Who the hell does Keanu Reeves think he is?
by Adrian Deevoy
He's got a very silly name, a very crap band and very handsome cheekbones. This we know. But, did he really marry a man? Is he really not much cop at acting and is he really pretty thick? Adrian Deevoy has one further question. Dude ...
Crudely translated from the Hawaiian his name means Cool Breeze Over The Mountain and is pronounced "key-ah-noo". Not that it's important. His name could mean Cold Lager Under The Armpits for all it matters. If we're being honest, what we really want to know about Keanu Reeves, possibly Hollywood's most bankable superstar, is the following: is he thick? Is he gay? Is he an uglon in the flesh? Just how rubbish is his band?
This much we know. He was born in Beirut in 1964. A Virgo. His Chinese-Hawaiian father, Samuel, left when he was 2 and is doing a 10-year stretch for smuggling heroin and cocaine. He was raised by his Essex-born mother Patricia in Australia, then the Upper West Side of New York before they settled in Toronto, where Cool Breeze Over The Mountain took Canadian citizenship. At school he was known as The Wall, which referred to both his defensive ice hockey strategies and his undeveloped communication skills.
His big break came in Youngblood and River's Edge in 1986. He enjoyed success as Theodore Logan III in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and found cult acclaim in the unengrossing mumble-jamboree My Own Private Idaho.
He was good as Don John in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, Prince Siddartha in Little Buddha and Jack Traven in Speed. He was no good in Dangerous Liaisons Johnny Mnemonic and Walk In The Clouds. He was bad in Bram Stoker's Dracula and is the first to admit it.
"I was bad in that," he says.
In January 1995 he turned his back on the movies to play Hamlet at a theatre in Winnipeg, Canada: "His To Be Or Not To Be was atrocious: leaden, bored and boring," moaned The Guardian. But he got great laugh when the Dane described Yorrick as "a fellow of most excellent fancy". Most excellent.
We are familiar with his CV, au fait with his oeuvre even, yet no-one really knows anything about Keanu Reeves. His acting offers few clues: he portrays loners and outcasts with the same sincere semi-detachment as he does heroes. Unusually, for a resident of Hollywood, his relationships are conducted in private. Last year a rumour emerged that Reeves had married music and film producer David Geffen in a secret gay ceremony.
"I've never met the man," said Reeves at the time. "It's so ridiculous I find it funny."
"I remember laughing when I first read it," Geffen says now. "But I thought it was very unfunny for one reason: I felt it was spread to hurt Keanu Reeves. When I finally met him I looked at him and said, So was it as good for you as it was for me? He laughed. If Keanu Reeves was gay and interested in me, I'd be thrilled to death. I've always been a fan."
Reeves is no stranger to speculation of the "funny he never married" kind. When once asked directly in an interview if he was gay he denied it, then added, "but you never know". When Vanity Fair suggested that he could quell the rumours Reeves replied, "There's nothing wrong with being gay, so to deny it is to make a judgement. And why make a big deal of it? If someone doesn't want to hire me because I'm gay, well, then I have to deal with it. Otherwise it's just gossip, isn't it?"
Sexuality aside, Reeves's encounters with the press have been either monosyllabic disasters or masterclasses in Californicated bollockspeak. When asked if the ego can be kept under control, he answered: "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 don't have an opinion."
This enigma, cultivated or not, is unquestionably a large part of his appeal. And appeal he does. Grown women who know better go gooey and mutter lasciviously about "slipping into his soul" and adolescent girls make disconcertingly guttural noises.
His effect on men is equally disarming. Director Bernardo Bertolucci says, "He has a beauty that is neither Eastern nor Western." And Kenneth Branagh plain fancies him. "Keanu has an aloof quality," he sighs. "You can't quite get close to him. That makes him very, very attractive. Yet he seems to display all the qualities one would want: a very sexy, erotic, physical being. One sees in his work that he can sometimes be very gentle, sometimes very fierce, sometimes very funny. Yet he's got something at the back of his eyes that says, I won't be committing here. He'll always be on the bus, heading off somewhere. It's tremendously attractive to men and women, that combination of the utterly desirable and definitely unattainable."
IN ORDER to achieve congress with this, er, ungraspable being, Q must travel to Glasgow, where Keanu Reeves is playing at a festival with his band Dogstar (formerly Small Fecal Matter, Big Fucking Shit and Big Fucking Sound), an extravagantly average grungepop threesome in which Reeves neither sings nor struts, but humbly plucks the bass guitar.
Dogstar, the colloquial name for Sirius - the most brilliant celestial body in the galaxy, are already causing pandemonium by the time Q arrives. They have cancelled virtually all promotional activities, including Top Of The Pops and the majority of their TV and radio interviews. They feel that the band are getting too much attention just because they happen to have an $8 million-per-film megastar playing bass.
But the good news is they still want to talk to Q Magazine. We, apparently, are "cool". The bad news is that Keanu Reeves will not be speaking to Q on his own. All three members of the band will be present for the interview. Now, singer and guitarist Bret Domrose and drummer Robert Mailhouse may well be, indeed very probably are, smashing blokes with a great story to tell and a winning way with small children but, to be uncompromisingly frank, who gives a dribbly toss?
We first encounter Dogstar in their hotel suite, where, not for the first time, we are reminded that we only have 20 minutes in which to tackle the various Keanu conundra. Mailhouse and Domrose are in situ on the sofa, but Reeves hasn't shown up yet. They pass the time by drinking coffee and chatting to a fat, bearded roadie. At one point Beardo says, "Rock'n'fuckin' roll, let's trash the hotel room! " and everyone laughs.
For too long. It is only then you realise that he can't be a roadie. Nobody laughs like that at roadie jokes. This well-nourished sixfooter with the pubey beard and the ill-fitting jeans is him. Beardo is Keanu.
Where is the slight, almost feminine, creature of popular imagination?
Where are the fine features, the feline grace, the sculpted torso? And where on earth did he get that crap tweed jacket?
Reeves must sense this bewilderment because he turns, a meaty hand outstretched, and limps over. (Of course, the limp. He came off his Norton Commando in May whilst swerving to avoid a car that had pulled out on Sunset Boulevard. Result: a fractured ankle to accompany the 10inch scar betwixt navel and chest sustained in a previous bike prang.)
"Hi," he says in this big, low voice. "Keanu." He plonks down beside his colleagues and fiddles uneasily with his right ear. He knows that this isn't right. Here, after all, is a band who have not released a solitary note of music, yet travel first class and have, today, already complained about the size of their hotel rooms and been immediately upgraded, preparing to discuss their art. Something unpleasant and unmentionable hangs in the air.
Down to business. Using his name to make clear your focus, you ask: Keanu is the amount of attention you are currently receiving disproportionate to your band's popularity?
"Yes." Dogstar answer in unison. Bad start.
Is that fair?
"No" Reeves says ponderously. "Life is not fair."
"It has its advantages and its disadvantages," says Mailhouse, in a manner that immediately sets out the unspoken rule: address questions to Keanu and I will do my damnedest to answer them. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to make this a Keanu Reeves interview.
"It means that people hear about us and come out to see us," he continues smoothly. "The disadvantage is maybe that you get attention you don't want or aren't really ready for."
"Uh, they don't always really, like, review the music," murmurs Reeves.
Does this undue attention give you an unrealistic idea of how good you are?
"No, we're fully aware of who we are."
Are you any good?
"Sometimes. We're as good as a lot of bands out there."
Is Dogstar merely Keanu Reeves's hobby band?
"If people come and see us then they will realise that this is obviously not the case. They'd see how much work has been put into it. So if it was a hobby then we would suck."
How committed, Keanu, are you to this band?
Above and beyond other work?
Meaning you'd turn down a film to play with the band?
"Meaning I'm committed. When I say committed I mean . . .
So we're not to doubt your level of commitment?
Did Dogstar spring from friendship?
"In the beginning it was friendship," says Reeves, and then cracks his first gag. "Now we all hate each other!"
Nurse! Make haste with the side-reseaming equipment!
"Uh, I had a house and we used to play there," he recalls hazily, as if it happened before the Depression and not five short years ago. "Then finally we played live. We were terrible."
"You have to get out of the garage at some point," interjects Mailhouse. "You can't just stay in there."
Crueller critics might suggest that the world would be a better place if Dogstar had stayed in the garage with the door closed and the engine running. Keanu opens a beer. Mailhouse takes a breath, and to his credit, confronts the situation. "I mean, this thing with Keanu. He's a good friend, he's a good musician. Everything is really exciting. I don't want it to sound like we're whining, but it's everyone else who brings up this stuff about how fucked up it is and we sort of have to talk about it."
But you concede that without Keanu you wouldn't get a fraction of the coverage you presently receive?
You have no records out (an EP and album are promised "soon"). Is that something that you'd like to rectify?
"We heard about an hour ago that they're going to bring our first EP out at the same time as the album. Not sooner, as we thought," says Reeves, giving the impression that there has been a full-scale band/label row. "It's one of those . . ." he pauses, "business decisions."
"At the moment we're just holding our dicks," says Domrose in a bid for quotability. "I'm holding his dick and he's holding mine. We're all holding each other's dicks."
Mailhouse tells an interminable story about his sisters, The Beatles, The Monkees, drums, the lifestyle. Domrose bangs on about U2, cool music, being 13, buying a guitar and exploring his feelings. Sorry fellas, not interested. Only asked out of politeness.
"Umm." begins Reeves. " I guess it's connected to childhood. Once I started to pick up the instrument and once I began to jam, those moments where you get the whole community, that moment where you get free of yourself and everyone's just jamming, just playing and the experiences from that are liberating, so much fun. That experience is almost three times greater when you play live because you're connected to the music and to the other people and it's going out and it's coming back. Those are the moments I do it for."
Does that ensemble experience ever happen with acting?
"In that one moment, when it connects and you're free, then yeah. It's really amazing. So fulfilling and free." Are there other parallels between the two worlds?
"They're so completely different. Except for that moment."
Is being in a band more enjoyable?
"That's a dangerous question."
Ooh. Wouldn't want to ask one of those. So, Mr Mountain Bloody Breeze, who in your opinion are the best bass players in the world?
"Well," he says, and for a moment appears almost engaged, "I really don't know any bassists by name. I haven't really studied the instrument in that manner, but I know the music I like and the sound that the bassists from particular bands make. Actually, some names I do know, like Peter Hook in Joy Division, some of those bass lines were so great. Simple, melodic and, for me, really evocative. If there's any influence in the style that I play in it's that." Please be upstanding for Keanu's muso joke. "On the two strings I use." Cue overlong laughter. "It's like lead bass. When I play bass alone I always play melodies, so much so that people always say, Why didn't you just pick up the guitar?"
Then he throws a curve ball.
"Oh, and I really like the bass player from The Exploited."
"Yeah, again it's real melodic punk stuff. The guy from Minor Threat and Fugazi is great as well - the two bands have the same bass player. I can't play like him, it's too complicated for me. Then there's Duck Dunn, the Blues Brothers' bassist, I love that kind of playing and the one from Elvis Costello's Attractions, what's the guy's name? Pete Thomas . . . no, Bruce Thomas. Pete Thomas is the drummer, right? That's a hell of a rhythm section."
Christ, he won't stop now.
"....I'd like to be able to play ska bass," he goes on. "Like the guy from The Specials, those walking-type bass lines. I can't do that yet, but hopefully next year I'll get that going. Ska bass is something that I want to aim for."
Mailhouse, who you are feeling sorry for (he's a bit of an actor too - he played a gay man in Seinfeld and has a part in the forthcoming The Glimmer Man), is getting into it now. He enthuses about favourite drummers while Reeves "yeah, wow"s and "right"s along supportively. A record company rep interrupts to tell us that our allotted time is up. Mailhouse waves her away, hissing, "Go release our fucking record." We can't stop now, we're on a roll. The subject of "the funk" arises.
"I know I should like Bootsy Collins," frets Reeves. "And I know that bassists should be funky, but I have no funk in me at all. The only funk I have is in my shoes. I think maybe if I studied funk I could maybe copy the style but I can't feel it. I'm terribly white. I can't hang."
THE GIG, 45 mid-afternoon minutes in a 5,000-berth tent, is a curious affair. Flushed girls use their sharp little elbows to manoeuvre themselves into advantageous positions as if in training for jumble sales when they're old ladies. Their boyfriends stand back looking disgruntled and feeling ugly.
When Dogstar shamble on stage, there is a palpable sense of loin-driven madness. The screaming is breathless and comes in waves. The air is stewed with learner lust. The sexual electricity bill is going to be enormous. Everyone blanks the singer and turns 30 degrees the better to examine the bass player who stands stock still, legs apart, studying his fretboard with a frown.
After the first song, he peeks shyly out into the audience and bobs his head in acknowledgement of the hysterical applause. They all but wee themselves.
As the set progresses, the crowd starts to thin. The band soldier on and play their best song of the show. Sadly it's a cover version of Badfinger's No Matter What. As the last few numbers approach, Reeves has loosened up sufficiently to shuffle his feet while playing and occasionally unglue his gaze from his left hand. But by now Dogstar's fickle devotees have all but vanished. They came, they saw, they squealed. It may have just been a grim marquee, but they stood in the same room and breathed the same oxygen as Keanu Reeves. And that is enough.
EARLIER, you had asked Reeves if the prospect of his band's upcoming gig made him nervous. He didn't speak a full 10 seconds then looked straight into your eyes. For a fleeting moment you saw the unreachable expression that spellbound Kenneth Branagh, the turbulent vulnerability that enchants womankind and troubles young girls, and the raw, restless beauty that so bewitched Bertolucci.
"Pardon me?" he said.
Nervous, Keanu, are you nervous?
"Oh yeah, sure," he gulped. "Scared shitless."