Keanu follows his heart
by Susan Yeagley
Keanu Reeves doesn't care if Hollywood thinks he's nuts. Sure, he turned down an estimated $11 million to star in Speed 2. And yes, it was the sequel to the action film that catapulted him to superstardom at the top of Hollywood's A-list.
But, from the 32-year-old eccentric star's point of view, he has nothing to regret. "I'll never second-guess that decision," he begins with an unapologetic grin, his brown eyes twinkling in defiance. "Because I'm happy."
The handsome actor - currently appearing in A Walk In The Clouds on FOXTEL - also adds that he was thrilled he could follow his heart and not his wallet.
"I was lucky I could afford to make that decision and make an artistic choice, as opposed to a monetary choice," he says. "If I was broke, I don't know what I would have done. It would have been harder..."
Even before rejecting Speed 2 (taken over by Jason Patric), Keanu had baffled critics by turning down another role, opposite Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in the drama Heat, so that he could put on a pair of tights and strut a Canadian stage as Hamlet, which paid him a pittance in comparison.
Ironically, he not only garnered good reviews for that theatrical debut, but he also wound up bagging another role alongside the legendary Al Pacino in their up-coming drama Devil's Advocate, in which he plays a young lawyer who begins to suspect his new boss could be the Prince of Darkness.
Clearly this is an actor who is not about to compromise his choices to please Hollywood - and his eclectic roles continue to surprise anyone who attempts to stereotype the gangly, dark-haired star. He has portrayed young Prince Siddhartha in Little Buddha; a love-struck music teacher in Dangerous Liaisons; a male prostitute in My Own Private Idaho; an FBI agent in Point Break, Ted, the dumbest of the dumb, in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure; a brain-implanted courier in Johnny Mnemonic; a romantic hero in A Walk In The Clouds; a vagabond who steals his brother's new wife in Feeling Minnesota and a scientist on the run from Morgan Freeman in Chain Reaction.
But even with heavyweight directors such as Bernardo Bertolucci, Kenneth Branagh and Stephen Frears jumping to his defense with glowing testimony to his brilliance, Keanu's own inability to put together complete sentences during public appearances and interviews has earned him a less-than-growing reputation with everybody else.
"I have to admit I feel like the critics' whipping boy. It used to bug me, but now I dig the masochism," the 189cm tall actor admits, trying to remain tongue-in-cheek. "What should speak for me is what has been created. I think that I have done some good work in some films of note, but I guess I'm an acquired taste and either you dig me or you don't."
But the much-in-demand actor confesses that one of his personal favorites is the romantic film A Walk In the Clouds, directed by Alfonso Arau, the Mexican director of the foreign classic Like Water for Chocolate.
"I'm not supposed to say it, but it wasn't a challenge, really, to play the romantic man," he admits without any ego. "It came easily, in fact. One reason was that I felt good about the tone of the piece, and about playing a stranger who just feels the need to care for somebody.
Keanu plays Paul. a young GI soldier returning home from war to a bride he hardly knows. On the way he encounter, the beautiful Victoria (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), who is nervously heading home to her parents at their Napa Valley vineyard to break the news that she is pregnant to a man who has left her. Paul agrees to pose briefly as her husband to help her face her domineering father (Giancarlo Giannini), but finds himself falling in love with Victoria and her humorous, boisterous family, presided over by the patriarch (Anthony Quinn).
"It was a lot of fun," Keanu recalls shyly. "I had a great time doing imaginative work, creating the events that happened to him (Paul) that sensitizes him to life and to the preciousness of life. It was one of the best elements of the film - how he cares about Victoria. To play someone who cares and wants to give is very cool."
The name Keanu, pronounced kayah-nu, is Hawaiian (although he was raised mostly in Canada) and means cool breeze over the mountains. But if one minute the actor seems like a cool breeze, the next minute he may be a bundle of nerves - especially when it comes to the stardom that has been thrust upon him despite his every efforts to avoid it.
"I don't lead the life of a celebrity," he insists. "I don't hang around with anybody famous. In fact, I don't hang around much at all, except with a few friends and guys in my band where I'm just trying to play the bass."
Keanu plays bass in a band called Dogstar, a traditional rock 'n' roll group that has been playing sold-out dates around the world for almost four years, and he's anxious to continue his musical career when he's not acting.
"This is my first band, and it would be really satisfying if the music actually got heard," he says, acknowledging the problems created by his celebrity status in a different arena. "I'm just striving to be the guy who plays bass in Dogstar."
Although every detail of his life has been picked apart - there is even a newsletter called Zero Distortion, devoted to all things wonderful about him - Keanu has somehow managed to keep his personal life out of the limelight. He has said he wants a wife and children, but seems to take little time off to pursue these goals, leading to a swirl of rumors that included claims he had a gay wedding to record company mogul David Geffen in 1995.
Geffen says the pair only recently actually met for the first time. "I finally bumped into Keanu at the opening night of a show," he says in a recent interview. "We looked at each other, and I said, 'Well, was it as good for me as it was for you?'"
Keanu is equally amused. "You can't get any more ridiculous - except having children with a Martian, perhaps - than being married to a man," he says. "They say you're a public figure and it's part of their job to ask you anything. I wouldn't mind as long as it was somehow connected to work..."