Reeves sells his soul in film, but not in his career
by Stephen Schaefer
Gone is the grunge.
To promote "The Devil's Advocate," Keanu Reeves, who hasn't had a hit since "Speed" three years ago, arrived for an interview wearing a chalk-striped, single-breasted suit.
True, he wore a T-shirt under the suit, as well as a scraggily beard ("It's not for a movie, it's just for life"), but it's quite an improvement over the unwashed-street-urchin look Reeves once employed for such occasions.
If Reeves has grown up and moved with the times, so have his screen characters. "Devil's Advocate," which teams him with Al Pacino, gives Reeves a role that wholly contradicts the kind of inarticulate lost boys with which he first forged his image in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" and "My Own Private Idaho."
In an update of the Faust legend, Reeves is a hot-shot Florida defense lawyer on a winning streak who unknowingly makes a pact with Pacino's devil, the wild-eyed head of a mysterious Manhattan law firm.
The original script got a cold response in Hollywood, but then director Taylor Hackford ("An Officer and a Gentleman," "Dolores Claiborne") came aboard and changed it from a "a movie with a lot of sex and monsters" to a contemporary, end-of-the-millenium morality tale, as Hackford said.
Reeves, 33, was the first to sign up with this revised "Devil."
"He was in hip cast," Hackford recalled. "He'd been in a motorcycle accident."
The director calls Reeves "a serious guy with a lot of pent-up rage. There's something hidden in there. Could be his mixed parentage, he's part Hawaiian, but he's got mystery."
As Reeves sits in a hotel meeting room with a small group of reporters, that "pent-up rage" isn't evident. There is a wariness, though, as well as an impatience and utter disdain for any teasing kind of questions that revolve around his sex-symbol status.
Asked about his torrid lovemaking scenes with Charlize Theron, the South African actress who became a bona fide sex siren in "2 Days in the Valley,' Reeves rolled his eyes.
"Oh, that butt shot," is all he would say, even grimacing at that small offering.
Theron was more forthcoming.
"An ongoing love scene, it took forever," she noted. "We shot for two days in New York and then had to do more in Los Angeles. He's so comfortable with his body. He really is, you can't help but hang around him naked.
"If you're hanging out with someone who's going, 'Where's my room? Cover me up! Omigod!,' you become awkward and feel out of place, and Keanu never made me feel that way.
"He was making jokes, and his humor kicks in the most odd places. He's taking his pants off - and suddenly he's onstage on the Comedy Store. I had a blast."
Reeves can be forgiven his reticence. He has earned a right to be taken seriously. After all, he hasn't done a string of "Bill and Ted" comedies or even succumbed to the lure of a $ 15 million check to make "Speed 2" ("I didn't like the premise to begin with. Films underwater are good. Above water is good. But floating on water is just dumb.").
Instead, he's sought risky projects, from recording and touring with his band Dogstar (where he's the attraction, but not the frontman) to playing Prince Siddhartha for Bernardo Bertolucci ("Little Buddha"), a gay hustler for Gus Van Sant ("My Own Private Idaho") and appearing in this year's low-budget, little-seen "The Last Time I Committed Suicide."
He's done Shakespeare on film ("Much Ado About Nothing") and on stage ("Hamlet" in the relatively obscure safety of Winnipeg, Canada). And he talks about doing Edgar and Edmund from "King Lear" on alternate nights in repertory and, "maybe in five years, the Scottish play ('Macbeth')" with the German visionary Werner Herzog directing.
And "The Devil's Advocate" loomed as no simple assignment. "When I met Taylor," Reeves said, "he said, 'I'm going to work you!' - and he did."
Hackford had Reeves embark on a regimen that would have him thinking, acting and looking like a defense lawyer. He went to Gainesville, Fla., where his character's career begins, to research a lawyer's life.
He met with defense lawyers, observed cases in court, watched tapes and studied with dialect coaches, even took ballet classes for movement.
"I wanted a higher voice, forward and strong," he said. "It was great training. I was looking forward to the emotional side of the part."
There were reports of friction on the set with Pacino, but Reeves has only the praise for the actor.
"When I heard about him taking the part, I got light-headed and my blood tickled," he said. "He's amazing. One of the things I learned is he's free when he acts - text is very important to him, but every take is new. He has subtle changes.
"The biggest thing I learned was to fight for scenes, for knowing the scenes. 'Here's another angle!,' he'll say, or 'Let's do this.'
"If you don't shoot it, as Al says, you can't cut it. If it's not there, you can't have it."
Photo Caption: DEVILISH COMBO: Keanu Reeves, bottom, plays a hot-shot lawyer duped into a deal with the devil, played by Al Pacino. The actors reportedly clashed on the set, though Reeves speaks highly of his co-star.