He seems to have it all - smouldering good looks, wealth and talent - but something is bothering Keanu Reeves
by Jessica Weaver; photographs by Yariv Milchan
Sometimes you'd think that no-one in Hollywood is happy. "I'm floating through life because I don't have the answers," says Keanu Reeves lighting another cigarette. "Every day is a struggle to find the kind of clarity and wisdom I'm seeking. The more I see of the world and the more people I meet, the less certain I become about who I am and what sense there is to life." Loosely translated this means the boy is in a bad way.
At 33, Reeves is a dollar millionaire several times over. He is paid about $10 million per movie to play love scenes with the world's most beautiful women. Plenty of men would gladly take on the daily struggle for clarity and wisdom if those were it's compensations.
But Keanu's problem is that he doesn't get much fun out of his money. Uninterested in the usual indulgences, he turns up at film premieres wearing clothes that Oxfam wouldn't thank you for. He has no hacienda in the Hollywood hills. In fact, he has no permanent home at all, living out of a suitcase from one five star hotel to another. "I've never really thought about a home at all," he declares almost defensively. "I feel it that's a trap. I won't feel at home anywhere until I reach the stage where I know what a home should be like."
Nothing is simple, it seems, for Keanu. Even his one treat, a collection of he-man motorbikes, brought him misery when he crashed his vintage Norton, rupturing his spleen and acquiring a 6 inch abdominal scar.
But what about all the women? He is one of the world's most lusted-after men; surely that must cheer him up on rainy days ? "It's nice and all that, but I can't take it seriously. I mean fans don't really know me. They don't see how messy I am, and they would probably find me pretty boring and serious to be with. I'm not put off by the attention; it's just that I feel embarrassed if I'm walking down the street and suddenly about five or six girls surround me and ask me for my autograph. Inside I still feel like this high school drop out who hasn't achieved much with his life."
The fact is that Keanu Reeves is lonely. There have been some juicy rumours of lovers, including actresses Sandra Bullock and Rachel Weisz, and even music mogul David Geffen (he dismissed that suggestion ages ago, with a disdainful take it or leave it denial). But as yet no substantial attachments seem to have been formed. "I want to find a soulmate," he says in a sad voice. "At night and sometimes in the day I get that ache. The ache that goes I want a nest, I want a wife. I would love to imagine myself in harmony with a woman who I could look in the eyes and know I could devote myself to, without wishing I were somewhere else, or that I could meet my own expectations and not feel like such a geek."
Such self doubt, despite so much apparent good fortune: could the explanation lie in his childhood? Reeves was brought up in Toronto, Canada by his English mother, a lone parent after his Hawaiian / Chinese father left when Keanu was just two years old. The boy had an early introduction to showbiz exotica through his mother's rather unusual job. She sewed costumes for rock-stars such as Aerosmith and Alice Cooper. The latter put aside his fright-wigged, blood-thirsty stage act and played baby-sitter to young Keanu, remembering him fondly as "this cute little blackhaired kid".
Keanu's schooldays weren't easy. He was found to be dyslexic, which may have encouraged him to focus his efforts on the sports field, rather than the classroom. He developed his impressive physique playing ice-hockey, and as a goalie he was known as "The Wall". By his teens, however, the teachers at his Catholic school (he went to four high schools in all) had decided that Reeves was never going to be an academic. He failed every class except Latin, which was the only subject he enjoyed. "I was lazy", he says. "I knew I wanted to act, and school wasn't important."
Going to Harvard was never an option. At 19, he packed his beaten up car and headed for Hollywood. As we know, that was a smart move. Keanu was cute and no-one else looked quite like him. Casting directors saw the young man and thought "cat like grace - box office dynamite".
He first came to our attention in a very different guise, and in a film that turned out to be quite untypical of his career - the gloriously silly Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. As goofy Ted, the 23 year old Keanu travelled through time, wearing cut-off shorts and a dumb grin. He played air-guitar and shook his page-boy hair cut. "Excellent, dude!" was the extent of his dialogue.
His career as a sex-symbol really took off when director Kathryn Bigelow dressed him in a wet-suit for 1991's Point Break the surfing / bank heist thriller, opposite Patrick Swayze. The sight of Reeves showering after riding the surf caused much swooning and shot him into the pin-up league, alongside Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt.
His apogee came with 1994's hugely successful Speed, in which he took the lead as handsome hero Jack Traven. That made him A-list; he was set but he still wasn't happy.
The fact is that behind all that West-coast mumbling, Keanu is a serious actor. He thinks art not explosions. Like Hamlet, the role he played when he returned to his native Canada to perform with the Winnipeg theatre company, he thinks "the play's the thing".
"I look for some kind of inner drama or turmoil that my character needs to experience," he says. "That's what makes the work interesting for me. I like to plunge into the abyss and see what I can find. I don't feel heroic in my own life, so it doesn't interest me to play those kind of men in my movies."
"I'm not considered like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. I don't have that kind of draw. They're exceptional actors who have made some really good films. But your acting journey is a personal journey. It's a creative act and it's a searching act. You search for what's inside, you try and set up situations where the unexpected can come out."
To an uncharitable eye, Keanu's search has looked a little haphazard. Artistic as well as commercial success has largely eluded him since Speed. He tried Little Buddha, a film whose mysticism was right up his street (despite all the chest baring it bombed at the box office), and went on to seek more inner drama in Francis Ford Coppolas Dracula. He looked just fine in Darcey-esque shirt frills as Jonathan Harker, being chewed on by three lustful vampirettes, but the reviews were not encouraging.
More esoteric projects followed, such as A Walk in the Clouds and Johnny Mnemonic. He returned to big-budget blockbusters with Chain Reaction, playing an implausible nuclear physicist, but the film was reckoned to be a mess.
Still he has kept searching and has even been prepared to mortgage his principle asset, those looks. For last year's Feeling Minnesota he developed a pasty complexion and a bulkier body. He was trying to be unattractive - though of course he failed. In The Last Time I Committed Suicide, yet to be released in UK, he has a cameo role as a drunken womaniser, for which he consumed a diet of beer, egg-nog and Scotch to gain 30lb. "I was overweight, seedy, sweaty and greasy and I loved it," he says. "It's fun as an actor to not have vanity."
"If I could chose what to do and not have to worry about keeping a box office standing," he says, choosing his words carefully, "I would only make difficult films."
If the right "difficult" project doesn't come along, Keanu is not that bothered. In fact he'd far rather hang out with his ragtag rock band, Dogstar.
"We're not a real serious event," he says slipping into rock-star mode. "I play for fun because music gives you this immediate contact with an audience. It's great to sense the presence of an audience. Film is completely alien. You imagine all the parts of a movie in your brain to make any sense of things. Music though is an organic thing. It lives every night"
Ask him about his decision not to star in Speed 2 - even for the $11 million he was offered - and he makes much more sense. "It would have been fun to work with Sandra again," he says, "but I thought the script sucked. I wasn't going to do a sequel just because of the money."
Instead Keanu chose to do Devil's Advocate, a thriller co-starring Al Pacino. His pay-packet was a mere $8 million but the real attraction was the chance to work with Pacino. "When I found he's accepted the part my blood started to tingle," he says "Pacino is the man and it was an honour to work with him"
Dismissing rumours of artistic differences with the veteran star, Keanu says "There were no big blow-ups between us; it was just the usual kind of creative struggle that takes place on any film set. I feel I learned a lot from him, and by the end of the process I thought I measured up. Most of the time I feel that I don't."
Devil's Advocate is a Faustian tale in which Keanu plays Kevin Lomax, an ambitious Southern lawyer who moves to a New York practice headed by Pacino. It includes a "very intense" love scene with his screen wife, played by Charlize Theron. During the filming he is said to have voluntarily stripped, remarking "isn't it funny that you're making love to your wife and she's naked and you're still in your pants ?" Theron says that she found working with him a pleasure because he was "very comfortable with his body".
So, you think, at least there's one thing he doesn't feel bad about. Then he gives a world-weary sigh and adds, "Life isn't a bowl of cherries and I don't consider myself a happy person."
Devil's Advocate is released on 16th January