No easy way to read Keanu
(Previously published on August 7 as a slightly different version under the title 'He worked, worked out for this film')
by Ron Dicker
NEW YORK - Keanu Reeves has never been doubted for his ability to show up. In fact, that and his dark good looks are often the only attributes he gets credit for.
With the bearing of a cosmic surfer boy, Reeves has attracted a huge fan base while some critics have ripped him for wooden acting.
But the box office knows best, and Reeves continues to thrive. After an unexpected hit with "The Matrix" and a pair of sequels already in the works, Reeves has taken his action-star status to new heights. He is winning converts, too.
"He is such a different human on-camera than off-camera - it's the only time I've ever realized, he's acting," said Orlando Jones, a co-star with Reeves in the football comedy "The Replacements," opening Friday.
Reeves, who turns 36 on Sept. 4, plays a quarterback who choked in college but gets a chance to lead a team in the pros when the union players go on strike. Think "Major League" with pigskin.
Reeves was a stickler for upholding a sense of reality. He practiced with the eagerness of a free-agent rookie. He put 15 pounds onto his 6-foot-1 frame by lifting weights. And he watched film of his favorite quarterbacks, including his idol, John Elway.
You might guess that Reeves wins the game and gets the girl. But an earnest Reeves wants you to believe that he could.
"Everyone came with the feeling of wanting to have authentic characters, to have them well-rounded and to believe in them, and to have the comedy spring from that," Reeves said recently in a conversation at a New York hotel. "The comedic events in the film, you feel like you're not just watching a device, you're watching people."
In a roomful of reporters, Reeves emanates a force field that repels curiosity. Wearing a dark sports jacket, spiked hair that has receded slightly and two weeks of beard-growth, he has a scruffy menace to him. He does not talk the Hollywood game of wanting privacy. He is able to live it, he says pointedly, "because I'm so private."
Some fans creep him out by believing they have a relationship with him, but that does not deter him. "If a film is successful and it has other kinds of consequences," he says, "I'm willing to go through that."
His hey-dude persona cultivated in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" (1988) and "Parenthood" (1989) is a memory. It is a world-weary and serious Reeves who greets his inquisitors now.
He is friendlier and less guarded among peers, going out of his way to be just another guy on the set, according to the cast of "The Replacements." To emphasize the team aspect on and off the set, the actors said, Reeves traded his large trailer for a smaller one.
"He doesn't want to be famous," said Jon Favreau ("Swingers"), who plays a psycho linebacker. "I think he loves acting, and the life of a filmmaker. I never heard him complain."
But Favreau added that whenever the cast suggested a night out, Reeves would politely beg off.
The more Reeves has tugged at his privacy, the more fans and media have tugged back. He had dinner with Winona Ryder the other night in Manhattan, and it made the city tabloids the next day. He has been mentioned with a woman named Jennifer Syme. Rumors once persisted that he is gay. Who knows?
The who-cares part is another matter. Reeves' mystique is fueled by an exotic past in which the blanks have not been filled. His mother was working as a showgirl in Beirut and his dad was working as a geologist there when they met. They had Keanu and were divorced a short time later. Keanu and his mother, who remarried three times, settled in Toronto.
Reeves, an aspiring hockey goalkeeper, attended four high schools before dropping out. A bit part in "Youngblood," a hockey movie with Rob Lowe, convinced him to move to Los Angeles to pursue acting.
Reeves lives in hotels, partly out of necessity. He has been busy. In movies scheduled for fall release, he plays an uptight ad executive who meets a free-spirited woman in "Sweet November," and he is a wife-beater in "The Gift." Now he is about to devote 17 months to the "Matrix" sequels, which will be shot simultaneously and for which he will reportedly earn upward of $20 million.
The money was not the only reason Reeves did not hesitate to sign on the dotted line. His experience in making the special-effects-jazzed original, about a man who realizes that computers have enslaved humans, surprised him. "When I saw it," he says, "it was better than the film I thought I'd made."
Training for the films begins in November, and shooting begins early next year. In a window of down time, Reeves has appeared with his band, Dogstar, in Japan and in isolated gigs stateside.
To relax, Reeves says half-jokingly, he likes to sit on his couch and look out the window. But part of Reeves' appeal is that it is probably true. The laid-back child is in him; it's just hidden behind emotional armor.
Keanu means "breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian, and at first, he seemed to float effortlessly over the show-biz landscape. Then he went macho in "Point Break" (1991) and in his signature movie, "Speed" (1994) which earned a robust $121 million at the box office.
Many of Reeves' heroes have been dismissed as noble yet stiff.
"He has a surprising sense of truth," said Howard Deutch, the director of "The Replacements." "In no way is he shut down."
Reeves feels no need to silence his critics or rack his brain over how to continue his momentum. He'll just continue to show up.
"It's not something I can really control except by acting and trying to make a good film," he says.