Punching his weight
Keanu Reeves, laid-back dude, as wife-beater? Only in the name of art
by Martyn Palmer
Keanu Reeves is a man of simple tastes. His idea of fun is not, as you might expect, sipping champagne by the pool or jet-hopping between luxury penthouses. What he likes most is riding one of his two Norton motorbikes to the beach at Santa Monica or playing with his band Dogstar in LA, before dossing down on a sofa at a friend's house for the night. Especially since, at the moment, he's homeless.
"I keep trying to find a house but either I don't like it or I can't afford it, " he says, although it's hard to believe that a star such as Reeves, who earns '10 million a movie, would have much trouble getting a mortgage.
"Something about me enjoys not having any material things to tie me down, " he says. "I think if I bought a huge house I would feel guilty in some way. One day, I'll get a place but I would have to feel a need to have a home, to have a sense of permanence. I don't feel that right now."
Money, too, is not high up on the Reeves list of priorities, although of course it's not a problem either. "I have people who look after it well, invest it and I make sure my family lives well. Most of it just goes straight into the bank. I don't need a lot except when I'm travelling, and I like to buy a bottle of fine Bordeaux. It's nice not to have to worry about the rent or paying your bills but like the cliché says, money doesn't buy you happiness, but it does buy you the freedom to live your life the way you want to."
Reeves is not an easy actor to pigeonhole. He has made some odd choices in his career, including turning down a role alongside Robert De Niro and Al Pacino is 1995's Heat to play Hamlet in a 789-seat theatre in Manitoba, Canada. And he waved aside an '8 million cheque for the sequel to Speed (wisely, as it happens) to tour with his band.
"I don't want to keep doing the same thing over and over again. What would be the point of that? I've done action stuff, I've done comedies and I've done romance. That's great. But I also love to play with the band. It's fun and I enjoy it and that's important."
Cynical souls might snigger at Reeves's "hey, dude" attitude, but it's done him no harm so far. He looks in great shape. His 6ft 1in frame is muscular - he's in training for the two sequels which he will shoot, back to back, for The Matrix. His hair is cropped fashionably short, swept high off his forehead, giving him a slightly alarmed air.
He is busy promoting his latest film, the supernatural thriller The Gift. Filmed on location in Savannah, Georgia and directed by Sam Raimi (A Simple Plan, The Quick and the Dead, For Love of the Game), it is a dark, troubling tale of a Southern psychic, Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett), who is blessed - and burdened - with the ability to see into the future. Reeves plays a Southern redneck, Donnie Barksdale, who beats his wife Valerie (Hilary Swank) and threatens Annie for doing the "devil's work" after he realises that she has discovered his violent nature.
When a rich society girl, Jessica King (Katie Holmes), disappears, Annie is called in by the police to help find her. She leads police to the body and Donnie - thanks to Annie's evidence - is accused of her murder.
It's an unusual role for Reeves, whose box office bankability has been confined, in recent years, to a series of slick action roles. Whereas the likes of Christian Slater can seem too mean and Johnny Depp too weird, Reeves's appeal has been a kind of compelling blankness, a space on to which the audience can project its own hopes and fears. Viewers seem to tap into the fact that, whomever he plays, and however offbeat or twisted his characters might be, he always retains an air of benign naivety.
The Gift may challenge that perception. The character of Donnie is a fat, hairy thug. Raimi had to work hard to get Reeves to make the transformation.
"We were doing some improvisation, Hilary and I, and Sam was like, "OK, let's see how this works..." And it was hard for me. I kept kind of stopping myself. Finally, Sam said, "Look, you are just arguing with her, you have to hit her.' I didn't want to but I had to for the role, and once I did, I started to learn about Donnie.
"I remember after the improvisation going outside and being very quiet. I don't know how else to say it, but just finding that inside and realising that is a part of my make-up and I think a part of all males' make up, that physical side of us. That abusive side. But it's also power and power is intoxicating. At first in the improvisation I kept negotiating with her, but then once I'd tapped into it, it was quite liberating.
And, you know, it's a movie...
"I used to call it 'putting my Donnie on'. What was great about it is that he speaks his mind, which is something that I don't usually do. Privately, I'll have my point of view but sometimes, because I don't want to have confrontation, I'll put it aside and I've learnt to use my voice sometimes."
The violence, he insists, was carefully choreographed. "Cate was saying, - Look, just do it, hit me.' I was scared but eventually I did and it was OK. I didn't hurt Cate, thank God. And with Hilary we took great care. They had a device on the back of her head so I didn't really have to pull her hair, I could grab that."
Reeves gets to flirt again with the darker side of life in another forthcoming movie. In The Watcher, he appears as a wily, playful serial killer who plays cat-and-mouse games all over Chicago with a neurotic, burnt-out FBI agent (James Spader). It's the first feature film by Joe Charbanic, who has directed music videos for Dogstar. So far, The Watcher has failed to set the American box office alight.
Raised in Toronto, Keanu (the name is Hawaiian for "cool breeze on the mountain") Reeves had a troubled childhood. His mother, Patricia, was born in England, and his father Samuel, is Chinese Hawaiian. They met and married when Patricia was working as a dancer in a Beirut casino in the early Sixties.
But Samuel walked out when Keanu was still a toddler and his sister just a baby. Patricia moved the family to Toronto, where she remarried, and Keanu lost touch with his father, who later served two years of a ten-year sentence for possession of heroin and cocaine. When his son became famous, he tried to rekindle their relationship but Reeves would have none of it, once describing his father as an "acid-taking goofball". School was not easy, not least because he suffered from dyslexia. He was, though, a talented sportsman and excelled at ice hockey and basketball. He remains close to his mother. "She surrounded us with culture and art. We learnt to love ideas, even if we hated high school."
By 15, Reeves had decided he wanted to act. After leaving school, he began to pick up work in local theatre and on television. But film work, which he really wanted, wasn't there. He decided to head south, to Los Angeles. His first real film break came in 1986 with River's Edge but it was two years later, with Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, that he made his mark. A teen flick which cast him as an airhead wannabe rock star, Bill and Ted made a small fortune and Reeves was on his way.
The following years were patchy. In 1991 he made the excellent My Own Private Idaho, playing a gay hustler with the late River Phoenix. In 1992 he starred (with a terrible English accent) in Bram Stoker's Dracula. There was Little Buddha (1993) which failed spectacularly. But then, in 1994, came Speed, a part perfectly suited to his brand of laid-back athleticism.
Since then, he's starred alongside his hero, Al Pacino, in The Devil's Advocate (who, some critics thought, acted him off screen) and made The Matrix, which, thanks to an explosive combination of stunning martial arts and state-of-the-art special effects, has become a cult classic.
The back-to-back sequels of The Matrix will take up the next 17 months of his life, most of it in Australia, where the original was made. It's a long time to be away from home. But then, as he says, home is where he parks his overnight bag.
"Yeah, it's a long time. So you become a letter writer, your phone bills go up. And I'm going to learn from Laurence Fishburne because he has learnt how to bring some of his life with him.
"I usually just bring my bag and check in. But he brings objects - he even brought his bed. But, yeah, you miss a lot. But the light side of that is that it deepens your appreciation of good friends and that's a good thing."
The Gift opens on Friday. The Watcher opens on March 9