant's ponderous "My Own Private Idaho." He played an enthusiastic young lover in the underrated "Tune in Tomorrow" and an overserious FBI agent working undercover as an overserious surfer in "Point Break."
Reeves became a mainstream star playing the action hero in "Speed," which led to a sharp rise in his price. His ability to command multi-millions for movie roles did not deter him from turning down the chance to co-star with Robert De Niro so that he could play "Hamlet" in his native Canada. It takes a certain amount of courage to play the self-doubting Dane to an audience of fans who loved "Bill & Ted" and a gallery of critics who hated it. The reviews ranged from dismissive to scarily respectable.
The final points of interest include the fact that Reeves likes to quote Shakespeare, he is not and never has been entertainment mogul David Geffen's main squeeze, and, oh, he isn't really dumb.
Did I mention that he loves Shakespeare?
He reiterated this point during interviews at a Napa winery recently plugging his new film, "A Walk in the Clouds," directed by Alfonso Arau of "Like Water for Chocolate" fame. The movie - about a young man back from World War II who helps a beautiful woman in distress and falls in love with her in the process - happens to be set in California Wine Country. Those 20th Century Fox publicists are so darn clever! Talking to the star amid grapevines - makes you almost feel as if you're in a movie!
Reeves is tall and soft looking - if he pumped up his muscles for "Speed," someone has apparently let the air out of him since. With his dark, Eurasian, sleepy-eyed sensuality, he has become a pinup for teenage girls and, from the sound of it, gay men. Asked how the rumor that he was Geffen's toy of the moment had arisen, Reeves reported that someone had seen Geffen in the company of a Keanu look-alike. The rumor remained as persistent as the Richard Gere-gerbil love story.
"I've never met the man," Reeves has said of Geffen. Geffen concurs.
Reeves' name means "cool breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian. His Chinese Hawaiian father was vacationing in Beirut when he met Reeves' mother, an English showgirl. Reeves was born in 1964 in Beirut and was eventually reared in Canada. His mother became a costume maker for such performers as David Bowie, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. Show biz was clearly in his blood.
The desire to act came in high school, where he wasn't much of a student. According to Vanity Fair, at one of the four schools he attended he failed every class but Latin. With a sense that the life of the actor would be his sine qua non, he moved to L.A. in 1986 and within eight months was cast in "River's Edge." He worked his way through a few small movies until someone saw he had what it took to be a star. Bingo! He was Ted. All that Latin had finally paid off.
Did I mention that he loves Shakespeare?
Reeves says that his love of Shakespeare and literature goes back to childhood.
"My grandfather sold encyclopedias," he explained, "so on the walls of my room were classics." So that's how those things got there.
In the wisdom he gleaned from the Great Books, he came to understand that what some actors consider a humiliation could also carry dividends. Reeves says he does not balk when asked by a director to audition for a part.
"I like the process of auditioning. You and the director get to see how the other works," he says. "But it's true that auditioning, you only get the opportunity to show one interpretation, whereas in a meeting you would be able to speak about ideas. In an audition, you have to show an end result that they either like or don't like."
Asked how someone so in love with the language of the Bard could agree to make not just one "Bill & Ted," but the sequel also, he indignantly disagreed that the movie glorified stupidity.
"If anything, "Bill & Ted' is more about language than other films," he protested, and then gave examples of the movie's high intellectual content. "They talk about "Saw-crayts' and "Beeth-oven,' " he said referring to Bill and Ted's mispronunciation of Socrates and Beethoven, errors he neglected to mention were made out of ignorance.
"The nature of their discourse," he went on, "is so arch and specific. They have a private language. We thought of it as commedia dell'arte." So that's what they were thinking. "I didn't think of it as stupid at all."
Reeves' taste in acting is as faultless and educated as his taste in playwrights. He admires Christopher Walken and Gena Rowlands and "some" of Robert De Niro's work. His taste in movies is also wide-ranging. He likes "The Philadelphia Story," "Nosferatu," "Metropolis" and Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast."
Reeves is excruciatingly polite. He speaks carefully, quietly and well. Now and then a streak of passion bubbles up to break his calm veneer, a quality he attributes to his Virgo sense of propriety. This happens when he talks about acting.
"I remember when I first began. I got such pure pleasure in the act of pretending to be someone else. It's like the freedom one experiences when kissing or making love or running, the pure joy of physicality but with something happening in the mind as well."
Reeves gave a big winning smile and added, "It's so raw and unconscious, and for a Virgo that's very rare."