by Stephen Whitty
NEW YORK -- Keanu Reeves is smarter than you think.
Sure, those two long-ago "Bill and Ted" movies stereotyped him in a heinous way. ("I used to have nightmares that they would put 'He played Ted' on my tombstone," he admitted.)
And, yes, he has said some silly things in the past and even merits his own chapter in the snarky book "Movie Stars Do the Dumbest Things."
And -- OK, OK -- he does tend to overuse the word "awesome," and salute people with "hey, man," and wonder aloud about things like spontaneous combustion, and did utter the movies' most famous "Whoa!" in "The Matrix."
But Keanu Reeves is also smart enough to love Shakespeare, and read the great Russian novelists, and listen to Joy Division. He's been smart enough to say yes to working with Gus Van Sant and Bernardo Bertolucci, and no to making "Speed 2."
And he was smart enough four years ago to see something in the screenplay for "The Matrix," and to sign on for a sci-fi milestone -- and increasingly profitable payday. (Reeves' reported salary on "The Matrix Revolutions," which opened Wednesday: $15 million plus 15 percent of the gross.)
"When I saw the script for the first one, there was just a kind of modernity in it that appealed to me," he says, sprawled in a Manhattan hotel suite. "The synthesis of all the forms -- classic myth, a love story, even kung fu. I loved that. And the question, 'What is the Matrix?' you know, being really 'What is the world? What is reality? How do we get past that veil to see the truth?' I thought that was fantastic."
The movie's vision of a sexually liberated, casually colorblind society appealed, too.
"It doesn't draw attention to itself and yet it's there," says Reeves of a script by the reclusive directors Larry and Andy Wachowski that gives equal weight to all its characters. "It takes this opportunity to go beyond racial issues and gender orientation to create this kind of inclusive world, and I thought that was a really cool element as well."
The movies don't often feature that sort of multicultural world. Yet, growing up, it was the only one Reeves knew.
Born in Beirut to an English mother and an Asian/Pacific Islander father -- "ke anu" is Hawaiian for "the coolness" -- Reeves, his mother and a younger sister moved around a bit after the marriage failed. Eventually they settled in Toronto's now-posh Yorkville section, then a patchouli-scented neighborhood of hippie crash pads and incense shops.
"It was just awesome," Reeves remembers happily. "There was no fear, no worry -- I remember chestnut fights, and hide-and-go-seek games that would go on in the street until 11 o'clock at night. . . . People fought, but it was never about anything more than two people wanting to fight. I didn't hear a racial epithet until I was in high school, and when I did, I was just like, 'Are you kidding me? Did you actually just say that?' "
Reeves wasn't much of a presence in high school, where he seemed to major in hockey. But then one day in a sophomore English class, he was called on to recite one of Mercutio's scenes from "Romeo and Juliet." And something happened.
"I just remember that it was really fun, and I felt really alive, and I said, 'This is what I'm going to be,' " he says. " 'I'm going to be an actor.' "
The boy who had no interest in going to school during the day started taking serious acting classes at night. By 22, he'd landed a couple of parts on Canadian TV and a supporting part in the Rob Lowe film "Youngblood." Encouraged, Reeves moved to Los Angeles, where he got a bigger part in a better film: the creepy, alienated "River's Edge."
It was a dark little classic about aimless youth, but co-star Crispin Glover got most of the attention, while Reeves got stamped as a pleasant, not-too-bright hunk. Signing on for "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" in 1989 (and then doing the voice for the Saturday morning cartoon spinoff, and returning for the 1991 movie sequel) only confirmed his image as a handsome, vaguely hammered high schooler.
It was profitable for a while, but in the end it was unwelcome and mostly undeserved. Reeves' performance as the clueless Ted was sweet and unforced, and gave Hollywood its funniest dope since Sean Penn lit up "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Yet while everyone knew Penn wasn't Jeff Spicoli, no one seemed able -- or interested -- in telling Reeves apart from Ted.
Eventually Reeves pulled himself out of the rut by taking on more challenging material such as Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho" and Bertolucci's "Little Buddha." Neither was a mainstream success, but they helped Reeves shake the surfer-dude image and rebuild his credibility as something more than a movie stoner.
Then "Speed" hit and made him a major star at 30.
Since then, Reeves' career has been marked by some odd choices and even odder films. (Remember "Feeling Minnesota"? "The Last Time I Committed Suicide"?) For every "Speed" and "The Matrix," there have been two or three or four films such as "Sweet November," "The Watcher" and "Johnny Mnemonic."
His life has been marred by some horrible tragedies, too. His good friend River Phoenix, a co-star in "Private Idaho," was lost to drugs in 1993. In 1999, Reeves' child with girlfriend Jennifer Syme was stillborn. Two years later, Syme was killed in a car crash.
Some of that Reeves has used in his work ("I've lost my best friends," he says, "and that can't help but be a part of certain scenes"). Much of it he's tried to deal with and move past.
And so Reeves now plays bass in an underachieving band called Becky. He rides vintage motorcycles, way too fast. He thinks about marriage, and kids, but not too much. ("Before you get married, you have to meet someone you want to marry, and you can't control that.") He hangs out with old buddies, some of whom he's known since grade school.
"I've been fortunate to make some pretty incredible friends in my life, and friends keep you down-to-earth," he says. "But my nature is pretty down-to-earth anyway."
He still looks like a college senior and talks like a bright high-schooler, but Reeves turns 40 next year. Although he has a number of projects either already finished or lined up -- including the romantic comedy "Something's Gotta Give" in December -- he has "no idea" what the next decade will be like. This one has been dramatic enough to last for quite a while.
Mostly, he says, he's looking forward to continuing to act, to "finding the truth in the make-believe," and to simply enjoying life.
"I watch my little goddaughter and I think, life is so precious, so beautiful. There's so much possibility and potential in it. It's all such a gift. So why can't we just enjoy it?"
It's not such a dumb question. And sometimes Keanu Reeves sounds like he just might be smart enough to figure it out.