Yearning for Keanu(also published in May 1996 with pictures unlike this one under the title 'Searching for Keanu')
In which Courtney Love, Cameron Diaz, and your intrepid reporter seek access to the mind of the mercurial heartthrob
by John H. Richardson; Photography: Darren Michaels
Cameron Diaz is discussing the pitfalls of on-camera oral sex, Vincent D'Onofrio is offering his theories on acting, and Courtney Love is, well, just being Love-ly. But where in the world (or, more specifically, in Minneapolis) is Keanu Reeves? Amid the on-set madness of the romantic black comedy Feeling Minnesota, Reeves is not an easy man to find - even when he's standing right in front of you.
Just before I leave for Minneapolis and the set of Feeling Minnesota, a publicist calls to tell me I cannot talk to Courtney Love. Can't even say hello to her. It seems that taking a bath with a reporter from Vanity Fair has, at least temporarily, exhausted her taste for self-exposure. Hell, I only agreed to do this damn story to meet Courtney. Now I'm stuck doing a profile on Keanu Reeves - the professional airhead from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Who was so awful as the li'l Buddha in that wretched Bertolucci movie. Not to mention Dangerous Liaisons and the truly horrifying Bram Stoker's Dracula. Is this why I went to journalism school?
Okay, he wasn't so bad in Speed. And he was good in My Own Private Idaho. And I guess if someone put a corkscrew in my eye, I'd have to say he was pretty adorable as Ted. And I didn't go to journalism school. But still. So I get to Minneapolis on a Saturday night. It's very clean, and completely empty. I notice all these walkways connecting the buildings one story up, which is kind of strange, but put off exploring to go back to my hotel room and read the script.
It's about two brothers named Sam and Jjaks (the spelling the result of a typo on his birth certificate). They get split up by divorce prologue, and years later Jjaks - the younger, handsomer brother, played by Reeves - gets out of prison and goes to Sam's wedding, where he falls for his brother bride. It turns out that a local mobster is punishing the bride, whose name is Freddie, by forcing her to marry Sam, who has grown into a dumb and somewhat brutish adult. The mobster has also has the word SLUT tattooed on her arm.
So Jjaks and Freddie decide to run off and start new lives. When they discover that Sam has stolen tens of thousands of dollars from the mobster, Freddie realizes that she and Jjaks could start new lives even better with some of the loot, and complications ensue.
The script doesn't seem overwhelmingly great. The dialogue is pretty good, and I give the story points for not being glamorous or thrilling. (I have decided that the next person who makes a "stylish thriller" is going to have to die, preferably in the manner of his sin - I`ll make him watch Vertigo till he dies of envy).
The next morning I explore Minneapolis. Turns out those walkways are for the bitter winters, so nobody has to touch the frozen pavement. And there are stores and restaurants up there on the second level, as if the whole city were one big mall. But enough about that, right? On to the story - on to Keanu.
Reeves isn't there when I get to the set Monday morning. A camera is being set up outside a run-down diner for a shot of Sam - played by Vincent D'Onofrio, the hunky boat captain from Mystic Pizza - staring out the window. The publicist introduces me to Steven Baigelmann, who looks about 30 and has three days' worth of stubble on his face and is wearing a baseball cap that says HIGHWAY 61. Want to guess who he is?
I know, the baseball cap is a giveaway. He's the director. And also the writer. I congratulate him on stocking his first movie with such a stellar cast - which also includes Dan Aykroyd, Tuesday Weld, and the lovely Cameron Diaz. Baigelmann seems very confident, very relaxed. He turns back to arranging his setup, a tricky tracking shot involving venetian blinds, reflections of policemen, and then the close-up D'Onofrio's anxious face behind the glass. Watching D'Onofrio - who doesn't say a word, just stares at the cops with eyes so dumb and wounded that you want to give him a quarter - I start to realize that I have misread the script. Or underread it. He's not just a brute, he's a brute with a broken heart. He actually loves Freddie, so much so that he's willing to take her even as a joke, even as punishment. Which makes the joke not so funny after all.
Maybe these guys are actually trying to do something here.
At the edge of the parking lot, a small group of teenage girls watches patiently. Waiting for Keanu. As am I. The publicist says that we have to choose our moment; Keanu is a very private man. A couple of hours later, Reeves shows up, in black cords and a ratty brown suede jacket and sporting stubble on his cheeks. He's in costume. Evidently Feeling Minnesota is a grunge movie, which helps explain the casting of Courtney Love (hereafter to be known as the Bitch Who Won't Talk to Me). Unlike may actors, Reeves in person looks exactly as he does onscreen - handsome, boyish, thoughtful, a bit spacey. He stands apart from everyone else, occasionally muttering to himself. From a distance it sounds like Shakespeare.
Then Cameron Diaz arrives, her blond hair showing black roots, and soon the crew moves from the dinner to a small motel across the parking lot, where Reeves and Diaz rehearse the next scene. The setting is an empty swimming pool lined with brown leaves. It looks as if it hasn't been filled for a decade, and the little wrought-iron pink flamingos in the railing around it look particularly forlorn.
I can't really hear what Reeves and Diaz are saying. He adjusts the back of a lounge chair, then sits down. Diaz straddles him and takes a ribbon from around her neck and mimes tying it around his neck. Then she slides down and pulls on his zipper and puts her head in his lap. Hello. They laugh and start over. After they try a few more times. D'Onofrio asks me if I want to go somewhere and talk. Sure, Vince - I was just watching one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen go down on Keanu Reeves. Let's go talk.
But D'Onofrio turns out to be an extraordinarily nice guy. We walk to the lunch tent and I compliment him on his brilliant turn as the fat rookie in Full Metal Jacket - his first film performance - and ask why he chose to cut and run from Hollywood after Mystic Pizza. After all, that was his Keanu moment. "I just didn't dig it," he says. "That was when that whole brat-pack thing was happening, and I was living in the past - I wanted to do, you know. Five Easy Pieces, Midnight Cowboy, The Panic in Needle Park. I wanted to do that stuff. That's what I was working all those years to get to, and I was too late, it was all gone."
I ask about Reeves. D'Onofrio praises his acting and reminds me that Reeves was in River's Edge. And a very good performance it was. He says that Feeling Minnesota wouldn't be getting made without him. "Keanu's got it in his heart to do stuff like this. It's tough to find people that do. Young leading guys. They're doing all that Legends of the Fall kind of shit." I notice that something is distracting him. The crew is coming in for lunch. "Look at that blond over there," he says. "She must be an extra or something." He glances down at my tape recorder. "You getting all this on tape?"
D'Onofrio is so cool, I go crazy for a moment and ask him to explain acting. "Some scenes you juggle two balls, some scenes you juggle three balls, some scenes you can juggle five balls," he says. "The key is always to speak in your own voice. Speak the truth. That's Acting 101. Then you start putting layers on top of that. Let's say you do a posture that's different than your own. That's one ball. Then you get the tone. You speak in your own voice, but do you speak high or do you speak low? Does it some from the gut or does it come from the throat? So that's two. And then the emotions that you have to go through in that particular scene - that's three. And then the timing of the dialogue, so that it's funny when it's supposed to be and not when it's not - that's four. It might take one take, it might take three takes, but once you get them all going, man..."
Half an hour later, D'Onofrio and I are still chatting away when the Bitch Who Won't Talk to Me sits down and starts talking. And Talking? "You know what Steven did the other day to me? He wanted to get me, like, completely embarrassed, 'cause he's projecting that I'm this gaudy, vulgar person. He made me blush for, like, an hour. I never blush. And so I'm trying to figure out whether it's a mix of him being really clever - he wanted to get that on film, that sort of famous fucking qualities of actors - type shit - or whether he was projecting that I'm, like, fucked up?" Love's voice is a little shredded, and she has a wised-up, like-I-give-a-shit drawl. She complains about the orange waitress uniform ("I look like the most homely-ass motherfucker you've ever seen - you try acting in orange"), then notices D'Onofrio scoping out the blond and starts teasing him about his taste for angular women. "When you act, I'll be angular," she says, sucking in her cheeks.
She wants D'Onofrio to give her advice on acting. He tells her that she has to "play the role, but be yourself." "You don't have to be Courtney Love," she says. D'Onofrio tells her that she has to play herself because when you leave yourself you are pretending and it looks like bullshit.
"I'll never be angular," Love says, fixating on the blond. "I'd have to smash my jaw. She probably photographs real great."
The first thing you learn about Love is that sound bites do not adequately represent her. She tells a story about going to the opening of Wisdom years ago with "Emilio and a hundred friends of his from Malibu" and feeling so out of place and her girlfriend was so embarrassingly star-struck that Courtney ran to the bathroom and started crying and then got pissed off and swore, like something out of Gone With the Wind, "They'll never make me cry again!" and split for Minnesota after that and started her first band with Kat from Babes in Toyland, and then she and Stephen - Dorff, you know, who used to be a friend - got dressed up like twins one slow day in Tokyo, and Johnny Depp really is a nice guy, and one time when she was wasted outside the Viper Room, he and his friend took care of her and patted her, and Minneapolis is so clean "even the bums are cute," and "Brad Pitt is the Charlton Heston of the '90s," isn't that something Johnny said..?
And that was all before she took her first breath. It pours out of her in a white-water stream of consciousness full of passing references to things she understands but you don't - a characteristic that is shared by schizophrenics, visionaries, and teenagers. She is, in same basic sense, wild. Either that or she's high. But there's something that's really bothering her: "I have this one line that I have to say - 'I wouldn't give that guy one red cent.' I would never say that in a million years. I can't do it. I just can't!" "You just did," D'Onofrio points out.
"It's sounded fine," says D'Onofrio. " See, in film you can do anything that you do in life, and the audience is going to fill in what they want you to be thinking." he says.
"I wouldn't give that bastard one red cent. 'That is so fucking -"
"Just like that! And it's sold."
Love shoots a look at the angular blond. "And Grace Kelly over there?"
D'Onofrio sighs. "If Grace Kelly did it, people would fall sleep. If someone put a camera on you and you were doing anything, it would be fantastic. Because you've..."
"I've got all my lovely baggage."
He looks relieved. "So you do understand?"
"Yeah, I do understand," she answers. "Because of my persona I get away with bullshit."
By the time we get back to the set, Love has flipped me off three times, which I take as a good thing. Then Diaz arrives, screaming, "Go, Pacers!" She's wearing wader bell-bottoms, a yellow shirt, and a grungy brown leather jacket. And there's Reeves, doing warm-up exercises, breathing through his mouth. Without much fuss they resume rehearsing the poolside scene, the pivotal moment when Freddie convinces Jjaks to run away with her to Vegas... right after he goes back to get the money.
"Jjaks, come on, we're almost there," she pleads, "It's like if I close my eyes I can see us at Ceasar's. Wait till you lay your eyes on that place, it's got the biggest swimming pool in the world and all the towels smell from Downy fabric softener."
And so on, fine lumpen poetry, until Jjaks gives in and Freddie undoes his zipper and buries her head in his lap.
They rehearse, and it's impressive - a very long scene, four and a half minutes, with 30 people watching, and for the whole time they seem to be completely alone with each other. I start to think that being deeply in love, where nothing exists but the lover and the beloved, is analogous to good acting.
Then Reeves breaks into laughter and pushes at Diaz's shoulders. I think he's blushing.
With the camera running, they both put more into it. Diaz lets her jacket slip off her shoulder as she argues with him, a gesture of frustration, and when they kiss, Reeves rocks into her, burying his face between her breasts. Baigelman smiles. Then Diaz goes for Reeves's zipper.
"Okay, great," Baigelman says. He takes each of them aside and talks to them privately, and then come back and do it again. This time, Diaz grabs Reeves by the lapels, and when she sits down on him he slaps her playfully she slaps him back. Then they kiss, Reeves's feet, even though they're off-camera, are acting - lifting and twisting in a markedly Keanu-like way, at once awkward and expressive.
"I've got a woody," Baigelman says. "That'll work."
When it gets dark, we go inside the diner to shoot Courtney's Big Scene. In a moment of crisis, Sam asks her for the answer to a question: "If you had... killed two people ... and in the process had gotten almost a hundred grand, that's close to $98,000, which nobody was going to miss, you hope, and there was a stranger who was blackmailing you, would you give him a big chunk of that money you had worked so hard to get?"
That's when Love is supposed to say, "I wouldn't give the bastard one red cent."
She comes on strong in rehearsal, a cross between Bette Davis in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. She is a big personality with lots of tics, constantly touching her face and hair. Dryly, Baigelman says, "It will probably be better once they act it."
"You want to see it livelier?" Love asks.
The next rehearsal is noticeable better. Love's still making Dean look catatonic, but she's definitely "in the moment," as they say. She has this odd combination of spaciness and animal alertness. Earlier, when I complimented D'Onofrio on the acting tips he gave her, he said that "she only picked up on some of it - the part about being yourself." Which makes perfect sense - she's not really listening to everything you say, but give her something that's useful and her antennae start to twitch.
Outside, the Keanu fan club holds its vigil. Its members are patient and inexorable, like crows in a field. But Reeves is nowhere to be seen.
Tuesday morning, 7:45. Love's scene again. In the daylight, the diner is a triumph of art direction, begrunged by trompe l'oeil and detailed right down to the menu. Love seems more relaxed and less scattered than yesterday. She chain-smokes between takes. In her orange waitress costume, with plaid cuffs, yellow socks, and white clogs, she's a horror.
It's time for her close-up. She looks good on the monitor, but then she wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, another Dean shtick.
"Don't do that." Baigelman says, actually trying to brush her hand away on the monitor.
He gets up. "I think what we're going to do for the purpose of this take..."
He demonstrates: "Lean here."
"Oh good," Love squeals. "Then I get a cleavage shot. Yes!"
"'I wouldn't give the bastard one red cent' - let it be a nice moment between you two. Then you lean in, and he says, 'Can I have a doughnut?' That breaks the moment."
The next take is much better. Love's good, a real raw talent. "Excellent," says Baigelman. but he's not satisfied. "When you listen," he says, "don't play with your mouth and hair."
"What can I play with if I want to play with something? I still feel nervous."
"Don't play with your hair."
"Okay. I'll do Ally Sheedy."
"Don't do Ally Sheedy."
Later, Baigelman tries to talk her into blowing a kiss at D'Onofrio as he leaves. She says. "No, Steven. That's what a guy would do in a Camaro - in a lowrider."
They try to compromise on a wink, but Love forgets to do it. Baigelman and D'Onofrio go into a huddle and whisper, and Love gets suspicious. "This is a frat-boy set-up," she says.
And she's right. The next time they do the scene. D'Onofrio throws out some totally new dialogue: "If you killed somebody and peed all over him..."
They've been doing stuff like this all through the shoot - at one point, Baigelman told D'Onofrio to play a scene as if he were a game-show host, then hat him to do it as if he were Shirley Temple, then as if he were a game-show host and Shirley Temple combined. Love rolls with is. The fresh dialogue plunges her into the moment, and she's really alive. The line "You're so weird" comes out especially authentic.
And this time she winks.
"Excellent!" Baigelman shouts.
"Fuck you!" Love says.
Eventually, Reeves arrives. "Hi, Canoe," says Love, "Do you like my dress?"
"I do very much, actually," he answers, with his oddly touching formality.
I watch as discreetly as I can. With the crew, Reeves is gentle and soft-spoken. When he asks for coffee, he's as deferential as a monk:
"Dave, can I have some more coffee? Can you spare some?"
At lunch, Reeves stands in line with everybody else. He orders "a little spinach and a little rice." then takes his plate away in the direction of his trailer.
The Keanu Fan Club is about a hundred strong today. Suddenly one of the girls puts her hand to her mouth and cries, "There he is!"
Reeves has gone to work shooting a long shot, carrying a body to a car and putting it in the trunk. He closes the trunk, he looks around.
Then they do it again. And again.
This is not helping my story, so I start to report around him. A production assistent tells me that Reeves is gracious to everyone and so nice to his fans that he'll stand there signing autographs for half an hour. "And he sort of keeps to himself and that's kinda admirable - it's not like he needs to be the center of attention."
The Keanu Fan Club waits and watches much more patiently than, say, some journalist with a job to do . At one point, D'Onofrio waves at them and shouts: "Hey! I play Keanu's brother!" They ignore him.
Then Reeves gives them a glance, and a ripple goes through the crowd, turning it into a single mass of quivering teenflesh. One girl waves desperately, like a Baptist reaching for the Spirit.
The publicist asks me if i would like to interview Ms. Diaz.
The first thing you notice about Cameron Diaz is that she's gorgeous. But when you look at her from different angles, you see that she has a kind of Eric Roberts, broken-nose thing happening. She could be cast as Ellen Barkin's younger sister, which is a lot better than being merely gorgeous.
The surprise is that she's so young, almost girlish. And girlishly she confesses that for the last few days she's been embarrassed to show her face. "Cause I'm just not happy about my performance," she says, acting pouty to make fun of herself.
What, in the blow-job scene? (I'm trying to make her comfortable, you understand.)
"Yeah, the blow-job scene," she answers. "The blow-job part, I don't care, you know. It's not for real."
But it is tough scene.
"It is tough scene, and plus my character has been beaten up and shot down, thrown into cars, and had guns stuck to her head. Then you have to get into it and try to be kind and honest and love" - she erupts on a waterfall of laughter. "It's really hard."
We talk for a while about the complexities of playing a person with some good and some bad motives. Then she talks about turning down "arm-candy" roles for more challenging, career-building work. "It was my intention to find something that was going to help me get another job, and have people say, 'Okay, we are going to recognize her as an actress, not a model or just a pretty girl or - how does Courtney put it? A fuck doll?"
Diaz practices her future interviews with me. How did she get into Feeling Minnesota?
"The girl they had cast dropped out."
And who was that girl?
She answers without hesitation: "Gwyneth Paltrow."
And when I ask about her acting approach: "I have no idea what I'm doing half the time. I'm just completely out there, just blind. I feel like somebody put a blindfold on me and shoved me out there, you know?"
This girl is a true media virgin, a baby chick staggering around helplessly in my hard journalistic rain. Clearly, this is my chance to get the goods on the cover boy. So I ask her to tell me abaout her love scenes with Reeves.
She tells me that on her first day she had to shoot a scene in which she screws Reeves in a bathroom. "'That was, like, 'Hi, my name is Cameron, let's fuck.'"
More of that laughter. "But Keanu and I get along well. He's a strange cat but he's a cool guy. We definitely have a good...".
In what sense a strange cat, I ask.
"He's just - he's Keanu. He's in his head a lot. He comes on and he goes off, and you just try to get in front of him and be the target and then you try to duck out of the way. I don't know how to explain it to you... But he us a very sweet guy. He's got a heart of gold."
Meanwhile, I keep up the Keanu watch. At one point, the Most Holy One drips some orange stuff into a bottle of water, so I gather up my courage and I ask him what it is. "It's echinacea and goldenseal," he says. Taken to ward off colds.
You heard it here first.
Finally, the publicist escorts me to Keanu's trailer, and he comes outside to join me for a bit on a pair of folding chairs. The first thing you notice about Reeves is that he is very polite. Most of the time he stares at the ground. But when he gets involved in an answer, he gets intense, and his hands twist and gesture, and he flashes his beautiful face at you - which is what he does now, talking about the movie.
"It's such a yearning piece," he says. "There's so much yearning for love, and it's everybody's fucked-up interpretations of how to love and the primal impulse for love and also the dreams." he goes on like this for paragraphs.
At other times, Reeves says almost nothing. He is one ot those rare people who can answer a question and just stop - not a bullshitter.
At one point I ask, casually, if he and D'Onofrio have developed into friends. "Umm...into friends...," he says. "I don't know. I don't know." And stops.
Reeves is almost aggressively modest. He says that he considered his first meeting with Baigelman and DeVito an audition, emphasizing later that he was expecting to read. He's effusive in his praise for his fellow actors and for the director and the script. I tell him that I've als noticed the way he acts with the crew and the fans, and ask if he's making a conscious effort to stay normal.
"Yeah, most definitely," he says, "'cause I am normal. So any other kind of perception is, uh, is a lie. And it just leads to... madness. And I'm just very grateful to have the opportunity to work, and I'm grateful for people who like it, and so I'm paying respect. As much as I can. Some days I can't, you know. Some days I... I can't."
He's not exactly tortured about this, but he is soemwhat grave. Solemn. He admits to being a loner, to staying in his head a lot, to having a fondness for what they call in Hollywood "edgy, dark material." But he spurns the opportunity to deny Bill & Ted or the ongoing excellence for which it stands. "Making the first one, especially, was some of the best days of my life. And I'm very proud of the work in the piece and I'm proud of the film. And so that's where I left it. And keep it with me."
Note the thoughtful self-editing: He doesn't want to say he left it behind, because it could be misinterpreted, so he salvages it with a nice turn. "You know, I'm just trying to be a working actor," he concludes.
We talk about his work on Little Buddha, and he seems quite knowledgeable and enthusiastic when talking about Buddhism: "I met some Rinpoche and I read up on Siddhartha and read some commentaries, and I was just practicing very basic meditation for a while just to see what it would do to me, and studying bodhisattva vows, and stuff like that. Mostly thinking about the four noble truths and positing no self - no ego, the fourfold path."
This seems appropriate. People often mention his monklike quality. But Reeves also has a goofy side. He does a good Indian accent and a good Vinnie, and when I ask him if he plans to continue alternating between studio pictures and indies, he laughs, "If I'm a lucky man," then raps his knuckles against his head. "Knock on wood!"
Unlike many actors, he doesn't really want to be known. "Well, hopefully my work will be," he says. "I'm not really concerned about anybody in a peripheral aspect having to know me. At all. I mean, hopefully the work will... hopefully people will enjoy and get something out of my acting what I act in, and the rest is...life and friends and family."
So the fact that people may think you're just a dumb actor doesn't bother you?
"Um, no, not really."
How can you let go like that?
"I have to, man. If I take it too personally, then, again, that way madness lies."
Reeves is being very cooperative, but I don't feel I'm really getting him. There's something elusive about him. In desperation, I fall back on the old making-friends standby: What are your favorite books and records? "Oh man," he says, unhappily. "I don't know why, but I'm not going to answer the question. I don't feel like I really, uh..."
But he stops himself, not wanting to offend. "Oh, let's see, what do I answer? Favorite records and books? I remember as a kid really liking Dostoyevski's The Idiot. And Fugazi and John Coltrane. And, uh, painters... some of the portraits of Egon Schiele. And...you can go on forever. I can't - I'm not going to pick favorites."
I leave the trailer after an hour, admiring Reeves. He really does seem to be decent, thoughful, and real. And I'm ashamed of being such a snot about him before. But later, when I look at the transcript of the interview, they seem surprisingly flat. At one point my transcriber has written in the margin: "I wonder if you can tell from the transcript how funny and adorable he is."
So I put the tapes back on, and Reeves comes back to life. And I realize that he's not a star because he's a bright and decent young man. He's s star because of his presence. The way he is onscreen, with that odd formal dignity, the air of decency, the way he cocks his head in puzzlement at the world - that's how he is in life. And he has that quality of acceptance that made Ted so sweet, that makes teenage girls dream of cuddling him, that made Bertolucci think of Buddha. The rest of us - D'Onofrio included, although he's certainly the more versatile actor - are more or less adequately representable. But Keanu is just Keanu. That's what they mean when they say an actor "jumps off the screen." He has an aura, a strong flavor; he is the tea leaves, we are the tea. The magic is probably abscure even to him, which is one reason actors suffer, but it's clear enough to the A-list directors who have wanted to work with him. And it is clear to me too, now that I've had the chance to see him in person. So I am glad that I came, and glad that I got to see them all, Vincent and Cameron and Steven and the rest, working so hard to put some life up on the screen. And I promise that I'll never say the words that dumb actor again. And that I'll always be ready to feel Minnesota...
But before we go, let's meet the Keanu fan club, who have waited so patiently. Caroline wears black polish on her nails. Keesha is black, but her hair is blond. Ann's dressed down in an oversize gold shirt. They are fourteen, fifteen, and fifteen, respectively. They've been waiting about three hours. And this is because...
"He's cute!" says Keesha.
"He's sexy," says Caroline.
"He has a nice butt," says Ann.
But doesn't it get boring?
"Not with him around," Caroline sighs.
Even when he's so far away?
"He's there," Caroline says. "It's just the thought that he's there."