Keanu Reeves Exclusive - Interview
(Translated from German)
He is the pinup boy of the 90's: exotically beautiful, intelligent, and also the all-American boy with the irresistibly youthful laugh. In October two of his films will open in our theatres: So Close to Heaven (A Walk in the Clouds) and Johnny Mnemonic. Is the smart star, idolized by pubescent girls, their mothers, and gay men alike, more than just a product of the Hollywood machine? MAX found Keanu Reeves in Los Angeles.
by Tatjana Blobel
A new generation of talented, self-willed young stars has stormed the alluring heights of Beverly Hills, and looks down from countless movie screens and glossy magazines with enigmatic smiles at we mortals below. About Keanu Reeves, River Phoenix, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp -- what is the secret? What makes them stars? They all command the art of surrounding themselves with an aura of secrets and mysteries. Are they gay? Do they take drugs? Or are they just lovely youths whose images have been blown out of proportion? Keanu Reeves walks a thin line, trying to answer all questions briefly and clearly, but to give one the impression that there is more there than meets the eye.
Director Gus van Sant must have sensed this potential. He had a vision for his film "My Own Private Idaho:" the role of Scott, the mayor's son plunged into the world of male prostitution, should be played by Keanu Reeves -- and no other. Reeves' agent was not taken with the idea. He sent the script back by return mail. Later van Sant asked Keanu directly to read the script, with results.
Boarding his motorcycle, a '74 Norton Commando, Keanu crossed half of America, to show the script to his friend River Phoenix. In the summer, the pair spent more than two weeks in Portland's redlight district, to study the dealings of underage male prostitutes with their customers. John Glatt writes in his biography of River Phoenix, "Lost in Hollywood": "Reeves wanted to finally break free of this image of a dumb kid from 'Bill and Ted'." And so he immersed himself with River, who at the end of 1991 (sic) died of a deadly drug-cocktail, in the world of male prostitutes, hookers, and the homeless. It was the right instinct. "My Own Private Idaho" quickly made both young actors into cult stars. Reeves: "It is our duty to explore all possibilities that could be contained in the script." While Phoenix appears submerged in his role, Reeves is evidently a professional actor, clearly steered by his own mind. "I think Keanu has this technical background in theatrical acting, while I'd rather approach my roles in an abstract, instinctive way," explains River Phoenix in a 1991 interview. "While I absorb everything into myself, unfiltered, Keanu makes connections to life."
Keanu appeared at our appointment in worn boots, black T-shirt, with unwashed hair, unshaven and pimply. He presented himself in Generation X-garb and looked totally different than in the unexpected blockbuster of 1994, "Speed." There he displayed, clean-shaven and clean, a muscular body.
He can't have been doing much for those muscles since his last film. He seems to enjoy not fulfilling the expectations of his fans. But when he smiles and asks: "Would you like to have a drink?" he is utterly surprising -- a bit of the gentleman shines through the well-brought-up city kid.
In his new film "So Close to Heaven" (opening Oct. 3 in theatres) Keanu plays a returning soldier, the rescuer of a beautiful pregnant woman from her frenzied father. Alfonso Arau, director of the emotion-filled family saga, like Gus van Sant, wanted Keanu from the beginning for the lead role of the honorable Paul Sutton. "Keanu is charismatic and good-looking, but the most important thing is: he has this innocence. This combination makes him a star."
Keanu Reeves is always irritating his ever-growing fan-base with new characters. His ten-year film career (see p. 124) goes from eccentric college-boy in "Bill and Ted's Crazy Journey Through Time" to the evil villain Don Juan (sic) in Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare film "Much Ado About Nothing," to the clumsy killer-junkie in "I Love You to Death" to the macho man in "Speed." And now he appears before the public in his current roles in "So Close to Heaven" as romantic lover and in "Johnny Mnemonic" (also opening in October) as a cyberspace punk.
He is esteemed by his colleagues. "I am amazed by Keanu as an actor and as a human being," says Sandra Bullock of her film partner in "Speed." And Hollywood veteran Peter Falk, co-star of "Julia and Her Lover," gushed about the then-26-year-old Keanu: "The kid has everything; he's interesting to watch. He works hard, he has a vein of craziness. He is emotionally present, full of understanding -- where he gets all that at his age, is beyond me."
Can it be attributed to his upbringing? His biography reads like a road-movie. The offspring of a rich businessman was born in 1964 in Beirut, Lebanon. Keanu always waits an instant, weighing his answer, before he earnestly explains: "The stars, the sky and the moment of my birth have certainly had an affect on my life," and continues jokingly: "Unfortunately I am a Virgo. And I hate it. It is so boring. Perfectionistic, orderly, faithful, grounded." He strikes himself on the forehead and laughs. "I would rather have been a Sagittarius."
Keanu's parents separated while he was still in diapers. The family -- his mother, who changed partners as often as she did locations, and the two younger sisters, moved from Australia to Toronto by way of New York. Keanu saw his father for the last time "at about 13 or 14." In the past year his father was sentenced to ten years in prison. His mother provided for the family as a fashion designer. David Bowie, Dolly Parton and Alice Cooper were costumed by her. She was frequently gone on business, Keanu often responsible for his sisters. However, he hastens to assure me that they had "a completely normal family life." Because of the frequent moves he found himself in a new school almost every year. At 17 he left school and faced the difficult decision to seek a career in sports or the theatre: "At first I wanted to be a professional hockey player. My dream was always to take part in the Olympic Games. But then the theatre attracted me more."
Keep your options open, is Keanu's life - and work-motto: "I will do anything I can, from big commercial films to independent films or theater." In no event will he allow himself to be typecast, and that has always worked in his favor. Always, when everyone believes, "Aha, now we know who he is," he outwits us and plays an idiotic killer or gay prostitute -- and not always to his agent's pleasure. Reeves has preserved the aura of an outsider.
So Keanu (in Hawaiian: Cool Breeze Over the Mountains) disappeared a few months ago, for two weeks in the Canadian provinces, to appear as Hamlet -- "Before 'To be, or not to be,' I am always insanely nervous" -- at the Manitoba Theatre Center in Winnipeg. For a fee of 6,000 dollars. A laughable sum for one who can demand seven million dollars for a film. Hollywood was irritated. Keanu had grasped early what takes some in the business decades to understand: if they want to put you in a drawer, jump out fast, before it closes.
Although before, Keanu Reeves had constantly tugged at his unwashed hair, and sprawled himself on the sofa in his suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hollywood, when the subject of Shakespeare comes up he sits suddenly upright. "The man was always so close to life. Blood, filth, incest and betrayal, the deepest deeps and the highest heights, the longing for order and love -- his stories are full of horror and life." Keanu's deep, pleasant voice gains an unexpected power and concentration when, carried away by his enthusiasm for the great English poet, he easily quotes: "Since no man of art he knows, since no man of art he leaves. Knows art what is to leave the times." (sic)
The critics were not easily convinced, but were indulgent with the boyish film star, who wanted so much to be a great Hamlet. "Reeves lacks the necessary equipment to undertake such a role," proclaimed the Ottawa Citizen, "but it is interesting to observe him on the stage." His acting talent was best displayed in the fight scenes, but fortunately he became "ever better." "Acting on-stage or in films is at the same time very different and very similar. There are different techniques, but when the curtain goes up, it's the same excitement." And naturally his every move was noted by the international press. "It was a dreadful performance." The memory of the premiere seems to stick in his bones: "I had barely begun to think about the role, much less how I would see it through." His admirers went crazy, and the hotels in Winnipeg were completely full. A female fan even came from faraway Australia by air, to see all the performances.
In Canada, the rumor that prevailed about him in Hollywood finally reached him. "Heartbreaker Keanu Reeves is gay" shouted in large print from the title pages of the tabloid press. Which in prudish America means: our little darling has behaved politically incorrectly -- a heavy rebuke. Keanu was supposed to have had a "secret wedding" with music- and film- mogul David Geffen, and also to have had a wild affair with a ballet dancer in Winnipeg. Keanu and David Geffen both insist that they have never met. The handsome film star: "I am not gay, and there is no ballet dancer."
Evidently this subject really gets on his nerves. Keanu protests that he is heterosexual, but: "In the final analysis, it is all the same, whom one loves." In all events, he finds that women are wonderful creatures, and thinks in honest despair that the whole now-public commotion is childish. Nevertheless, the keenest bloodhounds among the gossip columnists do not take it as proof when a woman is at the side of the adored sex symbol.
Certainly too, not to alienate his gay fans, Keanu Reeves proceeded to go on the offensive, giving an interview in an issue of the US gay magazine "Out," in which he outed himself as a heterosexual. A photograph of him at 18, appearing as a young homosexual inmate in the piece, "Wolfboy," shows clearly that "Reeves understands how to cultivate this special part of the public."
The 30-year-old is one of the best-paid actors in the world. It is his job to take on ever-different roles. But it is easy to tell fiction from reality. He understands the game; it is fun for him. So, he dropped his trousers for the photo by Greg Gorman (see the second title page) and said to the astounded photographer: "Come on, take the picture." As he says, "There are worse things than being sexy."
Reeves is himself fully aware of the effect he has; perhaps it is only a facade, like so much in seemingly easy-going Los Angeles? He explains his drug use as follows: "I love drugs. Except for peyote, a Mexican desert plant, I've tried everything. I find it fantastic, to have these dreams and hallucinations." What, years ago, would have endangered his elite status now barely registers a shrug in everyday Hollywood. Finally, it is such weaknesses and fads that make him a hero, and he cultivates them.
Keanu rubs his eyes, and seems absentminded, as if it troubles him to answer in complete sentences. Perhaps five in the afternoon isn't his best time. The sun is setting -- surely he would rather be rushing through the hills on his old Norton, breathing a bit a freedom, or practicing with his buddies in the band Dogstar for their next gig.
"I'm a bit tired, because we practiced so long last night." He can scarcely suppress a yawn. "We've going on tour soon with our band, Dogstar, through the States, and making a tape for radio broadcast, since nobody knows how we sound." The four Dogstars -- they play west-coast rock -- for months were just an insider-tip in the L.A. club scene. Their small concerts always sold out. Directly, they toured Japan, giving six concerts there. "Tokyo was classy, finally no PR-dates." Keanu and his four actor-colleagues Gregg Miller, Bret Domrose, and Robert Mailhouse founded the band three years ago: "In the house I had then, I had a practice room with some guitars. A friend dragged his drumset over, and we started to play around." Reeves has played bass guitar for only five years, and yet he was noticed by Sting, who invited him, under an assumed name, to play on an album. Keanu had to pass -- he had no time.
He earnestly wants to continue with his music, but "just for fun," and it's always a nice occasion, to spend time with friends. "The shows are a lot of fun -- we drink free beer, pick up girls." But no false hopes, ladies: at the Hard Rock Cafe in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, hundreds of female fans arrived. They waited over twelve hours in temperatures of 40 (Celcius) in the shade for a glimpse of their idol. Reeves slipped past the longing crowd through a back door.
In general, he is sometimes rather restless. He has lived in hotels for months, his property consist of "a pair of suitcases," stuff is "unimportant" to him. Evidently he tries to assure us that this kind of self-imposed homelessness happened completely by chance, and is not something required to serve his image as a freedom-loving "outlaw." "I don't want to live a Bohemian life, I'd like to build a house of wood and stone. But something happened in my life..." We'll never hear the story behind it. Keanu doesn't want to reveal the mystery. "It's really peculiar. He is quite well-read and intelligent, but you don't see it," says Gus van Sant, "he seems such an artist-punkrocker, but it's just a facade."
PHOTOS: Full page b/w photo on page 3: the justly famous Greg Gorman "Butt Shot," with caption superimposed in red across the shoulder blades: "There are worse things than being sexy!" -- Keanu Reeves. Article: several Johnny Mnemonic era vintage shots, judging from the haircut and general skinniness: one looking down a ladder at climbing Keanu; one closeup, in black muscle-shirt, with hands steepled over his eyes; one grinning, looking down, hands palms-out toward the camera; and the shot from the cover of Out magazine, with Keanu sprawled on the floor, clutching a scruffy jacket around him and howling into the air.