Desperately Seeking Keanu
by Shelley Levitt
"Speed" put him on fame's fast track, but have his band and obscure roles taken him off it for good?
POP QUIZ. You're Keanu Reeves, and your first action-adventure picture, Speed, has just proved to be a supersonic vehicle, earning $120 million at the box office and making you a bona fide star. Virtually overnight, your price has soared from $1.25 million per movie to $7 million.
What do you do? What do you do?
Reeves' answer still has Hollywood pundits scratching their heads. First he turned down the chance to star opposite Al Pacino and Robert DiNiro in 1995's Heat, in order to play Hamlet in a 789-seat theater in Manitoba, Canada. Instead of raking in a reported $11 million to reprise his role as SWAT cop Jack Traven in the Speed sequel, he ended up playing modest-sized venues in the United States, Europe and Japan with his rock band, Dogstar. "You get to play original music and you're in a band with your friends," Reeves once said of his motivation to tour. "Hopefully, you're bringing in enough people that they're giving you some free beer."
Although Reeves has worked steadily since 1994's Speed, most of the choices he has made -- from the doomed Johnny Mnemonic to the indie flick The Last Time I Committed Suicide -- have been so low-profile that it seemed at times as if he had dropped out of Hollywood completely.
But Reeves has never fit the typical profile of a hot young Hollywood actor. He prefers motorcycles to limos and t-shirts to Versace, and unlike most of his contemporaries, he has never dated Winona Ryder, Gwyneth Paltrow or any member of the cast of Friends. "I'm sort of Han Solo," he said once when asked about his romantic life.
Fans of Reeves claim he is simply an actor who makes "interesting" choices -- industry parlance for everything from the idiotic to the, well, interesting. Joan Hyler, a William Morris agent turned manager, takes the latter view. "Keanu's a young guy, and he needs the time and the space and the ability to explore his craft," she says. "But he's as strong as he ever was. Let's put it this way. I'm not going to run a charity benefit for Keanu Reeves."
No need to. Reeves just nabbed his biggest payday ever, a reported $10 million against 10 percent of the gross, to star opposite Laurence Fishburne in Matrix, the upcoming sci-fi cyberthriller from Warner Bros. Reeves plays a man who suspects that he and millions of others are enslaved by a massive computer system, and he leads a revolt against this evil matrix. Producer Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon) says he is aiming for an early-spring release, to give the movie a few weeks at the box office before another sci-fi film, by the name of Star Wars Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace, opens, on Memorial Day.
"There's going to be a huge sucking sound in Hollywood when Star Wars is released," says media analyst Jae Kim, "but while Star Wars has the Force, Matrix has the sex appeal of Keanu Reeves."
Just how wide that appeal turns out to be might have a big impact on Reeves' future. Martin Grove, the movie analyst for CNN's Showbiz Today, believes Reeves badly needs for Matrix to be a hit. "I can't say this is his last chance," says Grove, "but if an actor has nine lives, Keanu certainly is working his way down the list."
But casting director Amanda Mackey Johnson, who hired Reeves for the 1988 film Permanent Record, predicts that Reeves, at 34, is about to enter a whole new phase of his career. "He's at the age where he can really be a leading man," she says. "Not a kid with girls, but a man with a woman."
Reeves does appear to possess the prerequisites of the traditional American leading man: a sometimes stammering ineloquence, a bad-boy recklessness (which led to two serious motorcycle accidents) and a closeted romanticism (while filming Chain Reaction, he recited Shakespeare to co-star Rachel Weisz between takes). "He is going to be remarkable," says Johnson, "because he has a very silent quality that a lot of our major movie stars have. Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford -- they're not gabby guys. Nor is Keanu. But still waters run deep."