Premiere (US), September 1997

Why Keanu Reeves Won't Sell His Soul

He turned down Speed2 (whew!).
He's looking to do more Shakespeare.
He doesn't have a home, much less a movie-star mansion.
But has refusing to play by the rules hurt him in Hollywood?

by James Kaplan

THE COOL, SPANISH-TILED LONGE of the Chateau Marmont isn't the worst place for a game of chess on a hot L.A. afternoon: Nobody bothers you, even if you're Keanu Reeves, and the staff, hushed and superb, has a way of materializing with picturesque food at just the right moment. Not that Reeves is interested in food - it appears to be very early morning on his body clock. His hair is handsomely tousled, and he has what looks like six hours worth of whiskers, with odd hairless islets on his chin and faintly pockmarked cheeks. He's chain-smoking his way through a pack of American Spirits ("I bummed them off a friend - she gave me some supplies"), burning each cigarette down to a barely holdable butt. There is a slight tremor in his hand as he sucks those tiny butt ends, sucks them for dear life, and stares at the chessboard with his small dark eyes.

"The old pawn move," he says, in his rich, man-boy's baritone. He fidgets in his chair. "What am I going to do with that? What am I going to do? Agh! I hate chess!"

It's odd: For a movie star, Reeves has a surprisingly neutral presence. He doesn't suck all the air out of a room; he hangs back and ponders the options. In his scuffed hiking boots, wrinkled black jeans, black V-neck sweater, and dark gray T-shirt, he might be your brother, home from college for the weekend, or the painter from down the hall, over for a friendly game.

He thinks for a few tortured minutes, reaches out his hand - then pulls it back and shakes his head. After a while, he puts his hand out again and moves a pawn.

Keanu Reeves actually loves chess when he doesn't hate it: He started playing as a boy, and used to take on all comers for a dollar a game at his mother's parties in Toronto. He played on the chess team in high school. And he avidly followed the recent match between world champion Garry Kasparov and the IBM computer Deep Blue, replaying the games during time off from the shooting of his latest movie, Devil's Advocate.

"The game drives me mad," Reeves says. "To unwind, I, you know, battle with my computer. That sounds crazy. Unwinding playing chess." It doesn't sound so crazy. Chess, after all, gives him the opportunity for extended periods of self-tormenting indecision, combined with the occasional (correct or incorrect) strategic lightning-strike, all on a scale that costs him nothing in box office dollars or bad public relations.

And acting, at least acting a la Keanu, can be tense stuff. This seems to have been especially true of Devil's Advocate (to be released October 17), an updated Faust tale in which Reeves plays an ambitious young southern lawyer, Kevin Lomax, who comes to New York City to work for a huge firm headed by the Mephistophelean John Milton, played by Al Pacino. It was an exhausting shoot, Reeves says, both mentally and physically, and 85 working days long. Cast and crew also had to deal with the logistical difficulties of filmmaking in New York and budgetary pressures from Warner Bros., which could use a big hit and may not consider a $57 million nonactioner starring Pacino and Reeves a sure thing. In addition, there were reports of strain between the costars.

"One night I woke up and I had Van Gogh's disease," Reeves recalls. "I had a ringing in my ear, just from the tension. [There was] Kevin's, you know, having the pressures of the case. And then Keanu acting in the part and the pressures of, Okay, we don't have enough time, we don't have enough money. You've got to just do the gig. And one night I was in bed and all of a sudden I heard EEEEEEEEEEEE in my right ear.

"Well, I went to the bathroom and washed with some cold water and took some deep breaths and it didn't go away. And I'm, like, I'm going to have to go to the hospital and get a needle in my ear. And then I thought about it and went, Okay, so I'm going to have the ringing in my ear for the rest of my life. I can handle this. I won't cut my ear off. It'll just ring. So I went to bed and I put the ear that had the ringing against the pillow." He laughs. "Trying to muffle the sound. And it just made it louder. EEEEEEEEEEEE.

"When I woke up in the morning and it wasn't there, I was singin' hallelujahs. I was alive again! And then I went back to work and it all started again."

It's a funny story as Reeves tells it, but it's also a window into the interior life of a 32-year-old actor whose perfectionism cuts two ways: Sometimes it awes those around him; sometimes it drives them (and him) to distraction. "He's the last one to give himself a break, to know when the work is good," says Steven Baigelman, who wrote and directed Feeling Minnesota, the disappointing 1996 noir comedy in which Reeves starred. "There were days when that kind of thing would piss me off. He wears his pain on his sleeve, no question. Nobody stands in Keanu's way more than Keanu."

IT WASN'T ALWAYS THUS. When Alice Cooper was in Toronto in the mid'70s, recording Alice Cooper Goes to Hell, he lived in a room on the top floor of a big Victorian house across the street from the studio, a room provided for him by the house's matriarch, an old Hawaiian woman nicknamed Momi, who happened to be Reeves's paternal grandmother. Cooper remembers "a cute little black-haired kid" who used to hang out for hours on end at the recording studio. "He was a nice kid, easygoing," Cooper says. "He liked the loud music." He laughs. "Anyone who would let Alice Cooper and a bunch of musicians baby-sit their kid while he sat around all day drinking Coke and eating candy had to be nuts."

After splitting from Reeves's Hawaiian Chinese dad by the time their son was two, his English mother - who made stage costumes for entertainers - was briefly married to a theater director named Paul Aaron, whom Reeves used to visit in Los Angeles every summer. Reeves's longtime manager, Erwin Stoff, first met Reeves there when Reeves was thirteen, and remembers a fun-loving boy: "He was just a great kid, game for anything - he loved sports, loved to play hockey." Robert Mark Kamen, later a screenwriter of A Walk in the Clouds, knew Reeves then too. "He was the same!" he says. "Really polite, really sweet, with this strong, native intelligence."

It was an intelligence he applied not to school but to acting, which - inspired by Aaron - he gravitated to early. "I kind of made the choice when I was around fifteen," he says. "My mom was, like, 'An actor?' But then she said, 'Whatever you want, it's okay.' "

He has always taken the job seriously. "He prepares incredibly," says Taylor Hackford, the director of Devil's Advocate. "But an actor has to let things happen, and it was a constant battle. You want to let him get to a point where things happen that are a surprise. I think the camera sees that, and it's some of the most exciting stuff. But to an actor, that's uncharted territory. With Keanu, a lot of the time he'd almost get there, then stop himself."

Could any of this, perhaps, have had to do with the pressure of working with Hackford - who has a reputation as a tough-minded taskmaster - and Pacino? "The studio's desires and mine are somewhat different," Hackford says. "I'm looking for someone who can play this role; the studio is saying, 'He's box office, let's pay him a lot of money and hope it works.' Al and I both said at first that we didn't know if the kid could do it. Now we both say we can't think of anybody else who could do this role."

"Of course I had concerns about putting Keanu and Al together," says Devil's Advocate producer Arnold Kopelson. "I felt that Al could be so strong that he could overpower Keanu. But that did not happen at all - Keanu came across. I could not have wanted anything more."

I gently ask Reeves how it was working with Pacino. There is a long, long pause. A chesslike pause. Reeves looks down. He looks back up. "Really, really good," he finally says. He sounds hollow. "He's - he's - there's not enough I can say about his acting. He's the man."

Was it intimidating?

Another long pause. "Yeah. I mean, I've been affected by his work, just as an audience and as an actor. His portrayals are - are amazing. When I found out that he'd accepted the part, my blood started to tickle.

"And then coming to work with him - I mean, I was just really looking forward to it. There were moments where, especially if I didn't feel comfortable in the scene yet, I would just go, 'Wow, I'm letting you down. It's not happening.' Especially early on in the picture, there was some of that. But then after a while, I think we were good together."

I mention the rumor that Pacino was annoyed at Reeves for fluffing lines.

"Yeah, there was one scene that was just really hard for me," he says. "I think it was when I first meet [Milton]. That might have been the night that my ear was ringing." Pause. Big smile.

Not everything about the shoot was tense. "Keanu's really funny," says Charlize Theron, who plays Kevin Lomax's wife, "and very, very comfortable with his body. That made it so much easier for me when we had to do these really intense love scenes. Once, when I was completely naked and he still had his whole wardrobe on, we were trying to figure out how he'd get out of his clothes. He just got up and said, 'Isn't it funny when you're making love to your wife, and she's naked, and you're still in your pants?' And he started kicking them off. It was like he was on the stage of the Comedy Store."

It's fun spending time with Keanu Reeves. He's witty, he's sweet, he's genuinely curious and curiously genuine. He finds it difficult, even tremor-inducing, to be as guarded as something in him tells him he ought to be. Unlike the vast majority of stars, who - often brilliantly - act the interviewee, what Keanu gives you is, to a great extent, Keanu.

Not that this is, in any sense, smooth sailing. He can express himself with fine, terse pungency, but to get there, he - and you, the interrogator - have to wade through thickets of hems and haws, rhetorical asides, agonized self-questioning, self-conscious Lettermanesque hee-hee's.

Once he conquered his nerves, his 1995 performance as Hamlet in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was - according to the Sunday Times of London - better than pretty good for a movie star; it had a brilliance about it, a definitive quality, even. No surprise. Not only does Reeves know his Shakespeare, not only can he act, but a more Hamlet-like fellow is hard to find, right down to the absent father. More than most of us, Keanu Reeves is a mass of ambiguities: He's masculine and feminine; decisive and waffling; focused and goofy; crisp and turgid. Some men become movie stars by dint of looks, a scrap of talent, and sheer, dogged persistence. But every once in a while, a star comes along - a Montgomery Clift, a James Dean - who has such an elusive, help-me quality that audiences - are drawn into the vortex of an enigmatic soul.

Keanu Reeves has all this, but what he has in addition, as the world first discovered with Point Break in 1991, is the ability to play action heroes, men of little hesitation, anti-Hamlets. His easy physicality is a side of him that - in an age of action pictures, and layered over the subtext of his sensitivity and exotic good looks - is pure gold. It's an ability Reeves confirmed three years later with Speed. And one he seemingly renounced, in mid-1996, by turning down Speed 2.

Few career moves in recent history have so nettled Hollywood as Reeves's refusal to take a reported $11 million to reprise his role as Jack Traven, the hunky, fiercely taciturn SWAT-team leader who saves the trapped bus passengers and winds up, looking happy and a little puzzled, on top of Sandra Bullock. By passing up the chance to do roughly the same thing again on a cruise ship, Reeves shook the very pillars of modern Hollywood: big money and action films. He took $8 million instead for Devil's Advocate ("It wasn't your traditional hero part," he says) and played the small role of a Beat-generation barfly in The Last Time I Committed Suicide - a gloriously offbeat and talky indie, released in June, for which the actor gained 30 pounds ("I just started drinking and eating, tried to get big and crazy looking"). Who did this guy think he was, anyway?

NINETEEN-NINETY was a critical juncture in Keanu Reeves's career. He was a phenomenon on the rise, known primarily for his magnetic portrayals of puzzled, longhaired young men, young men either solemn (River's Edge) or flaky (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Parenthood). Reeves had just completed the sequel to when Gus Van Sant asked him and River Phoenix to star in a Shakespeare-tinged story about northwestern street hustlers called My Own Private Idaho.

Reeves could easily have passed on the low paycheck, not to mention a picture rife with drugs and homosexuality. Instead, he jumped at the role. "Keanu was very excited," Van Sant recalls. "It was the type of project he wanted to do." There were many competent young actors around; why did Van Sant want these two? "They captivated the audience - because of their beauty, but also because of an intensity that came from their past life. You could read it in their eyes - it looked like something had gone on with them."

Idaho was uneven and at times overblown, but often fascinating, and Reeves's supple and daring performance as Scott Favor, the ne'er-do-well bisexual son of Portland's mayor, promoted him to cinema adulthood. Likewise, the film catapulted Phoenix and Reeves, for reasons both overt and subtextual (there were inevitable rumors about drug taking and gayness on the part of the costars), onto a new, Dean-Clift level in the public awareness.

Then Reeves did Bram Stoker's Dracula.

The picture, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, did well at the box office, but it was a low point for Reeves, whose portrayal of the earnest protagonist, Jonathan Harker, was stiff and awkward.

"I had come off a string of work, and was really tired," Reeves explains, a bit stiffly. "I shouldn't have been there. I should have taken some time off. But then, the whole thing - working with Coppola, and the actors that he was assembling for it - was, you know, an opportunity that I didn't want to miss. But I just didn't have anything inside me to give."

"You're actually on record as saying you stank in the picture," I say.

He laughs uncomfortably. "I just didn't come up to the level of the film, you know? I think I portrayed the innocence of Harker well, but I didn't quite have the arch characterization that I think the film called for. It wasn't active enough."

He may have been tired, but was he also choking? He'd come a long way in just a few years; the air is thin at those higher altitudes.

Martha Plimpton, who played the teenage bride to Reeves's Tod in Parenthood, recalls him just before his steep ascent: "Bill & Ted was just coming out, and Parenthood was a big-budget, star-driven kind of movie," she says. "We were both kind of feeling our way, just having fun. We hung out a lot when we weren't working - we went go-carting, went to a Feelies concert, drove down to Key West."

But then youthful abandon might have seemed less relevant after Idaho - and especially after River Phoenix's drug-related death, in 1993. Reeves seems especially careful when he talks about Phoenix, yet his deep feeling is palpable. "He was a good friend, a beautiful person," he says, his eyes going somewhere else. "Comfortable and inventive, beautiful to watch."

Phoenix's death left Reeves virtually alone on the post-Brat Pack perch of Young Star With Mystique - a precarious position for an artist adrift in an artistically unstructured time. "There's a fine line between naturalness and artifice [in movie acting]," Plimpton says. "It's something actors of our generation have to redefine for themselves; we're past the Method place. I think Keanu feels this acutely."

His post-Dracula period was disastrous: He appeared scantly in Freaked, Much Ado About Nothing, and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and then, strangely but not uncharacteristically, played Siddhartha Gautama himself in Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha. The movie flopped, but Reeves's turn impressed many. "He was a very credible Buddha, and that ain't easy," Taylor Hackford says.

Then he was offered Speed. "He didn't want to do it, and I was adamant, adamant, adamant," says Erwin Stoff. "I thought Keanu had had great success in that genre before, with Point Break, and then had done esoteric things that were less successful. I said, 'You have to hit a fastball down the middle.' "

Reeves agreed, reluctantly. "He was initially resistant to the movie, though always professional," says Jorge Saralegui, the executive vice-president of production at Fox. "It was an action movie, he was an actor - he didn't see the challenge.

"But he was into it enough that he got himself into fantastic shape, and he liked [director] Jan De Bont. And when Jan talked to him about doing his own stunts as often as possible, Keanu felt that was the way to get into [his character]. That was when he began to have a really good time on the movie."

"I got to find some cool stuff to do with Sandra," Reeves says. "This character lived through peril, [but] he didn't quite have the skills to know himself - to experience life. So Sandra's character pulled that out in him. You saw him smile."

Reeves himself may have been caught with a flicker of a smile when Speed went through the roof, pushing his price into the $10 million-per-picture range. But then, "he has never worked for the cash," Stoff says. "He says, 'I want to do a good movie, and whatever form that comes in, it comes in.' " It's an attitude that occasionally drives Reeves's handlers batty. "There are certain things we all have been fed in the interest of pragmatism," Stoff admits. "When someone doesn't take them for granted, it makes you look at it anew, which is irritating."

This is perhaps putting mildly the way his manager felt when Reeves decided not to do the sequel.

"I'll be honest - I disagreed," Stoff admits. "I thought, How can you turn this down? People said he was flaky, he wasn't living up to his responsibility, he didn't want to go to the gym, he wanted to go out on the road with his band - it was all bullshit. He read a script, and thought it was a crappy script. He said, 'The movie's called Speed - how fast does a cruise liner move, anyway?"'

"I remember asking Keanu, 'Are you going to do Speed 2?' " says Robert Mark Kamen. "And he said, 'You mean Speedier? It's not, and I'm not.' "

"I just felt that if I went into that picture, I just ... wouldn't have come up out of the water," Reeves laughs.

How prescient he was: That's just what happened to the picture.

YET KEANU REEVES'S ARTISTIC and commercial instincts have proven to be anything but unerring. "Keanu has done a lot of films, worked with some pretty damn good directors, and taken a lot of chances," Hackford says. And when you take chances, sometimes you lose. Not long before Reeves said no to Speed 2, he said yes to Johnny Mnemonic, Chain Reaction, and Feeling Minnesota, all, on the face of it, interesting projects with interesting directors - and all of which came out, and died, within two years.

"Last year was not a good year for the commercial success of Mr. Reeves," Reeves admits, laughing. "It was hard, because not only commercially, but also, I felt, in the end, artistically, [those movies] were either compromised by editing or some choices that producers wanted to make."

Sometimes he fought for his vision of a film: When preview audiences' responses dictated that the ending of Feeling Minnesota be reshot to make it sweeter, "Keanu shot it clawing and screaming," Steven Baigelman recalls. "He was the strongest defender of the script on the set. Anytime something changed, he got angry at me - he was trying to tell me, 'Win or lose; don't compromise.'"

But with Chain Reaction, he mysteriously gave up before he started. "I agreed to an idea of a film and a director [The Fugitive's Andrew Davis], and didn't really have a script," he says. "I went off to [do Hamlet] and didn't watchdog what was being written or what directions it was taking. When I got back, it kind of had changed into a different picture. Next time, if I go do a play, I'm going to have a fax machine, I'm going to be, like, 'Okay, what's being written, what's going on?'"

Even the most assiduous watchdogging, though, doesn't always prevail. As we speak, Reeves, along with Taylor Hackford, is embroiled in the Battle of the Glass Bridge - trying to get Kopelson and Warner's to agree, well after the close of principal photography for Devil's Advocate, to shoot what star and director consider a crucial scene: when Kevin Lomax first goes to meet his boss, Milton, and suddenly finds himself on a bridge between two office towers, looking down through a transparent floor at 60 stories of nothing. The scene calls for a large set to be constructed, at a potential cost of several million dollars.

"I think it's a great sequence - it's really the first laugh in the picture," Reeves says. "You see Kevin coming into a situation, he's going to meet the man. You know, who's Al Pacino. So you see my character get a little ruffled."

Reeves looks a little ruffled himself. "This is always my thing," he says. "It's, like, 'It was in the script, guys. You guys budgeted it, right?' " He shakes his head in exasperation. (At press time, the sequence still had not been scheduled to be shot.)

Staying concentrated on the struggles at hand isn't always easy in the odd life Reeves has made for himself, a life lived from a suitcase, in hotels and on motorcycles and on the tour bus of his band, Dogstar. Stoff insists that "Keanu's fiercely devoted to his career and to the concept of having a career, and I think it is one of the things that is misunderstood about him." Yet, put on the spot, Reeves seems a little less fierce: "I'm not considered like, you know, actors like Brad Pitt, or, let's say, Tom Cruise. I don't have that kind of draw."

"Would you wish it?"

"I don't know how to answer that," he says. "You know, they're exceptional actors who have made some really good films, so in that sense, yeah. It'd be great to participate in good films. But . . . " His voice trails off .

"Your acting journey is a personal journey," he continues, after a moment. "It's a creative act, and it's a searching act. You just search for what's inside, try and set up situations where the unexpected can come out."

KEANU REEVES'S JOURNEY is a strange journey. In June, not long after our chess game - at a point when, after those three flops in less than two years, it felt as though his career might be going into some kind of temporary eclipse - he signed with Joel Silver and Warner's to star in Matrix, a big-budget science-fiction film about a man who leads an enslaved society in a revolt against computers. "It's film noir meets Japanese anime meets the Coen brothers meets Billy Wilder," Reeves says. He'll reportedly be paid close to $10 million, against 10 percent of the gross.

Yet there he is one night, also not long after our chess game, playing with Dogstar at the Viper Room, the club on Sunset whose name will be forever linked with that of River Phoenix, just as the Chateau Marmont's is with John Belushi. It's the kind of place where the young clientele - L.A. tan but dressed down, with many pierced body parts - stand in a long line outside, looking as disaffected as it is possible for people standing in a line to look. Onstage, Dogstar - Reeves on bass, Rob Mailhouse on drums, Bret Domrose on guitar and vocals - plays loud, three-chord songs of distance and alienation, songs called "Denial" and "Goodbye" and "Nobody Home."

Reeves, in black T-shirt and jeans, seems both distant and present. He chops his hand on his bass, windmilling his arm and looking off to the side as though wanting to fade to some unattainable background where fame and responsibility don't exist. He puts on a little stocking cap, grinning goofily at nobody. The number is over. Suddenly, amid the cheers for an encore, Reeves grabs the mike. "This next song, just remember - you asked for it," he says. "We tried to learn this yesterday." And the band goes into, of all things, a good, loud, Cavern club-style rendition of "Ticket to Ride."

It's good, but it's sad, too - as though only the past were vivid, the present not quite knowing what to do with itself. Then the song is over and the band troops offstage, Reeves staring straight ahead, at no one, moving on to whatever the next thing might be.


Article Focus:

Devil's Advocate, The


Speed 2 , Devil's Advocate, The , Feeling Minnesota , A Walk in the Clouds , Point Break , Speed , Last Time I Committed Suicide, The , River's Edge , Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure , Parenthood , My Own Private Idaho , Bram Stoker's Dracula , Freaked , Much Ado About Nothing , Even Cowgirls Get the Blues , Little Buddha , Johnny Mnemonic , Chain Reaction , Matrix, The , Dogstar


Guestresponibilities (2015-10-20 20:28:07)
 Although generally I think it's a very good interview and I like the tone of it, there is still so much presumption and prejudice...

Let's take this one: "as though [Keanu] wanted to fade to some unattainable background where fame and responsibility don't exist". Does he not take responsibility for his life, choices and acting? What other responsibility is there? To satisfy the journalists' demands and expectations??? Responsibility for fame? Nonsense.

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