Me and my motors: Keanu Reeves
Last of the wild ones
by Nick Rufford
Hollywood stars are meek things these days. Colin Farrell might put away a drink or two and Russell Crowe may swear a lot but when it comes to true recklessness none can seriously be compared to the icons of old, such as James Dean, who died driving his Porsche in 1955. Except, perhaps, one.
Keanu Reeves turned 40 last year but still has the seize-the-moment restlessness of an adolescent. He shuns the mollycoddling afforded most superstars by studios anxious that no harm come to their most prized assets and instead lives life the old Hollywood way: dangerously.
He has twice cheated death in motorbike crashes, one requiring his spleen to be removed. His only concession to studio bosses who were concerned that Reeves might be prematurely immortalised like Dean was to buy a car. But even that was seen as a gesture of defiance. He bought a Porsche — “It was the closest thing I could get on four wheels to a motorcycle,” says Reeves.
His unconventional nature and lack of pretentiousness were in evidence when I met him in London at an awards ceremony. He was dressed in a dinner jacket and coal-black tie that matched his eyes, but he looked ill at ease amid the formality. His publicist was hovering nearby, anxious to keep the interview short. But Reeves was more than happy to chat at length about cars and bikes.
“The Porsche I call ‘the Sled’ because it holds the road so well. It’s a black C4 (Carrera 4). I love to drive it and I use it just to go to the store — to buy milk or something. I live in Los Angeles and there are great drives along Mulholland (Highway) and down Sunset (Boulevard) to the beach. It still gives me a thrill.”
Despite his accidents he still loves his bikes. In the past he owned Moto Guzzis — “I called one of them Guzzi Moto, like Quasimodo because it was so big and heavy” — and Harley-Davidsons like the one he rode while filming The Prince of Pennsylvania in 1988, a story of teenage alienation. “I used to like to ride through the woods near Pittsburgh at night with the lights off, with maybe two other people on the back, and we’d tell each other what we saw. It was very cool.”
But none of them compares to his current bike. “It’s a beautiful British 850cc 1974 Norton Commando,” he says. “There’s something about British bikes of that era that is special.”
His appetite for biking apparently undiminished by his crashes, he takes it for long rides in the desert and along the coast road between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
He bought another Norton Commando, a 1972 Combat version, while filming Hardball in 2001 (a baseball movie in which he plays a coach). Reeves spotted it while browsing in a store called British Cycle Parts Chicago, which specialises in UK machines. “A lot of our celebrity customers like the anonymity they get with a bike,” said Marshall Hagy, the store’s owner. “They put the helmet and the leathers on and no one knows who they are. Unfortunately, one of the local gossip columnists got hold of the story about Keanu’s Norton, so he didn’t enjoy that advantage for very long.”
That Reeves has an appreciation for British bikes should come as no surprise — his mother Patricia was a British-born designer of theatrical costumes. There is also a long history of Hollywood stars riding British bikes — although in the past they were always Triumphs. Marlon Brando rode a Triumph in The Wild One, Steve McQueen tried to leap a fence on one he supposedly stole from a German soldier in The Great Escape (purists pointed out that German soldiers were issued with BMWs) and Richard Gere rode one in An Officer and a Gentleman.
With the exception perhaps of McQueen, who performed his own stunts, none rode as wildly as Reeves. He admits that the accidents — one in 1988 where he broke some ribs and ruptured his spleen, the second in 1996 that left him with a broken ankle and a curved scar on his leg — have made him more cautious and perhaps slowed him down a little. “My body’s a wreck,” he says.
If anyone was born to be wild it was Reeves. His mother was “seriously bohemian” and his upbringing was footloose. He moved from Lebanon to Australia and New York and spent his teen years in Toronto, where his hobby was building go-karts with names like Fireball 500. He had three stepfathers. His father, a geologist of Hawaiian-Chinese descent, had walked out on the family while Reeves was still a small boy.
The father re-emerged in the early 1990s when he was jailed by a Hawaiian court for cocaine possession.
A restless student, Reeves switched high schools four times before dropping out at 17. Then, with nothing much more than an appearance in a Coke commercial to his credit, he scraped together enough money to buy a car and headed for Hollywood.
“It was a British racing green Volvo 122,” he says. “I drove it all the way from Toronto to Los Angeles in 1982. It had bricks to keep the seats up and newspapers to cover the holes in the floor. I wasn’t working at the time.”
Reeves spent so long in the car it became his second home. “I had some speakers in boxes in the back. If I was with a girl I would take the speakers out of the boxes and put them on the roof so we could dance. I’d throw camping equipment in the back and go off for weekends.”
If it sounds like a serendipitous route to stardom then it was. When he reached Hollywood he fell in with a crowd of other young hopefuls and was picked for the co-lead in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure — a time-travel spoof that became a cult and gave rise to a new surfing vernacular: “most excellent” and “bodacious, dude”.
He co-starred with River Phoenix in another cult film, My Own Private Idaho, about rent boys — a gritty role that made him a star in the mould of the rebel hero. Commercial success followed with blockbuster roles in Speed and The Matrix. But misfortune has also shadowed Reeves from an early age. Phoenix died in 1993 from a drug overdose (“I miss him greatly”), and Reeves’s sister Kim has been battling leukaemia with him spending hours at her bedside. In 2001 Jennifer Syme — his girlfriend and the mother of his stillborn child — was killed when she was thrown from a car she had been driving when it struck three parked vehicles. Police found antidepressants in the car. Reeves was said to be devastated.
Today he is one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. But his relaxed demeanour and habit of drifting between Los Angeles and London suggest he is still a restless teenager looking for adventure — and speed. There are cars he would want to drive for the adrenaline — “A Lamborghini Murciélago, that’d be wild” — and others for the hell of it.
“I’d love to drive across England in a Jaguar — an E-type. That would be great. I’d drive at — how do you say? — a good clip.”
I get the impression that if I’d had a Jaguar outside he would have tugged off his dinner jacket and followed me to the car park.