Reluctant Hero(also published in March 2005 as a longer and slightly different version under the title 'An interview with Keanu Reeves')
Keanu Reeves preferes sitting alone in all-night diners to hanging out with the A-list. Jan Janssen reports.
Keanu Reeves is one of Hollywood's most enigmatic actors.
For years he lived in exclusive hotels such as LA's Chateau Marmont rather than buying a place of his own and he's notorious for having few friends within the film community. Instead of hanging out with the A-list you'll find him reading books in quiet cafes or riding his motorbike at breakneck speeds along Sunset Boulevard. Only one thing remains constant about Keanu - his stubborn refusal to conform.
'I've never had the luxury of feeling very settled or secure,' he explains. 'I've always felt disconnected, I'm more confortable with being an outsider who gets to wander and observe, slowly piecing together all the fragments and trying 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 £32 million for his work on the Matrix trilogy, Keanu has gained a well-deserved reputation as a big hitter in Hollywood. It's a situation that the 40-year-old is keen to downplay.
'I've never understood the process of being a movie star - if that's what I am.' he explains. '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 bottle 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.'
Keanu's latest role in Constantine - an action thriller based on the DC/Vertigo comic book Hellblazer - is a project close to his heart. Described by one critic as Ghostbusters directed by David Lynch, Keanu plays John Constantine, a detective/exorcist condemned to battling his own demons as well as the real thing.
'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 Keanus. 'Sure, Constantine is spending a lot of time getting his arse whipped in the film, but there are much deeper metaphors to his mission and to some of the revelations he experiences. He's taking the kind of heavy moral journey is absolutely vital to his life and what becomes of it.'
Keanu's own journey began in Beirut, Lebanon, where he was born in 1964 to a British mother and a Chinese-Hawaiian father [Keanu is Polynesian for 'cool breeze over the mountain']. He spend his early childhood years in Australia and New York, before his mother eventually set up home in Canada after she and Keanu's father split up.
This type of peripatetic childhood caused predictable distortions to Keanu's view on life. A self-confessed 'slacker' in high school, he was an avid hockey player who eventually dropped out to work at a local hockey rink. 'I wanted to be a hockey player long before I ever thought about being an actor,' he explains. 'I was pretty shy as a child. I didn't feel confident unless I was on the ice. Because I had trouble reading [he has dyslexia] 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.'
Eighteen years on from his big break in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, the Keanu who once used acting as a way of losing himself has realised that escapism isn't always healthy.
'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,' he explains. '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 of the window.'
His loner mentality hasn't escaped the notice of his former co-stars, who have indicated that a lot lurks below the surface that no one seems able to identify. Dennis Hopper, who played the villain in Speed, still wonders what motivates him. 'He's kind of Sphinx-like,' says Dennis. 'Keanu is very hard-working and very easy to get along with, but you'll never figure out exactly what's going on in his head. I would see him drift off in his own thoughts and he would look kind of sad and lost at times. Some people think he's not deep, but he's always carrying on this heavy dialogue within himself. I kind of admire that.'
Keanu has certainly had to weather a series of devastating blows in his personal life. In April 2001 his ex-girlfriend Jennifer Syme, who had been hooked on anti-depressants and recreational drugs following the loss of their baby, was killed when her jeep careered out of control and ploughed into three parked cars.
Keanu's sister Kim - a 36-year-old horse-breeder - has also been battling against leukaemia for a number of years. The pair are very close and he spends as much time with her as possible - putting filming on hold whenever she need him. Keanu has even financed the cost of building an additonal wing in the hospital so she can enjoy a more comfortable environment.
The philosophical Keanu has found a way to get something positive out of his own sadness. '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.'
So does he still feel like an outsider? 'I don't feel as much of a loner as I used to, 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.'