Star of the week: Keanu Reeves
by Sean Macaulay
Keanu Reeves seems to be in a state of permanent confusion, whether he's doing, like, Shakespeare, or being a slacker surf bum
If Soviet Russia was a mystery wrapped inside a riddle inside an enigma, what does that make Keanu Reeves? He is by turns hilariously bad, amusingly wooden and just downright painful. And his little-boy-lost look is on full display in Sweet November (reviewed on page 13). But he has endured because he has all the determination - and the worldliness - of a puppy.
He is still the shy kid who dealt with being teased by offering up an unthreatening smile. He is widely considered to be adorable, and not just by teenage girls. Bernardo Bertolucci was so charmed by Reeves's shyness and inarticulacy that he cast him as Sidd-hartha in Little Buddha.
The resulting film, a lavish piece of coffee-table mysticism, led to the formation of a Keanu religion, the Cult of No Way. The name is based on the actor's trademark gasp of disbelief first used in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, in which he played a stoner dude prone to bouts of air guitar. The cult celebrates Reeves's entrenched inexpressiveness on screen and his more free-ranging pronouncements off it.
Of his brush with Buddhism, he commented: "I don't think I'll forget that although a table sounds and feels hard, in a certain consciousness it's empty space."
Of the craft of acting, he replied: "I don't know anything, man. I don't know what I'm saying."
The perception of Reeves as a dopey, monosyllabic adolescent dates back to his early roles when he played that character repeatedly. In River's Edge, The Prince of Pennsylvania and Parenthood he was always the troubled teen, shuffling round the place with his hands in his pockets.
When he outgrew his adolescent parts and broadened his range, there was no discernible difference. In I Love You to Death he was a dopehead hitman. In My Own Private Idaho, he was a dopey dropout in ripped jeans.
The best screen actors are said to have a secret, some essential quality they hold back. Reeves unquestionably has this. His eyes suggest a deeply held sensitivity that dates back to his unstable upbringing (one mother, four fathers). It is the release of these buried feelings and thoughts that proves so arduous - for viewer and performer alike.
As the saying goes, the whistle blows, but the train don't move. Watching Reeves struggle to articulate his thoughts is like watching struggling sperm - only one will make it to the finish line and even then there's no guarantee it will result in anything positive.
Dina Meyer, a co-star of Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic, observed: "You can see the wheels are turning, but you can't figure him out - if he's happy, if he's sad . . . you just want to say: 'What's happening in there?' " The Reeves conundrum proved tantalising enough for one instructor to teach a course on the actor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Students were obliged to read Hegel and Foucault in their quest to understand the appeal of the actor "who has a peculiar detachment that doesn't allow for the kind of psychological relationship that you usually have with a traditional method actor.
"When Keanu performs, it's as if he has a foot of Robert Bressonian space around him." (Bresson directed the famously austere Pickpocket and Diary of a Country Priest.) Reeves's response when told of the course was dependably illuminating: "I guess I'm not really involving my imagination to that of a circumstance or happening - I'm just kind of acknowledging it as an existence."
His leap to ironic pop culture icon came with Speed, a surprise summer smash in 1994. Reeves's contribution to this bomb-on-a-bus thriller was to remove his character's quips and one-liners and concentrate instead on his desire to "do good".
Reeves wanted to make his FBI agent more realistic (Oi, fish. Jack Traven wasn't FBI, he was SWAT. Your research = fail. - Ani), although he didn't change after the destruction of a cargo plane by his character while in hot pursuit. In real life it would have been cheaper to spare the plane and pay the villain's ransom demand.
Reeves struck the action jackpot again with The Matrix five years later, when his constitutional air of befuddlement meshed perfectly with the demands of the film's intricate fictional universe. Who better than Reeves to play heroes who can initiate much needed exposition by asking: "Wait a minute, let me get this straight?" In between these two hits, his choice of projects has verged on the myopic. Banal action romps, gooey romances, outright cheesy comedies. When he puts on a foreign accent, such as his attempt at some dulcet English tones in Bram Stoker's Dracula, he takes earnest awkwardness to a new stratosphere.
Always busy (whatever the result, he is an obliging delight on set), he is shrewd enough to mix things up. But his attempts to play villains, as in The Watcher and The Gift, reveal only that he is a natural softie. Rest assured, his mushy side will be on full display in the forthcoming Hardball, a treacly tale of little league baseball in the hood (white coach, black team, hugs all round), and, of course, in Sweet November.
At 36, Reeves still looks and acts like the sensitive, damaged sixth-former. He dresses in ripped jeans and clunky boots. He wanders around with stubble and bedhead and occasional forays into black nail polish.
He rides a motorbike and can often be found muttering contentedly to himself in the foyer of the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, where he has lived for the past seven years.
In his spare time, he plays bass for a folk-punk trio called Dogstar, who are not, he admits, hugely accomplished - Reeves didn't take up the instrument until he was 23. Their two CDs, Quattro Formaggi and Our Little Visionary, sell fantastically well in Japan, but have yet to make much impact elsewhere. He doesn't seem to mind.
Yet it must be said that he does have a weird kind of adolescent integrity. If he wasn't famous or rich, he'd probably still act the same way.