A Not-Always-Excellent Adventure --- Action Star Keanu Reeves Wants to Play the Field
by Tom King
WHAT'S UP NEXT for one of Hollywood's biggest action-adventure stars?
A movie about a kids' baseball team.
Like "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," the dopey time-travel movie that made him famous, Keanu Reeves's career has been one of Hollywood's strangest journeys. To the bewilderment of studio executives, who have been pushing him toward action roles, he has flitted for more than a decade between oddball art-house films ("My Own Private Idaho"), syrupy commercial fare ("A Walk in the Clouds") and highbrow stuff in which he has often seemed out of place ("Much Ado About Nothing"). Now, in his latest movie, "Hardball," he's back once again playing a down-on-his-luck loser. Only instead of uncovering the secrets of history, he finds redemption coaching baseball.
Mr. Reeves's unconventional choices are emblematic of many younger actors today. Like Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt, he defies the traditional norms of building a career in Hollywood, refusing to pick projects that could build him a reputation as a reliable marquee name. Erwin Stoff, Mr. Reeves's longtime manager, says it took him an entire 12-hour plane ride to convince the actor to do "Speed" (the blockbuster that had him commandeering a city bus rigged with a bomb). And the actor's box-office record is as erratic as the roles he picks: In 1994, for example, the same year he made "Speed," he also made "Little Buddha," a drama by Oscar-winning director Bernardo Bertolucci, which grossed only $1.7 million.
What is really weird, by Hollywood standards, is that he doesn't always seem motivated by money. In fact, on several films he has literally handed over part of his salary to other actors or crew. After Mr. Reeves was cast as the lead in 1996's "The Devil's Advocate," for example, Al Pacino expressed interest in playing the devil. When the studio balked at Mr. Pacino's salary demand, Mr. Reeves cut his larger fee by a couple million dollars and told them to give it to Mr. Pacino. He did the same thing when Warner Bros. said it couldn't afford to cast Gene Hackman as the coach in last year's "The Replacements."
And in an era when almost no actor turns down sequels (they usually pay more than the original), Mr. Reeves passed on doing "Speed 2." Why? "He read the script and hated it," his manager says. More recently, Mr. Reeves gave up one of his valuable "back-end points" (a percentage of profits) for sequels to "The Matrix," and turned it over to the special-effects and costume-design team working on the movies. "He felt that they were the ones who made the movie and that they should participate," one executive familiar with the situation says.
Of course, the 37-year-old Mr. Reeves is making plenty of money: While he was paid about $10 million upfront to star in "The Matrix," industry executives say his total earnings ballooned to about $35 million because of his back-end profit-participation deal. (His rich deals on two sequels to the film, which he is filming in Australia, will almost certainly make him far more.)
In that case, his interest in offbeat projects paid off. Many actors turned down "The Matrix," put off by its confusing script. "I'll always love Keanu for saying 'yes' to 'The Matrix' because he was the first one to understand what it could be," says Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Warner Bros.' production chief.
The problem for Hollywood is keeping these independent-minded stars happy -- and getting them to repeat the kinds of roles audiences want to see them in. Unlike the contract players of Hollywood's golden age, today it's the stars, not the studios, that decide which roles they'll play. A scruffy Mr. Pitt makes violent fare like "Snatch" or "Fight Club" when studios would rather see him clean-shaven in romantic roles.
The clincher in convincing Mr. Reeves to do "Speed" and other action films, his manager says, was the simple argument that they would enable him to do smaller films for which he had more passion. "One 'Speed' or one 'Matrix' gives you a pass to try some other kinds of movies," Mr. Stoff says.
To keep Mr. Reeves happy, for example, Warners ended up green-lighting "Sweet November," a pet project of his. The film, a remake of a 1968 drama, was skewered by critics. Then he made "The Gift," a low-budget film that was a critical success, but brought in just $12 million. Whether Mr. Reeves's new movie "Hardball" will end up in the win or loss column remains to be seen. Even the film's director, Brian Robbins, says "When I at first heard 'Keanu Reeves,' I thought 'I'm not sure. I see this as an Irish guy.'" But he says he was "really surprised" by Mr. Reeves's performance.
Either way, Mr. Reeves is likely to keep looking for unusual roles, as he has since he got his career-launching start playing a dim surfer-dude at age 23. His manager says: "When you become a star playing 'Ted,' I think you may have to go the extra mile to say 'That's not who I am.'"