Movies' mystery man: Quizzing Reeves
by Elizabeth Snead
Keanu Reeves' nickname as a teen-age hockey player in Toronto was "The Wall."
In interviews, his old moniker holds fast. Word among reporters is that Reeves' M.O. for avoiding personal probes is to play dumb - as dumb as his breakthrough character in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure - and mutter "I don't know."
During an interview to promote his new film, Chain Reaction (opening Friday), the 31-year-old, cocoa-eyed six-footer is happy to discuss Reaction's eco-chic plot, which involves the multifarious conspiracies that develop after the discovery of a clean, cheap energy source.
But ask a personal question and sure enough, he goes blank and says, "I don't know." In fact, he says it a lot.
Like Speed, which shoved Reeves to megastar status, Reaction is an action-suspense flick - lots of running, jumping and climbing punctuated by explosions. Reeves trained hard for Speed, but this time he didn't lift a pinky.
"I wanted to look kind of heavy, had my hair long and greasy, a little bit of a beard. Even the way I run, I tried to make it like someone who doesn't run much."
At a seaside resort, Reeves, looking natty in a baggy gray suit and T-shirt, with shorter, cleaner hair and less of a double chin than in the film, explains the inexplicable: Why he turned down a reported $11 million for Speed 2.
"I was lucky I could afford to make that decision and make an artistic choice, as opposed to a monetary choice. If I was broke, I don't know what I would have done. It would have been even harder."
Will he ever regret it?
"No, I'll never second-guess that decision, because I'm happy."
As the interview takes the inevitable personal turn, Reeves gets antsy. He avoids eye contact, shuffles his feet and squirms in his chair like a kid called to the principal's office.
Asked to respond to words used to describe him, he snaps: "Oh, you want to play a game?"
He slams himself back in his chair. His gaze goes blank, his monotone voice falling even flatter. Why, he's channeling Ted!
Introspective? "Yeah, sure, of course. It's part of me."
Enigmatic? "That's something exterior. I have no idea."
Curious? "Yes. I'm a very curious person."
A risk-taker? "Sometimes."
A nomad? "Yeah, I'm pretty itinerant."
Vulnerable? "Sometimes. It depends. Certainly I'm less vulnerable than when I was 5."
Who's your best friend? "Who's my best friend?" he repeats, looking as horrified as if he'd been asked the size of his sex organs. "You want me to tell you names? I don't have a best friend. I have a few close friends."
Earliest childhood memory? "My - Uh... I don't know."
He's got no childhood memory after being born Sept. 2, 1964, in Beirut to what he calls "bohemian" globe-trotter parents, a Hawaiian-Chinese dad and British mom?
"No, I don't." He clears his throat, lights a cigarette and exhales a loud cloud. "Are you trying to get a personal profile?" he barks, exasperated. When it's explained that an interview requires a few personal queries, he turns condescending. "I see. Some broad strokes."
Broad strokes on Reeves are that his name in Hawaiian means "cool breeze over the mountains." He decided to become an actor, moved from Toronto to L.A. at age 17 and landed his first film role at age 21 in River's Edge.
It was his dim dude in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure that propelled him to fame in 1989. He was so convincing as stoner Ted that the identity stuck.
"I've got fairly expressive mannerisms, and sometimes my vernacular is kinda wacky," he says, trying to explain why. "That's my idea of it, those two things."
When you review his 24 films, it seems he picks roles that let him explore various aspects of life and perhaps reflect parts of himself. He's been young Siddhartha in Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha, a lovestruck suitor in Dangerous Liaisons, a male prostitute in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, an FBI agent in Point Break, a hapless Jonathan Harker in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, a romantic hero in A Walk in the Clouds, a brain-implanted infochip courier in Robert Longo's Johnny Mnemonic and, to critics' initial amusement, even Hamlet on stage in Winnipeg, Manitoba, for scale - $2,000 a week.
He loves his two Norton motorcycles but has had several crashes. Today he's hobbling, two weeks out of a cast for a broken right leg, a thick scab snaking down his shin.
When not acting, he plays bass in a rock/pop band called Dogstar with two pals. They just finished touring Europe and Japan. Their first album, Our Little Visionary, comes out this fall, and they've just released a four-song interactive CD called Quattro Formaggi.
At the moment, there is no chez Keanu. It suits him to live in hotels for months, often wherever he's filming.
"Your bed gets made and your room gets clean. I miss my books, some of my belongings that are in storage."
He has not been involved, at least to press notice, with female co-stars such as Sandra Bullock or Martha Plimpton. He has said his longest relationship with a woman was two years. In 1995, rumors said Reeves had secretly wed openly gay Hollywood billionaire David Geffen, a man Reeves says he never met until recently, at the opening of an L.A. play.
"I told him I want half" (of his assets), Reeves deadpans.
Still, rumors of his ambiguous sexuality flourish. To the suggestion that his refusal to set the record, er, straight only feeds the rumors: "I don't know why anyone cares, and I don't know if it matters or not. I just, uh, I don't - "
"It's, you know, the whole aspect of coming out. I mean there is a whole, people, you know, who are gay (who) have decided that it can be - that whole thing about calling people out - and you have to share that, because there needs to be an equality and a lack of prejudice, and you need to have a voice, so I mean, it's important, but I'm not involved in those dynamics and I have no point of view on it."
Reeves was close to River Phoenix (his Idaho co-star), who died in 1993 from a drug/alcohol overdose. It has been rumored the two tried hard drugs to research their roles.
Reeves has a curious take on the recent surge in heroin use. "Heroin goes in and out of fashion. It is numbing. And when you stop feeling, you can't feel other people's pain, and you lose compassion and you cause pain.
"I wouldn't suggest it (heroin) for a politician or clergy, but it is an environment that has created some great music and art. I don't think George Washington was snorting dope. If you want to be a leader or something, it's not the best thing in the world."
He pauses. "But abuse of anything will take you down."
Does he worry he might have inherited his dad's reported tendency to abuse drugs? (Reeves' long-estranged father was arrested in Hawaii last summer with a shipment of heroin and cocaine. He was sentenced to 10 years for promoting a dangerous drug.)
"I have no idea. I don't know. I don't know." Reeves clears his throat and says: "I do not know the quotients." In a British accent.
Is he quoting someone? "Me. Just me."
Reeves' next film, Devil's Advocate, is a moral allegory/horror picture. He plays a lawyer who helps free a guilty child molester.
"I become morally suspect. I compromise and compromise, and there's this battle, a path of your life, the actions that you do, your internal moral makeup and how you can compromise that for ambition.
"Gradually the evil entices and seduces me. I lose everything I love and believe in, until there's a moment where you have to make a choice. Do you go all the way? Do you sell your soul for power and love of money?"
So. Do you?
For the first time, Reeves smiles. But he still says, "Oh, I don't know. I don't know. I don't know."