Keanu Reeves And Charlize Theron Take The Path Most Travelled And Find Out That The Devil You Know Is No Better Than The Devil You Don't.
by Kathleen Paul
Here on a professional assignment, one should be more concerned with the job at hand. But right at this moment, focus is on the completely useless contents of my luggage. Today, I have to look good, which, quite frankly, takes loads of preparation and planning. After desperately trying on combos of virtually everything, a decision is made - black leather jacket, black GAP t-shirt, black Levis and black stacked boots. All the good female press correspondents are garbed black on black.
He is 10 minutes late and enters the room sloth like, attired in rumpled clothing and bearing the tiniest remains of sleep dust near the corners of his small-set eyes. He has day-old stubble on his face and finger-raked hair that could have used a second run-through. His eyes are dull and blank, and he looks like he doesn't care to be here right now. He looks at our beaming and expectant faces and raises a devilish eyebrow. Then, almost in slow motion, he raises his right index finger to his mouth and quickly snips a piece of skin off. Looking back at us, he kicks back in his chair, spreads his unbelievably long legs and says, "Soooooo?"
And I'm thinking: I shaved my legs for this?
Sitting in front of me is six-foot, slender [but with a bit of a paunch] Keanu Reeves, 34, and the international star who was catapulted to fame after starring in a movie that featured a speeding bus as one of the chief protagonists. And no wonder he's wearing that smirk - Reeves is having the last laugh. Four years after his near screen vehicular homicide, he is reportedly receiving a paycheck somewhere in the neighbourhood of US$10 million [plus 10 per cent of the box-office gross] to star in a big-budget science-fiction flick called Matrix, which is about a man who leads an enslaved society in a revolt against computers.
This morning, he is in New York to talk to the press about his most current movie The Devil's Advocate, in which he plays ambitious young lawyer Kevin Lomax, sent up from Florida to the big league in New York City. Loaded with big bucks and a fabulous home, but struggling with the intense seduction of success and money, Kevin becomes enmeshed in a desperate fight for his soul when he realises that his diabolically brilliant mentor is somewhat more - or less - than human.
Al Pacino plays his mentor John Milton. "He is awesome," sighs Reeves. "Man, I did not want to suck in front of him." And South African model-turned-actress Charlize Theron plays his innocent, morally-centred wife. "She is so pure and so much fun," says Reeves, "and, I might add, very attractive." For the record, there were serious reservations about casting Reeves with Pacino. Devil's Advocate executive producer Arnold Kopelson admits, "Al is so strong, so overpowering an actor that it's difficult for anyone to not get clouded over, but Keanu really comes through - he really delivers and people will be surprised." Even Pacino steps a bit out of line and confesses: "I thought the kid was first brought in for his juice [studio talk for box-office appeal], but after working with Keanu, I believe he's got what it takes, and in some scenes in particular, you really see him come across. Now he owns the role."
But everything has its price. What do you do when you walk on a set as the real life underdog and on your first day of shooting, the scene requires you to look a legendary movie star in the face and scream at his character: "F*** off and go back to hell!"? If you are Reeves, you flub the line. "I just mentally and physically backed away," remembers Reeves, "and said to myself, 'This is Al Pacino. Don't be a disappointment.'"
A week later, the actor makes another faux pas when some Warner Bros. executives casually visit the set to see how things are going. Reports are Reeves ignored them and headed for his trailer. The actor claims no offence intended, he was just staying focused. The suits are said to have felt snubbed and maybe even a little disrespected, which is understandable since they had already taken a huge gamble on a US$57 million nonaction movie with an actor who - besides the bus story - has yet to prove his true worth at the box-office.
Thus, intimidation and defensive behaviour reared its ugly head. "Yeah, I was a little intimidated at first," agrees Reeves after a long pause, "but it was just a matter of time to settle in and settle down." A simple explanation from an actor who, in real life, waffles between two voices: An effete "Richie Rich" baritone and a lackadaisical California surfer dude, with corresponding attitudes to match. Hence, misreadings and reports of on-set tension and a strained relationship among the main actors started cropping up. "Not true," vouches Pacino. "Every set has its good days and bad days and this film was no exception. I would work with Keanu again."
Theron backs Pacino. "Keanu is such an intense actor that he became Kevin and, well, Kevin isn't always the most considerate of people," laughs the leading lady, "and maybe, for some of those involved with the shoot, the actor somehow got confused with his character." Producer Kopelson is even more emphatic. "Bulls***' Al is a perfectionist and he sprinkles that mentality on everyone he comes in contact with. Keanu is the same. Those two are their own worst critics."
In the end, the tension and stress took its toll on Reeves. "Yeah, it was bad ... All my personal worries and Kevin's stress," shudders Reeves, "and so one night, all of a sudden, I had the most savage attack of Van Gogh's disease [a stress-related physical phenomenon emanating from a person's lower eardrum that sounds like a progressively loud and relentless ringing or buzzing noise]." How did he get rid of it? "I just put my ear down on the pillow," an amazed Reeves recalls, "and prayed the sound would go away. "
Lucky for him, in the morning, it was gone. But the situation reveals a lot about the psychological makeup and work ethic of a young actor who can be his own worse enemy. According to anyone's account, Reeves is a mass of ambiguities. On the one hand a rigid, painstaking professional which, Feeling Minnesota director Steven Baigelman remembers, cut both ways. "Keanu's perfectionism is legendary, and sometimes we were in awe. Most times it just drove us to distraction." On the other hand, Reeves is the ultimate slacker nonpareil - he is reported to keep bathing to a minimum, lives like a gypsy roaming from van to hotel room to rented condo, and spends most of his money on "stuff."
To add to the confusion, Reeves is still not exactly seen as a boy or a man ... Or woman for that matter. Gus Van Sant, director of the 1991 Shakespeare-esque story about north-western street hustlers My Own Private Idaho, says: "Keanu is still a beautiful man-child and he also possess this sort of mystic that is compounded by his intensity. He jumped at the part of Scott Fervor [the bisexual son of the town's mayor] which, at that point in Keanu's career, was very daring to take on. But he did it because he wanted to test his talent." And perhaps because as Reeves once admitted: "I choose to go for certain roles because there is some part of me in that character that I want to let out in broad daylight."
That philosophy may also somehow explain why Reeves may have signed on for Speed, a film that featured a lead character who is almost always in physical peril but every time manages to clear himself of danger. Yet, when push comes to shove, he does not have the skills to navigate his way through life. "He didn't want to do it," remembers agent and producer Erwin Stoff, "and I said, [after duds like Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha] 'You have to hit a fastball down the middle, Keanu.'"
And the rest is history. Reeves took the part and rediscovered a genre he was good at. Remember Point Break? Plus, director Jan DeBont encouraged him to do as many of his own stunts as possible, which he loved. However, Reeves refused to cave into pressure to do Speed 2: Cruise Control and openly slagged off the sequel as the product of a crappy script and even crappier pretext. "I like Jan and Sandra [Bullock] and just about everyone connected with Speed," the actor drones, "but I just felt that if I went into that picture, I wouldn't come up for air and I didn't want that to happen." But what about that big-bucks paycheck he was offered to repeat - incredibly tempting or what? "Money has never been an issue with me," Reeves says with a bit of indignation, "It's always about the role, the film, the script, the play ... I try to never let dollars cloud my judgement."
Which brings us back to The Devil's Advocate. Besides the chance to star opposite the incomparable Pacino, what did he seek to gain by playing the slimy, morally delinquent attorney Kevin Lomax? "A chance to redeem myself," deadpans the actor. "A chance to get inside the head of a guy I would never be - would never want to be - and try and figure his world out." And what did Reeves discover? "Nothing," he says with a flat voice, "except Al Pacino would be a really cool dad."
Kevin is such a grown-up, main-stream, A-type personality who has a lot of problems dealing with what is morally wrong but fiscally right. How far away from yourself did you have to go to get Kevin down?
Far, but not that far. Free will is a bitch, you know, and we all get caught up in what's good for the moment but maybe not for the future. I like Kevin's ambition and his single-mindedness to be the best at his game, but somewhere along the line he loses his aim. We pretty much end there because those suits, man ... I couldn't stay in them too long.
Do you believe in the Devil, some sort of active negative force that can materialise in various forms?
Well, I don't think the Devil looks like Al Pacino, if that's what you mean. But I do believe in negative and positive forces of nature actively trying to take each other out, and it's up to the individual to hang on to the positive side.
What's your favourite sin?
Hmmm ... [Scratches his chin] hmm ... Lust! Yeah, absolutely. [Laughs with devilish glee.] Lust is good. Lust is the way to go.
So I guess you didn't have too much trouble in those naked love scenes with Charlize?
No, not at all. It was great fun and Charlize is easy to work with, and I thought we looked pretty believable together ... Pretty lusty ... [Looks insecure.] Didn't we?
Not bad, not bad. But tell the truth: During a love scene, are you hard at work or hard at play?
Well, with Charlize, definitely hard at play. She's an old farm girl and just had no problem taking it off and trying to be as natural as possible, which made me calm down and just try to stay in Kevin's head, doing what Kevin would do.
What was it like to go up against a powerful entity like the Devil in the form of Al Pacino?
Weird. [Long pause.] Just really weird. I mean, I am standing there doing all these scenes with this amazing, incredible actor ... [Shakes his head and gives a long pause] ... He is the man ... And then the scene is cut and Al is like, "Come on, kid, let's get something to eat." Five minutes later, we'd be back in the scene and he's Milton again, trying to screw up the world ... And the man doesn't miss a beat!
So you're still pinching yourself, never quite getting over winning the spot opposite Pacino?
I got over it, and I think you can see that in the finished product. I worked my a** off and I hope it shows. I mean, at one point, Al just became Al and that was it. We were both professionals in there doing our jobs.
[Devil's Advocate director] Taylor Hackford said that when he saw you after you were first cast, you looked like hell - sullen attitude, pale and soft-bodied, lethargic speech - but the first day on the set when you walked out dressed and acting like Kevin, he was just amazed at the physical and apparently mental transformation. You were Kevin.
He said that? [Long pause.] Well, I guess I did my job then.
So is acting "just a job", an avocation between [your band] Dogstar gigs?
The two aren't mutually exclusive. Acting is the most important thing in my life and so is Dogstar ... Acting, music, living ... [His voice trails off.]
And loving? What about loving? Is there a love interest in your life?
No comment whatsoever.
Come on! At least say yes or no.
Yes ... [Long pause ... And then with great cheek] ... Or no.
O.K., O.K. An actor acts, so what is a pretty boy like you doing playing bass in a rock & roll band?
It's very simple. I love to play music and I love to act. But it is so frustrating when people - the press - just won't let us [Dogstar] be. The constant questions and insinuations that I am not fully committed to [Dogstar's singer-songwriter] Bret and [drummer] Rob is really ... The bottom line should be the end result ... And we have a good sound. And as far as acting goes, well, there is nothing like connecting with certain material and then hooking up with an audience ... Which is the same thing that happens when I play live ... The same sense of sharing an experience.
Back to film, you've already started preliminary work on Joel Silver's big-bucks sci-fi Matrix. Is it Johnny Mnemonic in another form?
No. [Drops a strange laugh that's somewhere between exhaustion and annoyance.] Matrix is much more textured and filled out. I'd say it's more like a film noir with a Japanese slant with a little bit of the Coen Brothers and maybe Mr. [Billy] Wilder thrown in. I mean, just an indescribable movie.
Sounds interesting. Well, thanks for taking time out to speak with us, Keanu. One last shot - Galaxie readers want to know. Are you seeing anyone?
[Stands up, raises his right eyebrow sky-high and smirks] O.K., yeah ... I'm seeing my chiropractor. My back is killing me.
And on that note, Reeves actually breaks out in the most brilliant smile, throws his head back and lets his rich baritone laugh wrap around the room, proud he has stuck it to the press and kept something for himself.