by Robin Eggar
A tall skinny young man with a straggling wannabe goatee beard is busy helping himself to a few choice items from the buffet in the Warner Brothers suite at the Essex House in Manhattan. He looks both out of place, yet curiously comfortable. Probably another journalist in town for the opening of The Devil's Advocate.
Keanu Reeves looks up. It is those eyes that give him away. Somewhat startled I introduce myself. "Uurgh" he says nodding his head furiously. This is not Keanu at his most inarticulate and uncommunicative, it is Keanu with his mouth full. Instead of looking around wildly for a PR to rescue him he shakes my hand and we chat for a while about inconsequential matters, including the books of the Argentinean novelist Jorge Luis Borges.
Then he's summoned off, sucked back into the greedy maw of the great American media. I'm left rather confused. Let's face it - if you were doing a psychiatrists' word association test the mention "Keanu" does not suggest the instant response "Intelligent". "Dumb", "pretty", "airhead", "incoherent", "himbo" and "lousy bass guitarist" spring to mind much more readily.
And yet despite all those seeming drawbacks "Cool Breeze Over the mountains" (that's Keanu in Hawaiian) Reeves is a blessed actor. He is mysteriously beautiful though that is only fitfully apparent in the flesh. His mixed race parentage makes him appear both familiar and alien.
The camera loves him injecting him with a languid, feline elegance. On screen even when he's bad - and he can be frightful - he catches the eye. When he's good he is mesmerising. His appeal is intangible yet across the board from star struck teens, to gays and older folk. The Internet is full of arcane Keanulands which even an actor who has played the Buddha finds strange.
Keanu is prepared to risk failure and so far has survived a series of radical career choices with his popularity not juts unharmed but enhanced. Since Speed turned him into a $10 million man he has not enjoyed box office nirvana.
In two years he has mixed art house duds like Feeling Minnesota, a small part as a Beat Generation drunk in The Last Time I Committed Suicide with the tiresome science fiction flop Johnny Mnemonic and the sleep inducing action thriller Chain Reaction. He found time to play Hamlet in Winnipeg and then he compounded his sins by turning down Speed 2 to go on tour with Dogstar, a rock band only a tone deaf groupie could love.
However since Speed 2 sank faster than the Titanic Reeves' decision to jump ship for Devil's Advocate looks altogether smarter. In it he plays Kevin Lomax, a happily married Florida attorney who because he's never lost a case is enticed up to the Big Apple to join a prestigious law firm headed up by the charismatic, amoral and decadent John Milton (Al Pacino)
The movie is a grown up sexy Faustian tale - a Rosemary's Baby for the caring '90s - in which the Devil has no need to hide. As his wife descends into madness the ambitious Lomax finds himself confronted and seduced by temptation. For the first time in his movie career Reeves has had to portray a fully rounded character, which he carries out most creditably. He shows little personal vanity. In one nude scene the camera focuses on the huge scar - the legacy of a motor bike crash - that runs from sternum to pelvis.
Many actors would have demanded make up or a body double. "Both Al and I were very concerned Keanu was a star rather than an actor," enthuses director Taylor Hackford, "I didn't know whether he could do it. He's played teenager roles, slackers, action heroes but never guys who can talk.
I said to him right at the beginning 'If you are even considering this role you will have to prepare harder than you have prepared for any other role in your life.' By the end both Al and I agreed we can't think of anyone else who could do it." Keanu obviously enjoyed rising to the challenge. Six months after wrapping he can still quote chunks of dialogue and obviously relished working with Pacino. He even enjoyed his interview, being sparky and argumentative but never rude. In the past his monosyllabic answers have led people to speculate about drugs and drink problems. Now he is alert, clear headed, witty and obviously well read.
On occasions he stuttered into "I don't knows" and he didn't want me to delve into his personal life - though it does appear his relationship to English starlet Amanda de Cadenet is either on hold or over. Any attempt to discuss his rumoured gay marriage to David Geffen was met with a raised eyebrow and total silence. I can't blame him for that.
People in Hollywood thought you were crazy to turn down Speed 2 for the Devil's Advocate.
At the time everyone said I made a mistake but I always thought "there'll be other movies". I've always been a little ambivalent about sequels. Part of me felt that if I'd done it I just wouldn't have come up out of the water. I was just searching, looking for something else as an actor, and luckily I found it in this new part I'm doing in Devil's Advocate. Ironically, largely because of the success of Speed, I could afford to say no to Speed 2. If I was broke, and I was desperate to take care of my rent or my other responsibilities, then I probably wouldn't have turned it down and would've taken care of business. I just want to act. I want to be a good actor. I want to give some good performances in some good films. Speed was such a ridiculous movie, and I mean that in a positive sense. It was a lot of fun, and it didn't insult your intelligence by trying to ask the audience to suspend too much of their disbelief. I was sure that doing the sequel would be a great ride, very entertaining, but I would've just been miserable playing the action hero again.
What appealed about Devil's Advocate?
I got to act with Al Pacino and it was a great part, a really meaty part. I get to have a wife, a father figure, I get to be ambitious, to make love, there is romance and the emotional range, the high pitches you get to reach for. I haven't had one part that has been as vast as this since Hamlet. It is Shakespearean in tone. I become morally suspect. I compromise and compromise, and there's this battle, a path of your life, the actions that you do, your internal moral makeup and how you can compromise that for ambition. Gradually the evil entices and seduces me. I lose everything I love and believe in, until there's a moment where you have to make a choice.
Do you go all the way? Do you sell your soul for power and love of money?
My problem with a lot of American studio pictures is that everything - and this one suffers from it a bit - is about plot as opposed to behaviour or content. Every scene you are watching is to move the plot. This film is more cinema oriented, the plot isn't so stated you don't know what is going to happen next, it isn't obvious. Like life its about getting a second chance.
When did you get your second chance?
In life oh god you get I don't know I've had reprieves, second chances, only one chance I don't want to go into it.
What was it like working with Pacino?
He's great, he's a very mysterious man in life, very funny, a unique person which gives him an interesting point of view. When I heard he'd accepted the part my blood started to tickle and to begin with I was very nervous and I was always apologising for fluffing my lines. He's just so good about his craft and he's so good about investigating the part and understanding the part with his mind and his heart. With the way he acts in-between lines and his behaviour and the way he highlights what's important in the scene and what he's doing, he's just unparalleled. With his facility with language, he can do anything. He's the man. He's a great actor, very open, very available, very free with himself. His acting is very available you can understand what he is feeling end thinking, if not you still are sympathetic, he is brilliant to watch, he is very beautiful. But he's not a teacher, he lets people be, there is none of this "This is what I am doing, why don't you try it my way". The biggest lesson I learnt was that he fights to get it on film.
Playing a yuppie lawyer is something of a departure for you.
I went to court in Jacksonville where my character Kevin Lomax works, in courts in Gainesville where I live and in New York I spoke to defence attorneys. I found them if anything to be pretty homogeneous, they are really story tellers when you hang out. Some of them talk about it being a metaphor for acting but that is only when you are in a jury trial, they are not frustrated actors though there are the technical demands of the soliloquy in court.
Do you ever want to quit acting and take up being a musician full time?
Sometimes yeah, but it's a passing phase. I do get frustrated with the process of filmmaking. When you're trying to do good work but because of the time limitations you can't do things the way you'd like to do them. We didn't have a lot of time on Devil's Advocate but I think we did good. It was pretty rushed. We shot for 85 days and I ended up mentally and physically exhausted. We didn't have enough time, or enough money but you just have to finish the gig.
Before that I did three films back to back - Johnny Mnemonic, Chain Reaction and The Last Time I Committed Suicide - then I went on the road with the band for about six weeks.
Playing live is fun, it is completely different from acting, the preparation is completely different, the form is completely different but they are both imaginative, creative and emotional acts. However acting is home for me, that is where I live.
You turned down $11 million for Speed 2, are earning $8 million for Devil's Advocate and $10 million for Matrix. Yet your last three movies have been unsuccessful. Are you worth the money?
I'm happy to be one of those actors studios come to with offers of work. I have to take advantage of my current position and strengthen my value. I want to be successful, to be one of those actors who get a chance at all the important productions. Often I feel like a piece of merchandise, but that doesn't traumatise me. I'm just starting now I'm consolidating my position. One day I'll have the privilege that comes with power - to choose the films that I want to act in. Films of importance, I hope.
People criticise my work, sure that I'm just out to make money with them. They give me other opportunities so I can finish my growth and make a name for myself. But if my films fail, who will hire me again? This is an industry that pursues profits and when they produce failures, the business shuts down and a lot of people end up on the street. There are people who say that I'm "difficult" and others that I'm "easy." Who's right? I'm easy for those who think they're superior to me and difficult for those who can't handle their own inferiority complexes.
In one scene in Devil's Advocate you are making love to your wife played by Charlize Theron and you keep imagining you are with your work colleague Christabella. Was that hard?
Are you kidding? [laughs]. Actually there were some really charged moments the scenes themselves were kind of crazy. I would do a shot and then the other actress would do a shot and there was a kind of a tension. My character Kevin is getting lost, Charlize is freaking out. The actual sex is unconsummated with lots of desire and high pitched emotions.
The girls were both naked and I was still in my pants. So in between takes to help relax a little bit I started joking around. I wasn't putting red noses on, it was sensitive to what was happening on the day, it was just to make it so we could be free or comfortable.
There were stories that you attended AA meetings during filming?
I don't have a drinking problem, but I decided not to drink during the shoot. For "The Last Time I Committed Suicide" I gained 30 pounds, I just started drinking and eating, tried to get big and crazy looking. To play Kevin I felt it was more important to maintain a clear eyed fit look.
Was it a stressful part?
When I work I tend to take on certain things my characters have. Kevin was under terrible stress. He is 32 years old in New York City representing the equivalent of Donald Trump in a triple homicide, his wife is going insane. He has a lot going on.
I was filming 18 hours a day, five days a week, trying to do good work and keep my life going on and suddenly one evening "eeeee" there is a sound like steam coming out of a pot in my right ear. It was terrifying. I didn't know if it would go away. I had pictures of needles being shot into my ear for the rest of my life. It lasted that whole night. I woke up it wasn't there. I was singing "Hallelulia, I'm alive, I don't have to cut it off". Once or twice over the next couple of months it would start to ring a little bit to remind me of the pact I've made with the devil.
Do you believe in God?
Sure I believe in God and the Devil but they don't have to have pitchforks and a long white beard.
What is your idea of heaven?
I've played the pantheon, almost a god [in Bertolucci's Little Buddha] and now the devil's son. I want to get some pagan parts. Actor heaven would be playing Hamlet, Lear in the afternoon and Macbeth you only do on Fridays. I don't want to speak about heaven, it is a place where you don't have to speak you can just be.
When I'm not working I like to sit on the couch, catch up on my reading, battle my computer at chess or go out on my bike.
What are you reading at the moment?
Right now I am reading The Moral Animal by Robin Wright (Reich) all about evolutionary psychology and Darwinism. I think it is really funny he is pompous as all heck and he is fighting his belief in God. Looking at humanity and life from the point of view of the gene is very interesting. I am also reading Labyrinths by [Argentinean writer] Jorge Luis Borges which I am really digging. I am loving that.
Your characters are pretty out there; have you ever felt suicidal?
Sometimes I have that extinction impulse and then something crazy happens and you think you're going to die, but you know you're really just kidding yourself. Then, when it really happens and you can't breathe or whatever, you're fighting for life like a lunatic. After that you just can't look at anything the same way.
You've had some serious motorbike crashes, have they calmed you down?
After the wreck last year when I broke my ankle, a friend of mine told me "You're riding different now - you're riding scared. " And I was. I would be driving and see a car come out and my body would clench and the temperature would change and the adrenaline rush would happen. That's kind of gone away now. I hadn't had a car in six years, but I bought a 1996 Carrera Four black-on-black Porsche. It's the closest car I can get to a motorcycle. I got it mostly so I could relax after the accident. Sometimes friends don't want to ride, or it's raining, and I play sports and I have to lug my equipment. I'm tired, I'm an old man now, so now I have a car to rest.
Are you still with Amanda de Cadenet?
I don't want to get into that personal stuff right now.
Okay so what do you bring to a relationship?
Sincerity, passion and understanding. I'm open about things from the first moment. I tell women I'm still not ready for marriage, that it's hard for me to be faithful to only one woman. I let them know what I have to give physically and emotionally. I listen to them. I don't think they've got any reason to complain.
Have you thought about becoming a father yourself?
Yeah it comes around once in a while. I am godfather to three different children so I have surrogate fatherhood. I can spoil them rotten then leave, be the good guy, the good dad. I lived with a woman for a year - she was just a friend of mine - who had a six month old child. I feel I have tasted it. I know what it is like to have a child in your arms, have them spit up on the back of your jacket and that incredible pooh they have and that baby smell and skin. I think about it but I am kinda scared of this world. I am terrified of it. I feel really scared for my friend's children just about growing up anywhere. It is a hard place, there is so much pain.
Everyone has lots of possibilities maybe I am being overwhelmed but I guess I'm not up to it. I am told that if you fall in love and decide to have a child you feel differently that you can have an optimism which is something the genes give you, you protect the child. I hear that is what happens. I know when I have fallen in love and started a relationship that I don't care. I'm in love and my house burned down - you just grin and say "I don't care, I'm in love". I guess I need that to happen again.
Are you frightened of falling in love?
Yes I am. I'm a coward. Isn't everybody.
Are you still nomadic?
No, I work then I go back to LA and look for work.
Is it difficult not to become vain after all your success?
I try not to take anything for granted - its the only thing that keeps me from being too self conscious or too self centred. I'm lucky to work, glad to work, it's not about me, don't take anything for granted. I try not to assume anything, try not to prejudge it
Is it easy to remain grounded?
Sometimes it is good to go out of your mind once in a while and fly out there. I don't take the publicity or press too seriously, I try not to let it affect me too much.
Not even the tabloids who've had you dead, gay and married - often in the same week?
It's totally ridiculous, and you're powerless to really do anything about it. It's like being punched in the face and not being able to punch back. It's one thing to come here and talk to you about a new film I happen to be very proud of, but it's something else entirely to pick up one of those rags and read some fabricated story about how I'm a heroin addict, or that I'm gay, or that I never bathe. It's so unfair and in such bad taste, and it's none of their business, anyway. Does anybody really care about any of that stuff?
What's your next project?
I was thinking of doing a project where I play a homeless man but I decided not to do it after living rough for a few days. Right now I'm taking it easy. I'm not looking beyond my next job. My manager is - that is what I pay him for - he is speaking about trying to get a romance. I'd like to do some physical comedy, I haven't done any for a while. In March I start shooting Matrix in Australia with the Wachowski brothers who made "Bound". Matrix is going to take 8 years of my life - I mean 8 months - it's special effects training, a really sophisticated complex action science fiction picture. Nothing has ever been undertaken like this in America before. Virtual-reality machines have supposedly taken over the world and there's what's real and what's not. It's film noir meets the Coen Brothers meets Billy Wilder with a whole lot of Japanese anime thrown in.