Hello, hello - is anyone home?
'Speed' turned Keanu Reeves into a superstar, but how is the epitome of 'dude' dealing with life?
Rebecca Arrowsmith catches a ride in his slipstream
The accident occurred on the corner of Hollywood and Normandie, downtown Los Angeles. It was a beautiful day - sun shining, ghetto blasters blaring - when the unknown car, driven by an unknown male, made a left and careened into the path of a motorcycle. The rider of the motorcycle takes up the story: "I jumped from the motorcycle just before the guy hit me. I did a somersault in the air and landed on the sidewalk on my back. Then I jumped up."
An ambulance was called. The motorcycle boy was walking around, the adrenalin rush making him laugh. The bike was totalled, he had a deep gash in his leg. Two young boys, identities unknown, were watching with eyes wide open. The motorcycle boy turned to them. "I flew, didn't I?" he asked, still amazed at what had happened.
"Yo, homes! You were in the air, bro," they confirmed.
The ambulance still had not arrived. A male passer-by, identity unknown, drove the motorcycle boy to hospital. This is what he told him: "I'm coming out of the liquor store, my friend, and you are in the air! And I think to myself, 'That boy, he is dead.' And then you jumped up! I could not believe it." Keanu Reeves cannot believe it either. He shakes his head and grins that grin that grins like no other grin. Reeves, as is only fitting for someone who has portrayed Buddha on film, believes that "Buddhism works. The elements of compassion and wisdom, the impermanence, the four noble truths, the eightfold path."
The question is this: What happened to Keanu Reeves in those few seconds when he was weightless and unhindered by gravity, spinning like an Olympic gymnast on crack? Was it a visitation from Buddha? Did he come face to face with one of the four noble truths? Did he take another step down the eightfold path? Or did he flip out?
An eye-witness report: "Keanu is very well-read, but he doesn't think he is. And he's very intelligent. But he's sort of a punk rocker, in a way, and has this facade" - Gus Van Sant, who directed Reeves in My Own Private Idaho
Keanu Reeves is talking. There is much we could talk of as we sit in an LA hotel suite: The success of Speed, his work in the Spanish-flavoured '40s romance A Walk in the Clouds, his work in the cyberpunk flick Johnny Mnemonic, his love for Shakespeare, his future plans, his self-described "folk-thrash" music group Dogstar. But right now there is a more pressing topic: Spontaneous human combustion.
"You know, you never hear this talked about much, but it exists! It's documented," he announces, leaning forward in a conspiratorial pose. "A friend of mine is a researcher, and she was researching fire, and she got into spontaneous combustion. It happens."
Do they explode? "No, they burn. From within. And yet, sometimes they'll be in a wooden chair, and the chair won't burn, but there'll be nothing left of the person. Except sometimes the teeth. Or the heart. No one speaks about this - but it's for real."
Like the people who'll go on tabloid TV and talk about when they died briefly and went to hell before they were revived? "That's funny, too. Where is..." Reeves stops and smiles. "Censored."
Don't stop now, what were you going to say? "It's a little too naive. Not naive. Okay, I'll say it now: Where did the Pope come from? Where in the Bible does it say there's a Pope? And where is hell? Where did the whole aspect of sin and then going to hell come from? Where is it in the Bible?"
An eye-witness report: "Keanu is attractive to both men and women. Women love his eyes, his honest face. And he's accessible to men, because he doesn't have over-the-top biceps or a neck that's crazy" - Jan De Bont, who directed Reeves in Speed
Keanu Reeves is 30. Here are a few facts about the years before he stepped in front of the camera for the first time: His mother is English, his father half-Hawaiian, half-Chinese. Keanu was born in Beirut, in the city's glory years before civil war turned it into a battlefield. He grew up in Toronto, Canada. His father moved to Hawaii when Reeves was six. The Reeves family were neither religious nor celebrated Christmas (what a burden for a child in the late 20th century to bear), but Keanu's mother did design costumes for rock stars.
"Halloween was exceptional because I'd always get a cool costume," he declares. "One year, I was Dracula, and wore this cool cape. Another year, I was Batman and my sister was Robin. Once she made me this Cousin Itt costume. I wore this giant wig. It rained that Halloween. I got wet. I looked like a big bowl of pasta.
"There were also times when groovy people would come over. Like, Alice Cooper stayed at our house. I remember he brought fake vomit and dog poo to terrorise the housekeeper. He'd hang out, a regular dude. A friend of mine and I, you know, wrestled with him once... Let's see. What else? We got to go to concerts and stuff. When I was 15, a friend of my mum's took me to see [country singer] Emmylou Harris and I got to stay up all night. It was the first time I ever saw a person come out of the bathroom with cocaine on his nostril hair - this guy with a moustache with cocaine all over it."
Reeves attended a variety of high schools and was never an academic achiever, though neither was he an archetypal 'Ted,' the character he made into an icon with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Outside school he held down a series of odd jobs - from ice-skate sharpener to tree trimmer. And he had found the truth: punk rock.
"When I was 17 I had my first car. It was a 1969 122 Volvo. British racing green. Bricks held up the front seat. Good stereo. I bought it from a man named Lester who'd taught me how to walk... He ripped me off.
"Anyway, I remember being with some friends and driving in that car from Toronto to Buffalo to see the Ramones. That was very adventurous. There was a punk rock girl in the back seat with a raccoon on her shoulder. The Clash was playing so loud. And all those questions that run through your head: 'Will we make it?' 'Yes, of course.' 'We're under age. Can we get in?' 'Yeah, cool.' You know, drinking and watching the Ramones. It was such a good time."
How were you affected by your father's departure from your life? "I think a lot of who I am is a reaction against his actions," he says, sighing.
Do you have a relationship with him now? "I saw him occasionally when I would go to Hawaii on holidays. The last time I saw him was when I was 13. It was at night. We were in Kaui. And I remember him speaking about the stars. Something about how the world is a box. And I looked up, and I had no clue what he was talking about. 'No, Dad, the earth is round. It's not a rectangle, man'."
Reeves left high school in his final year, but not before he discovered drama and local theatre groups. Shortly after he moved to Hollywood and started to impress casting directors, though not without some teething problems. At first he was told to audition under the name K.C. Reeves. "That was a terrible phase which lasted about a month," he recalls. "I had driven across the country, and on the day that I arrived on these shores I was informed that my manager and my agent were having trouble getting me in to see some casting directors because of my name. It had an ethnicity to it that they found was getting in the way. And that freaked me out completely. I came up with names like Page Templeton III. And Chuck Spidina. My middle name is Charles. Eventually they picked K.C. Terrible. When I went to auditions, I'd tell them my name was Keanu."
Can you picture it. A world in which the name 'Keanu' did not stand for something? In which it was an oddity, not a passport to fame and beauty and Buddhist motorcycle crashes?
An eye-witness report: "I told Keanu, 'This will be the movie where, for the first time, you'll play a man. Not a boy, not a boyish man, not a manly boy, but a man"' - Alfonso Arau, who directed Reeves in A Walk in the Clouds
What do you say of an actor who has worked with directors such as Coppola (Dracula), Bertolucci (Little Buddha), Branagh (Much Ado About Nothing), Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho) and Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons)? An actor who, at the same time, has conquered the box office with Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Parenthood and Speed ? An actor who has shared scenes with Gary Oldman, Denzel Washington, Dennis Hopper, River Phoenix and John Malkovich? An actor who can get a film financed simply by saying, "Yes, I want to be in it"? An actor who can get almost $ 10 million for a film? An actor who is happy to work for virtually nothing on an independent film if he particularly likes the script?
If it's Keanu Reeves, very little is said. The public perception of Keanu Reeves is still of a babelicious dunderhead, buffed and beautiful but not carrying a heavy load in the brainbox department. People make note of his problem with accents, and interpret his open, reflexive style of acting as vacuousness.
But directors value him not only for his box office pulling power but his aura of innocence and wry comic abilities. He is universally praised for his professionalism - in contrast to his more wayward contemporaries - but seems to have a PhD in street grunge styling. Strangest of all is Reeves's willingness to talk, to try and explain, no matter how awkwardly, what it is he actually does on screen.
Prior to shooting A Walk in the Clouds, the story of a World War II GI, Paul Sutton (Reeves), who is convinced by a girl (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) on a bus to pose as her husband and the father of her unborn baby, Reeves and the rest of cast went into extensive rehearsals with director Arau, who'd arrived in Hollywood via the arthouse hit Like Water for Chocolate. "We designed exercises that reveal and in some ways use your fears to help you think about your character," he explains. "I had an exercise where I was trying to sensitise myself as to how my character felt coming out of World War II. And I looked at photographs and tried to have an emotional relationship with them, like: 'Wow, what is that expression on that person's face? What did they go through?"'
Did you talk to World War II veterans who'd fought as your character in the film has? "I met with this man, a Marine, who fought in the Pacific. I asked him what was going on. And he said, 'Well, I didn't take my socks off for three months. I was always hot and wet. There was fungus and dysentery and disease and hunger.' And I was trying to lay these kinds of feelings on myself. Through my imagination I was trying to figure out what makes my character so sensitive. Why does he care about life so much? What does he want? I imagined this experience where I was coming up towards this Japanese stronghold with my partner. I imagined he was besides me, then I heard this sound. And I looked over and... his jaw was gone. There was all this blood and he was making these sounds."
How many other screen stars would describe what happened that way? None. So what does Reeves make of Arau's comment that A Walk in the Clouds was the film where Reeves finally had to play "a man"? "I'll speak for the person I play: For him, it was about taking responsibility for himself and for the others around him."
And personally? "I don't have any maxims on manliness," Reeves says, "or what it is to be a man. You know, nature will push you there, as nature pushes you to most places. Wooo!"
What the "Woooo" signifies is information I currently do not have access to. So while we're exploring Keanu's surreal world, what does he make of the comment that he has "an innocence," that he can portray openness on the screen? Does he agree with the assessment? "I'd love to say yes. But it's not true," he replies forthrightly, before laughing. "I do have an open nature, I guess. My mum told me that after 'No,' the second thing I spoke was, 'How come?' So I guess it's in my nature. It drove her crazy."
In Johnny Mnemonic, Reeves's other new movie, he plays a data courier with too much information downloaded into his brain. His head is a timebomb, the Yakuza want the bytes back, and the rest of the 21st century is getting in his way. The first piece of work from seminal cyberpunk author William Gibson to make it onto the big screen after ten years of effort, Mnemonic is an impressive evocation of the author's technovision, with co-stars including Henry Rollins, Dolph Lundgren, Dina Meyer (the older vamp from Beverly Hills 90210) and Japanese action icon Takeshi, while New York visual artist Robert Longo making his directorial debut.
"I love Robert Longo," says Reeves, straightening up in his chair. "And I was, and am, a fan of William Gibson. I got to do some stuff in that film that was... that was bitchin'! Like, the physical aspect of the character and its portrayal. I was really precise, straight lines. Investigating that shape with emotion."
Right. What exactly does that mean? "I was doing a whole thing of, like, mother equals round [draws a circle in the air with his finger]. Anger equals straight [draws straight line in the air]. I saw the heart as a round notion. The journey of this character starts out very angular and straight. By breaking him down, compassion is born. And he gains responsibility and warming. Then he's open for an embrace."
And with that, Reeves gives himself a hug.
An eye-witness report: "Keanu doesn't think that's he beautiful. He's very unassuming" - Robert Longo, who directed Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic.
It is time to talk of punk rock and Shakespeare. For in Keanu's world they co-exist in perfect harmony.
Dogstar are Reeves's garage band, and a major passion. He plays bass, rather well, and yells the odd back-up vocal while a former daytime soap star whose name is unnecessary sings and struts the stage. When Dogstar play, Reeves takes a backseat. And lately they have been playing often, with spurts of touring and shows in LA at the Whiskey and Johnny Depp's Viper Room.
Here is his favourite Dogstar memory: "We were in Milwaukee, playing the Metalfest. There were some incredible bands - it was a mixture of hard rock and Satan rock. But we're a folk band. We should not have been there. They threw some beer at us and told us to fuck off and yelled, 'You suck!' It was beautiful. It made me laugh. I said to the guitarist, 'Let's do one of our Grateful Dead covers!' It was a glorious moment. Them going: 'Fuck you!' Us going [affecting hillbilly voice] 'Ah was born in the desert/doo-doo-doo..."'
Talking of the Dead, broadly speaking, Reeves has also spent time in the last year playing Hamlet for the Manitoba Theatre Company. The announcement of his presence sold out the entire season out advance. ("Reeves simply lacks the equipment to sustain such a role," wrote a reviewer from the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, before adding: "He is never less than interesting onstage.")
How does Keanu perceive a role that's adjudged one of the most difficult theatre has to offer? After all, playing Hamlet in '91 resulted in Daniel Day-Lewis having a nervous breakdown. "The issues of death, grieving. The, uh, issue of... He speaks often about the nature of living. And the nature of conduct. I mean, one of his soliloquies begins, 'To be or not to be...,' which some people ask themselves. And about the choices we make and the way we make them. I guess I could put it succinctly and say it contains elements of the human condition. But then, what doesn't?"
He's also spent time at a Shakespeare camp (yes, these things really exist). What was that like? "It's called Shakespeare and Company. I went there for a winter workshop, which is a month-long intensive study of breathing techniques and the acting of Shakespeare utilising these techniques. The following summer I had a small part in the Tempest. I got to do some clown work. We did certain clown exercises: master-slave, improvisations. Stuff like that," he explains, before breaking into laughter.
What's funny? "I'm just laughing at my memories," Reeves explains. "There was a scene with my character and another character, Caliban, who is a kind of human sprite. We get caught underneath this blanket, and we have this whole dance like a crab, and we keep trying to hide. I am remembering those nights, crawling around, toes in our noses. Doing things like, 'Arrrrrgghhhh!"'
After his run in Hamlet ended Reeves starred in the low budget flick Feeling Minnesota (Courtney Love has a supporting role as a waitress). What's the deal? "It's about the human condition," he says, giggling. "Um, what's it about? It's a romance. What do I say? It's uh..."
Suddenly Reeves springs to his feet and strides to the other side of his hotel suite, looking out the window. He lifts his hands in the air, flings his head back and let's loose with an unhappy howl. Then he begins to talk to himself, no, make that have a conversation with himself, handling both sides, complete with arm gestures. Just as I'm getting a touch worried, just a touch, he abruptly stops, walks back to his chair and sits down clear and composed. "You have two brothers, Jack and Sam. You have a mother," he says before pausing. "I'm too tired to describe the whole story."
Not a problem, we can skip that part. "Yeah, I would just say that it's a tough romance, um, about change. These people in a small town, trying to get out, better their lives. It's about their struggles. That doesn't mean anything. Go see the film!"
You seem tired. Should we get some coffee in? "It won't help," he says dispiritedly. Sooooooo, what's the problem? "When you asked me about Feeling Minnesota, I said it was about the human condition," notes Reeves, somewhat flustered. "And when I told you about Hamlet, it came down to 'human condition'."
That's fair, I can live with that. "Let me make a better effort about Feeling Minnesota. I have to tell you that even if my demeanour doesn't indicare it, I'm excited about playing the character. But right now, my descriptive powers aren't at their peak," he explains.
"I'll say it's like Becket meets Sam Shepherd in Minnesota in the winter. With an element of romance. Yes, there's a woman in the middle who is trapped in this small town and, uh, she's been caught stealing money from this guy named Red who is the bigwig thug crime lord. My brother is his accountant - he discovered the pilfering of the funds. So, he's forced the woman to marry him. I play his brother, coming back from prison. The woman and I look at each other, and we fall in love. And we fuck in the bathroom during her wedding banquet. And she says, 'Take me away,' and I can't. And then she goes: 'Fuck you, man. I'll do it another way.' And then in the end I come back. And I have to steal money from my brother. We fight. He bites my ear off..."
Glad we got that sorted out.
So, did he flip out when he crashed his motorbike? Or was it the curse of Hamlet? Or has Keanu Reeves always been like this? The answers to these questions are 'No,' 'No' and 'Maybe.'
But what would we rather have? A sensible Keanu Reeves? A level-headed actor heading for the control freak turf that Tom Cruise is currently living in? Surely it's better to see films where the star was once a boy who wrestled with Alice Cooper, who saw the Ramones at 17, who loves Shakespeare, who treats acting like an artform instead of an investment plan, who'll do films simply for the experience, believes in improvising as a clown, who enrages metalheads by playing Grateful Dead covers, who can go from bombs on buses to Hamlet on the stage.
If you read between the lines in how Reeves explains why he loves playing as the goalie in the graceful but brutal sport of ice hockey, then perhaps you can understand his subterranean motivations.
"For be my fey, I cannot reason," he declaims, pure Royal Shakespeare Company, before returning to the real world. "Okay, I'll put it in barbarian terms: Stop the puck. No, no. Keep the puck out of the net. It is a thrilling game. Lots of drama, lots of physical contact. Okay, okay, I'm getting into the semiotics of goal tending: the aspect of chasing the puck. Stopping a goal. Scoring a goal."