The Wild One. Keanu Reeves on Sex, Hollywood and Life on the Run.
Young and Restless
by Michael Shnayerson
Last year, Speed made Keanu Reeves a superstar. But after 24 movies, the actor remains an enigma: a man who earns millions, yet lives out of a suitcase; a heartthrob who dates few women, yet fends off rumors of a gay marriage; an actor who can appear in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure or Hamlet with equal conviction and appeal. With Reeves's new W.W. II romance, A Walk in the Clouds, due on-screen this month, MICHAEL SHNAYERSON met with the star in Minneapolis to pose the essential question: Offscreen, just who is Keanu?
From hotel to hotel, he takes only a single suitcase. "I've got it pretty pared down," Keanu says. "A couple of pairs of pants, a few T-shirts, socks, underwear, one suit, a sport jacket, a pair of shoes."
For months now, Keanu Reeves has been homeless.
There's a story attached, but the details are vague. "It's just something that happened," Reeves says. So the star of Hollywood screen and Winnipeg stage lives in hotels, moving as the work demands. His latest abode, as he puts it with that odd formality of his -- part earnest gentleman, part grown-up Valley dude -- is a businessman's hotel in downtown Minneapolis.
I know to expect that subtly Asian beauty -- the dark, intense eyes, the prominent cheekbones, the golden skin. The surprise is Keanu's lanky six-foot frame. On this gray spring afternoon he bears little resemblance to the actor who appeared in Speed, his surprise hit of last summer. The buzz cut has grown out. The strong jaw sports three days' stubble. He's let the action-hero muscles go, too, and, as casually as he seemed to come by it, the chance to be his generation's Schwarzenegger or Stallone.
Keanu said a year ago he didn't want the job. Now he's proved it, with two films that bear no more relation to Speed than to each other. Johnny Mnemonic is a 21st-century sci-fi thriller that opened in May and quickly drifted into cyberspace. A Walk in the Clouds, out this month, is more commercial, but in a new way for its 30-year-old star: it's his first romantic lead. With any luck, the movie should do for him what Legends of the Fall did for Brad Pitt. In fact, so seductive and graceful is his performance that it will probably fail to dispel two oddly ubiquitous assumptions about him.
That he's dumb. And that he's gay.
"Who do I like?"
It's a quiz question. Category: playwrights. Outside the Walker Art Center, Keanu frowns. "Stoppard to an extent, Edward Albee, Ionesco, Joe Orton. And the man who wrote ... *Aaagghhh!*"
Keanu flashes a sheepish grin. "Half-sentences," he recites, "half-utterances searching in the past, / grappling, groping, never last. / In my body, in my heart, and in my mind, / but not on my tongue! / And so my song remains unsung."
"Who wrote that?"
Keanu issues the boyish laugh I've heard more than once in our short time together, the laugh he laughs when he's stuck for words. *Hee-hee.*
"I just made it up."
"What? That bit? Just now?"
"Yeah..." Keanu brightens. "Oh -- Alfred Jarry! And Ibsen."
Keanu has lively, intelligent eyes. He asks sharp, sometimes startling questions. And how many stars can speak in doggerel? He is, however, almost painfully shy. Asked about himself, he squirms like a schoolboy or lapses into silence. He pulls at tufts of his silky black hair and smacks his forehead with his palm. His long arms windmill the air. If the gods of speech respond to none of these appeals, he falls back in his seat with a resigned "whatever." Gradually he relaxes, until the moment is right and the question hits a chord. Then out comes an extended riff, clever and original. But not everyone waits around that long.
In a strange way, Keanu's good manners hurt him, too: he's so decorous he almost seems dim. Asked about his latest films, he says, "Oh, thank you for asking." Surprised or distressed, he comes out with "Oh my gosh!" You can hear the Canadian in that rousing expletive, and certainly his upbringing north of the border explains a lot about him: they're *nicer* up there. But for a hockey goalie turned actor who guards his privacy zone like a scoring box, etiquette is also a perfect defense. Some assume there's nothing behind it; others think he has secrets to hide.
As a younger actor in teen-appeal movies -- Youngblood, Permanent Record, The Prince of Pennsylvania -- Keanu was even more guarded than he is today. He slouched around, on-screen and off, in sloppy sweatshirts, big shorts, and unlaced sneakers, said "dude" and "awesome," and admitted to bathing only once or twice a week. None of his young fans thought him dumb. They thought he was cool.
The dumbness rap grew out of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. So well did he play the Valleyspeak teen and air-guitarist *extraordinaire* in the 1989 hit and its sequel that a new, broader audience-parents and the press assumed Keanu was Ted. Maybe, he admits, he did like the role enough to take a bit of it home. And perhaps in that first flash of national exposure, I suggest, playing Keanu-as-Ted offscreen was a smart way to keep the world at bay.
"No," Keanu says, somewhat offended, as we pause before Rothko and Kiefer canvases in the Walker's collection of 20th-century art. "I've never played stupid to keep someone distant. I don't play stupid. Either it's been a failure on my part to articulate, or my naivete, or ingenuousness, or sometimes it's the nature of the form.... And you know, I find myself more able to give an explanation of a project five years later than in the middle of it. It's so present-tense! I can tell you how I feel, but its context is harder to explain.... Sometimes when I'm interviewed I'm not ready to do that. So you say ... *excellent*! And you know what, man? It's O.K."
A striking number of top directors seem not to have confused Keanu with Ted at all. To Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons), Lawrence Kasdan (I Love You to Death), Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break), Ron Howard (Parenthood), Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho), Kenneth Branagh (Much Ado About Nothing), Francis Ford Coppola (Bram Stoker's Dracula), and Benardo Bertolucci (Little Buddha), among others, Keanu radiates a visceral, emotional intelligence found only in the best natural actors. He has character -- an old-fashioned moral imperative that shines through in every role -- wrapped around a core of reserve of feelings withheld. Above all, he's a risktaker, gamely plunging into wildly different roles without a thought for the exigencies of image. "He's a brave, resilient actor who takes the knocks and plaudits with equal grace," says Kenneth Branagh. "As a result, he just gets better and better."
A Walk in the Clouds is Keanu's best work yet. The plot concerns a soldier who meets a tearful woman on a train and learns she's pregnant out of wedlock, heading home to face the certain wrath of her father, a wealthy vineyard owner. The soldier gallantly volunteers to pose as her husband for a night, meeting her parents, sleeping on the floor of her bedroom, then ducking out before dawn -- so the baby will seem legitimate. Soon, of course, he's picking grapes and locking eyes with his new love across the vines.
Director Alfonso Arau (Like Water for Chocolate) made the movie as a passion play tinged with magical realism. "I said [to Keanu], 'You can play a very romantic character if you want,'" Arau recalls. "'How much do you want to work?"' Keanu, the director felt, had the rectitude of a returning war hero, but too much innocence. "I said, 'Keanu, you are going to have to interpret as a grown man, as opposed to an adolescent."' Which meant conveying not only more maturity but also passion. "You can feel that he has all these emotions below the skin," says Arau, "so I had to open the door for them."
"In rehearsal, we did some improvs," Keanu says, back in his hotel room. "Alfonso and I concocted a situation where I lost a buddy, so I'd have that in my body.... I wanted to have a man who through his experiences had come back desperately lonely, had seen death, and that caused in him an appreciation for life." At the moment, he's in actor shock, as he puts it, over the way the film was edited. "The wounded bird I portrayed has been ... less wounded. They've made him stronger; you don't see his internal battle as much. [It's like] I'm missing a limb and I keep going to use it." But he understands what Arau was after. "The film's on that line of ... melodrama. It's larger than life, operatic sometimes."
"Sort of a throwback."
"But is it a throwback? ... Do you believe that?"
Keanu asks a lot of questions. Perhaps because he never went to college, perhaps out of innate curiosity. Shy as he is, he's also learned that asking questions is easier than answering them.
"What about Feeling Minnesota?" I bat back. This is, as one might guess the film that's brought him to the proud Twin Cities. Shooting is about to begin.
"Have you read the script?" he asks.
"How many *times* have you read it?"
"What did you think of it? How did you *feel* about it?"
Feeling Minnesota is a noir-ish comedy in which Keanu and his co-star Vincent D'Onofrio, play low-life brothers whose hatred for each other erupts over a gangster's moll and leads to a lot of blood in cheap motels. I confess I couldn't tell it was a comedy until halfway through the script.
"Now, you haven't said yet that it's a romance." Keanu laughs. *Hee-hee*! "When I first read it I didn't like it at all. I found it very harsh.... I've given it to a couple of people and they've ..." Word search; search fail. "But then when they read it again they see it."
Brilliant as the script may be, not every actor of Keanu's stature would have leapt at a $7.8 million feature by a first-time screenwriter who was, moreover, a first-time director. "We met in Danny DeVito's office at Sony," explains Steven Baigelman, the 34-year-old writer-director. DeVito and his Jersey Films partners, Stacey Sher and Michael Shamberg, fresh from producing Pulp Fiction, are making Feeling Minnesota along with Keanu's longtime manager, Erwin Stoff. "I don't know what it is that clicked between us, but we hit it off," says Baigelman. "Couple of days later he committed. Couple of days after *that*, Speed opened and went through the roof. He had committed verbally but hadn't signed."
Overnight, reportedly, Speed boosted Keanu's asking price per picture to $7 million, and the guy doesn't even have to break a contract to lose this Baigelman and go for the big money. Isn't money what it's all about?
"No, no, no, no!" Keanu says with much bemused headshaking. "As long as it doesn't have to be about money, then it's *not* about money."
So what *is* it about?
"The one thing that's constant," Keanu says, "is the acting. That's what it's for."
"He's like a monk," says Alfonso Arau, "totally devoted to his craft." Others echo this. "They say you lead an almost hermit-like life," I suggest. "Is that too strong a term for it?"
"Yeah. Hermit-like, cloistered, monastic... " Keanu ticks them off with gentle mockery. "Those are too strong." Long silence. "But they're close."
From hotel to hotel, he brings a single suitcase. "I've got it pretty pared down," he says. A couple of pairs of pants, a few T-shirts, socks, underwear, one suit, a sport jacket, a pair of shoes. He has only three possessions of any consequence. A bass guitar, so he can play with his folk-rock band, Dogstar, and two Norton motorcycles, British-made in the 1970s. Which raises the obvious question of what he does with all that money.
"Ah, what do I do?" He thinks about it. "It affords one a certain amount of freedom and travel, and I can buy older Bordeaux. I can afford my two Nortons, which is akin to sending a child to a middle-expensive university in the U.S. But the travel is great."
"Did you travel last year between films?"
Keanu looks embarrassed.
"Actually, no," he says. "I didn't."
Keanu goes from project to project without interruption now, it seems. Whether or not he is ever pleased with his work is unclear. "One of the things that locked us together," says Robert Longo, director of Johnny Mnemonic, "was that I'd think everything was bad." Every shot could be better. "Keanu would go off and keep doing the scene, too, thinking it could be better." Robert Kamen, the screenwriter for A Walk in the Clouds, puts it more bluntly. "He gets angry at himself," Kamen says. "He just doesn't think his acting is any good."
"There are days when I'm O.K.," Keanu says. But not too many. "Maybe it's because I'm a Virgo; it's in my sign to be hard on myself."
In his downtime on the sets of Johnny Mnemonic and A Walk in the Clouds, Keanu could often be found muttering Shakespeare. It was no mere exercise: he had committed to take on theater's greatest challenge at the end of his busiest year ever. Nearly a year ahead of time, Keanu agreed to block out two months for the production, at less than $2,000 a week. Speed's success made the sacrifice specific: he had to turn down four movies, including Heat, with Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. "Yeah," he says. "But ... Hamlet!"
Keanu went alone with his suitcase to Winnipeg in early December for the start of rehearsals. He found a city giddy with anticipation. One local paper announced a daily Keanu watch. For the play's sold-out run, hotel rooms were booked by Keanuphiles, mostly women, from all over the world; one woman flew all the way from Australia to sit through eight performances.
Among the cast of professional Shakespeareans, there may have lurked a doubt as to the seriousness of their leading man. The doubts were soon dispelled. "The thing that impressed me on the first day," recalls Stephen Russell, a veteran of 17 Stratford Festivals, who played Claudius in the production, "was how much work he had done. This was not going to be a star turn or walk in the park. And what I realized, too, was how his principles are etched in stone. He carries a lot of weight extremely well."
With international press in attendance for opening night, the weight of expectation felt suddenly crushing. Even now, Keanu groans at the memory. "One of the most horrific nights of my life, oh my gosh! I was surviving, not performing." The critics agreed. Keanu, they wrote, seemed overwhelmed by the soliloquies; one declared he simply lacked the equipment to handle Hamlet's melancholy, and came alive only in the fight scenes. "But," Keanu says, "it got better."
So wrote Roger Lewis in The Sunday Times of London. Lewis stuck around to see Keanu's confidence seep back in later performances, and declared his Hamlet terrific. "He quite embodied the innocence, the splendid fury, the animal grace of the leaps and bounds, the emotional violence, that form the Prince of Denmark," he reported. "He is one of the top three Hamlets I have seen, for a simple reason: he *is* Hamlet."
It was while he was in Winnipeg, Keanu says, that he first heard the rumor that had originated in Italian and Spanish newspapers, then spread to all of L.A. and New York: not only was he gay but he had even entered into a secret marriage with producer David Geffen. "So," I ask, "about this Geffen business..."
Keanu gives me a level gaze. "I've never met the man."
"But suddenly this rumor was everywhere. Like Richard Gere and gerbils."
"It's funny, a friend of mine said that."
"Does it bother you?"
Keanu shrugs. "It's so ridiculous, I find it funny."
"I've never laid eyes on him," Geffen confirms, by now more than a little exasperated by the question. "It's a phenomenon: people *make* *this* *stuff* *up.* I even had a friend say that his trainer said he was *at* *the* *wedding.* You think I could keep something like that *secret?* And then people saying I bought Keanu $15,000 worth of clothes at Barneys. I mean, come on. I'd buy him some clothes, but he doesn't need that. It's just an ugly, mean-spirited rumor meant to hurt him because he's a movie star."
Speculation about Keanu's sexuality goes back at least five years, when a reporter from Interview asked him directly if he was gay. Keanu denied it, adding, rather sweetly, "But ya never know." Some of the talk seems inspired by the observation that Keanu has had no high-visibility romances with women.
"Wouldn't it be useful," I suggest, "to shoot the rumors down cold?"
Keanu is taken aback. "Well, I mean, there's nothing wrong with being gay, so to deny it is to make a judgment. And why make a big deal of it? If someone doesn't want to hire me because they think I'm gay, well, then I have to deal with it, I guess. Or if people were picketing a theater. But otherwise, it's just gossip, isn't it?"
One of the few simple facts of Keanu's childhood is his name, which means "cool breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian. It's the sort of name you get when you have a Hawaiian-Chinese father -- the Reeveses go way back in Oahu -- and a British bohemian mother who in a burst of 60s abandon head off to pre-war Beirut to hang out, producing a baby in the process. The money to finance this idyll seems to have come from Keanu's paternal stepgrandfather, who made a small fortune bringing a children's edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to Canada.
Samuel Nowlin Reeves and his young wife, Patricia, better known as Patric, made a striking pair, he at the wheel of a purple Jaguar XKE, she in cowboy boots, blue jeans, and a mink coat. Or so it's been reported. There also seems to have been more than a little dabbling in drugs. By the time Keanu was two, his father was gone. "There were fights about Sam's drug taking," a cousin, Leslie Reeves, told one reporter. "My aunt grew out of the hippie phase. My uncle didn't. He refused. In fact, he couldn't give up the drugs.")
Keanu's sister Kim, now 29, counts among her childhood memories Keanu gleefully taking apart furniture with his tool set. A bigger headache for his mother must have been that both children were dyslexic. They later became proficient readers, but it seems possible that dyslexia left some psychic scars, and may have led Keanu to be more visual and physical than verbal.
When Keanu was six, his mother married Off Broadway director Paul Aaron. Within six months they divorced, and Patric moved with her children to Toronto, to be closer to her ex-in-laws, who helped support the family. A gifted seamstress, she made stage costumes for entertainers; Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton were among her clients. She was a rock 'n' roll character, with a peach-dyed buzz cut; when Alice Cooper recorded "Welcome to My Nightmare" at a nearby studio, he stayed with the Reeveses.
Like every strong, athletic boy in Canada, Keanu learned to adore ice hockey. As goalie, he was nicknamed "the Wall." His "thirrsst for the theeeater," as he puts it mock-archly, hit him in adolescence. A seed may have been planted by Aaron, who remained a nurturing influence. Soon Keanu was in acting classes, and auditioning for bit parts in U.S. movies shooting in Canada.
High school was a problem. Keanu went through four of them, including a Catholic boys' school where he failed every class except Latin. "It was the only class I liked," he says. "My attendance record was very bad. I was lazy. I knew I wanted to act when I was halfway through grade 11, I guess, and school wasn't important."
Keanu briefly moved into a girlfriend's basement. He worked at a hockey rink sharpening skates, and manned a tiny restaurant called Pastissima, where he made 100 pounds of pasta a day. He went on auditions, closing the shop to do so, and landed a starring role in his first professional stage play, a curious production with homoerotic overtones called Wolfboy, in which he was cast as a young innocent placed in a psychiatric hospital, only to be set upon by a deranged boy who believes he's a werewolf.
"I didn't want professional actors," recalls director John Palmer. "So I advertised in the personals. I got totally fucked-up hustlers" -- and Keanu, who arrived in torn jeans but looked great. For the play's largely gay audience, Palmer persuaded Keanu to appear in a workout scene doing push-ups in white shorts. "You get this innocent kid, one of the most gorgeous kids anyone's seen, in white shorts -- and we *oiled* them.... What do you want for 10 bucks?"
Every Sunday, Keanu went to a community theater school called Leah Posluns. One of his close friends there was Alan Powell, with whom he starred in a workshop production. "We'd play off each other; the chemistry was dynamic," Powell says. Keanu, he adds, "was the friend I'd never had as a child. But he was a secretive guy about his life. You could be hanging with the guy for three years; suddenly he'd introduce you to someone who turned out to be a friend of his all that time. You could never get close to the guy."
His first big break came through a Leah Posluns connection to Hollywood movie director Steven Stern. Keanu auditioned for a bit part in a TV movie. "There was something about him I liked as a person," recalls Stern, a fellow Torontonian. "Funny, yet a serious side. I told him to take the script home and read it for the lead." When Stern told the Disney executive in charge of TV movies that he wanted to cast an unknown as his lead, the executive was incredulous. Adamant, Stern paid Keanu's way to L.A. for a screen test, and persuaded Disney executives Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg to view it. "O.K.," Katzenberg told Stern, "but if we don't like him after a few days, we'll replace him." They liked him.
Keanu made his move to L.A., arriving, in 1986, in a decrepit 1969 Volvo with $3,000. His former stepfather put him up for a while, and steered him to Erwin Stoff, who was then getting started as a manager. Stoff, in turn, found Keanu an agent in Hildy Gottlieb Hill, then head of talent at ICM. "In 20 minutes I was crazy about him," Hill recalls of Keanu's first visit. "He was very fresh." When he left, Hill told a colleague, "I've just signed a new client, and I don't even know if he can act."
In eight months, Keanu won his first major role in a feature: as the conscience-bound teenager in River's Edge who bucks peer pressure to report a girl's murder. He did his teen films and earned minor roles in major productions (Dangerous Liaisons, Parenthood). Then, after seven auditions, he landed Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. "Clown work," he calls it now, but with professional pride.
Keanu seemed not just to distrust his growing fame but to mock it. Hildy Gottlieb Hill recalls him showing up at the ICM office in a kilt. He rode his Nortons fast, sometimes at night, occasionally with the headlight off, and had spills -- one in Topanga Canyon that ruptured his spleen and left a long abdominal scar. In the few interviews he gave, he seemed scornful or bored; once, he entertained a roomful of journalists by spitting on the floor. It was a phase.
His private life remained pretty much that. His longest relationship with a woman, he says, has been around two years; his latest was with a woman named Autumn. "I'm sort of Han Solo," he says. River Phoenix, another product of a 60s counterculture family, became a good friend. The two are said to have done their share of drugs during the filming of My Own Private Idaho, the better to play the movie's street kids, but Keanu says flatly that he's never had cause for concern about himself and either drugs or drink. He spent a lot of time at an L.A. hospital, where his sister Kim lay sick with cancer.
"He helped me through," Kim explains. "When the pain got bad, he used to hold my hand and keep the bad man from making me dance. He was there all the time, even when he was away." Twenty months ago, after more than eight years of fighting her illness, Kim went into remission. She has a stable of show horses now, paid for by her brother.
Last summer Keanu's father, long estranged from the family, was arrested in Hawaii with a large shipment of heroin and cocaine. He was tried, found guilty of promoting a dangerous drug in the second degree, and sentenced to 10 years.
"How did you react to all that stuff?" I ask.
At moments like this, Keanu stops moving around. The light in his eyes goes out. He doesn't bristle, but he gets quiet, fast.
"The trial last year," I sputter. "The sentencing."
"I don't know about it."
"You didn't want to find out?"
"Why would I want to find out what I didn't know?"
"You didn't know he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years?"
"Uh-uh," Keanu says without any affect, his almond eyes blank. "Pretty incredible."
Over a beer at the nearby City Billiards Bar & Cafe, Keanu turns cheerful again. His presence sends ripples through the after-work crowd, and soon an autograph seeker moves in, followed by another. He takes the intrusions with good humor, even bantering as he signs the proffered scraps. Robert Kamen says that during the shooting of A Walk in the Clouds Keanu was stopped like this all the time. "How do you do it?" Kamen asked at last. Keanu shrugged and said, "I'm Mickey [Mouse]. They don't know who's inside the suit." Kamen remembers telling Reeves, "But you're a movie star." Keanu laughed, "So's Mickey."
I've been curious to ask Keanu what he took away from Little Buddha, the Bertolucci film of 1994 shot in Nepal and Bhutan, for which Keanu not only fasted to look the part of Prince Siddhartha but also studied Buddhist texts and met with monks. A lot of what he learned, it turns out, has stayed with him.
"One of the great things was learning about meditation. What is spoken of a lot is the notion of no self, no 'I.' What is ego, what is mind, nature of mind ... and what is desire?"
Answering earnestness with earnestness, I wonder aloud if there isn't in Keanu some central struggle between discipline and nihilism - devotion to acting versus motorcycles, Buddhism versus sex, drink, rock 'n' roll. A dynamic. Keanu looks at me with bemusement. "I get one dynamic?" he says. "Can I have more than one? I want at least nine!"
Back in the hotel room, we order a bottle of wine and Keanu slips a CD into his small portable "ghetto." His traveling collection includes Miles Davis, Coltrane, Sonic Youth, Hole, Gorecki's Third Symphony, Jesus and Mary Chain. He says he's planning, somehow, amid all the films, to go on tour with Dogstar. A month and a half, 40 gigs. "We're getting pretty good," he says. "It's folky, but not Joan Baez folky." The group, he thinks, is almost ready to record an album. "But we have to write better songs."
Even with no album out, the band drew sellout crowds on its first club gigs. "He doesn't understand the fuss," says Ken Funk, who started managing the group three years ago strictly out of friendship for Keanu. (He was actually a hockey buddy.) "We were having dinner at a restaurant one night and the hostess, who was gorgeous, kept looking at him adoringly. I said to Keanu, 'I wish I could be you for five minutes, just go up and talk to that girl the way you could.' 'I couldn't do that,' he said. And he was serious. He said to me once, 'I'm from the earth, too.' I'm still figuring that one out."
Mysterious as he may be, even to his closest friends, Keanu is, on another level, as simple as he says: a happy man, doing what he wants to do, only what he wants to do, and getting paid to do it.