Keanu Reeves Scores Again
by Michael Sauter
It's the final minute of the biggest game of the year in Keanu Reeves' new movie, The Replacements, and Reeves' character, quarterback Shane Falco, is charging down the field toward a winning touchdown. At the goal line he collides with a mob of players, spins into mid-air, and crash-lands in the end zone with a resounding thud. It's a dynamically convincing simulation of real, live football, and quite a piece of stuntwork. Except for one thing: That's no stuntman out there. That's really Keanu Reeves.
"We planned it for a stuntman," director Howard Deutch says. "Keanu wasn't supposed to be on the field for that scene. But suddenly, there he was. He ran down the sideline, got hit, somehow managed to spin off the guy and score the touchdown. Gene Hackman (who plays the coach) was standing beside me and yelled, 'Oh my God, is that really him?' Keanu's crazy. He loved the physical stuff. He always wanted to take the hit, take the chance."
"I've always been a bit reckless," Reeves has said, about his love for doing dangerous stunts. "The more physical acting gets, the more comfortable I feel." But it's not just that he can do those stunts with physical grace and reckless abandon; it's that he does them with such fixed, single-minded intensity: totally in character, totally in the moment.
"I think as an actor part of his gift is that he'll will himself to physically become the character," Deutch says. "He convinced himself - and everybody there - that he was a real quarterback. Keanu has such a sense of truth. He's not faking anything."
An affable knockabout comedy about a bunch of amateurs hired to play pro ball when NFL players go an strike, The Replacements might seem a rather low-key choice for a star coming off his biggest hit - the supercharged sci-fi thriller The Matrix. Yet this isn't the most radical departure Reeves will make in his next few films. He'll also be playing a serial killer who toys with the FBI in this month's The Watcher. Then he'll play a supporting role as a southern redneck who beats his wife (Hilary Swank) in The Gift (due out in December). At his peak of popularity, Keanu Reeves wants to play the heavy. So unHollywood.
But then, being a star has never meant much to Keanu Reeves. He's not concerned about maintaining an image. If anything, he's trying to live one down. Having burst on the scene fifteen years ago playing a spacy-if-sensitive misfit teen, he's spent the better part of a decade shaking that reputation. "More than a lot of actors, I think my public persona has really colored the interpretation of my work," he once lamented to Premiere magazine. "I think I've been pigeon-holed because of who I am or who they perceive me to be or who I was." He's talking about false starts, and false impressions: They've been the story of his career - and of his life.
Reeves was born September 2, 1964, in Beirut, where his Chinese-Hawaiian father, Samuel, was employed as an oil company geologist and his British mother, Patricia, worked as a nightclub performer. Back then, Beirut was a Middle East Rivera, and the high-living Reeves were painting the town. By the time Keanu was two, the party, and marriage, were over. Driven away in part by her husband's growing drug abuse, Patricia gathered up Keanu and his little sister Kim, and fled first to Australia, then to New York City. Patricia naturally gravitated to the theater scene, and in 1970, married director Paul Aaron. Six months later, that marriage, too, had ended. Once again on her own, Patricia moved the kids to Toronto, where she built a career for herself as a costume designer for such stars as Dolly Parton and David Bowie.
Despite his brushes with celebrity, Keanu settled into a fairly normal, middle-class childhood. He had a dog, worked a paper route, played hockey every chance he got. But school was a struggle, at least partially because he was dyslexic. Keanu became a rather shy, introspective, independent-minded adolescent. Seeking a place in school where he could be "somebody different," Keanu discovered drama class. Once hooked, he plunged right in, taking acting classes, auditioning for local theater productions, and trying out for Hollywood movies shooting in Toronto. Meanwhile, his high-school attendance was hit and miss. "I knew I wanted to act when I was halfway through Grade 11, I guess, and school wasn't important," he later reflected.
After dropping out, Reeves got occasional parts in local theater, commercials, and Canadian TV shows, but his first break came when Hollywood director Steven Hilliard Stern saw him at a community theater school, and asked him to do a screen test for his upcoming TV movie, Young Again (1986). Disney executives Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg happened to view the test. A star was discovered.
Within a year, he had the lead role in the independent film River's Edge (1987), about a clique of alienated teens who wrestle with what to do after discovering one of their group has casually killed his girlfriend. The film received a chorus of critical acclaim. As its newly discovered star, Keanu Reeves was on his way.
During the following year, he would land featured roles in other independent productions, including Permanent Record (1988) and The Prince of Pennsylvania (1988), before getting a plum part in Dangerous Liaisons, alongside Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Uma Thurman. It was one of 1988's best reviewed films, and seemed to herald his entry into the world of big, serious, Oscar-contending movies. Then came a little movie called Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, a sleeper hit that changed the way people looked at Keanu Reeves for a long time.
As Ted, one of two teenage slackers who travel through time, playing air guitar and blurting, "Party on, dude," Reeves was all too convincing. He had that airhead act down so pat that a lot of people thought it was for real. It didn't help when he went on to play an aimless teenage husband in Ron Howard's Parenthood (1989) or a drug-addled amateur hitman in Lawrence Kasdan's I Love You to Death (1990). And it especially didn't help when he did the sequel, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (1991). "Ted hung a label on me," Reeves would later lament. "And I hung it on myself, to a certain extent."
Reeves managed to branch out as a loose cannon undercover FBI agent in Point Break (1991) , and as a gay male hustler in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991). But when he stepped into period costume in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing (1993), the critics took him to task, pointedly suggesting that he was out of his depth. It didn't stop him from taking another big, hold step with Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha (1994), in which he played young Buddha himself. Bertolucci professed to be "enchanted" with Reeves' performance, saying "he seems as though he's not touching the ground when he walks." A number of critics more or less agreed.
Reeves, in fact, had been honing his craft all along, gradually becoming a more polished, disciplined actor. All he needed was the right role to showcase his newly developed talent, and he got it with the 1994 blockbuster, Speed. As Jack Traven, a bomb squad cop who must save the passengers an a booby-trapped runaway bus, Reeves fully tapped into his inner action hero, impressing critics like Roger Ebert, who wrote, "it's sort of amazing to see him so cool and focused here, a completely convincing action hero who is as centered and resourceful as a Clint Eastwood or Harrison Ford."
But no sooner did Reeves score that dramatic breakthrough, than he was fretting about the price of fame. "I don't want to be so popular as to be recognized wherever I go," he told an interviewer. Nor was he particularly comfortable talking to the press. "I always feel so surreal when I have to do it," he said in 1996. "I still can't believe people want to know things about me."
His ambivalence about stardom would keep him dancing skittishly in and out of the Hollywood limelight. He did little-seen low-budget films (A Walk in the Clouds, 1995; Feeling Minnesota, 1996), as well as under-achieving studio action movies (Johnny Mnemonic, 1995; Chain Reaction, 1996). During this time, he also floated off to Winnipeg to play Hamlet onstage, surprising everyone by getting some good reviews. Finally, he pulled a shocker, turning down $11 million for the sequel Speed 2, while embarking an a club tour with his glorified garage band, Dogstar.
To many in Hollywood, Reeves had bitten the hand that fed him by refusing to do the sequel to the movie that had made him a star. But to Reeves, the choice was simple: He'd read the Speed 2 script and knew it was bad. And besides, he'd lined up a more promising project: playing a hotshot lawyer recruited by Al Pacino's satanic law firm in the Faustian Devil's Advocate.
Speed 2 went on to be the biggest box office dud of summer 1997, while Devil's Advocate turned out to be a fair-sized hit. Once more, Reeves had drifted back into the mainstream, putting him in the running for the lead in Warner Brothers' humans vs. computers epic, The Matrix. That film's directors, Larry and Andy Wachowski, needed the right Generation-X heartthrob to play Neo, a clueless corporate drone who evolves into a Luke Skywalker-type messiah. They also needed an actor who could handle the gravity-defying stunts.
"We knew it would take a maniacal commitment," Larry Wachowski said last year. "Keanu was our maniac."
"Keanu was amazing," said Matrix producer, Joel Silver. "He put his life and career an hold to learn to do the fights. Even after intense training and with all the precautions, the actors would hurt their wrists and ribs an a daily basis. Keanu never once complained or played the prima donna."
With The Matrix's smash success, Reeves is once more near the top of Hollywood's "A-List." But though he can now command $15 million per blockbuster flick, there is still no sign of prima donna-itis setting in. Just ask his Gift co-star Hilary Swank, who found in Reeves "a nice, nice person" who needed a long time to work himself up to those scenes where he had to pretend to rough her up. Or ask Charlize Theron, his leading lady in both Devil's Advocate and the upcoming love story Sweet November (due out this November), who calls Reeves "one of the kindest actors I've ever worked with. He's patient when he's ready to shoot and you're not. He knows how to make you comfortable when you've got an awkward love scene. He makes the crew laugh. He's just there for everyone. It's never about him."
But there are so many ways that this star doesn't act like a star. There is the way he all but disappears from public view between films, eschewing the club and party scenes to read a good book, play a game of chess, or maybe roar down some mountain road on a motorcycle (several of which he has crashed). There is the way he tries to drift into the background during concerts by his band, as if he wasn't the center of attention. And then there is the way he has always shielded his love life from the limelight - from his almost secret flings with the likes of Sofia Coppola and Matrix co-star Carrie Anne Moss to his barely mentioned breakup with actress girlfriend Jennifer Syme, shortly after the stillborn death of their child Christmas Eve, 1999.
Ironically, it's because he has been so guarded about his personal life that Reeves has had to deal with more than his share of rumors. As if to punish his privacy, the tabloids have often gotten sensationally creative. They've romantically linked him with everyone from Emma Thompson to Pamela Anderson Lee, had him frolicking in the surf with Sharon Stone, reported him madly in love with a male ballet dancer and even had him married to mogul David Geffen. Characteristically, Reeves has rarely bothered to dignify such rumors - although he did address the Geffen story by asking a reporter "You think I could keep something like that a secret?"
Unfortunately for Keanu Reeves, it looks like inquiring minds will be following him around awhile longer, because he's about to resume his reluctant role as action hero: Early next year, he'll begin a marathon eight months on location in Australia, filming back-to-back Matrix sequels - which means that sometime in 2002, he's probably going to be a top box office draw. Again.
But becoming the millennium's first cinematic superhero is incidental to what Keanu Reeves has in mind for his future. For him it's all about "the acting journey." Reeves has no idea where that journey will take him next, and that's fine with him. Just as long as it takes him somewhere he hasn't been before.
"He's only going to get better," predicts Howard Deutch, "because he so much wants to."
Looks like slacker Ted has been left behind for good.