Text by Brad Johnston; interview by Robin Lynch
CINEMA'S FAVOURITE DUDE, KEANU REEVES, FINALLY LOSES HIS COOL IN THE GIFT.
Keanu. It's been reported that in Hawaiian it means "a cool breeze over the mountains". But in the language of film buffs and clandestine connoisseurs of eye candy, it might as well translate as "guilty pleasure".
As Charles Taylor wrote in Salon a couple of years ago, "Nobody wants to envision the movies without Keanu Reeves. If it weren't for him, what would snobs do to amuse themselves?" Indeed, few other actors have been subjected to the merciless criticism Reeves has endured throughout his career, yet he continues to confound his naysayers. At 36, he has an unusually extensive filmography, including several box office triumphs, and off-screen he maintains a refreshingly down-to-earth demeanour, unfazed by the derision and vitriol. One can hardly imagine Tom Cruise dealing so light-heartedly with the rumour that he'd married David Geffen, yet Reeves does. Honestly, you can forgive Johnny Mnemonic when you encounter such an endearing lack of ego.
Although the term "guilty pleasure" does in fact describe a fair portion of Reeves' repertoire, to say it sums up his career is perhaps unfair. While he personified 'dumb jock' with apparent ease in 1986's hockeython, Youngblood, he impressed the same year as a disaffected teen in the more challenging River's Edge. And while he was unsettlingly convincing as the dim-witted überdude in 1989's Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, he had already channelled a more considered, multi-layered naiveté in Dangerous Liaisons a year earlier
Still, no matter how respectable the vehicle or how serious its tone, Reeves somehow manages to retain that unmistakable Keanu-ness, as if he had just stumbled onto the set and been thrown into his costume. Emoting is perhaps too strong a word to describe his acting style - turning up is more like it. And while this might sound harsh, there are countless moviegoers, including this one who are very glad he does.
Take Point Break, for instance, a treasured piece of action trash from 1991 in which Reeves plays Johnny Utah, a surfing FBI agent. If the premise weren't dubious enough, Reeves actually succeeds in lowering the tone through some shockingly acted sequences, yet he remains compelling and, more importantly, likeable. Of course, this might have something to do with his wetsuit, surely one of the most memorable examples of cinematic swimwear since Ursula Andress' Dr No bikini.
Reeves' physical presence is, without a doubt, his calling card and saving grace, but there is something else - his ease with his physicality, that guileless good-guy charm. He has arguably never looked better than he did in the 1994 action smash, Speed, and one could also argue his character in that movie, Jack Traven, is his most romantic. White his young Chevalier Danceny in Dangerous Liaisons was willing to fight to the death for his love, he had nothing on Jack Traven, who triumphs over a lot more than a sword-wielding John Malkovich, and does so in a tight t-shirt and a graceful air of "Hey, just doin' my job." Indeed, when Reeves lands a role which pushes his physical charisma to the fore, he is eminently watchable. Millions of Matrix fans can't be wrong.
In his latest rote, in the Southern gothic supernatural thriller The Gift, Reeves is forced to use that physical strength in an altogether unfamiliar way. Our lovable dude a wife-beating redneck? It's almost unthinkable. Yet Reeves has garnered some of the best reviews of his career for The Gift, which has otherwise received a mixed response. Whether or not this has do to with the novelty value of seeing Reeves play villain is uncertain, but it bodes well for his chances to be remembered as an actor whose talent extends beyond the reach of those chiselled arms. In other words, that guilty pleasure theory might have to be re-worked after all.
blue: I've heard you nail the Southern accent in The Gift.
Reeves: Oh, really? That's nice to hear. You know, I went to Savannah about three weeks before I had to film so, you know, I had the chance to go out into that world. I got myself a pickup truck and started going out to redneck bars.
Did you blend in?
Eventually, yeah. It took me a while because I had to get the right sounds and the right look. But by the end of it I could walk the streets.
What was it like to play a character that was so surly and loathsome?
What, he's not so bad.
Well, this woman is meddling in my marriage and her kids... okay, you're right [laughs]. You know, one of my ambitions as an actor is to try and play different kinds of parts and act in different genres of film. I loved the writing, and I really liked Donnie Barksdale. I liked his intensity.
Is that why you could play him so well?
Well, there is a little bit of Donnie Barksdale in all us men.
Do you really think every man has the capability of...
Violence? Yeah. I mean, I found it quite primal. I found some psychologists in Savannah and they were saying that males generally can't express their feelings, have a sense of low self-worth, and really are just shut down and have issues of power because they don't feel that they have any. So, they go straight to anger... that whole physical power thing becomes addictive, it becomes what they call the cycle of abuse and you know, you fight, you make up, it's the best sex. There is a very strong bond that is created.
Did you discover any violent demons in yourself, any dark corners?
Yeah, I mean, there is... I don't know. Sam Raimi set up an improvisation between Hilary Swank and myself. We were in this one little room in a trailer and he said, "Okay, let's have a conversation between Donnie Barksdale," and my wife's name. What's my wife's name?
Yeah, Valerie, Valerie... [laughs] So, we went into it. I kept going to Hilary, "Are you seeing this witch? You're a liar. You're lying, lying," and Sam said, "Okay, every time you say she's lying, hit her." So, it was Donnie... and pow, I would slap her. There is a certain kind of intoxication that can happen, and eventually I had her against the wall, backwards, taking her pants off. What we found then through that improvisation is how it can happen.
Can you imagine yourself as violent in real life?
Not in that context. I haven't really ever hit a woman. I remember coming out of the improvisation and my heart was racing and everything got really quiet. I felt changed because it's one of those...
Because you crossed a boundary?
Oh yeah, and I mean, I didn't hurt Hilary.
But you realised you crossed something?
Yeah, most definitely, but it's one of the things I most love about acting. It's that you learn about yourself, you learn about other people. I tend to be very polite and sometimes, it doesn't behove me to be polite to some people.
Well, just in certain situations. I remember I was in this bar and this woman turned to me and said "Hey, hey you, come here and give me your autograph," and I had been working on my Donnie Barksdale and what I called it was, I was going to get my Donnie on. And I went, What, and she said, 'Yeah you, come here and give me your autograph," and I said, "What," and I gave her this look and she said, " Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be rude," and then I was like, "Okay." I was like the Incredible Hulk for a second, like Donnie was coming out of my shirt. It was like, "Okay, speak up for yourself sometimes.".
Was it a relief that you weren't carrying the movie? Because you've carried quite a few since you made your comeback.
Oh, from disappearing. Let's see, no.
That's not why you chose the role?
No, it's like I said earlier. It's one of my ambitions to play different kinds of parts. I don't want to be typecast.
But you're willing to go back to The Matrix again?
Yeah, of course. You know, it's not something like Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapon series, I'm not the character that becomes the piece, I'm just a part of the piece. I started training last month... kung fu training, weapons training from 10 to four, it's not bad.
Is this like a refresher course, or are you learning new stuff?
Yeah, there is a lot more flipping involved, a lot more wire work and I know that for my character, all my fights were one on one, and now it's one on five.
Well, they had to up the ante somehow, right?
They really have, yeah. I've read the two scripts and they're fantastic.
Okay, give me some little bit from them.
I don't think that the directors want me to, so I can't.
I know, but just tell me and I won't tell anyone.
Okay, what about the rest of your life? Are you still playing with the band?
Dogstar, still playing with Dogstar. We played in San Francisco last weekend and in Santa Cruz, which was wild.
How many people were there?
In Santa Cruz we had about 1,000 and in San Francisco we played Slims, which I think was about 500.
Are they still throwing underwear on stage?
Yeah, we got bras in San Francisco. I think I actually saw her take it off, too, and I was like, Yeah. I guess that you really like the songs.
One last question. Favorite sex scene in a movie?
One that I was in or one that I liked to watch?
Oh, they're all great [laughs].
You mean the ones that you're in or the ones you watch?
It depends on your point of view.