An interview with Keanu Reeves(also published in March 2005 as a shorter and slightly different version under the title 'Reluctant Hero')
He's always been one of Hollywood's most enigmatic actors, a loner who prefers to live on the fringes of the film community, away from celebrity culture. We talk to the reluctant star about his life and his new movie, the sci-fi thriller Constantine.
by Jan Janssen
For years he lived in exclusive hotels such as LA's Chateau Marmont rather than buying a place of his own. He could be found reading books in isolated cafes or riding his motorcycle at breakneck speed along Sunset Boulevard, all the while staying clear of the hedonistic pursuits that tend to contaminate your average screen idol.
There's an ethereal quality to his body, mind, and soul, and only he knows with any certainty what forces govern his wayward being. Only one thing remains constant about Keanu Reeves - his stubborn refusal to conform.
'I've never had the luxury of feeling very settled or secure,' explains Reeves. 'I've always felt a disconnect with the kind of world that most people accept as a given. I'm more comfortable with being an outsider who gets to wander and observe and slowly piece together all the fragments and try to make sense of things. But then again, sometimes you discover that there's a lot about life that doesn't make sense and you need to accept that and just go on regardless.'
Ever since he banked a cool $60 million for his work on the Matrix trilogy Reeves has gained the kind of industry standing that is normally reserved for actors of the Clooney/Hanks/Pitt fabric. How odd that a self-proclaimed wanderer like Keanu should have vaulted into such elite territory and still maintain his polite disdain for the mechanics of movie stardom.
'I've never understood the process of being a movie star if that's what I am... The work is real, my commitment to acting is real, but the money that goes with it and everything else is totally out of this world. I enjoy the freedom that comes with the money, but I really don't have the kind of acquisitive mentality to live a big life. My only vices are motorcycles and expensive bottles of red wine. I don't have a huge wardrobe of clothes and I don't live in a palatial house. I'm happy just to be able to travel a bit and experience the world and not worry about paying bills.'
Reeves's seeming lock on the curious netherworld he occupies as a film star is confirmed by his appearance in the forthcoming Constantine, a manic new riff on the comic book movie genre that continues to sweep the business.
Based on the DC Comics' Hellblazer series, Constatine stars Reeves as John Constantine, a detective/exorcist condemned to battling his own demons as well as the real thing. After learning that he is dying of lung cancer, he believes that his only hope for avoiding literally being sent to Hell is to help fellow detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) solve her sister's mysterious suicide.
'I love films that speculate on meaning, and I love being able to step into that kind of questioning, troubled outlook on the world,' says Reeves. 'Sure, Constantine is spending a lot of time getting his ass whipped in the film, but there are much deeper metaphors to his mission and to some of the revelations he experiences.'
'I really loved the guy. I loved his anger. I loved his wry sense of humour about the awfulness of the world and what that's turned him into. Constantine's like a warrior in this world of shit, and he's trying to deal with it. He's occupying the space between Heaven and Hell, dealing with angels and demons, and he's aiming at some form of redemption to settle accounts in his own twisted life. He's taking the kind of heavy moral journey we all take except that in his case that journey is absolutely vital to his life and what becomes of it.'
Reeves' own journey begins in Beirut, Lebanon, where he was born in 1964 to a British mother and Chinese-Hawaiian father. (Keanu is Polynesian for 'cool breeze over the mountains'). He spent his early childhood years in Australia and New York before his mother eventually settled in Canada after she and Keanu's father decided to split up when he was only four.
A self-confessed slacker in high school, Reeves was an avid hockey player who eventually dropped out to work at a local hockey rink. Explains Reeves: 'I wanted to be a hockey player long before I ever thought of being an actor. I was pretty shy as a child. I didn't feel confident unless I was on the ice.'
'Because I had trouble reading (he is dyslexic), I wasn't a good student. I didn't finish high school. I did a lot of pretending as a child. It was my way of coping with the fact that I didn't really feel like I fit in. But when I was 15, I started doing some acting and I got hooked because it was like hockey in that it allowed me to be somebody different... the rest of the time I was just goofing off and hanging out... But I definitely liked to party,' he smiles.
At the age of 19, Keanu loaded up his 1969 Volvo and drove to Los Angeles where he has lived ever since. His first serious film role would come in the 1987 teen alienation film, River's Edge. Later that year, he became famous as Ted, an airheaded air guitar freak who kept bellowing 'Excellent!' in Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure. The film was so well etched into the minds of people that for years Reeves had trouble living down the image of the spaced-out surfer dude.
'Ted was my goofball alter ego, but it didn't give me very much credibility as an actor....I'm still trying to erase his memory from my system,' says Reeves.
Eventually he would find a film that would tap into some of his considerable anguish, My Own Private Idaho, the highly regarded 1992 Gus Van Sant film co-starring Reeves' best friend River Phoenix in which they played street hustlers.
'I still look at that film as one of the greatest projects I've ever been involved with,' muses Reeves. 'There was such a beautiful intensity to the work and I was pushed to go psychological places I was much too afraid to explore on my own... I gained a lot of confidence from going through that experience and learned that if you're going to want to achieve anything as an actor, you have to be willing to face down your fears and stare into your soul.'
Phoenix's subsequent death of a drug overdose outside Johnny Depp's Viper Club in LA served as something of a warning to Reeves that his own drinking wasn't doing him any good, and he began to change his outlook and take his career more responsibly after Speed turned him into a box-office star.
'For an actor, movies are a way of distancing yourself from life and in the past I've tended to let my work allow me to pull a disappearing act from all the worries I have. That way I didn't have to ask the usual questions about what I wanted from life.'
'Acting allows you to escape all that, and fortunately or unfortunately, I'm not able to accept that suspension of reality for very long. There's always something that draws me back. Sometimes I'm only happy when I can walk down a street late at night and sit by myself at some empty diner. That's where my head feels free and I can just sit back and smoke a cigarette and look out the window.'
In the meantime, Reeves has been undergoing an ordeal of an entirely different nature. In the past few years, his sister Kim's battle against leumkemia has grown more serious, and he financed the cost of building an additional wing to the hospital she was in. He's also famous for giving large amounts of money to his close friends and buying expensive bottles of wine for fellow cast members. In addition, the death of a former girlfriend in a car crash three years ago was also a sobering experience.
'Life teaches you to value things which are truly meaningful and you begin to stop wasting so much time worrying about useless questions that just deflect you from where you want to go and who you want to be,' he reflects. 'I feel much more open and present as a human being and I'm also less anguished in general. I guess I've reached a stage in my life where I've been able to find some clarity and certainty and peace of mind in that.'
'I don't feel as much of a loner as I used to feel like, but I still need to spend time by myself and away from all the shit that accumulates in your life. Those are the moments you feel the freest.'