The Sydney Morning Herald (Aus), October 19, 1995

Keanu just keeps moving

(also published on October 23 as a slightly longer version under the title 'Keanu's night job)'

He's Mr California cool, of no fixed abode, an icon with a cough, writes PHILLIP McCARTHY in New York.

THE word that Keanu Reeves's many chroniclers seem to latch on to, to describe both his name and his looks, is exotic. But today he seems to have checked that aura at the door: the hair is ruffled, the face is blotchy and he's slouched in a posture that can't be good for his lumbar region.

What's more he's just gone into a coughing fit which is not what one expects from an action hero (Speed) or even a laconic dude (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure).

A waitress in the hotel conference room where we're meeting gazes at the stricken star with a mix of compassion and desire. What else is new? Keanu is up there with Brad Pitt as a young actor who is appreciated as much for his ability to make fans swoon as for career moves.

"I'm giving up smoking," the 30-year-old Canadian explains. "Man, I've been coughing ever since I quit." Real icons don't cough, do they? But Keanu's problem might also have something to do with his rugged schedule over the past year.

He has made three movies since Speed catapulted him into Hollywood's box office big league; he has done a two-month stage turn as Hamlet in the Canadian prairie city of Winnipeg; and he has toured the US, Japan (next month, Australia) with his rock band, Dogstar. If you believe gossip columns from Brazil to Italy, he also found time to marry record mogul David Geffen in a gay ceremony in California. Take that with a grain of salt. "Man, it's weird to hear that you're married to a guy you've never even met," he says patiently. "I mean gay marriages are OK by me but I haven't entered one."

The peculiar and enduring rumour poses something of a problem for a man of Reeve's easy-going sensibilities. To be seen to deny it vehemently might create an impression of anxiety, discomfort or even homophobia. So he's just California cool about it.

And that's a stance he seems comfortable with, both on screen and off. Most of his memorable but supporting pre-Speed roles, from Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho to Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha, largely reflect the actor's almost languorously detached demeanor.

In real life this is a man who is so laid-back he hasn't bothered with a home for the past 18 months, preferring life on the road. He just goes from project to project, from hotel to hotel, with his guitar, a suitcase, two motorcycles and a taste for room service.

"Um, yeah, I plan to do something about that some time," he says. "But, you know, I don't need a lot of stuff so it's just easier, the way things have shaped up."

So what about the unusual name? "Keanu" is actually the one his parents gave him and they probably weren't even thinking of its marquee value. His father was an Hawaiian-Chinese dabbler and his mother a British-Canadian emigre' who ran off together and briefly married in the 1960s.

In Hawaiian, "Keanu" means "cool breeze over the mountains", which is an aura that, as a motorcycle enthusiast given to long-distance runs, sits rather well with him.

His post-Speed movies have been coming out with something more like hurricane force. They are an eclectic mix - only one could be considered a matinee idol vehicle and two were downright risky.

There was his turn as a microchip-implanted cyberspace punk in Johnny Mnemonic. The film was based on the William Gibson short story. The off-beat cast, including bad guy Dolph Lungren and rocker Henry Rollins, was supposed to make it an instant cult movie for the Internet set.

Then there was his first romantic lead, in Alfonso Arau's A Walk In The Clouds.

Arau is the Mexican director of the acclaimed Like Water For Chocolate. A Walk In The Clouds is his first big Hollywood venture. It still manages to reflect the sensibility that first got him noticed: it's lovingly photographed and there's a certain magical quality to it.

"I chose him because on top of being handsome and charismatic and a very nice person, he's a hard worker, a bit like a monk," Arau says. "I wanted the role to have the feel of a part played by Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda and I think it worked."

He might have added that Reeves also brought marquee value to a project. Coming next year is a darker love story, Feeling Minnesota, in which Reeves plays a low-life hero on the run, fending off the bad guys in Las Vegas. It's a low-budget project by first time director Stephen Baigelman and Reeves's participation was clearly not about money.

On another front, Reeves undertook what seems to be a rite of passage for young actors in search of gravitas: he did Hamlet on stage.

In Winnipeg, Reeves worked at award rates, got mixed to good reviews for his portrayal and won a lot of kudos just for keeping the commitment. "Take me to Broadway, man!" he says now. "It was a good experience and I would like to do Shakespeare again. It was really satisfying in a way that movies are not because, you know, as an actor, you don't have a lot of control over the way things end up on the screen."

His night job, as a rock star, seems to offer the same advantages over movies that he finds on stage. In Dogstar, a scrappy punk-grunge-pop ensemble, Reeves plays bass guitar. Dog star's events are usually sold-out affairs and that has more to do with Keanu's presence than the group's music.

At a recent Washington performance, in an alternative rock venue, a critic in USA Today praised the group's diligence but hedged about the music's quality.

So what's the appeal to latenight gigs in sweaty nightclubs when you don't need the money? "It's just such a different thing," Reeves says. "I mean it's a great time. You hang out with your friends and the beer's free. And, you know, we're not bad. I'm not saying that I prefer it to acting, but it's a good time, something different, you know."


Speed , Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure , Hamlet , Dogstar , Fake Geffen Marriage and Related, The , My Own Private Idaho , Little Buddha , Johnny Mnemonic , A Walk in the Clouds , Feeling Minnesota

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