And Now For Something Different
Keanu Reeves lightens up this week for the romantic comedy "Something's Gotta Give." Who knew he could smile again after Neo?
by Whang Yee-Ling
Neo is done fighting the machines in The Matrix. Welcome back into our midst, Keanu Reeves. And whoa, you do look good in person, lean, lanky, handsome angular features accentuated by the subtle shading of a few-days'-old stubble.
This morning, at The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, you have shed Neo's cassock for a casual black jacket over a gray tee-shirt. And you have removed those shades of his to fix your gaze upon us as you tell 8 DAYS about your new movie.
Something's Gotta Give, opening this week, is a comedy on younger-man-older-woman sexual entanglements. Reeves is the charming Dr Julian Mercer who falls for a middle-aged divorced playwright played by Diane Keaton, who is, in turn, smitten with her daughter's aging lecher boyfriend played by Jack Nicholson.
Does Reeves really believe Keaton, or any member of the fairer gender, would choose him over a living legend like Nicholson?
"Yeah," he deadpans. We're kidding, we ha-ha reassuringly.
"So am I."
Now we know: Reeves is a pro at poker-faced self-deflating humour. The Messiah did after all have humble beginnings as a clown.
The 39-year-old, born September 2, 1964 in Beirut, Lebanon, his mother a showgirl and his father a geologist, was studying hockey and drama in Toronto when he dropped out of high school to pursue acting. He broke through in 1989 with Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. He was Ted Logan of the titular stoner surfer duo, and henceforth this actor with the minimalist face and droning speech was typecast as a moron in the sequel Bill & Ted's Bogus Adventure and also in the public's opinion.
His eccentric name didn't help. Keanu means "cool breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian. Like, what an airhead.
Not until he essayed FBI Special Agent Johnny Utah in Point Break in 1991 did he indicate he had a brain.
Impressive brawn, too. Suddenly he was hailed as a new breed of introspective action hero, confirmed by the runaway success of Speed in 1994 and The Matrix five years later. But for every one of these popcorn blockbusters there's an unwatched (and often unwatchable) indie oddity like Feeling Minnesota or The Last Time I Committed Suicide. Within the span of 1992 to '93 he fought off Bram Stoker's Dracula, quoted Shakespeare for Much Ado About Nothing and was Little Buddha incarnate. Reeves has been a versatile risk-taker from the start, notably in the dark adolescent drama River's Edge and as a gay hustler shocker in My Own Private Idaho, and two decades and 40 films on, he continues to confound expectations with eclectic choices.
Something's Gotta Give, for instance; it's a romantic comedy from director Nancy Meyers of What Women Want, yet Reeves doesn't strike us as romantic.
"I'm not," he states blankly. "It's just like, 'Hi, want to get in the sack?' No romance. No sweet nothings. No gifts, no flowers, nothing. The role was a real stretch. If I don't get nominated for an Oscar..." He shakes his head in mock despair.
The script came to him seven months after he'd finished principal photography on The Matrix. "I was looking for work and it was one of the I best scripts I'd ever read," he remembers. "Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson were doing the project. So for me it was a great role, working with two of the greatest actors."
It must've been a nice change of pace, this cosy ensemble piece. He nods. "It was wonderful for me as an actor to go from the formalism of The Matrix to the naturalism of Something's Gotta Give. "But I didn't choose this movie in direct reaction to The Matrix specifically," he clarifies. "I hope to have a career doing different kinds of roles telling different stories whether it's in the lead or a supporting part or some quote unquote 'character' work; I hope I can do that."
Part of the fun, he says, is to live the lives of different, varied characters. To research the part of cardiologist Julian Mercer, he interned for a month: "I only lost two lives." There he goes, deadpanning again. His humour is most peculiar.
"It was really fun," he chuckles. "What did I do? I met with my GP and worked with him. I had to do a physical exam so he gave me pointers on dealing with a stethoscope, how you lay hands on people and keep them comfortable. I took all of my friends' blood pressure and listened to their hearts.
"The movie had an ER technical adviser so I got to go to a couple of, emergency rooms where they introduced me as an intern just to get the scrubs on."
Any patients surprised at being treated by a doctor who's a spitting image of Keanu Reeves?
"I gave autographs to some people while their blood was gushing out of their arms."
Any qualms on having an affair with an older woman, like he does with Keaton in the movie?
The smile vanishes. "And how's your sex life?" he spits in sarcasm. "How is it? How do you feel about it? How's your relationship going?" He shuts his eyes tight and kneads his brow to suppress his anger. The silence in the room is as charged as a powder keg. This time, Reeves isn't joking.
With Reeves, we don't get personal. We don't request an update on his father Sam Reeves who has been estranged from the family for 25 years and was in prison for cocaine possession. We don't ask about his sister Kim who's battling leukemia. And we definitely, positively, absolutely do not mention his late girlfriend Jennifer Syme: Their daughter was stillborn around Christmas 1999; they broke up and in April 2001 she was killed in her Jeep Cherokee in a freeway collision.
Reeves is intensely private. He is an enigma, the most inscrutable and thus most fascinating of movie stars, his talent constantly heatedly debated upon even as his mystique continues to grow along with his salary. His pay-plus-percentage deal for The Matrix trilogy totals an estimated US$150 million (S$255 mil); after generously distributing his US$40 million ancillary income from the two sequels to the films' crew, he had enough spare change to buy a US$5.4 million house in the Hollywood Hills last summer.
"You know, you do the best you can in terms of planning," Reeves says with regards to his career which will maintain its unpredictable mix, with his next picture, the kids' comedy Thumbsucker, to be followed by the special-effects comic book adaptation Hellblazer and then the historical epic Tripoli. "You try to find as much as you can 'cos, you know, it's hard to make movies."
"I wish that were true," he says, "but it's tough finding a good script or a role. It's not like they're just sitting there. You follow your heart in what you respond to, and hopefully you can find other people interested in your idea. It's trying to develop the script, it's going to read material, it's meeting directors and producers and saying, 'Hi, I'm here. If you ever find material you think I'm appropriate for, I'd like to see it: It's all of those things.
"Oftentimes it's not up to me whether a studio wants to hire me. Other times, you'd want to do a role and it's been cast already."
Reeves, as he tells it, is not only an ordinary jobbing actor who takes what he can get but a regular guy all-round.
"Outside of my work the publicity is not a big part of my life," he says. "My day-to-day is pretty normal."
He names his four greatest pleasures, things which bring him happiness and a sense of peace: "The end of a good day of work. Getting off a motorcycle after a really great ride. Sitting in bed with a loved one. Deep, enriching conversation where you share the views of the world with a good friend. (Pause) And a Bordeaux." Vintage, no less. "Hey, you know. Rothchild. Margaux '71, maybe '85 " He trails off making dreamy mmm-mm sounds.
Reeves also enjoys music. He was founding member cum bass guitarist of Dogstar and his weekend gigs with his new band Becky have been selling out in LA clubs.
Motorcycling, though, that's his passion, and he has broken a few ribs and ruptured his spleen from crashing into the side of a mountain during a demon ride.
His favourite bike is a 1974 850CC Norton Combat Commando. He describes the sensation of racing it down the Southern Californian highway: "Feeling good, digging the wind. Taking the helmet off 'cos it's against the law."
Er, isn't that a little reckless?
He bristles angrily: "No man. What does that mean, 'against the law'? How come I have to ride with a helmet? Whose life is it anyway? I've got health insurance. I'm not costing the community. And I'm not hurting anybody."
Of course, were Reeves ever the type to play by the rules, he wouldn't have left the familiar behind and headed out to Hollywood in 1985. He would've been...
Actually, what would he have been?
"Well, you'd be writing me letters in jail for bank robbery," he laughs.
"What would I be doing? I don't know. I left when I was 20. I think I had the courage of youth to just go off and try and aspire and seek. I didn't know what was going to happen and it didn't matter. I didn't have any other thought besides wanting to be an actor. And I still don't."
Unemployment, he says, remains his biggest fear. In six months, he'll turn 40. "Yeah, scary... scary " He mutters quietly. "But I'm hoping it's like when you turned 30, like you kind of freaked out, and when you turned 30, even on your birthday, you're like, 'Huh, it doesn't seem so bad.' I hope the next decade give me my best roles. I like the work." And the life hasn't been bad, either. Certainly it's been interesting.
We wonder how he would sum it up as a movie? As an excellent adventure? An existential quest? A semi-tragedy?
He smiles. "How about we do a divine comedy?"