Strumming Down so Handsome, so Popular, so why is Keanu Reeves such a meathead?
Having made his name in films such as Little Buddha and Speed, the actor is also set on becoming a rock star. The trouble is, he has all the petulance with none of the talent.
by Neil McCormick
When one examines the life and career of Keanu Reeves, international superstar, youth icon and motorcycling Shakespearean enthusiast; an actor who has worked with some of the finest film directors in modern cinema, combining critically lauded art-house fare with major box-office blockbusters; above all, the man whose Hamlet put the town of Winnipeg, Canada, on the theatrical map; there is one burning question that has to be addressed: is Keanu really as stupid as he seems?
To be fair, the actor has tried to answer this question himself. 'I'm a meathead, man. I can't help it,' he once confessed. So perhaps the real question should be: just how much of a meathead is he? Of course, there is always the chance that when Keanu described himself as a meathead, he was being ironic. Perhaps this was an example of his finely tuned, self-deprecating wit. He may have risen to fame playing characters who were (how can I put this delicately?) intellectually challenged but he is, after all, an actor. Perhaps Keanu is actually an extremely intelligent person with a highly developed capacity for acting the numbskull.
As a film critic who has been compelled to sit through such Keanu classics as Johnny Mnemonic (in which he gives up part of his brain to house a computer programme - no great loss, some might think) and A Walk in the Clouds (a film so beautiful but stupid that Keanu spends most of his time just grinning, perhaps realising he has at last found his level) I have spent more time than any grown man reasonably should pondering the Keanu question.
So when the opportunity arose to interview the man himself, I immediately agreed. It was set to take place at a rock festival in Glasgow, not that I have anything against Glasgow but I hate rock festivals. This, however, was where Keanu would be appearing with his band, Dogstar. As it turned out, it was the worst interview experience of my entire career. Well, actually the second worst. The worst was a fraught encounter with Sinead O'Connor during which she ate spaghetti, answered my queries in monosyllables and, sensing things were not going well, attempted forcibly to remove the cassette from my tape recorder. But you expect that from Sinead O'Connor. Keanu Reeves, on the other hand, seems far too nice for such petulant behaviour. He may not seem to be very bright, but he does appear to have good manners. You live and learn.
Keanu is one of the mysteries of modern cinema: so handsome, so popular, so shy of expressing emotion or lending any nuance to dialogue that the only parts he excels in are meatheads and action-men. There is an oddly appealing vacancy about his performances. He delivers lines in a deadpan monotone accompanied by an air of utter sincerity. He is like a male model crossed with a loyal pet. Throughout his early 20s, Keanu established himself playing a number of troubled, not especially bright adolescents in films such as River's Edge, Permanent Record and Parenthood. He demonstrated his versatility by playing a troubled, not especially bright adolescent in period costume in Dangerous Liaisons and gave a hilarious cameo as a troubled, not especially bright adolescent hit-man in I Love You To Death, but his defining role was as Ted, a troubled, not especially bright adolescent time-traveller in the hit comedy of stupidity - Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. With his ungainly movements, loopy grin and air of blank gullibility, Keanu was so convincing that many assumed he really was a troubled, not especially bright adolescent.
This impression was strengthened during interviews when Keanu's conversation veered between the monosyllabic and convoluted self-help speak, overweighed with words he didn't understand well enough to use properly. On the subject of keeping one's ego under control, he told a press conference, 'I don't know if you can control the ego. I guess it depends what aspect of the ego you're talking about. OK, if the ego puts forth desire for the ego I don't know how to answer It is too complex and I do not have an opinion.' Keanu was 27 when he portrayed the troubled, not especially bright adolescent time-traveller for the second time in Bill And Ted's Bogus Journey in 1991. It was a watershed of some sort in his career. From now on he would only play troubled, not especially bright young men in their early 20s.
In Kathryn Bigelow's homo-erotic thriller Point Break, he was a rookie FBI agent described by his superior as 'young, dumb and full of come', an epithet that has stuck. Keanu proved adept at chasing villains, surfing and skydiving. Unfortunately, every time he opened his mouth, it required a major suspension of disbelief even to accept that the character could have passed his FBI entrance exams. He got another chance to flex his muscles in Speed in 1993. It helped that the ebullient Sandra Bullock was given all the witty lines and emotional scenes, leaving Keanu to ride out a storm of kinetic chaos with calm stoicism and unflappable integrity. His puppy-dog qualities lent a curiously romantic dimension to the experience: you never doubted for a moment that he would lay his life on the line to save his mistress. He was like Lassie with biceps. But what biceps! Keanu worked out in preparation for the part, and was as pleased with the results as his many admirers. 'I now have a centre of gravity,' he enthused. 'You know when you put your socks on in the morning and you are hopping around the bedroom? After I did gym classes, my socks went on right away. Zoom! Zoom! Without moving.' Keanu was to find little use for this new skill in his next role, which did not require socks at all.
In Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha, Keanu was almost literally a sex god, stripped to a loin cloth to ascend to a higher plane. (dude. Little Buddha came out in 1993, and Speed in 1994. -Ani) It is actually one of his better performances, given that he was called upon to do little more than radiate serenity, which probably comes easy to an actor not overburdened by intellectualising. The experience made a big impression on Keanu, moving him to describe Buddhism as 'pretty neat, really'. 'There are days when I'm OK,' is Keanu's own assessment of his acting talents, although he has not made it clear which days these are. He has confessed he was 'awful' in Stephen Frears's Dangerous Liaisons, plain 'bad' in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, 'not very good' in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho and 'out of my depth' in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing.
Ah, the immortal bard. Keanu never passes up an opportunity to play Shakespeare. Aside from his one-dimensional, scowling, leather-trousered Don John in Much Ado, Keanu recited reams of Shakespearean verse in My Own Private Idaho as if reading off an autocue while under the influence of valium. 'You have to say the words over and over so that you have physical speech clarity and clarity of thought,' he says of his Shakespearean technique. 'I call it a convergence into what language really is, which is manufacturing demand to express a psycho-emotional need.'
Keanu braved the slings and arrows of outrageous critics to head for the town of Winnipeg in Canada to star in a theatrical production of Hamlet in January 1995. The 29-day run sold out in advance, hotels were packed and fans arrived from all corners of the world to hear Keanu describe Yorick as 'a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.' Despite the star's enthusiasm, it was a case of alas, poor Shakespeare. The Guardian reported that 'for most of the first act he was nervous, gauche and visibly gulping - the lead actor in a school play. He gabbled his lines, oblivious to metre, like a learner driver falling on the accelerator.' Everybody agreed, though, that he looked good in tights.
Keanu's limited range of thespian skills has not gone unnoticed by his fellow professionals. Charlie Sheen once remarked, 'Emilio [Estevez] and I sit around and just scratch our heads, thinking, "How did this guy get in?" How does Keanu work with Coppola and Bertolucci and I don't get a shot at that?' Take a look in the mirror, Charlie. The answer is all too obvious. The camera loves Keanu. Born in Beirut in 1964 to a British mother and a Chinese-Hawaiian father, Keanu has exotic, otherwordly looks, 'a beauty that's not Eastern or Western,' according to Bertolucci. Asked why he cast Keanu in Much Ado, Branagh remarked, 'I'd pay money to see Keanu Reeves in leather trousers, and think a lot of other people would as well.' (ok, Mr. McCormick, stop twisting words. Branagh did not give that as his reason why he casted Keanu. He did go on quite a bit about his acting ability before the leather trousers comment, which was more of an afterthought. - Ani) He is, by any reckoning, a damned good-looking fella. But is he smart? I was about to find out for myself.
If not quite a Renaissance man, Keanu is an actor with at least two strings to his bass guitar. For several years now, he has been sporadically gigging around LA clubs, playing a form of music he described as 'folk thrash'. Asked his personal opinion of how good the band were, Keanu had confessed, 'We suck', which may or may not have been another example of his highly developed sense of irony and self-deprecating wit. Dogstar had recently signed to RCA records and, in the dubious tradition of Bruce Willis, Telly Savalas and the entire cast of Neighbours, Keanu was set to make an assault on the pop charts. Unlike most film stars with musical pretensions, however, Keanu is not a singer. He is neither the group's front person nor principal songwriter. He is just the bassist.
This posed further complications in Glasgow. All group members would be at the interview. Now, to be brutally honest, I was not remotely interested in the opinions of drummer Rob Mailhouse or guitarist and singer Bret Domrose, no matter how witty and stimulating they turned out to be. I was interested in Keanu Reeves, even if he could barely string two syllables together. Maybe especially if he could barely string two syllables together. It is not fair to say things started going wrong from the moment I arrived. They were going wrong long before I arrived. There were four interviews being conducted and everything was behind schedule. Journalists and photographers were grumbling about Keanu's lack of co-operation and the short amount of time being allowed. A press officer informed me that my promised 45 minutes had been truncated to 20. Bands are generally enthusiastic about the interview process - especially new bands who need the publicity. Dogstar, however, had cancelled interviews at every stage of the tour.
While the drummer and guitarist were only too willing to do everything within their power to ensure the success of their forthcoming album, Our Little Visionary, for some inexplicable reason the media only wanted to talk to the bassist. And the bassist, apparently, was not in a talkative mood. I caught my first glimpse of this reclusive would-be rock star when he appeared at the door with what can only be described as a dirty scowl on his famous face. The distinctly unwelcoming expression was set off by a scraggy hair-cut and a scrub of facial stubble. Dressed in Oxfam student uniform - faded jeans, tatty T-shirt, sagging box jacket - and walking with a limp from injuries sustained during a recent motorcycle crash, Keanu looked less like an international movie superstar than, well, bassist in an obscure Californian folk-thrash trio. He did not pause to say hello, shake hands or observe any other social niceties. Instead, he glared at the press officer and said, '****, have we got another one? I thought we were done, man.' The press officer patiently pointed out that, as Keanu had known from the outset, there were four interviews scheduled, and so far they had completed three, which left one. Frantic bargaining followed and it was announced that I had ten minutes. The possibility of salvaging anything from the situation, however, was largely dependent on Keanu being present. I saw my last shallow glimmer of hope vanish when he mumbled 'Well **** man I gotta go and make a phone call,' and left the room.
Rob and Bret, the two members of Dogstar whom nobody is remotely interested in, were friendly, articulate and apparently grateful for the chance to address the readers of The Telegraph Magazine. But they were not Keanu Reeves. The star of the show slouched back in approximately five minutes into my allotted ten, settled down and proceeded not to say anything. Carefully phrased questions that all but demanded Keanu's response floated past him only to be picked up by Rob and Bret, who responded with an enthusiasm that was almost endearing. 'Keanu,' I said, hoping that by leading with his name I would make it clear this question was for him. 'What do you get from playing music that you don't get from acting?' An uncomfortable silence fell on the room. Keanu stared at me like the answer was the most obvious thing in the world. 'You get to play music,' he said. There was a long pause, as I waited expectantly. He was nodding his head. I was sure there was going to be more. There was. 'You get to tour. All of the, uh, everything that comes with it. You get to, uh, play.'
Someone involved in the production of Little Buddha had commented on Keanu's verbal reticence. 'I was in Nepal for six months,' he reported, 'and I got six words out of him: "Go away. Go away. Go away." ' Well I did a little better. I was with Keanu for five minutes, and I got 84 words out of him. 107 if you count 'uh' as a word. ('Uh, yeah', 'Uh, no not really', 'Yeah sure' and 'Uh, you know' are more like sound grunts, however, than sound bites.) Contemplating this litany of the most inane, monosyllabic drivel I had ever heard, I finally began to lose my professional composure. 'You are obviously uncomfortable with this whole business,' I spluttered. 'If you don't want to do interviews, what are we all doing here?' Keanu studied the floor for a moment, then looked up at me. 'I'm fine, man. I'm glad that you're here. I'm glad it's... I'm fine.' 'But I ask you questions and you don't say anything.' Keanu nodded sadly. 'Well, that's OK,' he unfathomably replied. He glanced over to where his manager was standing at the door, pointing at his watch. 'That's it?' sighed Keanu, with obvious relief. My ten minutes was up.
Unusually for an obscure Californian band who have not even released a record, Dogstar attracted an enormous crowd to the festival marquee where they were playing. In their favour, Dogstar did perform one good song. Unfortunately, it was a cover of Badfinger's No Matter What. Keanu's bass-playing was adequate, which puts it on about par with his acting.
While Dogstar laboured joylessly through their set, I watched with a growing sense of awe. Whatever Keanu might lack in intellectual ability, he more than makes up for with sheer willpower. Having risen above the handicap of his limited thespian skills to become an international movie superstar; and having tackled the most coveted theatrical role in history (albeit in Winnipeg, Canada) and worked with some of the world's leading film-makers; here he was in a tent in Glasgow, prepared to forsake multi-million dollar film offers to bring his unremarkable bass-playing to the world. I was reminded of something he said in an earlier interview, to a journalist who had presumably managed to commandeer more than five minutes of his time. 'I don't want to live a stupid life,' he said. 'I'm going to. I know I'm doomed. I'm just a dog. But I'm trying to shake the dog, you know?' Keanu is shaking that dog for all he's worth. But he'd better watch out that one of these days, it doesn't jump up and bite him.