Zen and the art of Keanu Reeves
by Ned Zeman
Keanu, From Both Sides Now
Keanu Reeves provokes truly fanatic devotion and some extreme resentment. But why? After making 35 movies, including two of the 90’s biggest action blockbusters, Speed and The Matrix, Reeves is a Hollywood model of humble integrity, a low-key dude who idea of fun is going to Murray, Kentucky, with his band, Dogstar. With three new Reeves movies on deck and two Matrix sequels to follow, the 36-year-old star talks to Ned Zeman about Keanu-mania (pro and anti), why he’s great in some parts and not in others, and how come there’s no glamour girlfriend in his life.
There are people in the world who are obsessed with the spleen of Keanu Reeves - its diameter, its texture, its whereabouts.
There are people at the University of Washington, specifically who have received college credit for interpreting the philosophical underpinnings of The Matrix, a 1999 action movie starring Keanu Reeves.
There are people who spend hours, days, weeks designing, inhabiting, and governing "Keanuville," a cyber-village dedicated to Keanu Reeves.
And there are at least two Polish women, fresh off the plane from Krakow, who understand that you haven't sucked the marrow out of America until you've seen Vegas, sloppy drunk on Jagermeister and flashing your breasts at Keanu Reeves.
Vegas, city of dreams. It is Saturday, November 25, and a tense nation remains in the grip of white-hot clad madness. But here in this capital of situational ethics, this hotbed of political rest, all is as it should be: Wayne at the Stardust, Lance at the Monte Carlo, those well-preserved Teutonic wizards at the Mirage. Everyone's on the Strip tonight, all the Davids: Brenner, Cassidy, Spade. Every single show: sold out.
Vegas, city of dreamers. Keanu Reeves, iconic Hollywood star and subject of countless unnatural obsessions, is also here tonight, accompanied by his semi-famous alternative-pop band, Dogstar, whose sound its drummer, Robert Mailhouse, aptly described as "power pop/punk/American balladeer." The band has had its ups and downs, but tonight it's playing Vegas. Headlining. Except that the venue is not really in Vegas. "Actually," says the band's manager, Doc Williamson, "the show's really sort of on the outer edge of Vegas." Pause. "Actually, it's in Henderson, Nevada."
Henderson is a town where irony goes to die, a 20-minute, $20 cab ride from the Strip, past the Liberate Museum and Wayne Newton's place, a sprawling tract of suburban splendor named Casa de Shenandoah. Henderson is home to one of the less familiar casinos in the area, Sunset Station, which towers above a nondescript commercial strip, near a Sears Auto Center and a Chuck E. Cheese's, and has a kind of Don-Quixote-meets-Mall-of-America theme. At Sunset Station, locals rule. Next month the casino welcomes John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band.
Dogstar is scheduled to go on around 9:30 and in the hours beforehand Reeves can be seen at the hotel bar, sipping a cold one and chatting with the locals. He is an approachable sort, unfailingly courteous. So are his amiable bandmates, Mailhouse and singer-guitarist Bret Domrose. One wonders if they could have landed a bigger venue, one which did not include an opening band whose singer plays the tambourine and claps his hands over his head. Dogstar has played the Fillmore, for crying out loud. "No - that's pretty much our range," says Reeves. "Four- to eight-hundred fans. Plus, there's something kinda funny about playing on the edge of town."
Reeves describes Dogstar's tour as, in essence, a hodgepodge of "little weekend jaunts" planned around his movie schedule. Last weekend it was Chicago and Kentucky. "Well, what happened was, we had a record come out in July. We couldn't really do a tour, but we went out for a couple of weeks and then just before training started [for the two upcoming sequels to The Matrix], we wanted to play. So this is the only way that we could do it.... We booked these about a month and a half ago. I was in Chicago, working on a film called Hardball, and I said, 'Well, I can do weekends.' So it's been that way for the past three weekends. I believe there are six weekends in all.' When Reeves is too busy, Mailhouse says, "we have a clone - it's actually Wes Bentley."
Reeves who works as hard as he plays, has recently finished three films, Sweet November, with Charlize Theron, The Gift, with Cate Blanchett and Hilary Swank, and Hardball, with Diane Lane, and has already begun work on the Matrix sequels - a relatively demanding job which will require him to spend the better part of a year on location in Australia. Not that he considers this a hardship - he reportedly makes as much as $15 million per picture. But still.
"I'm getting no rest the past couple of weeks," he says, beaming.
He is asked about the band's last show.
"Murray, Kentucky," he says, nodding proudly. "We played at a university."
There's a university in Murray, Kentucky? Called?
"Played the university auditorium theater. I believe they had room for, like, 1,200 people. But we had about 700 come out. It was great. But it's a dry county, so we had to bring in. We had to import."
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
"Yeah. The promoter brought us some beer. But we had to drink it inside. Behind closed doors."
Henderson, Nevada, is no Murray, Kentucky. It's a perfect place for two drunk European tourists to stand near the stage, flashing their big Slavic breasts at Keanu Reeves. The crowd is perhaps 80 percent female. It is usually thus, and the band is used to it. "When Jim Morrison was in the Doors," Mailhouse says philosophically, "fans went to see his leather pants and his big dick. Our guy just happens to be an international film star." During their spirited, hour-long set, the band is pelted with typical Vegas love toys: a brassiere, a lipstick, another brassiere, D-cup-bearing witness to the quantum physics of Keanumania.
When Reeves enters, stage left, the entire squealing audience stands. But only the left side remains standing, giving the crowd a strangely lopsided feel. When Reeves moves toward stage right, the human wave follows him, then follows him back. The band ignores this. Reeves is sweating through his black T-shirt and jeans. He neither sings nor speaks, just plays his bass guitar. He has no microphone. A fan screams, "Shake your ass, you fucking god!" Reeves plays on. This is his life.
Reeves is 36. He has appeared in 35 films, a huge number for an actor his age, and has starred in two of the biggest and best action blockbusters of the 1990s, Speed and The Matrix, which together have grossed more than $800 million worldwide. He has few, if any, enemies in the film community, and he is consistently praised for his work ethic, his integrity, his humility, his utter lack of Hollywood guile. Young men envy Reeves - his guy's-guy demeanor, his penchant for motorcycle crashes, his mastery of the reluctant-action-hero genre, his flawless grasp of the word "dude," his occasional unwillingness to groom, his willingness to bomb around the country with his band in a van.
And, needless to say, he is catnip to the ladies. One of his best friends, an L.A.-based entrepreneur named Josh Richman, calls him "an estrogen magnet."
"No way!" Reeves cries in that charmingly dudish way of his. He's sitting in the bar at Casa del Mar, a swanky beachside hotel in Santa Monica, nursing a Stoli Bloody Mary and staring down at a grainy photograph of his spleen (check that: alleged spleen) downloaded from a Web site dedicated to him. He stares at the meaty, misshapen organ for several seconds. He is a shade over six feet tall and an almost perfect male specimen. Thanks to his daily regimen for the Matrix sequels - including specialty training such as flipping, weapons, wire work and choreography, along with 90 minutes of stretching and 60 minutes of kicking - he looks gleamingly fit, in a Dark Angel of Death sort of way: dark boots, dark jeans, dark T-shirt, dark fleece jacket, dark scarf, dark coat. Plus the dark hair, the dark stubble, and the lively dark eyes, which, thanks to the spleen sitting before him, have widened into Frisbees.
"They just put up a picture of a spleen?" he asks.
They say it's your spleen, he is told. Removed by surgeons after one of the two motorcycle crashes, in 1988 and 1996, which left him battered and broken. He is asked to claim his spleen.
"Well," he says, "my spleen is still in my body."
So this couldn't conceivably be...
"This is not my piece of ham. It's still in."
He begins reading from the "The Keanuville Medical Archives," specifically: "If anyone has any other body parts of Keanu, we'd like to place them on display. This would include... suture clippings from his surgeries and wound repairs, extracted teeth, extracted moles, cysts or boils, hair clippings, beard stubble and even excreta [sic]." Reeves reads aloud from the site's rules and stipulations: "Please, folks ...dirty laundry and used condoms are not considered body parts:" He laughs heartily, says, "Now that's funny," and reads on. Under "Keanu's Toilet Paper Origami Page," he unearths a photograph of a pathetic little toilet-paper swan purported to be a courtship gift he presented to an uninterested woman in the bathroom of the Troubadour, a popular L.A. rock club. "You know," Reeves says, looking up, "I didn't make this particular piece."
More laughter. If people want to exchange his spurious spleen or ersatz origami, that's cool with him. Pretty much anything is cool with him. He's Tao that way.
"Keanu has an ability to handle stress in a way that's really admirable," says his co-star in The Matrix, Carrie-Anne Moss. "I think he's Zen-like. I definitely think he has moments like that, and I think that, absolutely, it affects the other actors he works with. It affects me. You know, there's not one bit of movie-star ego in that guy... He's incredibly focused and incredibly disciplined, and I mean unlike anyone I've ever met."
And yet... And yet. There are people in the world who, deep in the fiber of their souls, resent Reeves. His acting. His success. His very essence.
Indeed, militant anti-Keanu forces have fashioned a popular Web site called "The Keanu Report," a forum dedicated to proving, perhaps only half-jokingly, that "Keanu Reeves is the manifestation of evil on Earth, the Anti-Christ." There have been scurrilous rumors, usually involving sex and drugs. (For the record: No, he is not a junkie. Yes, he likes women. And, yes, the marriage to David Geffen rumor, which was making the rounds in 1995, is rubbish - splendid rubbish, but rubbish nonetheless.)
Meantime, back on Earth, film critics have, on more than one occasion, been merciless. Reeves has been called "wooden" and "robotic," and one critic said, "Offhand I can't think of an actor who could use a brain implant more." "I'm the critics' favorite whipping boy," Reeves once said, and that was not inaccurate. Sometimes the critics were correct. In the oddly pleasurable 1991 heist picture Point Break, Reeves's generally charming performance - as a surfing F.B.I. agent named Johnny Utah was nearly obliterated by a handful of line readings which were, in a word, excruciating.
Then again, Reeves can be his own worst critic, once dismissing his performance in Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 adaptation of Brain Stoker's Dracula by saying, "I kinda stunk." Reeves has since upgraded his self-assessment a notch, but still. "He's really a dedicated craftsman who's most relentless on himself until he gets it right," says director Sam Raimi (1998's A Simple Plan, the forthcoming Spider-Man), who cast Reeves as an abusive redneck in The Gift, a just-released supernatural thriller co-written by Billy Bob Thornton. "He has a severe intensity. After a take, he'd step outside and you'd just hear him cursing himself. Just shouting, loudly, at himself."
Unlike most actors, Reeves admits that he reads reviews, or at least the beginnings of them, depending. He does not dispute a theory that his reviews tend to be, for better or worse, extreme that he is, in essence, an A or F student. "My reviews are usually personal. Have you noticed? That extremism that you're talking about it makes it a more personal kind of thing: I loved it or I hated it. It's not just a review. It's a personal feeling .... Lately I've been getting more B's:" (Surprisingly, some of his best reviews have been for his Shakespearean work, most notably in Kenneth Branagh's 1993 Much Ado About Nothing and as Hamlet onstage in Canada - a 1995 performance Roger Lewis of London's Sunday Times called "one of the top three Hamlets I have seen, for a simple reason: He is Hamlet.")
As any critic will note, Reeves's career has ebbed twice. The first time was in the early 1990s, after his promising, star-building performances in movies as varied as River's Edge, Parenthood, Dangerous Liaisons, and, especially, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, that curiously popular teen comedy which briefly made air guitar an acceptable form of public expression. Then, in 1994, he reluctantly starred in Jan De Bont's runaway hit, Speed, and became the sort of celebrity whose tongue scrapings could be auctioned on eBay. Turning down millions of dollars and the advice of virtually everyone, Reeves passed on Speed 2, reportedly accepting less money to work with Al Pacino in Devil's Advocate. His mulish discretion evinced a measure of grace: Speed 2, which starred a visibly cranky Jason Patric, was a screaming disaster. But then another ebb, which spanned nearly five years and included such critically unacclaimed train wrecks as Johnny Mnemonic, A Walk in the Clouds, Chain Reaction, and Feeling Minnesota.
Then along came The Matrix, Andy and Larry Wachowski's mind-bending science fiction smash, and our protagonist's screen Karma was revealed: he seems to excel in what might be termed Stoner Movies - that is, movies for (and sometimes by and about) the sort of person who owns the spoken word poetry of Jim Morrison, possesses more than three novels by cult writer Philip K. Dick, and hides a giant bong beneath his fish-tank. Think of it this way: Saving Private Ryan is not a Stoner Movie. The Thin Red Line is. Non-Stoner Movies want to tug your heartstrings; Stoner Movies want to blow your mind.
Could there possibly be a bigger, better, more quintessential Stoner Movie than The Matrix, an uncommonly paranoid film about, as Reeves aptly explains, "the relationship to existence - Why am I here? What is going on? - the suspicion that what you're doing in your daily life is actually being engineered by a team that masks the truth." Those who can't fathom The Matrix are "reconciled," Reeves figures. "There's no more questioning. They don't have an existential feeling of suspicion or discomfort that calibrates to life. There are no questions for them."
Here it should be noted that Reeves himself has no strong feelings about the Stoner Movie Theory. He neither accepts nor rejects it. He's cool either way. But at one point he seems subliminally to tip his hand when asked whether The Matrix was in or out of the Hollywood mainstream. "It was right on the line," he says, nodding playfully. "Depended on how you looked at it - how much pot you smoked."
When Reeves was a child, his pet phrase was "How come?" Born to an eccentric British costume designer (who sometimes wore a peach-dyed crew cut) and a troublesome Hawaiian-Chinese father (who bailed on the family when Keanu was two), Reeves unquestionably experienced a kind of reality-challenged youth. For starters, he was born in formerly exotic Beirut. Several years after his father bolted, his mother moved to Canada, where Reeves spent his formative years playing hockey and failing classes. He was diagnosed with dyslexia - a learning disorder he eventually overcame. His mother married again. Then divorced again. She earned a living as a seamstress, making costumes for musicians such as Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. When Reeves was young, the goulish rocker Alice Cooper stayed at their place while recording his seminal stoner album, Welcome to My Nightmare.
"My aesthetic is heavily influenced by my mother," Reeves says, proudly noting that she moved from London to Paris when she was 14. He smiles, contemplating their shared sensibility. "It's exotic, and it gets more exotic from there." Example: Although Reeves usually favors T-shirts and jeans, he has a taste for expensive clothes. The expertly tailored coat he's wearing tonight - part of an anti-style he jokingly describes as "bohemian scarf" was bought in Australia, and it did not come cheap. "I feel like I got my father's blood," Reeves says, contemplating a parent he didn't really know or fathom - perhaps because his father ended up in prison after being caught with heroin and cocaine. (In fact, Reeves has rarely, if ever, discussed him publicly. He does not like talking about his family, which also includes two sisters.) Reeves stares into his drink. "Have you ever had that feeling? That there's something of you? That you're a part of?" He adds, "I would say my father - I didn't know him, but I inherited his blood. [He] was more emotional, tempestuous, willful..."
Reeves pauses. "Tragic," he says finally.
"No. Of course not. But, I mean, you know, in a kind of..."
He thinks better of it, then pats his pockets in a way which suggests that he'd enjoy a cigarette right now.
Minutes later, Marlboro in hand, Reeves is on to a subject that only he could consider infinitely more comfortable: drugs. This makes him a singular creature in Hollywood, where the only thing more common than drug use is the denial of it. When was the last time you heard an A-list movie star say something like this about drugs: "I've had wonderful experiences. I mean really wonderful. In teaching. Personal epiphanies. About life. About a different perspective - help with different perspectives that you have. You know what I mean? Relationships to nature. Relationships with the self. With other people. With events."
Unfortunately, this sort of thing got Reeves in trouble back in the early 1990s, when his reputation began to precede him. He hadn't played a deeply stoned young man named Ted, went the theory. He was Ted. In interviews, Reeves said things like "Sometimes when I'm interviewed I'm not ready to do that. So you say... excellent! And you know what, man? It's O.K." Reeves's Jeff Spicoli-ish persona, his conspicuous dudeness, rankled.
"When we were much younger, we did a lot of drugs," says Richman. "Everyone did. Ecstasy and mushrooms - some crazy stuff. Keanu always had a big bag of pot."
"There was a certain half a year where I had a drug reputation," Reeves says, adding ruefully, "It's one of the rites of passage." Asked whether that reputation (which, it seems, extended much longer) was deserved, he replies, "Well, to a certain extent. I had to work in order to kind of dispel that. So I did some things that I wouldn't have normally done if I didn't have to, like a Japanese commercial to pay the rent or a video with Paula Abdul."
Reeves isn't the least bit self-conscious about this subject. He's self-conscious about few things, period, and so utterly lacking in neurosis that it's unnerving, frankly. As he's grown older, he's dialed back the partying considerably. But he still exudes a certain party-boy ethos - which, by the way, does not suggest stupidity; in fact, the most interesting thing about Reeves is that, despite his conspicuous dudeness, he's far more intellectually curious than most movie stars, with their endless public readings of Pablo Neruda and trips to Indian ashrams. Reeves, by contrast, talks persuasively about Philip K. Dick - specifically, his 1964 novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which is about alternate realities and Mark Epstein's 1995 Thoughts Without a Thinker, which is about psychotherapy and Buddhism, one of Reeves's favorite subjects. (He played Siddhartha in Bernardo Bertolucci's brilliant 1993 mistake, Little Buddha.)
"It's something that touches me," he says a bit cautiously. "But I haven't taken refuge in the dharma."
"Which means what?" he's asked.
"That's your initiation into the dharma. That's a ceremony."
"So you're interested in it, but not of it."
Here one begins to worry that Reeves is going to start levitating or something. Here one says, "Not to get too heavy on you..."
"Oh, it's OK," says Reeves, playfully signaling the waitress for another cocktail. "I'm eating light."
Reeves is asked to list his vices. "Vices," he says, bemused.
"Things that you really try to - "
He lifts his hand as if to say that he knows what the word means; it just doesn't have any particular relevance to his life.
"Something you really can't do without?" he offers.
"Something you consider wrong. A bad habit."
"That I consider wrong?"
He shrugs. "I don't have one," he says flatly.
"Or maybe you're just not judgmental toward yourself."
"Perhaps. Probably." Shrug. "But I don't have one."
"There's nothing?" he's asked, with a nod toward his third Marlboro.
Reeves stares at his cigarette. "I don't consider smoking a vice."
His eyes are twinkling. Time passes.
"So. No vices?"
He smiles again. "Or I just don't relate to them as vices."
It's this sort of thing - this mix of calm and aloofness, confidence and coyness which both attracts and confounds those around Reeves. "He's such a private person - very intelligent, very private - that sometimes he becomes almost inarticulate," says Pat O'Connor, who directed Reeves in the romantic drama Sweet November, due out this month and co-starring Charlize Theron as a dying woman who romances and then discards a new man every month. "He has no bullshit about him. If that's Zen-like, I don't know. He has a calm exterior and a turbulent interior. He's learned through his own experience, and his own sense of what he's about, to curb and channel his energies in the direction of the performance. He's quiet. Sometimes playful. More often, intense."
Lately, Reeves has experienced a number of personal travails, none greater than that his sister Kim, one of the dearest people in his life, has been fighting cancer. For a time, Reeves lived in a bedroom in her Los Angeles home. (In fact, Reeves has spent years living out of hotel rooms and he's currently renting a relatively simple Santa Monica apartment, which he decorated in one day, using furniture rented from a friend. "It's everyone's dream to have very few possessions," Mailhouse explains. "Keanu has the ability to move around." Which he does via some of his few big-ticket toys: a shiny black Porsche and several motorcycles.)
"I've always wondered how he processes the things that he has to process," says Richman. Evidently, Reeves rarely approaches friends about his, personal issues. Richman describes him as "the perfect paradox of loving people and loving being alone [and] intense quietness and overt exclamation."
"He's more of a loner than anything else," says O'Connor, a gentle Irishman with a splendid brogue. "But he's not a loner in that sort of up-your-arse sort of way.... There's an anger and there's a pain in Keanu, as there is in many actors. And his life has been complicated. However enigmatic he is about it, the fact is that his own history is present in his own body and his own emotions." Told that Reeves makes vague allusions to his anger, O'Connor adds, "That's proof that he's very aware of it. He just chooses not to talk about it."
Case in point: when Reeves is asked how his ill sister is doing, he stiffens noticeably and almost whispers, "Hanging in there." When he's asked again days later, on grounds that People Want to Know, he pauses for several miserably long seconds. "Well," he says finally, through gritted teeth, "when you talk to them you can just say you didn't get an answer."
Even though Reeves still goes out plenty, often until the wee hours, he doesn't go out much in Hollywood. He tends to hang around with guys he's known for years - his bandmates, Richman, Alex Winter, his costar in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.
Also, since only about a million readers are wondering, he has not been much involved in serious romances lately. "Unfortunately, at the moment, I'm not," he says. "But, you know, I'm looking. I haven't been in a relationship for like five years now. I mean, I've gone out and stuff; but I haven't been in a relationship."
Then he adds, "It was so hard the last time. Literally it was just in the last couple of years where I was even open to the idea of being in another relationship.... It was just like, 'Agggh! God, forget all that, man. Let's be friends. '"
"Are you protective because you don't want someone going out with you only because you're a movie star?" he's asked.
He shakes his head and, laughing loudly, says, "Well, for one night..."
He's kidding. Sort of. He does that. He plays the angles. He bobs and weaves. At one point, while discussing the sheer joy of picking up a bass and joining a rock band, he stares you in the eye and says, "It's good, clean fun. You should try it."
"I'm too old," he's told.
"Come on, man. Come on."
"Don't see it happening. But I appreciate your enthusiasm."
He slumps in his seat and gives you a look. "You smoke?" he asks.
"No guitars, no cigarettes," he says, smiling, "You'll learn."