Trial by Fire
His new movie The Devil’s Advocate may not see him assuming the action hero mantle, but we know Keanu Reeves is more than capable of the task from Point Break and Speed. So sniggering fools who charge that he can’t act and those persistent gay rumours be damned. When it comes to choosing our idols, Keanu Reeves is our Lust Action Hero supremo.
WHEN Keanu Reeves played an undercover FBI agent in the 1991 surf thriller Point Break, his character was memorably described in the script as being "young, dumb and full of come". The tag has stayed with Reeves and in the same way that many people still think of him as the amiable airhead Ted, from the two Bill And Ted movies that made him famous, it's frequently been used to define him in real life. "I guess I was too good," grins Reeves.
It's a knowing smile; he's as aware as anyone of his reputation for being, well, less than bright and somewhat challenged in the acting department.
But Reeves also knows that there is a difference between the characters he plays and who he is. "Nothing I've ever played is who I am," he says in between sipping from a bottle of water in a Manhattan hotel suite. "Which is funny because people always think that's who I am."
It's 10 in the morning, still very early on the Keanu clock and he rolls his head from side to side occasionally as if he's trying to shake himself. With his patchy beard, brown jacket and jeans, Reeves looks more like a student than a 33 year old star who will reportedly receive close on US$10 million (about S$16 million) fo his next film, the sci-fi drama Matrix.
Breaking free of people's perceptions of him are low down on Reeves' list of priorities, though. In fact, he seems more amused with his public image than anything else. "Maybe it's because I don't carry the parts around with me. I guess I did to a certain extent with Bill And Ted. I brought that one home a lot because it was fun."
It's strange to hear Reeves, who often project rather stone faced seriousness on screen, say that but in real life he has a rather goofy sense of humour, as well as the self effacing attitude that distinguishes Canadians from their more brash neighbours in the US.
Not that we get to see him smile too much in The Devil's Advocate, his latest film. He plays a trusting young attorney who joins a New York law firm only to find out that his boss, played by Al Pacino, is Lucifer himself. Despite this set up, Reeves is hedging his bets when it comes to saying whether he believes in concepts like the devil and hell.
"I'll say it's relative to each person. But I do believe that bad energy can manifest evil and that you can manifest good. Whether it's as literal as the devil, I think if you have that consciousness you can manifest that, you can have visions. But Devil's Advocate is a metaphor, an analogy about what happens when you compromise yourself."
Although there were reports that Reeves and Pacino had their disagreements during filming he's clearly still in awe of the veteran actor. "When I found out he took the part, I can't tell you, I mean, I was just light headed," enthuses Reeves, who's actually billed ahead of Pacino in the credits. "Isn't that crazy? I demanded it. No, the feeling was that it would be misleading to reverse them."
Reeves' choices of films have been as puzzling to some observers as the fact that he's still working at all. After propelling himself into the ranks of Hollywood's top leading men with a surprising and effective turn as an action hero in Speed he was expected to continue working in the same vein. It didn't happen. He went straight into the downbeat independent production Feeling Minnesota and turned down the chance to appear in Speed 2.
"I try and do both," says Reeves of the way he flips between big studio movies and independent films. "I want to act in both but it's just hard. Recently I auditioned for Steven Soderbergh [sex, lies and videotape] and he said 'no'. Fine, I'm not right for the part. I tried. What I mean is that still happens. You go up for a picture and they don't want you. If you're an actor, you're always looking for work."
It happens less now, but Reeves' technique for dealing with the rejection that accompanies the thespian way normally involves getting drunk, after a period holding his head in his hands. "Anger is also good for helping you get over it. I'll scream and cuss them out, 'It's not me, it's them. They don't know.'"
The frustration is real because, according to Reeves, his professional life is getting more important all the time. "For me to lose myself, it happens when I act," he stresses. Does that mean he can only really live when he's projected on screen? "Well, kind of. There are parts when I'm only alive. My friends find it very depressing and they tell me I should stop, but I can't help it."
In part that's because he's been doing it for so long. Reeves first told his English born mother his career plans when he was 15 and living in Toronto. By the time he was 17 he'd dropped out of that city's High School For The Performing Arts, one of four schools he attended, and was appearing in commercials. "I played ice hockey pretty seriously until I was 17 and I started acting a couple of years before that. I looked around the dressing room one day and said, 'I'll go for acting.' I just loved acting."
Three years later he left Toronto for good frustrated by the lack of opportunities. "At that time Canada was offering tax breaks to American productions if there was some Canadian content. Well, the way they would do that would be that they got you to play friend number three. So I was doing plays and workshops, but I wanted to act in film and all I got was friend number three. I got to say 'Hey John' and then went home. So I moved to LA."
Once on the west coast, it didn't take Reeves long to establish himself. 1986's River's Edge saw him playing the flipside to the character he would create for Bill And Ted, a troubled and moody young man who could intrigue an audience and carry them along with him. It wasn't all performance either. "People would say when I was younger that I was just acting out. I'd go, 'No, I'm not, f*** off.' then when you're 25, 26 you look back and you go, 'F*** I was angry'," he recalls with a shake of his head. "I'm more conscious now and I guess that just happens with age."
But if Reeves was busy building up credits like any other rookie actor, then he always stood out from the thousands of young men who roam LA in search of fame and fortune. First he looked different, almost too perfect and then there was that exotic first name. It means "cool breeze over the mountain" and comes from his Chinese Hawaiian dad. His parents met while his mother was a dancer in Beirut, where Reeves was born, but had split up by the time he was two. His mum subsequently moved to Canada, where she made stage costumes for the likes of Alice Cooper and Dolly Parton, while his father, from whom he's estranged, would end up in prison in Hawaii for supplying cocaine. The Reeves bandwagon really began to roll after he appeared opposite River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho. A reworking of Shakespeare's Henry IV, the 1991 film saw Reeves giving his best performance to date as a rich kid slumming as a rentboy. With its provocative themes--drugs and homosexuality feature prominently--it's a challenging and daring film that led to accusations that he and Phoenix were taking method acting too far. There were the whispers about drug taking.
The gay rumours, however, took longer to disappear and would peak in 1995 with the ridiculous story that he had secretly married music mogul David Geffen. The two had never met at that point although Geffen reportedly said that he wished it was true, just as Emma Thompson would thank Reeves for getting undressed in front of her on the set of Much Ado About Nothing. In fact, he's has been linked to a number of the actresses he's worked with, including Brit Rachel Weisz, his co star in Chain Reaction, and then there's his ongoing friendship with Amanda De Cadenet. "I met her when she was working for The Word and I was in London researching [Bram Stoker’s] Dracula. She interviewed me, we got on and kept in touch and then she moved out to L.A. We never went out," he claims.
Keeping his love life private is something he’s largely been successful at. "I watched a little of Boy George’s story last night on TV and that was amazing. It’s those people who have their hearts on their sleeves like that, it’s just so funny," marvels Reeves. It’s something he’s certainly not prone to, but then he stood watching on the sidelines as his mother remarried a couple of times. "I’ve had two stepfathers and an absent father and that had profound effects on me that I’m still trying to glean. Yeah."
He claims the experience hasn’t made him sceptical about marriage. "I don’t think so. It hasn’t made me cynical about it, it’s just a reaction to your romanticism. Once you get into it, then you have a real view of it."
Reeves has begun to wake up now and seems considerably more animated. Although he often appears inarticulate and somewhat vacant, that seems be more deliberate than anything else. Reeves can be stubborn but if he wants to talk he will, even if he sometimes misuses words and frequently ties himself up in knots trying to express himself correctly. "I love semantics, words are meaning and I find we start taking things for granted or making gross assumptions."
The love of language is one of the reasons he’s so into the work of the Beat writers of the 1950’s. "I’ve only read Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassidy and Burroughs," he says. "Dharma Bums and On The Road [both by Kerouac] affected me greatly. The whole spirit of trying to get out of yourself, trying to experience life, growing out. Trying to live life and feel your emotions.”
The fact that Reeves has no fixed address doesn’t mean that he’s trying to emulate the itinerant lifestyle of the Beats. "I think people find it very romantic," he chuckles. "I keep trying to find a house but I either don’t like it or can’t afford it. I am trying to find one." When he’s not away filming Reeves can normally be found staying at the Chateau Marmont, a landmark Hollywood hotel. He’s also well aware of the less-than-romantic end to the lives of Kerouac and Cassidy, who both died young. "There’s a great sadness in those books; On The Road is very depressing. It’s a beautiful picture but it’s a shitty life.”
Nonetheless it’s appealing and Reeves clearly likes to take a few risks, both professionally and personally. In 1995, he braved worldwide scorn to play Hamlet in a small Canadian production.
A measure of the interest it generated was that the UK’s The Guardian and The Sunday Times both sent their drama critics over to Winnipeg. The Times liked his performance, The Guardian didn’t. Then there’s his now-notorious participation in the band Dogstar.
Although Reeves tries to maintain a low profile as the bassist, the audience at their gigs is invariably made up of screaming teenage girls, while Dogstar’s unsophisticated three chord sound hasn’t sparked too much interest from record companies.
Outside of Shakespeare and music, though, Reeves gets his kicks from riding big British motorbikes at high speeds. "The snorting Nortons," exclaims Reeves happily. "Beautiful. If you ride it every day and just get on the throttle and kick the shit out of it, you’ve got a happy Norton."
Staying on it has been more of a problem. "I’ve got this, I’ve got that one. That’s a broken ankle from last year, a few chipped teeth," he reveals as he pulls up his jeans and shirt to show off some scary scars. "I’m a little more cautious but once in a while I forget to be cautious."
Eleven years after he made his film debut in Flying, Reeves still seems alittle bemused by the attention he receives ("They report on the news that you’ve had a crash. Who cares?"), while also doing his best to downplay who he is. "I’m not that famous, you know," he says at one point. "I mean, Speed was very successful, but it’s one picture and it all goes away."
But he also knows that he’s grown up on screen and that he’s here to stay. "I’ve almost been in LA as long as I was in Toronto," he smiles. "You know, the little sapling takes roots, then it grows and then it’s an old tree in the forest."