Keanu Reeves dares to be different
by Luaine Lee
HOLLYWOOD: When Keanu Reeves decided to leave his native Toronto to become an actor in Hollywood, he didn't have much going for him.
"I drove my 1969 British-racing-green Volvo 122," he recalls. "I had bricks under the seat, newspapers covering the holes in the back. But I had taken that car many places. I had good faith in it, and it didn't let me down.
At that time, Reeves already employed an agent from a TV movie he'd done in Canada with Robert Ulrich and Lindsay Wagner called Young Again.
Once in Lotus land, Reeves stayed with his stepfather for six months. But it was 14 months before he landed a job. That wasn't so bad considering that he had decided when he was 15 that play-acting was his destiny.
"It was a feeling I had when I was 15," he says, dressed in a dark charcoal suit and black T-shirt, his hair in spiky tufts.
"I remember doing a scene out of Romeo and Juliet in the 10th grade and loving it. My stepfather was a director and being around actors, theater, I enrolled in a community theatre when I was 16 doing theatre games and doing plays. It was just something I loved. And when I was 15 I said to my mother, 'Is it OK if I'm an actor?' She said, 'Whatever you want.' Then I just pursued."
A turning point came when he first auditioned for a play called Wolf Boy.
"I'd quit school pretty much at the time, and I was working. And I'd become the manager of this store. But I was taking acting classes at night and remember going to the auditioning process and quitting my job because I couldn't bear it anymore, and getting the play. It was a close call. I had the courage of youth at the time, which means hardly any responsibility."
He played the son of an alcoholic, and he recalls his first day on the job.
"I just remember having to come to the set at six in the morning with fake snow in the cemetery and pretend to be drunk and improvise a scene around my dead father's grave with a shotgun," he laughs at the recollection.
"Driving to the set it was like: 'OK, kid, here's some fake drink, here's a fake shotgun and fake snow and your dead father in a graveyard - ACT.' It was like yeah, here it is.
"Roll up your sleeves and go do the job." Reeves, 36, has done the job ever since. When he co-starred in the teen-angst movie River's Edge, he became an escalating commodity in the teen market. But he was having none of it.
Instead, he favored the offbeat and quirky with roles in films such as My Own Private Idaho, Feeling Minnesota, Bram Stoker's Dracula and Much Ado About Nothing.
"I've always wanted to do different kinds of parts and to act in different genres of films, a different scale," he says. "To go from Little Buddha to Speed, to go from My Own Private Idaho to The Devil's Advocate," he shrugs. "I guess I was just born that way." Even as a kid he marched to his own syncopated ragtime.
"Generally I was pretty self-sufficient. In school I was certainly someone always to question things and I wouldn't necessarily do what you asked of me unless I had a reason for it or understood why you were doing that," he says.
In his latest role as the violent and abusive husband, Donnie Barksdale, in The Gift, Reeves probes his own psyche to explore some of the darker places within.
"There's a little bit of Donnie Barksdale in all us men. I found it quite primal," he says.
"I met this couple that deals with spousal abuse because I wanted to find out clinically what is this relationship. They were saying the man generally can't express his feelings and has a sense of low self-worth. And (they) are generally shut down. They've come from being abused by their parents, generally there's molestation - all sorts of things. So that was a place to start. Then the control and sense of power," his hands drop onto the arm of the chair.
"They don't know how to express themselves so they go straight to anger where they can get power that they didn't have. Also it's a male-female thing. There's that physical power that you can have, then it becomes addictive and it becomes what they call the 'cycle of abuse' and you fight, you make up. It's the best sex.
There's a very strong bond that comes between the male and female and the male becomes very controlling."
Academy Award winner Hilary Swank plays Reeves' abused wife, Valerie. To help them establish this rocky relationship, director Sam Raimi told the couple to improvise some interplay.
"We were in this one little room in a trailer and he said, 'OK, let's check it out. Let's have a conversation between Donnie Barksdale and Valerie.'
"So we went into it. What came out for me - and Sam said this to me - I kept going to Hilary, 'You're a liar!' 'No I'm not, Donnie, we're just friends.' Sam said, 'Every time you say, "You're lying!" hit her' There's a certain kind of intoxication that can happen. I eventually had her up against the wall, backwards, taking her pants off. What we found through that improvisation is we saw how that could happen, what it was specifically that was going on," he says.
"I remember coming out of the improvisation and my heart was racing. I went outside and everything got really quiet. I felt changed. That's one of the things that I love about acting is you learn about yourself and about other people."