Hunk on a motorcycle
Keanu Reeves is in town with his rock group, Dogstar. Everybody wants him - girls and gays - but is it a case of great body, shame about the brain?
by Adam Sweeting
Not even Keanu Reeves's best friends think his rock group, Dogstar, is much good, but that hasn't hindered it. It has been the support band for David Bowie and Bon Jovi; it is touring Europe - this week in England - and it is about to release a debut CD-Rom single, a four-track effort called Quattro Formaggi. Keanu explains that Dogstar plays "like, folk music. Folk thrash, maybe? But not quite thrash". Yo dude! But it could copy Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass and it wouldn't make a blind bit of difference. Even though Keanu only plays bass, and lurks diffidently in the shadows at the back of the stage, his presence ensures success in the one area that really counts - the group gets loads of girls in the gigs, panting for the sexiest man in Hollywood.
Reeves has been called a lot of things - "Hollywood's grooviest airhead" and "something of a puzzle when it comes to the IQ department". As a teenager, he was nicknamed The Wall, not only because of his ice-hockey goal-keeping technique but because that's what he was like to talk to. There's a suspicion that he is the classic himbo, with to-die-for bone structure, a perfectly toned physique and the brains of a polystyrene Donald Duck. But when he walks in the room, objectivity dives out of the window. One female interviewer described that magic moment. "A gangly six-footer... motorcycle gloves hang out of the back pocket of his oil-stained Levis. He walks all hunched and has a five -day growth of beard. He's sexy as hell."
Even when Keanu has a go at Shakespeare, people only want to talk about his physical allure. Kenneth Branagh cast Reeves in his film of Much Ado About Nothing in 1993, and was fully alive to Keanu's box-office magnetism. "You can't quite get close to him, he is somehow unattainable," said Ken. "That makes him very, very attractive. Yet he seems to display all the qualities one would want: a very sexy, erotic, physical being." In case anybody had somehow missed the point, Branagh dressed Keanu in leather trousers. "I'd pay money to see Keanu Reeves in leather trousers, and I think a lot of people would as well," said the actor/director honestly.
A lot of people did. Reeves has become a top earner because his appeal cuts across age and gender - as much a gay pin-up as a traditional teen idol - - and he exudes a mysterious spiritual quality that gives him a New Age edge over prehistoric hunks like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even when he plays action-hero roles, as in Speed, Keanu convinces you that he could only blow holes in somebody in a caring, complicated sort of way.
He has become famous for interviews in which he mixes non-sequiturs with mystical gibberish, and for being bafflingly incoherent on TV chat shows. Maybe we should be grateful for an actor who doesn't lecture about saving the rain forest. Perhaps there's more to Keanu Reeves than he lets on. Maybe he's playing a long and sophisticated game.
Sheila Johnston has written a new unauthorised biography of our hero, entitled Keanu, due out in August. She found her subject a fiendishly difficult man to pin down. "None of the interviews with him have been terribly revealing," she explains. "But he's a really interesting guy because he's got a huge constituency of fans. There's the teenage lot. He's got a big gay following, and he's also popular with older women." Keanu's dazed demeanour as an interviewee might have been designed to communicate the sense of a beautiful boy who just can't cope. But you can't help feeling that you don't become one of the biggest box-office draws by accident. Keanu is determined to make himself a better and more versatile actor. "I talked to quite a few directors who'd worked with him, and they said he's a real perfectionist," Johnston adds. "He gets really angry with himself when he's not satisfied with what he does."
Keanu isn't the first actor to want to be taken, uh, seriously. He was in Romeo And Juliet in Toronto in the mid-eighties (he spent teenage years in Toronto, where he attended Performance Arts High School) and in 1989 he appeared in The Tempest in Lenox, Massachusetts. More widely reviewed was his season as Hamlet at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg last year: as the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland put it, "he was great when he was a movie star, and ropey when he was just plain acting".
But Keanu's qualities are good enough for some highly-regarded movie auteurs. Francis Ford Coppola cast him in Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Bernardo Bertolucci was convinced that nobody else would do for his 1993 film, Little Buddha. That was much less great than its own ambitions, but it's hard to imagine anybody better suited to the role of Siddhartha, the Nepalese prince who believed that "the middle way is the path to enlightenment" and became Buddha, "the awakened one". The story's child-like wonderment and laid-back values were pure Keanu. (His name does mean "cool breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian.) " Keanu is exotic," says British Film Institute chairman Jeremy Thomas, who produced Little Buddha. "He has a look that could be translated into Siddhartha. But I can't really tell you too much about him, except that I enjoyed working with him and would like to again."
Thomas does detect purpose and self-determination in Reeves's career. "I think he's a maturing actor, and he's going to do some beautiful work in the future. He chooses his work, and he's a self -contained person. He chose not to make Speed II, which I think was brave and right. It shows who he is, strongly. And he likes motorcycles, which is OK with me."
Like Keanu, he has a British-built Norton motorbike (Keanu has two, a '72 Combat Norton and a '74 Commando). Let's hope Thomas doesn't fall off as often as Reeves parts company with his, with near -fatal results. He carries scars all over his body from crashes, most noticeably the prominent one which runs from the lower part of his chest down to his navel, the legacy of an accident so gruesome that Keanu had to have his spleen removed. He often tells the story of how he was hit by a car while riding around Los Angeles and somersaulted through the air. A few weeks ago he did it again, hitting another vehicle on Sunset Boulevard and ending up with a broken ankle and severe facial bruising.
You'd think prudence, and cosmic insurance premiums, might have persuaded him to switch to something four-wheeled (a growly, low-slung Austin-Healey would surely suit Sir to a T), but semioticians might explain his love. Spinning boldly along the open road, his unhelmeted hair flying, Keanu is able to express his questing free spirit, and he must be familiar with that classic text, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. And riding big, powerful motorbikes is a macho boy's thing, giving Keanu's forays into the action-adventure genre some real-life ballast. Cynics would also probably scoff that Reeves is too dumb to realise the dangers.
Cod psychologists would have us believe that Keanu's restless, risky approach to his career stems from a peripatetic upbringing, and the painful legacy of his drug-addict father, Samuel, who's currently serving a 10-year jail sentence for possession of cocaine and heroin. Keanu was born in Beirut in 1964, and inherited his looks from the Chinese-Hawaiian Samuel and his British-born wife, Patricia. The family were comfortably off, thanks to money inherited from Samuel's stepfather, and soon moved to Australia, but after bitter rows about drug-taking, Samuel walked out. Patricia later moved to New York, and then took her family to Toronto when Keanu was seven.
She remarried several times - and Keanu has two younger sisters, Kim and Karina. Despite tabloid attempts to portray him as from a broken home, his ties with his mother and sisters remain close. Patricia will come to see him perform onstage, while he has been quietly helping Kim cope with a leukaemia-like condition, and sends her flowers every week.
Reeves's film career looks haphazard but the roles he has chosen often reflect some aspect of himself. He's acutely conscious of the danger of Hollywood stereotyping. "All I know is I want to work with passionate people," he said, around the time of Point Break. "I want to work with a script that has something to say. I don't want to get too far away from the street. I don't want to be stuck in a Hollywood kind of product machine. There's no way I can control how someone's going to interpret what I do. The only thing I can do is control what I involve myself in."
There was some genuine essence of Keanu in his performance as the dimwitted Valley boy Ted Logan in Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure. The physical Keanu who loves motorbikes and ice-hockey surfaces in Speed. In Parenthood, he was entirely believeable (and funny) as the slacker squiring Martha Plimpton.
He wasn't quite so believeable in Stephen Frears's Dangerous Liaisons, but the idea of him as an innocent, ardent young lover probably seemed like a good idea at the time. And then there was his Scott Favor in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho. Reeves's character was a rich kid, slumming it in the rent boy underworld, buddying up with River Phoenix. The movie was fatally sabotaged by its cringe-evoking reworking of Henry IV Part One, with Keanu as Prince Hal, but the theme of drifting youth won it cult status, and the homoerotic bond between Reeves and Phoenix did wonders for Keanu's gender-crossing appeal.
The Is Keanu Gay? question became a major preoccupation among Keanu-watchers last year, when the bizarre rumour that Reeves had "married" record industry mogul David Geffen flashed around the globe. The origin of this was probably a case of mistaken identity, but Keanu's diffuse reponse to questions about his sexuality helped keep the story alive. "There's nothing wrong with being gay, so to deny is to make a judgment," Keanu told Vanity Fair, with impeccable political correctness. His comment to the same interviewer that he'd never had a male sexual experience in his life didn't make it into print.
For the future, it looks as if he plans to strike a balance between big mainstream pictures like the forthcoming Chain Reaction, and low-budget, left-field work like Feeling Minnesota and The Last Time I Committed Suicide. Despite his fondness for motorcycles, and rumours that he has flirted with hard drugs, you can't imagine him ending up prematurely dead and unfulfilled, like his friend River Phoenix. According to one American writer, "under his much-publicised ditzy vagueness is a very secure actor who knows what he wants". Not that he'd ever admit it.