The Accidental Superstar
by Lucy Kaylin
KEANU REEVES is Hollywood's least "Hollywood" star and its most enduring riddle. But with forty movies to his credit and the starring role in the industry's most ass-kicking franchise, the "Matrix" trilogy, he's clearly doing something right.
KEANU REEVES is thinking back to a distant place and time-long before the unimaginable days of messianic roles in history-making trilogies and salaries of $30 million. It was Toronto, maybe 1980. He was 16 years old, and he was selling soda pop.
The Coca-Cola commercial had Reeves in the role of a plucky kid competing in a bike race. "There was the evil Teutonic guy; the Italian guy," he recalls, "I was the new kid who falls behind but comes in second. And the winner goes, 'Great race, kid. Who's your coach?' And I say, 'My daaad'"- this is broad, chin-chucking sort of way.
"Then the man playing my dad goes, 'Here, son,' and he hands me a Coke. And I had the classic experience of having to drink the drink like six times with the director saying, 'OK, now grab the drink. You're the thirstiest guy in the desert and this is water'-which eventually turns into 'It's pussy! It's fuckin' pussy! Grab it! Get it! Drink iiit!" Reeves bellows in this fashion for several seconds, startling restaurants patrons a few feet away.
"Then I did a cornflakes commercial. I'm the crazy loner guy setting up the tables in a huge, Estonesque dining hall, and I sneak a bite of cornflakes. And again from the director it's 'OK, you're hungry, you're starving…It's pussy! You're having an orgasm! Eat it! Eat those cornflakes! You're coming!" Reeves laughs. "Directors just like saying that kind of stuff- it's really for them. Aah, it helps. Every little bit helps."
I appreciate the story for a couple of reasons. Given Reeves's penchant for a kind of stilted formality and turgid phraseology - describing one of his better projects as "this work, this film, this art, this endeavor" - it is a relief to see him loosen up long enough to get silly. It's like catching a glimpse of the air-strumming Ted from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure or the buoyant loser Tom from Parenthood - winsome portrayals so different in spirit from the increasingly pokerfaced, craft-conscious work for which Reeves is now better known.
I also like the subtext of the miles logged and progress made - the sense of a career with contours and sweep. After forty movies, Reeves has earned the right to tell goofy stories about the early days. Say what will you about the quality of his output, perhaps best described as an acquired taste - Reeves has proved himself an uncommonly game and dedicated actor.
Yet there will always be something sort of curious about his rank as one of our best-known, highest-paid stars, probably because there has always been something curious about him, starting with his pan-ethnic appearance - the Asian eyes fixed in the square-jawed mien of a California surfer. That dichotomy is echoed in his name - the exoticism of Keanu paired with the stony strength of Reeves - which somehow suits an actor who can play Buddha and a SWAT cop with equal conviction. In Reeves the supposed paradox resolves itself, and that contributes to his slippery mystique. What order leading man can boast the appeal of both a black Lab and a shar-pei?
Nor can many actors zigzag as fluidly between potty-mouthed reminiscences and pedantic references to things like "the iconography of religion" and the commedia dell'arte. Although Reeves is a Shakespeare devotee who keeps the collected works close at hand, he's an easily transported by playing bass in his occasional band, Dogstar, perpetrators of what of what he once called folk thrash. When the band is on tour, its' a decidedly lowbrow outing - fans pelting the stage with cups, bottles, bras, panties, teddy bears, letters, roses… "Oh I know what the weirdest one was," Reeves says when asked. "We were in Washington, and this woman put her, like, 2-year-old baby on stage. I don't remember any crying, though; it was probably stunned by the amplifiers blasting into its cranium." Keanu Reeves is a man of odd, barely interlocking parts, and there is something kind of intriguing about that.
To function at his level of fame and remain humble, well liked and yet thoroughly opaque adds to his allure. He actively resists movie-star trappings - "He doesn't even have an ounce of that in his life," says Reeves's Matrix costar Carrie-Ann Moss. "He doesn't have the perks to the extent where you sometimes want to say, 'Hey, get a little help! Get an assistant!' He's not about fame at all. And his choices are never about box office - it's about what strikes his heart." Which is why Reeves's status as king of the Matrix franchise has a vaguely Being There quality. Asked what originally drew him to The Matrix, Reeves says, "I was looking for work."
Put another way, he's the accidental superstar, approaching big-budget studio projects with the thespian brio of a summer-stock player. Outlandish rewards were never the goal. It's what makes Reeves so believable as Neo, the reluctant hero of The Matrix. "Often-times we'd be sitting around talking about what we were doing in the piece," says costar Laurence Fishburne, "and I remember Keanu saying, 'Here's this guy, he's living his life and all of a sudden somebody comes along and says, "Hey! You're gonna save the world!" That's heavy shit! What do you do with that?' I don't think Keanu sees himself as being heroic in any way. If there's anything about his characters he relates to it's their ordinariness - the stuff that makes them human, not the stuff that makes them superhuman. I know that he really had great affection and love for Neo. He had compassion for the man assigned this great responsibility."
Unsurprisingly, in a self-aggrandizing line of work Reeves can be selfless - requesting that his bloated, tricked-out trailer on the set of The Replacements be exchanged for something smaller, in deference to the rest of the cast; diverting some of his salary to the key crew on The Matrix; kicking in more than a million dollars of his own money for The Devil's Advocate when the studio complained that Al Pacino would be too expensive; doing roughly the same for Gene Hackman on The Replacements. He is congenitally polite, which is why the role of the wife-beating Donnie Barksdale in 2000's The Gift was, for him, such a mind-blowing leap. During some exploratory improve, Reeves found himself in a trailer with his on-screen wife, Hillary Swank, slapping her silly, "I put a little mustard on it, "he admits. "I'm not going to abuse a trust, but in order to investigate the situation you have to commit. And it ended with her up against a wall and me behind her starting to take off her pants. Then we stopped."
The incident only hints at the possibility of a dark side to Reeves; he has been so successful at cocooning his public image in a kind of enigmatic murk, one can only guess at the number and the nature of his demons. Personal questions are met with a practiced minimalism. When I ask if he has a girlfriend, he replies, "No, I don't have a girlfriend right now, no." in the manner of a witness for the prosecution. When I ask how he celebrated landing his first movie roll, in 1986's Youngblood, he says he leaped over a steel fence. Memories of his early boyhood in New York City are served up haiku style. "I remember playing in the park," he says. "I remember Monster Balls. These Super Balls with monsters on the inside. I remember running after those things."
Of course, more revealing tidbits have drifted out over time, and they tend to be troubling: The fact that he is estranged from his half-Chinese, half-Hawaiian father, a man who did jail time for drug possession; the fact that one of Reeves's two sister is battling leukemia; the fact that the baby Reeves was to have with his girlfriend two years ago died in the womb, and his girlfriend - by then an ex - was killed in a car accident shortly afterward. Questioning Reeves about such things would be both churlish and fruitless. That people sometimes do takes his breath away still.
SITTING IN THE BAR part of a restaurant on New York's Upper West Side, Reeves pulls his long arms around himself protectively, draping them loosely in his lap. He's wearing a black jacket that's layered over a black shirt that's layered over yet another black shirt. He smokes a cigarette and takes a sip of red wine. His legs are crossed at the thigh. He's tall - a more looming figure in the corner of a bar than I'd expected him to be, given his typically kinetic and boyish screen presence. In person he is preposterously handsome.
When I tell him we'd actually met fourteen years ago in the Berkshires, at the cast party for a production of The Tempest in which he'd played Trinculo, he unfolds a bit. Bill &Ted's had made him a star, and I remember how Ted-like he was at the time; amiable, with stringy hair, swigging on a pint of something, a renowned terror on his motorcycle. "Yes, yes" he recalls. "I had a 750 GSXR - my first sport bike. It was lovely. There was a great winding road from the theater to the house, and one day I ran into a police block. Two patrol cars and however many patrolmen basically saying 'Cease and desist' going so quickly. It was beyond ticketing: Over the course of the weeks I'd built up reputation, so it was a community kind of thing, asking the police to tell me to calm down a little bit." He smiles himself. "I was enjoying the countryside."
Telling me this, Reeves sounds as stagily debonair as Bruce Wayne, as if he should be wearing an ascot and saying, "But I've put away childish things" - when in fact he hasn't at at all. Even now, Reeves is said to enjoy the occasional night ride with his headlight off. He has an artful array of scars - a squiggle on his leg, a snake on his abdomen, a bald spot in the whiskers above his lip - that attest to periodic in judgment (although he's never had a spill that necessitated the removal of his spleen, a subject of some dispute in sundry Keanuana). "I'm a very safe, conservative motorcycle operator," Reeves offers. "Especially when there's a full moon and you're in the [Hollywood] Hills and it's summery. Never. Never would I do that" - ride with the headlight off. Again, the private smile.
With Reeves, motorcycles are a passable topic of conversation, although movies are even better - or maybe they're safer. I mention that I've watched thirteen of his in the past two and a half days, and this seems to delight him. "Thirteen?" Reeves says, settling in. "You saw a third of my body of work. Did you go through the classics? Did you see My Own Private Idaho? Little Buddha? River's Edge?" When I tell him I saw the seminal disaffected-youth movie, River's Edge, yesterday for only the first time since it came out in 1986, he says, "Oh really? Wow!" - genuinely surprised, as if everyone were reviewing his greatest hits at regular intervals. But coming from him, there is nothing arrogant of self-involved about it. Reeves just loves the movies, vast swatches of which he is able to quote, and wouldn't that be great if they've given you some pleasure, too?
I ask him to name his favorites. He says he can't - "It's like picking children… River's Edge certainly, Youngblood, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Parenthood, Little Buddha, The Devil's Advocate, My Own Private Idaho, The Matrix, Reloaded and Revolutions, Hardball…" I like the fact that he even includes the dogs, such as Johnny Mnemonic and Bram Stocker's Dracula. Then he says, "Excuse me while I skip the loo."
Reeves returns a minute or two later. "Did I say Devil's Advocate?...Devil's Advocate, Dangerous Liaisons, I Love You to Death…" Clearly, he'd been thinking about it in the john.
I find myself wondering about such the difficulty of trying to break into movies when your first name sounds like some little-known species of steppe-dwelling yak. Apparently, there were issues early on. A few years after the Coke and cornflakes commercials, Reeves drove with his then girlfriend from Toronto, where he'd been living since he was 7, to L.A, in search of acting jobs. Upon his arrival, his agent and manager called to say they were getting "ethnic feedback" on his picture and résumé. "I don't know the fuck that meant," says Reeves. "I guess it was a bad thing, because they wanted me to change my name. I was like, 'OK, man, I want to work here, so if I've got to do that I'll do that.' So they took my first and middle initials and made a name out of that," and the rugged-sounding all-American K.C. Reeves was born.
"But then what would happen is I would go into auditions and they'd call for K.C. and I'd miss the appointment. I wasn't even looking up. Eventually I'd go up and say, 'Hi, I came in at 11:15.' They'd say, 'Are you K.C.?' And I'd be like, 'Oh, shit, um, yeah! I guess I am.' That lasted about a month, maybe. And I had all these pictures I had to pay for with the fucking 'K.C.' on them. What was I gonna do?"
Reeves tells the story in that plumy, stentorian stoner voice of his, recognizable from almost every one of his movies. Sometimes it's dead wrong for the role; why should the guileless chocolate salesman from A Walk in the Clouds always seem on the verge of a soliloquy? On the other hand, with a character like the high-born hustler in My Own Private Idaho, the voice is just right - probably because he soliloquizes regularly, arms thrown wide toward his comrades.
Which is to say, the success or failure of a Reeves performance depends greatly on how well he's chosen - on whether the role flatters his uneven gifts. His character in Speed, for instance, was an inspired choice, actually benefiting from his uninflected earnestness; basically, he was required to look tense and buff from the first frame to the last. "I thought the film was ridiculous in such a beautiful way," says Reeves. "A bus that can't go under fifty-five miles an hour. A SWAT guy named Jack Traven. Who could resist?"
Which brings us to his work, this film, this art, this endeavor otherwise known as The Matrix, whose first sequel, Reloaded, opens this month. Indeed, no actor dead or alive has ever been better matched with a role than Reeves is with Neo, the computer hacker who comes to learn that humans are living in a sinister dreamscape generated by machines that are actually, systematically, turning them into batteries. Or something like that. Keanu critics thought he got awfully lucky with the part, which asked him to look cool in fetish wear that couldn't miss - badass shades and overlong black trench coats functioning as the world's hippest tutus in the balletic fight sequences.
But that sells Reeves short. Apart from being a slick and credible action hero, he owned the movie because he committed so totally, fusing himself to its arcane internal logic. And his ramrod seriousness underscored the notion of profound questions lurking beneath the elaborate cinematic armature and the requisite blam blam. Reeves, who has a soft spot for heady, ambitious, slightly pretentious discourse, is very at-home with the movie's philosophical musings about life, death, free will, fate, illusion, reality and, for good measure, creation. "Neo has a lovely line that he says a couple of times: 'What truth?' What truth," he repeats. "It's something that's part of my makeup. One of my earliest phrases was How come? So I related to the piece." Says Carrie-Anne Moss, "I don't know if anyone else could have played that part, because he is so that guy. He is so committed, and yet he questions everything."
For Reeves, the allegorical dimensions of The Matrix was a satisfying as its plentiful "cool shit", like the airborne kung fu. Any movie that raises the sorts of questions Shakespeare and Buddha might have pondered while spawning a video game aimed squarely at the Bills and Teds and Dogstar fans (hitting stores this month, to coincide with the release of the first sequel) is making the most of him. Reeves deserves a lot of credit for recognizing its potential. "Keanu has the soul of an artist," says Lorenzo di Bonaventura, president of worldwide production at Warner Bross. During the making of The Matrix, "and a lot of courage for taking a chance on very daring material and young filmmakers. Once he read the script, he was on board very quickly"- unlike Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith and Brad Pitt, who flirted with the project but ultimately passed. "He never wavered, and he fought to himself for the movie in every way."
Reeves refers to himself as a "Matrix zealot," in fact; it is his calling. As much he has been a willing servant to the Wachowski brothers, who wrote and directed all three movies. (The third one, Revolutions, opens six months after Reloaded.) Like everyone else, Reeves refers to the Wachowskis as "the brothers," which lends and appropriate air of cultishness to the secretive proceedings. And a certain degree of zealotry was mandatory on the 270-days shoot in Australia, during which both sequels were made simultaneously. Although Reeves will be handsomely compensated for his trouble - $30 million against 15 percent of the gross for both movies - by Hollywood standards he's earned it. "you just can't even imagine how that guy showed up every day," Moss says, describing Reeves's shrieks of pain that accompanied long hours of stretching on the set before his fight scenes were filmed. "He'd have fights that were fifteen or sixteen days of shooting. You do one day like that and you don't know if you'll ever walk again."
"You can imagine a lot of actors doing action movies just to look cool - you know they're not doing the work and they don't care," Moss says. "Keanu cares so much. He's not looking to have it easy at all." Or as Reeves himself puts it, "I love The Matrix - love it through and through. And so the sacrifices - what it demands, what it hopes for - had me body and soul. And to feel that is one of the more remarkable things in my life."
Of course, the demands of making films - even insanely ambitious, billion-dollar-grossing ones - are dwarfed by the burden of superstardom when it is nothing you ever wished for yourself. With The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions upon us - letting us fly vicariously at a time when we badly need to - the quest for Keanu is sure to intensify. But he'll ward it off, as he always has, as he does stiff wind blowing in his face after coffee one wintry morning last February. Stylishly underdressed, shivering in a thin black coat, eyes narrowed against the cold, Reeves escorts me a few blocks and wishes me well at the corner - one of the few famous actors to remember a journalist's name and use it.
"And thanks," he calls out as he turns to go, "for watching the movies."