What Makes Keanu Cry
by Bruce Wagner
When he rang the doorbell he was holding a black motorcycle half-helmet. He was diffident and shook my hand. Called me sir - perhaps through nervousness, perhaps simply because of my age. I am 10 years older but suddenly felt 60. I gave him a tour of the first level of my home. He drank everything in: walls lined with cork and newspaper clippings. German electric baby grand, and a multitude of books, a (very) few with my name on the cover. He said he was unfamiliar with my work.
While he examined one of my novels with fastidious care, I said I'd just finished a tale of Buddhism and Hollywood, two subjects I knew he was on familiar terms with. He used the downstairs bathroom, then we went up to the kitchen. Getting acclimated. Small talk. I knew I wanted to engage him in crazily serious things. Death stuff. How do you jump into that without being crude when all you have is 90 minutes?
Actually, I was surprised he'd even come by. His people had suggested we meet in the courtyard of the Chateau. Now, I love the Chateau to death but hated the thought of us sitting there. Could he please come to my house? They called a few days later and said, Yes, he would. Then the meet was postponed and I thought maybe he'd had second thoughts and the Chateau courtyard was soon to raise its airy, elegant head, but just then Keanu himself called to say he'd be 20 minutes late. There he was. Handsome as expected - you get the automatic hetero crush, metrosexpuppy love. But he's invisible, too: I doubt anyone recognized him on the hog, coming down the 10 (he rode a simple, pretty Harley. His Norton had the "flu"). I hope someone did because they'd have gotten a motorcycle Matrix goof/rush that would have been a hoot to tell a friend, family, lover.
Still he brings invisibility down on himself. He's inherently playful, graceful, humble. A tiny bit stiff. Probably just not wild about this sort of thing. Who would be? I'd met him before at a party for The New Yorker, of all places, during a book convention. I'd overheard Tracey Ullman talking to him about River Phoenix. (I wasn't going to ask about River, today). I told Keanu that if there was anything he felt uncomfortable with, I promised not to do that "When I brought up blah, Keanu bridled, clearly reluctant, blah" thing. I'd spent the last few years immersed in the postmortem world researching my novel and said that I wanted to talk about death. He didn't mind.
I'd prepared a large plate of fruit for him, something I'd done only for women. "How civilized," he said. He is thoughtful and slightly anxious, and 90 minutes is such a short time. The crush washed back on me like a dumb wave, that half-Chinese, half-Hawaiian English thing. We started talking about Zen via his role in Little Buddha. He was in Tuscany shooting another movie when he got word that Bernardo Bertolucci wanted to meet. After the interview, Bertolucci hired him, saying, "You have an impossible innocence". The director as seducer; then again, he probably had more than 90 minutes to spend.
Still, it's true.
Now here he is, impossibly innocent, eating fruit, you can almost smell him - very Siddhartha. One just doesn't want any harm to come to him.
Back then, Keanu says, another actor taught him to meditate. The process caused gorgeous, profound, freakish sensory perceptions; for the first time, Keanu saw separation of mind and will, volition, "how everything insists on existing - that was a revelation - beyond psychological interpretation". You see, he knows more about this than he lets on. "It's all Vajrayana," he says offhandedly. (Emptiness, indestructible like a diamond). Oh, shit. Glance at my watch. Half our time is already gone-how can it be?
Quick, artless segue to the topic of Fathers. Both of us had big separations from the patriarchs at the age of 13; he hasn't seen his since (I tell him I know his dad did jail time but that he has nothing on Woody Harrelson's old man, who was convicted of killing a federal judge. Keanu laughs; seems he didn't know about that.). Says his father tried to reach him by letter while Keanu was touring through Hawaii with Dogstar but he didn't respond. "I've got his blood in me," he says. "There's nothing from him I want or need". That's how it is for now, anyway. That's how far he's processed, up to this age anyway: age of 39. We just look at each other and shrug; it's tough titties between fathers and estranged sons.
He talks lovingly about his three sisters. Two younger, and one way younger, whom he says he hasn't met. Kim's the one who's been sick with leukemia. She used to train Andalusian horses. "I think," he says, with eerie, charismatic gravitas, "that she's the bravest person I've ever known". Kim has had an impossible time and her brother loves her terribly. "I've gotten bounties from her wish", he utters, cryptic, anguished, poetic. I tell him: Look, I want to talk some more about death. Can't help myself. It's all around him, all around us all. I bring up his former girl-friend, Jennifer, and the child they would have had, if one can "bring up" something so heartbreaking and elegiac in the 30 minutes left. That is the horror of it. I am thinking this when suddenly he says, "I'm going to cry". He is impossibly unguarded, unvarnished, uncynical, innocent. He tells me that Jennifer went for the last happy checkup and the doc said, "I have to send you to a specialist". She blinked and said, "What do you mean?" "I can't find a heartbeat".
At the time, Keanu was making a movie in New York. Jennifer called, screaming. He rushed back. When I ask if he was in the room when she delivered, Keanu, through his misery, sitting across from me and the big plate of fruit, says, "Yes! Of course!" and the look he gives translates thus: What psychosis could have made me not be there for the delivery of the child we had already named?" There are no words. He loved Jennifer and took care of her before, during, after. I didn't ask how much later it was that she died in a car crash. Can someone just please find out. I will not ask or search the Internet. No words. He tells me, "When people say everything happens for a reason, that sticks in my craw." I say they should just leave off "for a reason" and Keanu laughs, adding, "That's very Ram Dass."
Another weird segue, forced by the ticking clock: I ask what he's going to do with the money. I'd read somewhere they were giving him an insane amount for the Matrixes, beyond salary. Says he doesn't know. Seems embarrassed by it (a naturally modest manchild). I ask if he has people, um, working on that or if he ever thinks about it. "Course I do," he says, not testy but still I get the feeling it makes him more uncomfortable talking about money than talking about death. (This is what I instinctively like about him).
Anyway, his big fears, oddly, sweetly, happen to be those in the realm of acting. Actors' fears. What's the next job, the this, the that. In the realm of the normal - impossibly innocent. He loves to play music, but his band seems to have broken up. Everyone from Dogstar got in a room and said, "Hey! We can't think of a song!" He has a new group called Becky, after the drummer's girlfriend.
He just did a movie with Jack Nicholson, who he thinks is the most charming man on earth. "When we did scenes together, I had to stop myself from geeking out," Keanu says. He's open to anything and you can read that on his face - he recently wrapped a small movie called Thumbsucker with a first-time director, a video hottie named Mike Mills. Keanu plays an orthodontist who gives this teenager life advice. Keanu the dad - that's funny to me. He says, "I already had my Oh!-I'm- almost-40! moment. I can see why guys go out and buy the car. I can see why they say, 'I want to live! I haven't lived yet!' " But oh, oh, oh, the clock is ticking. Shit shit shit.
The clock imposes another segue: The longest he's cohabited with a woman is about a year, but he wants to do the relationship thing. He thinks having kids is something you need to experience. But why the hell was he born in Lebanon (asks the ticking clock)? His parents were in their early twenties, tripping around. Then the family was in Australia, then Manhattan, I think in that order, can somebody please confirm, but mostly he grew up in Toronto. That's where he would go back to, if he were to return to a place called home. David Cronenberg later told me that his wife taught Keanu at school when he was 10. In Toronto there was a shop called the Candy Store that sold sweets and switchblades. And clubs he hung at, outside though, too young to go in. Reeves the Younger drove a car to Los Angeles when he was 20. Seriously running out of time now.
He reads a lot - has a thing for Russian writers: a book by Ageyev called Novel With Cocaine (circa 1916); Chekhov's short stories; and the big one, Tolstoy. Doesn't have high-octane actor friends. His buds are people like Alex Winter (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure) and Josh Richman (River's Edge). Doesn't know what he's going to do next, moviewise. He's reading scripts. Normal actor stuff.
I ask if he has trouble going out in the world. Sometimes, he says. Mostly, though, people don't hassle him. But now he has to go. I beg five more minutes. I show him the TiVo'd Willie Nelson's 70th birthday special on the upstairs big screen. Willie, Leon Russell, and Ray Charles, singing 'A Song for You". Willie faces Ray Charles with tears streaming down his face as the blind man sings, "I love you in a place where there's no space or time/l love you for my life, you are a friend of mine/ And when my life is over, I'll remember when we were together/We were alone, and I was singing this song for you". Willie weeps, facing Ray Charles and eternity. I turn back to look at him. He is moved, subtly quaking.
I walk him to his motorcycle. He's a person you want to hug. Ram Dass or somebody said, "Less thinking, more hugging!" But one usually doesn't do that thing with an interviewee. Unseemly. But you feel like embracing him, you really do. That night, a journalist friend asks, "Get any good quotes?"
Personally, I liked (1) "Impossible innocence" (but that was Bertolucci),
(2) "I'm going to cry," and (3) "We can't think of a song!"
Not necessarily in that order.
It doesn't matter. Everything matters. Time's up...