Keanu Reeves: All the right moves
After 15 years of wins and losses on the movie screen, this leading man whether inside the Matrix or on the football field, is finally scoring career touchdowns.
by Bob Makela
With next week's football comedy The Replacements, Hollywood hopes to add another name to the pantheon of movie stars-turned-signal callers. Introducing a guy who plays hurt, like Troy Aikman. A team player who puts people in the seats, like Brett Favre. A guy who's come back from one career setback after another, like Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner. Ladies and gentlemen ... now, playing quarterback for your Washington Sentinels ... Keanuuu Reeeeves!
Inspired by the 1987 NFL players' strike, which forced team owners to hire has-beens willing to cross picket lines, The Replacements stars Reeves as former college gridiron star Shane "Footsteps" Falco and Gene Hackman as the legendary coach who persuades him to return. For Reeves, who endured a string of critical and box-office drubbings after 1994's blockbuster Speed, it's a chance to build on the career clout garnered from the cyber-thriller The Matrix, one of 1999's defining hits.
With his career once again tallying up big numbers on the cinematic scoreboard, the 35-year-old heartthrob has evolved into a wise veteran who is emerging from nearly 15 years in Hollywood hunkdom to be a sort of player-coach in the film world. For The Replacements, Reeves immersed himself in seemingly every phase, from hiring the director, to helping rework the script, to working out for three months with a former pro quarterback who taught him the nuances of playing that key position. "It was important to me that the character had an authenticity," Reeves says. Detail: He even lobbied the producers to get a bigger ice tub for his movie linemen to soak their sore muscles in.
"No matter what the disagreement," says the film's director, Howard Deutch (Pretty in Pink), "he'd go the distance to make sure that what he was doing was truthful." Pretty impressive for a guy once described by Entertainment Weekly as "enthralled with downward mobility" ever since Speed. Is it any wonder Reeves was intrigued by the idea of playing fallen star Shane Falco? "I liked the idea of this guy getting a second chance," Reeves says. "A guy who was appreciative."
A month from his 36th birthday, Reeves knows all about second chances. After Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure catapulted him to stardom in 1989, the Canadian-bred actor earned harsh reviews for his work in films including Bram Stoker's Dracula. Then he followed up the mega-success of Speed with duds such as Chain Reaction and Johnny Mnemonic. So like veteran QB John Elway, who has endured the ups and downs of a long career, Reeves isn't taking this latest round of success for granted. "I'm grateful for it," he says with a Zen-like boyishness as he smokes his Marlboro down to the filter on a sunny patio high in the Hollywood Hills. "I give my thanks every day."
While he possesses an almost inexplicable aura of serenity and restlessness, getting Reeves to open up about any inner demons is nearly impossible. He is notorious for being evasive in interviews and with the people he works with. "I don't generally just show up with a stranger and vent," Reeves says. Speed co-star Sandra Bullock once remarked: "I would see him go off by himself. There's a hint of sadness in his eyes that makes you want to go, 'What is it?' "
You can't really fault the man for his reticence. He hasn't spoken to his father since he was 13. And the press hasn't been very kind. His guileless enthusiasm and soulful earnestness have led to assumptions that he is dippy and dense. "They don't have 'Interviews' or 'Photo Shoot 101' in theater school," Reeves quips regarding his early reputation for being a difficult interview. In addition to the relentless attacks on his intellect -- which in person seems quite healthy, if slightly unfocused --there was the crazy rumor that got kicked around like a fourth quarter fumble a few years ago. It seemed the whole world had heard about Keanu's "alleged marriage" to Hollywood mogul David Geffen, even though the two had never met.
Still, Reeves doesn't seem bitter. "There's nothing I can do about that," he says of the bad press and rumors. "It's not that important. It's something that exists other than me, a kind of disengaged extension of my life."
"To have people write things about you that aren't true is very strange," says Bob Gagliano, the former NFL QB who trained Reeves. "He seems to handle it well, though. I admire his courage. ... There came a point [during practice] where he was questioning whether he was improving enough to pull this off. I remember him saying, 'My sister says I throw like a girl.' He was frustrated. He'd hit the wall. So I said, 'We're gonna do two more drills, and we'll do 'em as hard as we can. Then we'll take a day off.' And he just pushed through and took it to the next level. It was exciting to see the guy develop. He added about 15 yards to his long ball. It was a joy."
This warm California afternoon, Keanu -- whose Hawaiian name means "cool breeze over the mountains" --has no interest in talking about his personal life, even to refute rumors. He'd prefer to talk movies, music and football. So here are the details he'd rather not discuss: He was born in Lebanon. His exotic looks come from a Chinese-Hawaiian father, currently in prison for cocaine possession, and an English mother.
After stops in Australia and New York, Keanu's mother, Patricia, chose to raise her two daughters and only son in Toronto. The former Beirut showgirl would ultimately marry four times. Keanu, painfully shy as a teenager, went on to become MVP of his high school's hockey team. He hated studying, preferring hockey and the theater. Bitten by the acting bug, he dropped out of school. He got his first big break when Rob Lowe came to Toronto to shoot the hockey movie Youngblood. The hockey-loving young thespian won a small part. Soon after, he headed to California to try to make it in Hollywood.
"I've known Keanu since he was 13," says Erwin Stoff, the manager who has worked with him for nearly 20 years. "He was very bright, alive, unconventional. Even then he had that ability to totally immerse himself in something."
Tomorrow, that something is his band. He's off to Japan for a brief tour with Dogstar, the "folk thrash" band he's taken plenty of flak for. The group has come a long way from the days when bass player Reeves said their music "sucks." Dogstar has opened for the likes of David Bowie and Bon Jovi, and the group recently released its first American album, Happy Ending. "I love playing the bass," Reeves effuses. "I love the camaraderie of the band."
To hear Reeves talk about his non-acting passions is to see the boy within the man. He enthusiastically plucks away at his bass despite harsh criticism from music snobs. He loves to ride motorcycles, despite eight accidents that have left him with broken bones, a ruptured spleen and a steel plate in his neck. ("On the way up here I saw a few guardrails I've slid into," he says, laughing.) And he talks rapturously about his Point Break-inspired foray into surfing, even though his board smacked him in the face the first time he paddled out. ("That first drop" -- when you're standing on top of the world -- "it's insane how good that feels," he gushes.)
Reeves brought that same enthusiasm and single-mindedness to The Replacements. He watched tapes to prepare, and modeled his game after a trio of former quarterbacks -- Terry Bradshaw, plus Steve Young and Kenny Stabler, both lefties like Reeves. And like the renegade Stabler, a one-time Oakland Raiders star, Reeves marches to his own halftime drum majorette, turning down a chance to co-star with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat to play Hamlet at a 789-seat theater in Canada. "He doesn't take the easy way out," Deutch says. "He makes courageous choices."
And even though he grew up in hockey-mad Canada, Reeves talks in reverential tones about football. "What really moved me was knowing how much pain there is in the game. Which makes it even more magnificent, because of the suffering and commitment it takes to play."
"Commitment" is a word that many involved in The Replacements use to describe Reeves' work ethic. "He wasn't one to shirk his responsibilities," recalls co-star Hackman. "There was a scene where he had to do some diving [Reeves' character scrapes barnacles off boats for a living] and come up out of the water. He must have done that take 20 times. And the water was very chilly. But he kept doing it without a complaint. A lot of guys wouldn't do that."
Reeves got to put his dedication and preparation to the test one day when the cast and crew were allowed to film before 65,000 fans at halftime of a Baltimore Ravens game. "That was nerve-racking," Reeves says. "I was like, 'OK, man, count your steps. Keep your head in there. Get comfortable. Breathe!'"
"We had 11 minutes to shoot eight plays," Deutch says. "So it's do or die. And we're watching the field and Keanu is hit by the Dallas guy. But he bounces off and runs into the end zone for a touchdown. Gene Hackman turns to me and says, 'That had to be the stunt double, right?' We couldn't believe it. And this is a guy who's got a steel plate in the back of his neck."
"I really enjoy the pressure," Reeves says. "When I did The Matrix, we'd have shots that would take six hours to set up. Then there you are and you've got one take. I love that. That's one of the great things about moviemaking. When it goes well, it's an adventure."
With that kind of commitment and enthusiasm, the man has all the makings of a coach. Or a director.
The Real Replacements
In The Replacements, Keanu Reeves plays a washed-up quarterback reluctant to return to football. But when the real-life Washington Redskins wanted out-of-work QB Ed Rubbert to cross a very imposing picket line during the 1987 NFL players' strike, the three-year starter at the University of Louisville didn't hesitate. "I didn't even have a job at the time," recalls Rubbert, who had been cut by the Redskins the previous year during the preseason. "I was just back home in New York working out, staying in shape in case I got another shot."
The '87 "Scabskins," as they became affectionately known, were a colorful collection of castoffs. Free safety Skip Lane left a $175,000-a-year job in real estate, running back Walter Holman was a security guard, and Rubbert's backup QB, Tony Robinson, was on a work furlough from prison (for trying to deliver cocaine).
Rubbert says he nearly quit after a couple of days at the Redskins training facility. "I was feeling bad. I'd met a lot of the Redskins, and I wasn't feeling right about being there. I didn't want to get in the league that way." But head coach Joe Gibbs quickly coaxed him into coming back. And Rubbert would go on to throw for 334 yards in his first game, including three touchdowns to Anthony Allen (above, right), whose 255 yards receiving that day is still a Redskins record.
The Scabskins went 3-0, including a win over a Cowboys team that featured several starters -- such as Tony Dorsett and Ed "Too Tall" Jones -- who had chosen to return to work. The three Scabskin wins wound up counting in the final standings for a Washington team that would win the championship, led by Doug Williams, the first African-American quarterback to play in the Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, Rubbert would never again play in a regular-season NFL game. But the 34-year-old PE teacher and part owner of a sports bar in New City, N.Y., has fond memories. He says he and his fellow replacement players were given tickets to the Super Bowl in San Diego and a winner's share of $27,000. Not to mention the gratitude of the men who'd been screaming at them from the picket lines. "I'd say half the guys called after the strike and thanked us," Rubbert says.