Don't call me Dude, Dude
Despite a string of arthouse movies - one of them directed by Bertolucci - and a month spent in Winnipeg starring as Hamlet, Keanu Reeves still can't shed his most excellent air head image. "What's a key ring?" he asks Jeff Dawson. It's a ring you keep your keys on...
by Jeff Dawson
There's something rather endearing about Keanu Reeves. He's like that kid at school you could gleefully take the mick out of, secure in the knowledge he'd never in a million years turn round and belt you one. Not that he wasn't able to - Reeves, a keen ice hockey player could probably hold his own if it came to fisticuffs - but because he was just, well, too good-natured to let it bother him.
The Keanu Reeves story is well known by now: grew up in Canada; Hawaiian/Chinese father; name means "cool breeze over the mountains"; lives out of a suitcase; gigs in a band called Dogstar. All contributing factors as to why, seven years after he first took the role, he still remains in the public consciousness as the big lug from Bill and Ted. Brad and Johnny make "proper" films. Keanu merely tries to - his Shakespeare fixation perceived as a vain attempt to gain credibility beyond the shaggy, Valley-speak airhead so many believe him to be.
Never mind that some of the finest directors - Bertolucci, Kasdan, Coppola, Frears - have hand-picked him for their projects, or that his biggest grossing film to date, Speed, had him pegged for a while as the movies' hottest action hero. Keanu Reeves is a soft target. So much so that in recent months, the US supermarket tabloids have even jumped in on the action, speculating, with impunity, as to whether the poor bloke's a friend of Dorothy...
When I first met Reeves at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993, in a room full of people, he was a tad shy, and in some ways seeking legitimacy. Much Ado About Nothing, the film he was promoting, was an attempt at something serious, and with head bowed and lank hair obscuring face, he was concerned, amid the arthouse jet set, that people weren't taking him seriously. At one point, upset at being ribbed about his English accent in Bram Stoker's Dracula, he even got up to perform a few lines from that movie, while Denzel Washington, at the next table, looked on in bemusement - try suggesting that Denzel do a turn for you, and you'd probably be faced with an excessive dental bill.
Today, in Beverly Hills, on his own turf and very much in private, Reeves is a chatty bloke. A diamond geezer. In the squeaky clean sterility of a five-star hotel suite, he looks out of place in his scruffy jeans, T-shirt and what seems to be a variety of haircuts merged into one. He doesn't look like someone an army of Armani-suited studio types should be clucking and fussing over. Reeves knows this all too well, and after shutting the door on them, springs back across the room with a jaunt that suggests, "Don't worry, mate, I think this film star stuff's a load of bollocks, too."
We are here to discuss his latest movie, A Walk In The Clouds, a gentle, romantic comedy, and the first American film from Mexican director Alfonso Arau (Like Water For Chocolate), and though Reeves seems remarkably more relaxed than two years before, his penchant for acting out bits of his own movies remains unabated.
I tell him that at the screening I saw recently, women were blubbing - always a sign that a romantic film has hit its mark. "Blubbing?" he says, somewhat perplexed. "What's blubbing?" Crying... at the bit where Paul (Reeves), an honest, married chap, must resist the advances of the very comely Victoria (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon). "I want you, Victoria. I want you so bad," coos Reeves, hamming it up. "You don't know how much - but I can't."
A Walk In The Clouds, a period piece set in the 40s, sees Reeves, a returning G.I., pose as the husband of a pregnant Mexican girl (Sanchez-Gijon) so she will not dishonour her family. It's a sweet, innocent film, that, despite getting silly towards the end, has its heart in the right place. Set in the vineyards of California's Napa Valley and on the estate of a Mexican family (implausibly) cut off from the outside world, it has a dreamy, European feel (indeed, it's a remake of the 1942 Italian film Quattro Passi Fra Le Nuvole). It's is the first character (with the possible exception of Much Ado's Don John) Reeves has played who is not merely, as they say in Point Break, "young, dumb and full of come".
"It's formal and stylised," says Reeves, puring himself a glass of mineral water, "but I liked that. I like the time it takes for some of the intimacy, the time it takes for them to kiss. It's different from the usual Hollywood fare."
That's a good point, but not even an innocent flick like this can divert from "fair game" time, with one British girls' magazine insisting that 31-year-old Keanu was forced by the director to hone his sloppy kissing technique (he's a four out of six) by watching Kevin Costner videos. Where on earth do they get that stuff?
"Dude, I wish I knew... because I'd go there and I'd say, 'What were you thinking?' No, he didn't get me any Kevin Costner videos to watch." That same magazine, I point out, also had a free Keanu Reeves key ring taped to its cover.
"A key ring, what's a key ring?" asks Reeves.
It's a ring you keep your keys on.
"With me on it? It's a wacky world..."
The fact that Reeves uses worlds like "dude" only perpetuates the image. "It was not my acting that gave me the repuation, but my press," he explains. "I'm a pretty wacky, goofy guy and I think I've been chastised by my personality, pigeonholed because of who I am or who they perceive me to be, or the way that I was. I make excellent good short copy because I use worlds like excellent."
Which is a shame, because a flip through the Reeves back catalogue reveals a pretty eclectic list. Not least in the past couple of years which have seen Much Ado About Nothing, Little Buddha, Speed, Johnny Mnemonic and the forthcoming Feeling Minnesota all added to the CV.
"Yeah, in the past two years I've been working pretty hard. I feel like I've accomplished a lot and just had a good time."
In A Walk In The Clouds he even gets to share a few scenes with the venerable Anthony Quinn, a recent father at the age of 78.
"He's quite a bon vivant," laughs Reeves. "He's a stud. He told me a bit about Gary Cooper because I was watching Gary Cooper films for research. On set they had an old Hollywood glamour magazine and he was like, 'I knew her and her and her', and I'd ask questions about Kate Hepburn and everyone... Sometimes he would just break into song."
Under the influence?
"Under the influence of Dionysus."
I tell Reeves I am fresh from a marathon stint of watching nearly all of his films on video, a task not nearly as painful as it sounds.
"What did you think?" he asks eagerly. "I think they're good films. I like the films that I've had a chance to act in."
Well, last night there was Little Buddha.
It is actually and, despite the hokey Seattle-based stuff, the bits with Reeves in and the retelling of the Siddhartha legend are, to put it one way, enlightening.
"When I come out of the gates, I look like Cleopatra," he gushes. "It was great fun to act in."
And yesterday afternoon there was River's Edge, a film I hadn't seen for years. Neither, it seems, has he.
"It's great," he enthuses. "How does it stand up? Is it dated?" If anything, Reeves' breakthrough performance, as a bumbling high-schooler, party to a small-town murder, has probably even more relevance in post-OJ America than it did when it first came out in 1986. Reeves agrees.
"And Dennis Hopper's great in that, too... 'Ate so much pussy my beard was like a glazed doughnut'...hahahahaha."
These two movies represnt the two main categories of the Keanu Reeves canon, "arthouse" and "airhead", with films such as My Own Private Idaho, Much Ado About Nothing and Dangerous Liaisons filed under one, and the two Bill and Teds, Parenthood, I Love You To Death and, possibly, Bram Stoker's Dracula under the other.
Hold on, you may say. Isn't it highly pretentious to intellectualise about the Reeves oeuvre in such a way? It is. But try telling that to administrators at the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, California, who last year launched a drama course to supplement its studies on Fassbinder, Pasolini and Godard - The Films of Keanu Reeves.
"He has a peculiar detachment that doesn't allow for the kind of relationship you have with a traditional method actor," says instructor Stephen Prina, a man who, quite possibly, has a degree in Mickey Mouse.
Whether Reeves actually warrants a college course is open to conjecture, but the folks in Pasadena have got a point, and if one is going to get even more analytical, then the arrival of last year's Speed added another column to the carrer breakdown: "action hero". Reeves, of course, has already hinted at his credentials in 1991's Point Break.
"I'm an FBI agent...excellent," he mocks, now firmly hooked on his soundbite analysis.
Surely the huge success of Speed and the way he fitted into the role of Jack Traven so well must have put pressure on him to do Speed 2?
"Yes, they'd like it to happen," says Reeves. "I met with Jan (de Bont, Speed's director) and he had some ideas, but I haven't heard anything. If it was a great script, I'd do it, but we'd have to push it, reinvent it. It couldn't just be the same thing again... Have you seen Die Hard 3? Ugh, ugh, ugh. Ouch."
Which serves as a reminder that with Brucie, Arnie, Sly and Seagal hurtling towards their 50s, the young action hero mould would seem to be his if he wanted it. Reeves disagrees.
"There's Jean-Claude Van Damme. Lots of people are doing it now. Even Denzel Washington is doing that gig. Everybody's doing it. I've done it. The success of Speed has worn off and Johnny Mnemonic bombed."
Indeed, Johnny Mnemonic - or Johnny Moronic as it swiftly became dubbed in the US before it disappeared without trace - does not sit easily with Reeves. An awful movie adapted from the cult "cyberpunk" novel by William Gibson, it again pitched him into an action scenario, making him run around with microchip storage space in his bonce, yelling lines about his "brain overloading" and his "head hurting" and all the other things Keanu critics find highly amusing.
"It's not the vision that William Gibson and (director) Robert Longo and I had," says Reeves, a little agitated for the first time. "It's been recut. TriStar, they wanted to make an action picture out of it. They did a pretty good job, but it's not the film we shot. For three-and-a-half months I was playing a guy who didn't want his memory back, and six months later I do a scene - the very first scene in the film - that says, 'I want it all back.' It's a very different movie. But it's their gig. They paid for it."
A better bet might have been the hotly anticipated, er, Heat, alongside Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, which he was offered but had to decline. Because in January of this year, Reeves packed his suitcase - the one he's lived out of for the 11 years he's been in LA - and upped sticks to the backwater of Winnipeg, Canada, for a 24-day stint at the Manitoba Theatre Centre, playing Hamlet for the Actors' Guild minimum.
"I love the play, I love acting in Shakespeare, it's the best part in Western drama and I found a theatre that was gonna let me play it," he laughs, seeking no more justification than that.
While the folks back in LA had a good old chortle - "slacker-on-Avon", that sort of thing - the honest burghers of Winnipeg went into a state of Shakespeare frenzy: the local newspapter launching a special "Keanu hunt"; the bookstores selling out of all things Bard-related; and a line of screaming teenage girls braving temperatures of minus 20 for several hours in order to get tickets. Heck, for opening night, even the local dignitaries turned out in full Ruritanian plumage.
"I met a number of people who had never seen a play before, who said it's one of the most special events that's happened in their life, and that's right on, you know," he enthuses. "I'll say one thing about our production - and I don't care what you think about my Hamlet - you could hear it, it made sense, it wasn't abstract, it wasn't convoluted or sensationalistic. Everyone had their place in the play and it all made sense."
Indeed, Reeves isn't the only one to think so. Sunday Times theatre critic Roger Lewis - who should know his onions - vouched that Reeves is "one of the top three Hamlets I've seen", a hell of a compliment.
"That was kind of him," responds Reeves. "What was great was that he had seen more than one performance. It wasn't just opening night..."
It was while playing the Prince that something did, if you must, go rotten in the state of Denmark. Having never let go of a throwaway remark Reeves made in a 1990 issue of Interview magazine (Q: "Are you gay or what?" A: "No...but you never know"), the American tabloids insisted that the theatrical experience north of the border had got to Reeves and that he'd eloped with a male ballet daner, a rumour swiftly forgotten when an even bigger bombshell dropped, a piece of Hollywood fiction pretty much on a level with the legendary, apocryphal Richard Gere/gerbil interface tale...
"That I was married to David Geffen," Reeves interjects. "That's pretty stupid. That's pretty out there, man. Way out there. Way out there. That's like being married to a Martian! I don't really read popular magazines, so I don't come into contact with it much. My friend said, 'Are you married, haha?' I was like, 'No. Why?' Then she told me what was going on." (Geffen, the only openly gay Hollywood mogul, was pretty quick to quash the story, too. "I hear I'm supposed to be married to Keanu Reeves," he told Time magazine soon after. "I've never met or laid eyes on him.")
So, who on earth starts these rumours?
"Probably the same person that said I was taking kissing lessons from a Kevin Costner video," he chuckles...
Such idle tittle-tattle will be ignored while Reeves gets on with his immediate acting assignments which include adding a few scenes ("it's frustrating") to the noir-ish black comedy Feeling Minnesota (With Vincent D'Onofrio and Cameron Diaz), a film that officially wrapped months ago. And then he'll look at another biggie, Dead Drop, which he's scheduled to do for Fugitive director Andrew Davis.
"So far it's more of an idea than a script," he laughs. "Only in Hollywood... We've got everybody hired, we know when, we just don't know what. I think it's gonna be a thriller."
Whatever slings and arrows must be sufferd along the way, Reeves has other means of channelling his aggression. First, he has his trusty Norton motorbikes and then he plays bass with semi-legendary folk rock band Dogstar ("We've become more poppy. Folk pop," he corrects).
In fact, just four days before, Reeves and the boys returned from a tour in Japan ("Hello Tokyo!" he joshes in his finest Spinal Tap). There are LA gigs lined up, too, though the suggestion that punters come as much to ogle him as they do to listen brings swift admonishment.
"I do it for kicks, but I want our music to be good and I want to play well," he insists. "If people pay, I want it to be fucking worth their time."
So you hide behind an amplifier?
"No, I'm standing there, bro'," concludes Keanu Reeves. "The singer says it's like playing to a sea of left ears..."