HE'S PLAYED A DIMWIT, A BOY TOY AND A MESSIAH. AND NOW, IN CONSTANTINE, HE'S A CYNICAL, CHAIN-SMOKING DEMON SLAYER. AN ORAL HISTORY OF HOW KEANU REEVES BECAME MORE THAN JUST THE SUM OF HIS (FAMOUS) PARTS.
by Brooke Hauser
Photographs by Max Vadukul
"YOUR TIME WITH MR. REEVES IS NOW UP!" KEANU REEVES BELLOWS, IN HIS BEST GOD VOICE.
A few well-coiffed guests sipping cocktails in the lobby of L.A.'s Chateau Marmont freeze mid-conversation, unsure if they should giggle is turn away. Have they been caught gawking? Is he serious? In the ensuing silence, everyone is discomfited except for Mr. Reeves, who bows his head and laughs, a bit dementedly, like a guy who's just set his pant leg on fire.
When he's in a good mood, Keanu Reeves is a poster child for the theater of the absurd, reveling in non sequiturs, impromptu impersonations (he does a great Pacino), and the occasional heart-stopping outburst, such as "Bluttuuhhh!" whenever Bram Stoker's Dracula is mentioned. Far from "funny ha-ha," his sense of humor is better described as "funny hummm..." and is at once hilarious and utterly confounding.
Of course, calling Reeves, 40, an enigma is nothing new. For almost two decades, he has made a career out of befuddling critics and audiences alike. More than any other actor of his generation, he has endured speculation about everything from his intelligence to his salary - which skyrocketed with the $ l.6 billion success of the Matrix trilogy - his sexual orientation, and, perhaps most painfully, his talent. Google "Keanu Reeves" and "bad actor," and you'll find no less than 7000 matches.
And yet, it's hard to name another movie star who has become so indistinguishable from the characters he's played. Sixteen years after the release of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, he is still being mistaken for a sweet-natured dimwit. (The irony of this is not lost on Reeves, who laughs and says, "I was really good in that role.") Although it's equally tempting to peg him as a beacon of morality - see Siddhartha (Little Buddha), Neo (The Matrix) - the older he gets, the more interested he seems in exploring the black holes of human nature. In the upcoming A Scanner Darkly, he'll play a drug addicted narc with a split personality. And in this month's Constantine, he'll star as the eponymous black-lunged antihero.
It's a character he has come to understand, halving lived and lost so much. "Constantine has been dealt a hand in life he didn't ask for," Reeves says, exhaling a chiaroscuro cloud of cigarette smoke. "And he comes to terms with it. He's jaded and cynical, but hopeful, you know? He's seen it all."
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Kathryn Bigelow, director, Point Break (1991)
Sandra Bullock, costar, Speed (1994)
Glenn Close, costar, Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Jan De Bont, director, Speed
Francis Ford Coppola, director, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Tim Hunter, director, River's Edge (1986)
Shia LaBeouf, costar, Constantine (2005)
Francis Lawrence, director, Constantine
Richard Linklater, director, A Scanner Darkly (2005)
Nancy Meyers, director, Something's Gotta Give (2003)
Carrie-Anne Moss, costar, The Matrix (1999), The Matrix Reloaded (2O03), and The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
Jada Pinkett Smith, costar, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions
Joel Silver, producer, The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded, and The Matrix Revolutions
Ione Skye, costar, River's Edge (1986)
Erwin Stoff, manager
Charlize Theron, costar, Devil's Advocate (1997)
Gus Van Sant:, director, My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Alex Winter, costar, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991)
Keanu Reeves: My first commercial was Coca Cola. I had to be sweaty and wipe the bottle across my forehead. Before that, I was a host for a series called Going Great. I used to go around and meet the kids who raised bees, or this girl was trying to learn the javelin. The story I tell is being fifteen and going up to my mother and saying "Is it okay if I become an actor?" And she said "of course." Shortly after that I was going to classes at night; the first class was based on Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting.
Erwin Stoff: I've known him because of his step father (director Paul Aaron) since he was thirteen. On the one hand, he was a seemingly unfocused wild kid, but with a tremendous sincerity about him. But you know, when somebody moves to Los Angeles to be an actor, you don't just do that blithely.
Keanu Reeves: I had gotten my green card; it took about a year after that to get out of town. I had this car, a 1969 British racing green Volvo that (I'd bought) from the man who taught me how to walk. The scats were held up with bricks, newspapers over the holes in the floor. It was a remarkable machine that I took many journeys in. Friends and I would drive to Montreal from Toronto, we'd smoke hash the night before. You're seventeen, you've got your first car, you're not going to school, what can you do?
Erwin Stoff: I got a call saying he was coming, could I help him? I started to send him out as a favor more than anything else.
Tim Hunter: I was looking for a young man who didn't look like he was a member of any brat pack of the time. Keanu had that quality. I'd also identified when I directed (Matt Dillon) in Tex: not a lot of experience, so no bad habits - and a real need to understand the heart of what they were doing, and know it was honest.
Glenn Close: I was still very jet lagged when Stephen Frears organized a picnic (in Paris). They had a big bus for the cast. We were all outside of the hotel, and we ended up waiting for Keanu. He was the last one to come out. His hair was long, he had really baggy pants, a really baggy jacket from the Army-Navy store, or something, and a knapsack. He was like a big Saint Bernard puppy. You thought if you had thrown a ball he would have gone and fetched it. I remember thinking to myself, "He's going to be my love interest?"
Francis Lawrence: He and I were always meeting at the Chateau Marmont. We were prepping Constantine, but he was shooting Something’s Gotta Give. My wife and I were eating dinner in the dining room, and he came stumbling in, with this thing in his hand. I go, "What are you doing?" He says, "Oh nothing, I just got off work. Going to make a steak." And he just heads off into the kitchen.
Francis Ford Coppola: Winona Ryder in those days was going out with Johnny Depp, and I wanted Johnny to have the part of Jonathan Harker. The studio thought he wasn't enough of a star. I was so embarrassed. So I said to Winona, "What do you think? Who do you think they would think is a star who would want to do it?" And she said Keanu. I just thought he was a very nice person. I was so touched by his sincerity.
Keanu Reeves: Bertolucci said he would like me to play Siddhartha (in 1994's Little Buddha). I asked him why, and he said because I had "impossible innocence."
Francis Ford Coppola: For one point during Dracula, the cast were all living in my house in the Napa Vallery. They were all running around and living there like a bunch of my kids, you know. And one time I came down to the kitchen, and there was Keanu, in a t-shirt, having just gotten up. He was eating a donut with a beer. It was so cute because my own son - who wasn't around anymore - I'd seen him do that, you know. So it's an image I always remember."
Keanu Reeves: It was great to be in that environment: going for a run in the morning, looking at the stars at night, going into Francis's research library, spending time with him. You know watching Tom Waits sing "Waltzing Matilda" to Winona at the piano, Winona crying. It was a beautiful life. Les enfants du paradis.
"HE'S NOT TED"
Keanu Reeves: I have a joy for life and I think I really centered in on it for Ted. He's so nonjudgmental. He wants to see the best and is really alive in the best way. I don't know, he's in grace.
Alex Winter: The auditions were like something out of a nightmare acid trip version of A Chorus Line. There were, like, two hundred actors. It was me and Pauly Shore, Keanu and Kiefer Sutherland or somebody. We were given scenes to do: at the Circle K, meeting ourselves. They were trying to figure out how the two guys would work off each other. By the time we heard we had the roles, and we showed up at Interscope's offices to have a chat with the producer, Keanu thought he was Bill and I thought I was Ted. Then the assistant came out, and it was the opposite. Keanu just went gray, I said, "What's wrong?" And he said "I really wanted to be Bill."
Gus Van Sant:: Keanu was completely invisible in within that role. Sometimes actors tap into something that they do best. For Keanu, it was this funny stoner guy. It's a dangerous character to completely own because people look at you in the next film, and they remember the character before. There's a little bit of that in Idaho.
Alex Winter: Maybe he still had some "Whoas" and "Dudes" left in him, but he's not Ted. He's a bourgeois, shy intellectual from Toronto. He couldn't be further removed from the So-Cal rat.
Richard Linklater: He's this autodidact, student for life kind of guy. That's my favorite kind. I mean, I never finished college or anything. I kinda felt that we were coming from a similar place. You know, you have your gaps.
Glenn Close: In the beginning of his career, he kind of gave off this thing of being slightly goofy. I think the opposite is true. He's always reading an interesting book, and he seemed to be interested in other things other than just being an actor, which made me think he'd survive.
Erwin Stoff: The seminal roles for him were Dangerous Liaisons and Parenthood. He purposely did not take starring roles that conflicted with those movies because he and I really felt the future was going to be defined by directors like Stephen Frears and Ron Howard, actors like Michelle Pfeiffer, Swoosie Kurtz and John Malkovich. The whole idea at that point was not to keep starring in teen movies. I wanted him to have a real career.
Joel Silver: I love that the fallacy that Keanu is a moron is out there in the world.
Erwin Stoff: Here's the thing: Keanu looked at Bill & Ted as much as an actor's creation as he did My Own Private Idaho. It's just that one was ridiculously successful and created this whole iconic thing. Because he was really ill at ease with the press, it became a real hook for people to say, "Oh, that's who he is, he's Ted."
Keanu Reeves: Alex and I went to Arizona, and we were sitting in this McDonald's, hanging out. We come back to the production office and overhear this guy saying, "I was across the street, and I just met the real Bill and Ted!" We walk into the room, and he says, "It was you guys." Isn't that great? I love that. "It's us, dude."
"HE GETS WOMEN"
Keanu Reeves: I never thought of myself as a teen idol.
Ione Skye: I went with him once on an audition, and the woman was like a forty year old producer. When he went out of the room, she said, "Oh my God! Isn't he amazing?" I saw then that women of all ages were just going to flip over him.
Nancy Meyers: He was incredibly excited to meet Diane Keaton. I think he was, in real life, attracted to her. I had met other actors for the part, and they would say things like "Do you think it's believable that a guy my age falls for a woman that age?" He didn't have these hangups.
Tim Hunter: Ione was only fifteen or sixteen at the time. I daresay she hadn't a lot of experience with guys, so I found myself in the occasionally awkward position of having to convey something about teenage sex to a young woman who possibly hadn't been all the way there yet. We were shooting the love scene in the park, and it was freezing cold. I just remember being in a state of misery. It was amazing to me that Keanu and Ione could even play that scene, which they did with no complaints - and with a spirit of calmness - take after take, drinking those beers and lying around in those sleeping bags.
Ione Skye: We were totally fooling around while they were lighting. I was fine with him under the covers, but then the camera would roll, and poor Tim was like, "You look like you're reading the newspaper. You've got to look like you're having fun." He was definitely the first person I'd fooled around with who was a lover, like, he smelled my armpits. He was just super sensual, with all the greasy hair. After we did the love scene, Keanu and I had breakfast at IHOP.
Charlize Theron: When I met him he'd had a really bad motorcycle accident, and his leg was still in a cast. I loved how even after the accident, he wasn't fazed by it. He was waiting for the cast to come off so he could get back on the bike. I said, jokingly, "God, I've always wanted to learn how to ride a motorcycle." And he said, "Well I'll teach you." A year passed, and he never forgot that. We were done with the film and he said, "So there's a parking lot on Highland..." He was the one who taught me how to ride a Harley.
Jan De Bont: He's not dangerous to men or women. He's attractive to both. I think that is the key thing.
Gus Van Sant: People believed he was married to David Geffen. I asked David Geffen about that once. He just said, "That was a good one, whoever started it." (both parties have denied the rumor.)
Sandra Bullock: He gets women. He understands them. He loves them.
Nancy Meyers: The first time he kisses her, I wanted Diane to be curious, a tad reluctant. But she was, like, madly kissing him back. I had to go up to her and say, "No Diane, don't be too into it. You're in love with Jack (Nicholson)." And she'd say, "Oh-oh, oh, okay." He was so adorable. She totally forgot the context of the scene.
Keanu Reeves: To find the right touch for that role was a welcome challenge because he does stand aside. He wants the best for her. I thought "He's a caregiver - he's a caregiver of the heart."
"HOLDING THE MIRROR UP TO NATURE"
Keanu Reeves: Something I do is, if you're playing a character and it's out there, go look for it. For Dracula, I went to London, met some solicitors, and tried to get the feeling for it. For The Gift, I went out early to Savannah, hit some bars, got a pick up truck, and went to some great town hall meetings with people talking about rednecks. I had to go look for it.
Nancy Meyers: He actually went to the hospital in the script, Southhampton Hospital. He hung out in the emergency room and observed. The doctor on call introduced him as his friend Mr. Reeves. Now, a man having a heart attack, and Mr. Reeves - in scrubs - is standing at the bottom of the bed. Keanu called me the next day and told me how it went. He said, "Well, I thought we should have..." And I said, "Buddy, what do you mean, "We?" He was so into it.
Francis Lawrence: He and I both met with a priest. We learned about the different verses that could be used for exorcism. We actually brought in somebody that worked closely with Mel Gibson on The Passion of the Christ, and he came in and helped Keanu with his Latin. We also met with an oncologist to talk about lung cancer - what the coughing would sound like, how people would look. We tried to shoot in order so we could really get the deterioration. There were days when Keanu was looking a little green from the amount of cigarettes we were having him smoke.
Jan De Bont: When we did the initial screen test, he had shoulder length hair. Two weeks before we started shooting, he cut it so short. Actually it was good because cops do have short hair. He wanted to make sure he looked like a real SWAT guy. Everybody was in total shock.
Gus Van Sant:: River Phoenix asked me to put the campfire scene at the very end of the shoot because it was probably scary. In the script there wasn't really intimacy, and then as time went by, he added stuff: that he loved the other guy, he added those words. "I really wanna kiss you, man" is River's line. My thing was, "Okay, well, where's Keanu? Is he into this?" And he said, "Keanu knows all about this." They on their own created that scene. They came to set knowing lines I didn't. I saw them written down on scraps of paper, but I couldn't decipher them.
Shia LaBeouf: He has a folder that he carries in preproduction when he's learning a character. He's writing a page of notes on a line, you know. He's really secretive about it. His stack was humongous; you felt like an idiot sitting there, like you didn't know your character much.
Gus Van Sant:: I got the feeling he had just lived a certain life that wasn't unlike his Shakespearean character. I mean, obviously, (Shakespeare's) Prince Hal wasn't a prostitute. It was more like survival: somebody who had a fractured home life. There was this intense kind of anger at the father figure. Come to think of it, this is the type of thing we probably should have been talking about when we were developing the role.
Keanu Reeves: I've always considered that there's the role, and there's the actor. These two entities come together, and in the process I learn about the role, and the role learns about me. So you're holding the mirror up to nature - but that nature is your own.
"I DIDN'T MESS WITH HIM WHEN HE WAS IN THE ICE"
Keanu Reeves: I do bring the office home.
Richard Linklater: The guy never stops. He kept pushing me, like, "This other Philip K. Dick book, here's what he says about this - I got the German bits translated." I think he sits in his hotel room and works.
Shia LaBeouf: He's so fuckin' hard on himself that it's to the point of depression. It's beyond art or work for him: If he feels he's bad in a scene, he'll go home pissed off, wake up pissed off, come back to set pissed off, and then he'll try to focus. As soon as his take is done, you can see his whole body rest.
Richard Linklater: Every time he'll do a take like, "Oh that sucks, let's just go again." He's talking to himself, but it sounds like he's yelling at somebody.
Jan De Bont: On my set he always recited Shakespeare. All of the sudden, he's seen walking along the freeway, reciting whole sections of the different plays - and I mean loud, really as if an audience were there. Sometimes he'd walk up to a person and continue the speech he was delivering. It's not a whim. I think he did it mostly because he wants to be a better actor.
Joel Silver: The Wachowski brothers wanted to see the four major actors handle the martial arts themselves. Early on, I would say to the boys, "You're crazy: If you want someone to paint your house you hire a painter. You don't hire an actor to make believe he's a painter. Let's get real stunt guys." Look you've got to hand it to Keanu. He is a fanatic. He approached it like an athlete: He just trained and trained. I think it was his perfectionism that made the other actors do the same thing. When they saw him do it, they all did it.
Jada Pinkett Smith: We were in Oakland, and they had this big ol' kiddie pool of ice sitting outside the set. I was like, "Is this for putting drinks in there or what?" And they're like, "It's for Keanu." I didn't get it, but once I started training, your whole body aches. He had to soak his body to keep the swelling down, to keep the pain away. I didn't mess with him when he was in the ice, but I damn sure was like, "you know what, I need one of those."
Kathryn Bigelow: Even before we knew we had a film, he went to Kawaii, which he admits is not necessarily the place you learn how to surf because the waves break very far out, and it's got coral reef. I mean it's not like Waikiki Beach. Those were serious waves for somebody much more seasoned, and I think he was a little beat up by the experience, or rather, humbled. There were elements of that he carried into the character which were wonderful.
Keanu Reeves: I guess I had a lot of training going on: I was surfing, shooting guns, Rick Neuheisel tried to show me how to throw a football. That's a good gig if you can get it.
"WELCOME TO SUPERSTARDOM, BABE"
Keanu Reeves: I pretty much go out in the world, and no one cares. Once in awhile people say hi.
Jada Pinkett Smith: I didn't want to go to Japan. So he said, "Listen I'm going to make sure you have a good time." He took me around to these beautiful temples, and to a popular shopping area. We're just hanging, and he says, "I need to get a wedding gift for Laurence (Fishburne) and his wife, maybe an antique teapot." So we stop in at this place. Within seconds, thousands of people descended on us. Now, my husband is Will Smith. Let's just get that straight. My husband happens to be one of the biggest entertainers in the world, and I've never seen such madness. Everywhere we went I started to see the fever bubble. In Japan, he is God.
Shia LaBeouf: We were in a secluded-ass alley, we showed up at six in the morning, no one's there. Eleven o'clock no one's there. Three, four, five o'clock - one guy looks out a window and goes, "OH MY GOD!" Within thirty minutes, there were sixty people in the fucking alley. This was in downtown Los Angeles, a really broke down, crackhouse-looking thing, and he was signing autographs for everybody in the building. We shut down the set until he finished. I mean, I know why he's still working. He respects his fans immensely.
Joel Silver: We were coming back from Japan one day, and he wanted to read every review of The Matrix. Some of them kinda really bashed him, and I said, "You can't let this bother you. You're at a place where you're making the kind of money you make, and they're going to trash you. Welcome to superstardom, babe."
Keanu Reeves: I was walking down the Champs Elysees, and I heard "Maman, maman! C'est Neo!! Neeeeoooo!!" There was a little boy and his mother and they had just walked past me. I was all scarfed up, and I turned around and went, "Hi." He was just staring up at me. That was cool.
"THE HERO'S JOURNEY"
Keanu Reeves: Neo just wants to hang out with Trinity, make love, and have babies. Live a life, you know? I always said that to the Wachowski brothers. Because he set aside his life, and the act of that is part of the hero journey: the discovery of self, and sacrifice for the restitution of community. It's sort of the classical hero definition.
Joel Silver: We started shooting the movie in '98, and over the course of the period, he had a lot of tragedy. (After the filming of the first Matrix, Reeves's daughter with his girlfriend at the time, Jennifer Syme, was stillborn; in 2001, after they broke up, Syme was killed in a car accident.) The role predated the tragedy but he got through it.
Carrie-Anne Moss: I think it gave him a lot of solace to have that group of people that loved him, and that we were all doing something that we loved together. It was like a family unit.
Joel Silver: To me Keanu is Neo. There's a moment in the first Matrix, in the subway fight with Agent Smith, where Keanu reaches out and says "All right, come on." I just love that image of confidence, the strength, the faith he has in himself that he can defeat this guy.
Keanu Reeves: I remember sitting by the Ganges River, and they had shrines, and on the other side they have funeral pyres where they bring the dead. They also have a thing called Circle of Life: There's tourists on the bridge, people burning their relatives, apartments built into stone, children playing, monkeys chasing dogs and dogs chasing monkeys, there's sightseers and Hindu priests and ascetics. They speak oftentimes of compassion, and coming into the moment of seeing life and death and permanence. I remember just sitting there and having a moment of seeing it: Seeing the beauty of life.
Ione Skye: I have one image of him sitting on the side of the street. His motorcycle had broken down, and we pulled over to say, "Hey, Keanu, can we give you a ride?" He was not upset or anything, just truly good natured, completely self sufficient. You definitely weren't worried, just like, "can I help?" Although he's had all this tragedy, you think that's he's lucky. He's even blessed and magical as they say.
Carrie-Anne Moss: When Neo is in the first Matrix being shot at, and the bullets are coming towards him, he puts his hand up and he has this look in his eye that is so Keanu, like, "No more." If there is something happening in the world that isn't right, you can see that it hurts his heart. Even a simple injustice of someone not being treated right. You know I can understand why he has played the kind of roles that he's played.
Richard Linklater: The film world attracts people who are looking for an alternate universe, some transcendence from themselves. You have to be able to laugh at life and the darker ironies - there's a slightly fatalistic, "Oh, we're fucked" humor in that - and Keanu certainly did.
Keanu Reeves: Yeah, Mr. Reeves is not so innocent anymore.