Keanu's night job
(Previously published on October 19 as a slightly shorter version under the title 'Keanu just keeps moving')
Despite Dogstar's dubious talents, fans will flock to see Keanu Reeves, writes Phillip McCarthy.
THE WORD THAT Keanu Reeves' many chroniclers seem to latch on to, to describe his name and his looks, is exotic. But today he seems to have checked that aura in 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 meet gazes at the stricken star with a mix of compassion and desire.
But 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 his career moves.
"I'm giving up smoking," the 30-year-old Canadian explains, oblivious to how incongruous that explanation sounds. "Man, I've been coughing ever since I quit."
Real icons don't cough, do they? But Reeves' present peakiness might also have something to do with his rugged schedule over the past 12 months.
He has made three movies since Speed catapulted him into Hollywood's box-office big league; he has done a gruelling two-month stage turn as Hamlet in the Canadian prairie city of Winnipeg; and he has toured the United States, Japan and, 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 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 rumor poses something of a problem for a man of Reeves' easy-going sensibilities. To be seen to deny it vehemently, going into Jason Donovan mode, might create an impression of anxiety, discomfort or even homophobia.
So he's just California cool about it.
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 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."
"Shaped up" is putting it mildly. Maybe it's dude-speak for chancing on to extraordinary success. But with Reeves the nonchalance seems to be totally genuine.
So what about the unusual name? "Keanu" is actually the one his parents gave him, and they probably were not even thinking of its marquee value. His father, a Hawaiian Chinese dabbler, and his mother, a British Canadian emigre, ran off together and 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. And perhaps the peripatetic lifestyle is just another manifestation of the same airiness.
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 - suggesting that Reeves has not exactly turned himself over to the Hollywood marketing men.
There was his turn as a microchip-implanted cyberspace punk, in Johnny Mnenomic. The offbeat cast, including a bad guy, Dolph Lundgren, and the 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. That's the matinee-idol movie, and Reeves' reviews ranged across the critical spectrum. Arau is the Mexican director of the acclaimed Like Water for Chocolate.
A Walk in the Clouds is his first big Hollywood venture, and still manages to reflect the sensibility that first got him noticed. It is lovingly photographed, with a certain magical quality.
"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 rings marquee value to a project; whether it's Speed or Hamlet, there's a coterie of Keanu fans who will see him in anything.
A Walk in the Clouds has taken almost $US50 million in a two-month run in North America, which is pretty good for a film without special effects or a car/bus chase.
Johnny Mnemonic, despite a critical drubbing, will probably make back its $US35 million production costs in international release. In the US, it has taken $US20 million.
Coming next year is a darker love story, Feeling Minnesota, in which Reeves plays a low-life hero on the run from bad guys in Las Vegas.
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.
This is a role, after all, that Ralph Fiennes, Daniel Day-Lewis, Kenneth Branagh and Mel Gibson performed to buff their dramatic credentials.
In Winnipeg, Reeves worked at equity 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. Dogstar's events are usually sold out, and that has more to do with Reeves' presence than the group's music.
At a recent Washington performance in an alternative rock venue, a critic from USA Today praised the group's diligence, but hedged about the music's quality.
"An intent bassist, Reeves laid a solid foundation and kept a low profile under his black knit cap," she wrote.
"He sang only one song, worse than badly. But even his slighest move drew deafening screams and his few between-song words were drowned out by the 80 per cent female crowd."
So what's the big appeal - given that sort of less than gushing critical response - of late-night gigs in sweaty nightclubs when you obviously 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?"
Keanu Reeves and Dogstar will support the American group Bon Jovi at Olympic Park on 10 and 11 November. A Walk in the Clouds is screening at Hoyts.