Devil in Disguise
On the surface, Keanu Reeves might seem like just another sexy movie star who likes fast bikes and loud music. But as Karen Moline discovers, peel away the layers and you'll find a sensitive, Shakespeare-loving perfectionist.
YET ANOTHER BORING WORK-OUT SESSION AT A GYM CALLED "CRUNCH", IN DOWNTOWN MANHATTAN. THE MUSIC IS BORING, THE RHYTHMIC POUNDING ON THE TREADMILLS IS BORING, AND THE SOUND OF THE TRAINER'S VOICE AS HE COUNTS OUT THE NUMBER OF PUSH-UPS HIS CLIENT IS DOING IS BORING. THEN THE CLIENT STANDS UP WITH A GRUNT AND WIPES THE SWEAT OFF HIS FOREHEAD. THE MUSIC INSTANTLY REVS UP. THE WOMEN ON THE TREADMILLS ARE SUDDENLY RUNNING A LITTLE FASTER. THE TRAINER SMIRKS HAPPILY.
That's because his client is Keanu Reeves, and when everyone recognises him, the gym is no longer such a boring place to be. Even dripping with sweat, his hair a rumpled mat of uncombed grease and his face a mask of unapproachability, Keanu is one fine-looking hunk of a movie star. And he's in our gym! Just think!
I'm thinking about that session at Crunch when, a year later, his mask of unapproachability still frozen in place, Keanu shuffles into a hotel suite to face a group interview. He sits down and sulks. At 34, he's as handsome as ever - even though his stained jacket thrown on over a frayed black T-shirt, and grubby, faded jeans is hardly a turn-on. He has a scruffy beard and seems half-asleep. We're here to talk about his new film, Devil's Advocate, in which he plays a do-anything-to-win lawyer who finds himself working for - well, look at the title and take a guess! Keanu answers questions in a monotone... when he says anything at all, that is. The other journalists and I look at each other, frustrated.
Someone asks about an ugly, red scar on his neck and Keanu stares at his nails before replying that he's just had neck surgery. (He didn't explain, as he could have, that it was for a potentially life-threatening disc problem.) I venture a joke about seeing him doing push-ups at my gym when he was in New York during the filming of Devil's Advocate. Keanu turns blank eyes to me. Oops. Guess he's not the joking type - see for yourself..
How do you maintain your privacy?
Keanu: "I don't have anyone really caring about what I do, so it's not that hard." You don't think you're famous?
Keanu: "I don't get recognised or followed that much. Maybe someone will say 'Hey!' and I'll go 'Hey!' but that's about it. I'm not that famous."
Don't even dream of asking Keanu about his, well, private life, a topic about which he has always been tight-lipped. Ask him if he wants to volunteer any information about any female person who may be, you know, close to him, and you'll see a fine example of method acting glinting dangerously in those eyes. To his credit, Keanu has never been one of those Hollywood showbiz types who insists on parading his gal-pal du jour at premieres, A-list parties and award ceremonies, although he was spotted at one point with English starlet, Amanda de Cadenet, whose main claims to fame were her marriage to Duran Duran bass player John Taylor (pre Keanu) and being Courtney Love's gal pal (post Keanu).
In fact, he is so often not seen with women that rumours were flying around that Keanu was gay. He has flatly denied it, but in the absence of evidence, well, people have nothing better to do than gossip. So forget about finding out if Keanu is in love. Even if he were the happiest man on earth, he's certainly not the type to blab it to a group of journalists.
No, this fine-looking hunk of a movie star only comes alive - and just barely - when he talks about three things. One is Al Pacino, his co-star in Devil's Advocate. "The first couple of scenes we shot I was more self-conscious than I usually am," Keanu admits. "And I'd think, 'Oh no, I suck in front of Al Pacino!' But as we warmed up we just got to work. He's so good, and his technique is amazing; he's so watchable."
The next is his love of speed - the thick scars crisscrossing his body are indelible souvenirs of his many motorcycle crashes, about which he shrugs. "I'm an awful driver," he confesses.
The last is his band, Dogstar. "We did an album called Our Little Visionary," he says. "Then our record company got bought out, so we have about 8,000 records in our drummer's garage."
"So you're a real garage band." I try another feeble joke.
Keanu looks at me blankly again. It's not exactly movie-star attitude. It's plain dislike of having to talk about himself. Even on America's top-rating The Rosie O'Donnell Show, Keanu was silent. "This is a talk show," comedian Rosie O'Donnell chided him. "You have to talk."
Yet when I am summoned for a one-on-one with Keanu about an hour after the group interview, I am more than a little astonished to find him charm incarnate. In fact, I can hardly get him to stop talking about all sorts of interesting topics. The intricacies of Shakespearian grammar, for instance, and how much he'd love to play Marc Antony in Antony And Cleopatra or, of course, the Scottish play - he means Macbeth. And about what kinds of books make the bestseller list. And how much he loved doing Hamlet because he loves words. Excuse me? He loves words? This from the Great Mumbler himself?
Keanu's rather extraordinary contradictions go a long way towards summing him up as an actor. He became well-known for playing a Whoa! Dude!-type character in the Bill & Ted movies - but possesses an intense sensitivity that has infused his best film incarnations with an empathetic vulnerability. He hates giving interviews - but once he loosens up has more to say than your average movie star. He is interested in working on a wide range of characters, not just rehashing the same old stuff: take the cocky, talented, fast-talking lawyer Keanu plays in Devil's Advocate - he's light years away from the taciturn and tough cop who stops the bus in the global blockbuster Speed.
"When I first met Keanu, he'd just had a motorcycle accident," says Devil's Advocate director Taylor Hackford. "He had a cast on his leg and he was a little bit overweight. I told him how much he was going to have to prepare himself mentally and physically for this part because he has to carry a $[US]57 million dollar movie from beginning to end. He looked me in the eye and said, 'I like the script and I want to do it.' I asked him why he didn't want to do Speed 2 - for which he would have been paid an astronomical sum - and he said, 'I didn't like the script and I don't want to keep pursuing action dramas. I want to prove that I'm an actor.' Now, when someone tells me this, it means that they're committed and that they have something to prove. If he fails, he'll fall flat on his face because everybody out there will end up saying, 'Keanu can't act.' And I know how much he can act."
Keanu's versatile career began with a small role in a forgettable hockey film, Youngblood, co-starring Rob Lowe and a then-unknovm Patrick Swayze (who went on to star with Keanu in the surfing thriller, Point Break). Perhaps this adaptability is one of the results of an unconventional upbringing.
Keanu was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a Hawaiian/Chinese father and an English mother. When he was a baby the family moved briefly to Australia, then to New York, then Toronto in Canada. Keanu stayed in Toronto with his mother and two sisters until arriving in Los Angeles at the age of 20.
"I come from a broken home," he explains, eyes downcast. "At first my parents were cavorting, and I was one of their stops. I guess they were bohemians and then some. I don't know what they did; my mum never really explained."
When he was 15. Keanu asked to take acting lessons. "I still don't know what made me want to act, but I think it was seeing a production of Romeo And Juliet at school," he says with a shrug. He soon became hooked. He dropped out of school and, after performing in local theatre and television productions, took the plunge and moved to LA.
His first role to receive critical praise was that of a troubled teenager who grudgingly steps forward after the murder of one of his classmates in the extraordinary River's Edge. His follow-up couldn't have been more different - the lovable, loony Ted in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.
In fact, Keanu is about the only actor who would compare an air-guitar playing airhead with one of Shakespeare's creations: "The comedy in Bill & Ted was really sharp, " he explains. "I felt like I was doing Shakespeare sometimes - they were really silly lines, but you have to have the same nuance and breadth and emotion in those lines, or they wouldn't communicate at all."
After that, Keanu barely paused to take a breath. Some films were successful (Dangerous Liaisons, Parenthood, My Own Private Idaho, Much Ado About Nothing, Bram Stoker's Dracula); and others sank without trace (Tune In Tomorrow, I Love You To Death, A Walk In The Clouds, Johnny Mnemonic, Chain Reaction). Then came the phenomenal success of Speed - after which Keanu could pretty much command any salary he wanted.
Now he's in serious training, preparing for his next project, Matrix. "It's a science-fiction film, and I have to learn how to do movie fight scenes and wire work. It's going to be crazy," he says with enthusiasm. "When I'm wired I can travel 15 metres in the air - so I can cross buildings and streets in the air and flip and fly, all that kind of stuff. It'll almost be like circus training. I have to learn how to be like a high-flying wire act.
"You see, I don't want to be stereotyped," Keanu continues, echoing Hackford's comments. "I don't want to become 'that guy'. I'll be criticised whatever I do, so I tell myself, 'Ignorance is bliss for 'tis foolish to be wise'."
Yes, Keanu loves words all right, as long as someone else wrote them. What he also loves is working hard at what he calls his craft. "I always describe it as: we begin [motioning] I'm here; the character is there and we meet in the middle," he tells me. "Before, I didn't try to act - I tried to be. So what happened was if I couldn't be it [the character] I wouldn't do it. My friend Alex Winter [his Bill & Ted co-star] said, 'Keanu, when you can't be or you don't understand a moment in a film, I see you check out. You just say the line.' I've finally accepted that I do that. I used to think that if I was using my technique I was lying. Really, I wanted to be whoever I was playing."
Even if the character is all twisted up by the devil himself?
"I believe in the devil, although I don't think there's just one Christian devil," Keanu says, relaxing now that our interview is nearly over. "One of the interesting things about the premise of this film is that the devil doesn't make you do anything - it's all your own will." He smiles. "Free will - it's it bitch."