by Sarah Bewley
(Chris Nickson is the author of the book KEANU REEVES, published by St. Martin's Press. Although I cannot recommend the book due to its inaccuracies, I found Mr. Nickson to be a very pleasant person. I believe it was his intention to write a positive book about Keanu Reeves the actor. This interview was conducted on August 12, 1996. - inkhuldra)
Sarah Bewley: In terms of your background, are you the Chris Nickson that does music reviews?
Chris Nickson: That's me.
SB: And you also wrote a biography of Mariah Carey called "Her Story."
CN: Yeah, and a book on Soundgarden and a book on Brad Pitt, a book on Rikki Lake.
SB: So you specialize in doing these little biographical books?
CN: Yeah, I'm expanding a little bit. What I'm working on right now is a much longer biography of Emma Thompson.
SB: In this biography, from what I can gather from having read it through a couple of times, it doesn't appear to me that you ever actually spoke with Reeves himself.
CN: That's true.
SB: Did you speak with anyone who knows him? I couldn't gather from this what interviews you actually conducted.
CN: Well, there were a couple of small pieces with people who have worked with him on productions. And those people actually requested anonymity, which I'm going to respect. They work in the industry and want to continue working in the industry and don't want to rile people. But by and large it was conducted from public sources.
SB: That was one of the things I was interested in. I've written a couple of articles about Reeves, and interviewed Lewis Baumander, for example. When I looked through the book one of the things I didn't find was anything new, anything that I hadn't seen in previous publications.
CN: It wasn't really intended that way. The prime audience for this is among the fan base. Essentially it collects most of what's out there.
SB: So, in other words, when it bills itself as being an exclusive look at the private life of Hollywood's most mysterious hunk...
CN: Please understand, I did not bill it that way.
SB: I'm not saying that you personally did, but the St. Martin's Press did, and yet you're saying that it's a compilation of the information that's already out there.
CN: Essentially, yes.
SB: That was one thing that struck me. I was amused at this line across the cover when I read it. I thought, that's interesting because I find nothing terribly exclusive about anything that's in here.
CN: That's certainly not a claim I would ever have made. It's essentially a collection point for a lot of the information that is out there. I'm putting it all in one place and there's obviously some of my own extrapolations.
SB: I gathered that. I do have some questions about your research. Did you actually see each of the films you synopsized?
CN: Oh, yes.
SB: One of the reasons I asked that is I found errors in the synopses.
CN: The synopses were originally a great deal longer. And the legal people at St. Martin's had me greatly chop them down. My feeling is that it's mostly because they had to be cut to such a level that it may have been that confusion reigned a little bit.
SB: There definitely is some confusion. I have some notes here. There's a reference made to him riding a motorcycle in THE NIGHT BEFORE, which he does not do in the movie. Now he did rent a motorcycle while he filming that, and that's Guzzi Moto, as he called it. Also, twice one of the movies is listed as the PRICE OF PENNSYLVANIA rather than the prince.
CN: I'm not responsible for the typos. Well, I suppose to a point I am responsible for the typos as they did send me the galleys. The galleys were sent to me overnight in England and I had a day to look at them. I was visiting my parents for the first time in three years. And then get the information back. I suppose I can say, "Mea culpa" with regard to those. They certainly weren't intentional.
SB: There also seems to be some problems with chronology. You say on page 61 that in 1989 he got the role of Ted. Actually BILL AND TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE was filmed in 1987 but not released until 1989.
CN: The thing is when you're dealing with movies it's a little hard to always establish a chronology when you're going film by film. As you obviously know, all too often an actor can have two or even three movies in the can awaiting release, and it just seems easier to, by and large, where's there's a number together, to do the chronology by release.
SB: There were other errors in the chronology. For example, you have him making BILL AND TED'S BOGUS JOURNEY before he made MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO when actually it was filmed after MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO.
CN: In which case then I, in that instance, I was mistaken.
SB: These are minor things, but they are things that I did notice.
CN: As far as possible I like to be precise. There's no point in doing a sloppy job. It reflects badly on me professionally.
SB: Let me go on and cover some other things. There are some other minor things, that were incorrect in the synopses. Things like Tod (in PARENTHOOD) as having been abused by his step-father when his reference is to his father. In POINT BREAK that Angelo had one clue which was beach dirt, when the original clue was carnuba wax. Then you state that (in MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO) Mike met Scott in the woman's house in Seattle when clearly from the dialogue they already know each other.
CN: On that particular point, not having actually read the screenplay, but having seen the movie three times, what I was giving there was what I felt was the correct interpretation.
SB: If that was your impression of it and these synopses were your impressions, I can understand that.
SB: And there was one where you refer to Martha Plimpton's character in PARENTHOOD as Missy, consistently, when the name of the character is Julie.
CN: Which character was named Missy?
SB: Actually there wasn't a Missy in PARENTHOOD.
CN: That's very strange. My hearing must be bad.
SB: Now in RIVER'S EDGE, the doll is Missy, the doll the younger brother "murders", but in PARENTHOOD Martha Plimpton's character was Julie.
CN: All I can say is mea culpa on that one.
SB: There are some nice things in the book. You say some very nice things about Keanu Reeves. I do want to ask you about that. One of the things that seems to happen a lot with these quickie bios is that they concentrate on the negative and they tend to be rumor-oriented and snide and this one was not. Was that coming from you personally, your respect for his work, or was that what the book company wanted?
CN: Well, they never said anything in those terms to me, regarding interpretation or slant. That came entirely from me. In fact the book idea was mine. He's someone who intrigues me. And he intrigues me because I find he's not easy to get a handle on. As a writer, someone who's written fiction for twenty years, when I come across someone like that, I want to figure out what makes them tick. And this was my attempt to do that, which I guess succeeds to a greater or lesser degree depending on how you look at it. That was really where I was coming from. I do have a lot of respect for the way he approaches his work and particularly for the fact that he refuses to pigeon-hole himself and take the easy courses that are open to him.
SB: I would agree with you on that. He certainly doesn't seem to chose the easy path. Let me touch on this. You talk about the fact that you gathered a lot of the public information. Was it then a personal choice of yours to not gather the articles that printed information that he has publicly stated he thought was very invasive? Things like the PEOPLE magazine article and things that talk more about his private life. There's actually very little about his private life in this book. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
CN: The stuff that I came across that dealt with his private life tended to be so speculative as to, by and large, not warrant inclusion. And the person I wanted to concentrate on, and obviously it's impossible to separate one from the other, is the actor.
SB: So Keanu as the artist as opposed to Keanu as the individual.
CN: I think in a lot of ways, and again this is obviously my speculation, is that to a large extent he is his work and that's where he really comes to life. That was really what I wanted to concentrate on.
SB: It was surprisingly pleasant to me, to be perfectly honest. Having read a lot of things that tend to extrapolate in the personal area as opposed to about his artistic life. I was personally pleased to see that you hadn't delved into things that he has publicly stated that he didn't want people talking about. I felt it was remarkable restraint. I was curious if there had been any pressure from St. Martin's to do differently.
CN: No. I think it depends on the person you're dealing with and what you imagine the prime audience to be. In this case, and also the book I did on Brad Pitt, you're aiming, and this is obviously a generalization, at a younger female crowd. By and large teens, maybe early twenties. If you're doing the Kitty Kelly - Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra books, that's where you get into a different ground altogether. So this, do we need all manner of salacious rumors? I don't think so. And it's not something that I guess I'm prone to do in my own life and I guess that extends into my work.
SB: There are some other incorrect things that I want to mention here that are in the book. One thing you might want to make a note of is that you refer to a 1972 Norton Commando 850 motorcycle. The 1972 is a 750 Combat and the 1974 is the Commando 850. And he does have two of them.
CN: That must not be the first time that error's occurred in print because I cribbed that from somewhere else.
SB: He consistently refers to them in this way from what I've read. Then you do have a math error in one place. You say "In 1986 Keanu was twenty."
CN: Obviously he wasn't.
SB: There were times when there were errors like that. You refer to his sister Kim as being four years younger and having been born in Beirut, and the articles that I've read indicate that she is a year or so younger and was born in Australia.
CN: I'd have to refer back to my notes.
SB: You do say some nice things that'd I like to note. In I LOVE YOU TO DEATH, you refer to the two characters that William Hurt and Keanu Reeves play as being like Laurel and Hardy, which I thought was nice. That's one of my favorites that he's done - the character of Marlon James. Then on page 157 you say that it was finally with SPEED that his acting ability, which had been evident for so long, was finally noticed by the critics.
CN: By and large his work in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING got panned. Having seen the movie again a week or so ago, I still think, as I thought at the time, that the criticism of him was quite unjust. It's a small role, very much a supporting role, but I still think he did a very nice job on that.
SB: It's interesting that he was criticized for not bringing more to it. But that role is considered by scholars to be the worst written role in any Shakespearean play in terms of having the least motivation to it, and having no background. The role is a device.
CN: Exactly. I studied Shakespeare for several years. Growing up in England you have no option.
SB: It's like being a theater major.
CN: There's not much to work with. Obviously it's not on the same level as Beatrice and Benedick.
SB: I think he did a fine job with the role. But he was also criticized for the Shakespearean parts of MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO also.
CN: That's Henry IV Part 1 and 2, a play I know very well. I found it to be an interesting device to use within that film. It's something I would have loved to discuss more, but one, it wouldn't have worked in the book, and two, given the word length they wanted, I didn't have room for it. I thought it was a very interesting and very adventurous device. I'm not sure it always worked, but I admire Van Sant's willingness to use it. For me that's the most interesting film in the Keanu Reeves canon.
SB: I like that one a great deal. When the Shakespearean parts worked, they worked beautifully.
CN: When they didn't they floundered. The action going on in the contemporary dialogue is mirroring the action of the play also. I greatly admire him and River Phoenix for taking on roles in that film. Certainly at that stage of his career it was not something that Keanu Reeves needed to do. And certainly from what I've read he had a lot of ambivalence toward the character he played. It turned out to be artistically a very strong move. Again, that's one of the things that inspires my admiration and intrigue with him. He seems to have this dichotomy between commercialism and artistic vision. Obviously he's in a position where he can afford to play both ends of the field. One of things that I think is true, he is one of the few film stars of his generation who's willing to act on stage in Shakespeare. Granted he had a plum role which was Hamlet. But he's not doing it in New York, he's doing it in Canada in the middle of winter. Which is not a prime location.
SB: I'm sure there were other factors involved, such as working with Baumander again.
CN: If you disregard those, he's one of the few who's willing to get up on a stage even if it is in a limited run and take on this huge role. What he's more used to doing is shooting in short segments.
SB: With lots and lots of retakes. It says a lot about his motivation.
CN: If his interest was purely money he'd be making SPEED 2.
SB: He definitely does take risks. He does smaller films. I've seen a screening of FEELING MINNESOTA.
CN: I haven't seen it.
SB: I liked it. He did some nice work in it. I think it's a role he's well suited for. There were several people who saw it at the same time who commented that they thought it was some of his best work. It's an odd film, but he has a great supporting cast. Wonderful actors like Vincent D'Onofrio.
CN: I've heard that Courtney Love is good in it.
SB: Yes, she is. Getting back to the book, you talk about his band. Have you ever seen the band?
CN: I have not. The comments about his band were taken from a couple of record publicists in L.A. who have seen the band. However, I have heard the record and it's a lot better than I'd been led to believe. I had the opportunity to go and see them when they appeared here; it would have been too late to add much to the book. It was an all ages club, which is perfectly reasonable. A small club. A club that I hate going to. Knowing that I would have been surrounded essentially by screaming girls I declined the opportunity. Also it's not always the best way to judge a band.
SB: I saw the band at the Troubadour in May 1996. I was impressed. I had heard they were awful. I went to the show. I enjoyed it. I thought the music was good.
CN: He's no phenomenal bass player. But, for what they're doing with their music, he seems solid enough. It's, from my understanding, one of his primary commitments in life. I tried to interest a couple of my editors in a piece on them; mostly I thought it would be a great sense of irony in having me interview them.
SB: As a playwright I feel comfortable talking about acting and films, but I don't know anything about music. If I go in and hear something I can say I enjoyed it. I can tell when someone's off-key or incredibly out of rhythm. But you, coming from a music background, I was curious about your take on it.
CN: I was very pleasantly surprised by the album. They did a very credible cover of Badfinger's "No Matter What." It was nothing startling, but it was perfectly serviceable. The CD ROM was very nicely put together as well.
SB: I enjoyed it. Well, I think I've covered all the major points I wanted to. I won't bug you to death with the other little things I found.
CN: No, you've told me quite enough as it is.
SB: When I was reading I just kept finding things that I knew weren't right. As a writer, that kind of thing drives me crazy.
CN: Well it does me when I come across it.
SB: There were lots of little things, some bad math, the synopses were sometimes wrong, such as saying that Rupert Marchetta in the PRINCE OF PENNSYLVANIA is obsessed with death. He's not obsessed with death, he's obsessed with the truth.
CN: Since this is for the web site, let me issue an apology to everyone for the mistakes that occurred. Obviously none was intentional. About all I can say is mea culpa.
SB: I'm glad that I've had an opportunity to speak with you. When you read something like this you wonder what the heck's going on.
CN: You also wonder why was this person doing it in the first place if they're going to screw up so bad. Essentially it boils down to - do they even give a shit? My feeling, as the person who wrote it, is the idea originated with me. If I hadn't had the interest I wouldn't have proposed the idea. There was the interest there. I certainly wouldn't say, going in there was an obsessive fan interest.
SB: I'm sure if we'd had an obsessive fan they'd have picked it apart a hundred times worse.
CN: I should note there are errors. What I tried to do overall is create as honest an impression as I could. To sort of round things off, the one thing you haven't asked me which sort of surprises me is, no, I didn't try to interview him. And there were a couple of reasons for that. The prime one being the limitation of time. I had just over a couple of months to do this book. And when you're talking about something, I've found, on that level, that a) getting through to them takes longer than two months. Most of the time. Also a lot of the time - and this is where I've tried to set up interviews for books like this - when they found out what it's for they do not want to know. And can, on occasion - this has not happened to me - actively try to stop publication of the book. So it sort of becomes a toss-up. What you get out of a possible interview would far out-weigh things you can get from other sources. But the risk you run is the book not even happening. For a book of much greater depth, it would have been wonderful to have an interview with him. But when you're talking essentially about 40,000 words, you just don't have the scope to get into that much depth.
SB: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.