Keanu's excellent adventure
"I'M NOT ROMANTIC. I'M - JUST LIKE: 'HOWYA DOING? YOU WANNA GET IN THE SACK?" DONAL O'DONOGHUE MEETS A WISECRACKING, AND ELUSIVE, KEANU REEVES IN NEW YORK
Keanu Reeves loves acting: on stage, on screen and sometimes when faced with a table of curious journalists. Acting makes him happy and keeps him rich. Next to that there's anonymity. Anonymity, he would argue, keeps him sane. It is these twin - and contrasting - traits that inform the world of the 39-year-old actor who looks even better in the flesh than on screen. Face-to-face he also seems more human, as if the yoke of acting has been lifted from his shoulders and he is able to play himself, or at least a variation thereof. "I'm Mickey mouse," he once said. "They don't know who's inside the suit."
Keanu Reeves is one of Hollywood's more unorthodox stars. Known facts about the actor jostle uneasily with tabloid fictions. He refuses to use a computer or mobile phone (is this true?), he plays with a rock band (Dogstar) in his spare time and is a multi-millionaire through a percentage deal with The Matrix trilogy (worth between $100 million and $150 million). In more than twenty years of attending film premieres he has never walked the red carpet with a girlfriend, and he guards his privacy by giving elliptical interviews. Say hello to Mickey Mouse.
In a hotel in mid-town Manhattan, Reeves is fulfilling his contractual obligations for his latest movie. In Something's Gotta Give, a thoroughly modern comedy of manners and morals, the 39-year-old Canadian plays a doctor who falls in love with an older woman (Diane Keaton).
In the other corner of this Hollywood romantic triangle is a grizzled Jack Nicholson: the older man who only dates women young enough to be his daughter. It's arguable that Reeves was cast primarily for his good looks, as the true comic interplay of Something's Gotta Give is between Jack and Diane. For the producers, with an eye on the box-office, Reeves is the eye candy. For the actor this could be seen as the dipping of a big toe into the waters of romantic comedy.
In any case, Reeves seems content to play a minor role, both on-screen and during the PR merry-go-round. His interview is sandwiched between Keaton's and Nicholson's, but his best attempts to slip anonymously into the room are thwarted by a PR person who would probably have blown a trumpet if he had one. Even so, the eyes of a dozen of so journalists swivel in unison to clock the actor's entrance and there's a brief truncated applause - like when your plane lands safely after a bumpy ride. Reeves seems embarrassed by the welcome: instead he takes a sip of water, and gets down to show business.
In person, the star of The Matrix is an unexpected surprise: sharp-witted, self-deprecating and impeccably polite. Even when the questions come thick and fast (especially the thick ones) Reeves nimbly enters into the cut and thrust. Because it is an international posse of journalists, certain nuances are lost in translation: but this allows Reeves to play hard and fast with interpretation and his 'audience'.
"I don't know much about your personal life but you don't really strike me as a very romantic person," says a female journalist with a pronounced accent and an apparent inability to differentiate between movies and reality. Reeves' dark eyes flicker towards the voice. Heartbeats quicken. "I'm not (romantic)," he drawls as a mischievous smile crinkles his features. "I'm just like: 'Howya doing? You wanna get in the sack?' If you're looking for romance it's not here. There's no sweet nothings, no gifts, no flowers, nothing. It's like take it or leave it."
The room laughs. But the inquisitor forges ahead. "So how difficult was it for you then to play this romantic character?"
"It was really a stretch, quite remarkable and if I don't get nominated..." Reeves pauses for the laughter. "I'm sorry," he adds in earnest tones, before going through the motion of saying how great the role was, what a marvellous script it was and blah de blah de blah.
In interviews, Reeves has a reputation for being deliberately cryptic: a smokescreen that invariably adds to his myth and his mystery. But there is also a warning to stay off certain parts of his turf or else.
The details of Reeves' private life - or at least the ones that form the backbone of every profile - are traced with tragedy. On Christmas Eve, 1999, his then girlfriend Jennifer Symes gave birth to their stillborn daughter, Eva. Shortly afterwards, the couple broke up and in April, 2001, Symes was killed in a freak car accident. And for more than ten years his sister, Kim, has been living with leukaemia. Reeves has spent a lot of time and money (with numerous contributions to cancer research) in trying to find a cure for his sister. In all interviews these subjects are verboten. But he will talk about his two loves: acting and motor-biking.
He usually rides alone and, if possible, helmet-less: skirting along the highways that spaghetti through greater Los Angeles. He prefers to bike at night-time when the darkness cloaks him in anonymity and occasionally without lights (that's how he got that stomach scar). He makes a case for riding without a helmet. It's my body and I should be able to do what I want, he argues.
Slowly, as the man settles into his audience, you realise that this is a performance: part comedy, part serious and part cryptic mumbo jumbo. It's as if Reeves has taken various phases of his film career - the goofiness of Bill and Ted, the mumbo jumbo of The Matrix, the quirky comedy of Something's Gotta Give - and fused them onto himself. In other words the public gets what the public thinks it wants.
"Did you really think that you could steal the girl from Jack Nicholson?"
"So am I."
Keanu Reeves started acting at the age of 15 at the local Jewish Community Centre in Toronto, the city where his mother settled after a nomadic beginning (Reeves was born in Beirut). One of the first roles that he recalls was Mercutio in a community production of Romeo and Juliet: beginning a fixation with Shakespeare that continues to this day. He starred in a Coke commercial and, while still managing a pasta joint, nabbed a part in Wolf Boy. In his first major motion picture, Youngblood, he indulged the twin loves of his life: ice hockey and acting. Afterwards he packed up his life, got in a car and pointed it towards Los Angeles.
"I left Toronto when I was twenty," he says. "I think that I had the courage of youth in the sense that you just go off and try your luck. I didn't know what was going to happen and it didn't matter. I didn't have any other thoughts except that of acting. And I still don't."
Reeves might be panned for his limited acting ability: but he seems intent on taking chances with his screen roles. So far he has played Shakespeare on screen (Much Ado About Nothing) and stage (the title role in Hamlet); was a street-slumming rich kid in My Own Private Idaho, a serial killer in The Watcher and now he's doing comedy (Something's Gotta Give and his next movie, Thumbsucker). Significantly, he passed on a lucrative offer to reprise his starring role in Speed 2 (a good move as the movie bombed).
But there's Method in his madness.
To prepare for Something's Gotta Give Reeves chatted with his GP and scrubbed up to pose as an intern in ER. "I want to find out what a guy is doing as a doctor in Southampton," he says. "I wanted to find out what that was like." For Hard Ball, a movie in which he played a ticket scalper, Reeves touted at Chicago's Wrigley Field before he was eventually ejected by security but not before securing $125 for a single ticket. Most infamously, it was rumoured that he and River Phoenix experimented with drugs to research their junkie loners in My Own Private Idaho (it was later claimed that Phoenix's heroin habit began around this time).
This dedication is relentless and Reeves says he is constantly searching for the next great role (he still has ambitions of playing, as he puts it, "the Scotsman in the Scottish play"). "While I was working on The Matrix I was working on working," he says. "I'm always looking at scripts, and trying to develop them. You try to plan as much as you can as it's really hard to make good movies and find good roles." He riffs on about the music of chance: the opportunity of meeting the right people, reading a good script and making the right movies. He should know. Since the late Eighties Reeves' own career graph is a razor's edge of spikes and troughs.
The high points define the telling movements in his acting career: from his Bill and Ted airhead days to the remodelling as an action hero (Speed; Point Break) and his Third Coming as Neo, the Zen-like cyberhero of The Matrix trilogy. It also seems to have shaped how Reeves presents himself to the public.
Like right now.
"Can you tell us about older women?" someone asks. "Have you ever been in love with one? Do you flirt with them? Did you have a relationship with one?" Reeves smiles that smile - the one that says 'are you freaking serious?' - before responding. "And how's your sex life?" Everybody laughs. "How is it?" he continues. "How do you feel about it? How are your relationships? No... sorry about that." There's a very long pause. Everybody knows the question being asked is a ham-fisted attempt to make a connection with his on-screen character. Reeves knows this, too, and must be well used to it: for years his audience seemed unable to differentiate between on-screen airhead Ted and the off-screen actor.
But Reeves didn't help himself by plugging into the perception: describing himself as a "meathead" and surfing the vernacular of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, to state: "I make excellent good short copy because I use words like excellent."
Now he is more circumspect. After all this is a game. Journalists ask questions. You give them answers. Everybody's happy. "Can I ask you a two-part question? If someone was to write a play about your life what kind of play would you like it to be: a comedy, a drama or a science fiction?" Keanu's eyes narrow, but he waits. 'And the second thing is: how old would you say your 'eart is?"
"I'm sorry, how old my what is?"
"My heart! Hmmm. Well, why don't we do The Divine Comedy and I'd say that I have a young old heart."
"What does that mean?"
"What do you think it means? I don't know. Like, what do you want?"
Whatever people want, Keanu Reeves isn't giving it away. Hollywood may have claimed his body (for the right price) but it isn't taking his soul.
Something's Gotta Give opens nationwide on February 6.