His Dark Materials
He's come a long way since the goofball days of Bill and Ted, but for Keanu Reeves success has been laced with tragedy. And, at 40, he's living proof that even movie stars have mid-life crises.
by Martyn Palmer
A few months ago, Keanu Reeves turned 40 and understandably found himself reflecting on his life and speculating about the future. To an outsider, perhaps, this would be a cause for celebration; a chance for Reeves to crack open the Cristal to toast his own incredible success. After all, what more could he possibly wish for? He has fame, acclaim and fabulous wealth, good looks, health and enjoys membership of that exclusive club of actors which allows him to pick and choose the very best scripts Hollywood can provide. But for Reeves, this landmark provoked only a soul-searching reappraisal of his life which took him close to depression. "It was a nightmare," he says. "It reminded me of adolescence and it felt like an internal transformation with a physical aspect, like when your hormones run wild. But this time with a conscious shift, an awareness of your own mortality."
On the surface, Reeves is the embodiment of the Hollywood dream: boy from Toronto arrives in Los Angeles and struggles to get work before breaking into the big time playing, very convincingly, a slacker dude (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure), then hits pay dirt as a beefed-up action hero (Speed), before moving into the celebrity stratosphere via The Matrix trilogy which made him a reported $80 million and turned him into one of the biggest stars on the planet.
But it doesn't take a therapist to work out why there is an air of sadness that is as much a part of Reeves as his floppy, jet-black hair or his dark-brown eyes. His is a story both of fabulous success ("I know how lucky I am, I really do," he says) and terrible tragedy. Estranged from his father as a youngster, his personal life since has been marked by pain and loss. His younger sister, Kim, has been fighting leukaemia for several years, and he grieved over the loss of a much-wanted daughter who was stillborn in 1999. The baby's mother, his former girlfriend Jennifer Syme, subsequently died in a car accident some two years after losing their baby.
Such awful events - and there have been more - would be enough to make anyone question how you can be given so much and yet have so much more taken away. It's no wonder, then, that, at 40, Reeves finds himself pondering the meaning of it all. "Maybe it happens to some people a little bit later," he says of his mid-life crisis. "But for me it was the grief, the loss of half a life - because I guess that's what it is - and that's a transition. And understanding mortality forces you to ask those big questions: What have I done? And where am I? It's just something that happened to me, and going through it wasn't pretty. There's been lots of soul-searching and all the other stuff, too... but at least I didn't buy the sports car."
Arguably the most unconventional superstar of the lot, Reeves sharply divides opinion over his acting ability. Some critics, and even some of his peers, have accused him of being wooden, saying he's best when, rather than a nuanced performance, what is required is an impressive physical presence, such as in Speed, as the driver of a runaway bus with a terrorist bomb on board, or in the balletic Matrix films as a high-kicking freedom fighter. Put him up against Al Pacino, as a young lawyer who sells his soul in The Devil's Advocate, and, for some, he's found wanting. Yet he's clearly capable of more than just providing athletic eye candy - he was very good alongside Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton in the romantic comedy Something's Gotta Give. And one of his best early performances was in My Own Private Idaho as a male hustler opposite the doomed River Phoenix.
Reeves has never been content to fit into a convenient box. Action stars don't usually start out playing gay prostitutes. And leading Hollywood players are meant to live in a big Bel Air mansion with a fleet of flash cars in the driveway - all of which he could easily afford. Reeves doesn't even have his own home, preferring instead to stay in a succession of hotels, or with friends and family.
He's a bit of a drifter, a new-age soul who starts the day with a Buddhist ceremony to ward off evil spirits and likes to ride his 1974 Norton Commando along the Pacific Coast Highway. He's crashed it eight times so far, and has admitted that he mostly likes to ride without a helmet, which is against the law in California. "Anyone can drive Mulholland Drive without a helmet - it's not getting caught that's the thing," he says, deadpan.
Today, the Norton has been left in the garage, and his impressively honed 6ft 1in frame, upholstered in a midnight black suit of the finest quality, is at the centre of a hive of activity designed to promote his latest film, Constantine, a darkly humorous comic-book thriller in which he plays a kind of rock'n'roll exorcist who has big issues with God and smokes far too much. In fact, he seems to have a ciggie dangling from his mouth in every scene. "I smoked loads. Lots of takes, don't forget. I really do have to give up."
Reeves is unfailingly polite, but sometimes monosyllabic and withdrawn. There are times when interviewing him is a bit like listening to dialogue from the second or third Matrix films - where the machines (which look like giant calamari) scramble all over the place trying to exterminate humankind, and Neo - that's Reeves - as our only hope for salvation, spouts lines that sound quite profound on first hearing, but don't really bear up to scrutiny.
A fairly innocuous opening query about whether he enjoys acting as much these days as he did when he was starting out back home in Toronto, draws this answer: "I think through experience one gains facility, and what interests us as young men and older men changes. And just like any kind of material or craftsmanship, writing or acting, whatever, the performing arts as well as the plastic arts, I think with facility and knowledge of craft comes a deepening and richening of what you are interested in and capable of doing."
But mostly he comes across as a rather charming oddball, a bit of a loner, awkward and perhaps even a little shy. This deadpan rambling may even be a bit of an act; a way of keeping nosy journalists at bay. Rachel Weisz, his co-star in Constantine, who has known him for ten years since they worked together on the thriller Chain Reaction, hints at as much. "We're both a little older and a little wiser," she says. "But in essence he's the same as when I first met him. He is actually very down-to-earth. His private life is very private; he has real friends, a real life. He's a real guy."
When I ask what she likes most about Reeves, she pauses to consider. "There's something just a little quirky about him," she smiles. "I think that's what makes him interesting. He is very enigmatic. Actually, he's very unknowable."
Reeves's own soul-searching has led him to one certainty in his life - he can, at least, take comfort from the work. Perhaps it's a refuge? "I've got nowhere else to go!" He almost shouts this last remark and then starts laughing. Really? Even when sometimes it's held up to such harsh examination? "No, I enjoy it. I really do. And what else am I going to do? If you make films, people are going to see them. I love acting more and more. Maybe 'loving it' isn't the right way to put it, but I'm curious to see what I can do."
Of late, he's been putting that theory to work. There are four movies already in the can. He has a relatively small part as a new-age orthodontist in the critically acclaimed independent drama, Thumbsucker. He plays an undercover cop in Richard Linklater's futuristic thriller A Scanner Darkly, and a disgraced cop in the James Ellroy-scripted, Spike Lee-directed noir, The Night Watchman. But first comes Constantine, in which he's a world-weary, cynical supernatural detective who has literally been to hell and back, and would rather not go there again. Based on the comic book Hellblazer, the film casts Reeves as John Constantine who is cursed with the ability to recognise "the half-breed angels and demons that walk the earth in human skin". The only problem is he then has to see them off back to hell in the hope of saving himself from ending up there, too.
With the excellent Tilda Swinton playing the most bizarre angel Gabriel, some seriously clever special effects, Weisz as a more conventional cop (and possible love interest), and Reeves clearly enjoying himself as a pessimistic anti-hero who is diagnosed with lung cancer at the end of the first act, this is not for everybody. Indeed, die-hard fans of the comic book might point out that Reeves is neither blond nor English - which their Constantine is. "But I hope they feel that we've done justice to the material," he says.
For Reeves, Constantine is not a typical hero, which is why he was interested in the role. "He's far more complicated, cynical and haunted. I thought a lot of this was very dark, but very funny." Does this represent a darker phase in his career? "I liked the material. Hard-edged, hard-boiled, film noir; you know, horror fantasy. It's dealing with universal myths, good and evil, and I like that. I just try to find good material in any genre if I can. I don't want to travel in one direction all of the time."
But Constantine is a man who has seen too much and been dealt too many blows by life. Could he have played him, say, ten years ago? "No, I don't think I could have given the part as much weight. We all have hardships and challenges in this life. The experiences of my life have changed me and informed me. And do I bring that to the characters that I play? Yes, I do." Intensely private, Reeves insists that the contradictions of his life - a very rich man who cares little for the material, a film star who hates being famous - can coexist. "I've been fortunate enough to work in some films that people have enjoyed," he says. "But the celebrity side is not important, because I like to be able to walk in the world. As much as anything, it's important for me to be able to live life in order to be able to show life."
Reeves was born in Beirut to a Chinese-Hawaiian father (Keanu means "cool air over the mountains") Samuel Nowlin Reeves, and English mother, Patricia, a former dancer and, later, a costume designer. Samuel walked out when their son was just seven, and ended up serving two years of a ten-year sentence for possessing heroin and cocaine. Meanwhile, Patricia took Keanu and his two younger sisters, Kim and Karina, to Toronto. Predictably, his father resurfaced when Reeves hit the big time, but his son wanted nothing to do with him, describing his father as an "acid-taking goofball".
School was not easy, not least because he suffered from dyslexia and found class work difficult. But he was a keen sportsman and excelled at ice hockey and basketball. And at home, his creative side was encouraged by his mother. "She surrounded us with culture and art and we learnt to love ideas - even if we hated high school."
At 15, he decided he wanted to act, picking up work on Canadian television and with local theatrical productions. Two years later, he was in Los Angeles where casting directors found something appealing in this fresh-faced, laidback Canadian. The audience did, too. After a couple of false starts, he made the teenage comedy Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure - playing the wannabe rock star and airhead with such conviction that the part haunted him for years (and playing bass in the now defunct Dogstar probably kept that "dude" image going longer than it should have).
As his career hit highs - from the critically acclaimed surfing movie Point Break to My Own Private Idaho, Much Ado About Nothing, Speed and The Matrix trilogy - Reeves proved resilient in surviving the lows that sometimes followed. He's had a lot more to cope with than bad reviews. The deaths, in 1999 and 2001, of his unborn daughter and of his former girlfriend, to whom he remained close, were body blows, but there have been other blows, too, in the sudden and tragic loss of close colleagues. As he began work on the second and third Matrix films, the R&B singer Aaliyah died in a plane crash before completing her role as Zee. And Gloria Foster, who played The Oracle, died of a heart attack.
On the set of The Matrix, he often cut a solitary figure, and, after filming finished, he rushed to his sister Kim's bedside when she suffered a relapse in her battle against cancer. He spends as much private time with his family as possible and has become skilled at keeping out of the press. When he's dating, the gossip columns usually find out long after he's moved on. Right now, he is apparently single. He's obviously a romantic, but after all that has happened to him, he's sceptical about happy endings. His next film is a romance, Il Mare, which reunites him with Sandra Bullock, his co-star in Speed. "It's about believing in love," he says of the film. "Believing that there's the ultimate person, the ideal who will be your soul mate and that all your pain will go away." And that maybe you can find love more than once? "I'm the wrong guy to ask," he says.
It's the kind of one-liner that John Constantine would be proud of. But you can understand why Keanu Reeves might say it, too.
Constantine opens on March 18