by Barry Koltnow
Keanu Reeves gets a great break -- his first leading-man role, in a sweet, nostalgic film. But can he stomach stardom?
Although never known as someone who enjoys meeting the press, Keanu Reeves is nothing short of effervescent as he strolls into a hotel room in the Napa Valley wine country to discuss his new film "A Walk in the Clouds," a World War II romance set in a winery.
Of course, it's early.
By the end of the morning press sessions, the enthusiasm and friendliness are gone, and the hypersensitive Reeves is shaken. Apparently someone asked him about the drug-related death of his friend River Phoenix, and the actor openly wept.
Later in the afternoon, the persistent questions about his sexual preferences, about the silly rumors of his "marriage" to billionaire David Geffen, about his incarcerated father, about his oddball lifestyle and about other aspects of his private life have taken their toll.
Reeves seems depressed and at times, downright surly. His testiness occasionally borders on rage. The smile is gone, and he no longer wants to respond to the personal questions.
"It's called living and learning," he says with a serious look in his eye and a faint hint of a smile.
"But this kind of thing won't last," he added. "It's the nature of this business that this kind of attention comes and goes. I'm not that big a star. Geez, I was just in a big bomb, so how fast could my star be rising?"
The big bomb was "Johnny Mnemonic," a cyber-thriller that thrilled no one and disappeared quickly into a cyber-vacuum. Reeves admitted that the negative audience response to the film was a "drag" but also disavowed any responsibility for its failure.
"They re-edited the film so badly that it turned out not to be the movie we made," he said. "They also should never have sold it as a summer blockbuster. With that kind of a push, it would surely disappoint people. And it did."
But Reeves' star has been rising so quickly in Hollywood that even a bomb such as "Johnny Mnemonic" slid off as though he were made of Teflon. After all, the movie just before the bomb was the runaway hit "Speed," which made more than $350 million worldwide and turned Reeves and co-star Sandra Bullock into sizzling Hollywood properties.
"I adore the guy," Bullock said in a separate interview. "I adore where he comes from, and that is a place where honesty and decency mean everything.
"When I met him, I thought at first that I was driving him crazy because I tend to talk nonstop, and he rarely talks until he's thought things out. I figured he thought I was a flake, but when he spoke, he spoke to me honestly.
"I felt a real kinship with him, and I feel sorry that he's had to put up with these horrible stories in the media. People are asking him things that are none of their business. No decent human being should ask those questions, but I love him because he never lowers himself to their level. I really admire him for that."
Reeves was born in Beirut, Lebanon, where his Chinese-Hawaiian father met this English-born mother, who was singing in a local nightclub. The marriage didn't last, and Reeves' mother moved the family to Toronto after the divorce.
The youngster did not take well to school, bouncing from one high school to another, and he divided his time between two keen interests: ice hockey and acting. While still a teen, he got his first professional acting job in a local production of a gay-oriented play called "Wolfboy."
In 1986, Reeves arrived in Los Angeles and within the year had a major role in the disturbing drama "River's Edge." Despite roles that included "Permanent Record" and "Dangerous Liaisons," he is most identified from that period as the airheaded Ted Logan from "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure."
"Look at the work in that movie," he said. "It's good work, and anybody who thinks I was goofy back then or still thinks I'm goofy because of that film doesn't know me. I suppose if I had to pick one, I'd say that my character in "River's Edge" was the closest to who I was when I was young."
In a career that is as varied as any actor's in Hollywood -- he even took a Shakespearean turn on stage as "Hamlet" recently -- Reeves says he enjoys confounding his critics. His success in "Speed" stunned many who did not think him capable of pulling off an action role.
Suddenly, Reeves was the town's newest action hero, which can be lucrative, as evidenced by Sylvester Stallone's new $60 million, three-picture deal. But Reeves doesn't want that kind of narrow focus to his career.
That's why "A Walk in the Clouds" is so important to him, and most insiders also believe this is a pivotal role for Reeves. If it succeeds at the box office, he will have opened a new area of interest, that of the romantic leading man.
"I have heard people say that about this role, but I don't see it as pivotal in the same way they do," Reeves said. "It is a good role and it's different than what I've done before, so that's why I did it. No other reason.
"But I certainly hope it does well at the box office, because in this business, it makes you more marketable if people go to see your movies. Being more marketable brings you more good work. I'm not interested in the rest of it, the stardom part," he added. "I don't want to be a movie star. I want to be a working actor. I want to be a successful working actor who is allowed to have a private life. I want to be someone who can move around in this world without being followed and watched."
When Reeves is reminded that it is perhaps too late to not become a movie star, he stands up and speaks sharply. "People seem to forget that "Speed" is the only really successful film I've ever been in. And one film does not a movie star make."