Keanu Reeves looks back at his own coming of age in Canada
"I am not, and have never been, a thumb sucker," says Keanu Reeves.
"But I did everything else."
When asked just what "everything else" was, Reeves parries faster than his two-day beard and sleepless face suggests possible: "Come on, man!"
You can't blame the guy for being irritated. What happens in the hormone-fuelled experimentation of pubescence should stay in pubescence, and at 43, Reeves is well past the point of explaining himself, or his behaviour, to anyone.
Besides, the answer is kind of obvious. He probably did what everyone else did the minute we first tasted autonomy: drugs, sex, alcohol and self-absorbed existentialism. Such are the central motifs of the years leading from innocence to experience, and it's that rite of passage that forms the backbone of Mike Mills's feature debut, Thumbsucker, a festival film gaining buzz since it premiered earlier this year at Sundance and screened at the Toronto International Film Fest earlier this month, where he addressed journalists.
Reeves has a small part in the film as well-intentioned -- but tragically over-interested -- orthodontist Dr. Perry Lyman, a role the director had originally visualized for someone much different than Reeves. Says Mills: "I had in mind someone like the orthodontist from the Bob Newhart show, Jerry."
For those familiar with the role once inhabited by actor Peter Bonerz, it's hard to see the connection between the enigmatically attractive Reeves, and the frizzy-haired Bonerz who inspired the part. Though it shouldn't be a huge surprise, Reeves pulls it off and successfully sends the movie's protagonist, a thumb-sucking teen played by newcomer Lou Pucci, along the booby-trapped route towards adulthood.
A carefully constructed metaphor about addiction and coming-of-age, Thumbsucker presented Reeves, and a cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Benjamin Bratt and Vince Vaughan, with an opportunity to face down their own old demons.
"I used to be addicted to (the desire to be good and respected for my work). But I think you get past that.
"The older you get, the less you care what other people think of you -- or at least that's what you think," says Reeves, picking up on his touchie-feelie approach to reality in the film.
Given Thumbsucker's ensemble cast and micro-budget, Reeves' presence in the small independent film may be jarring for those more accustomed to seeing the megastar playing action hero in movies such as Constantine, The Matrix or Johnny Mnemonic, but it's hardly a departure. Reeves' breakout performance was in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, an independent ensemble film about drug-using male prostitutes.
Reeves says regardless of the size of the budget or the size of his trailer, when he's on set, he's there to do a job. The basic function of that job never changes.
"Money just brings resources, but the resources that go into a making a movie oftentimes have no impact on the telling of the story," he says.
"I was drawn to the humanity of this story . . . It's about the search for self-acceptance and so the size of the role didn't really matter to me. Big part, small part, the process is the same for me."
Mills doesn't necessarily agree. He says he noticed a lightness to Reeves' demeanour and says it may have given the A-lister a chance to sit on the bench, collect his thoughts, and let someone else do the heavy-lifting when it comes to carrying the weight of the entire film.
"I guess there are pressures involved in going to work on a film like Constantine," says Reeves, who is gearing up for a platter of new projects that includes work with Roger Michell (Changing Lanes, Enduring Love) and Richard Linklater (Waking Life, School of Rock).
"But I don't really think about it."
Mills says Reeves really is disinterested in his own celebrity. "He never once said 'I've made more films than you' or 'Where's my trailer?' "
Reeves says he learned on-set protocol at a young age, ever since he was hanging out on the set of a movie-of-the-week at the age of 15.
"My stepfather (Paul Aaron) was directing a movie with one of the angels (Charlie's Angels), and I got to meet her."
Reeves draws a line across his forehead to communicate the hairstyle. He is offering the international sign for 'bangs' and though he can't remember her name, he's clearly talking about Kate Jackson. But it wasn't Jackson who impressed him.
There was an older woman on set who had been around since the dawn of narrative cinema. Reeves must be tired, because he identifies her as Claudette Colbert when he must have meant to say Lillian Gish.
Gish and Jackson were in a TV movie by Aaron called Thin Ice, so when Reeves goes on to talk about how he had just read about D.W. Griffith and Birth of a Nation -- in which Gish had a featured role as a white damsel in distress -- the pieces fit together.
"She (Gish) was talking about what she called the 'new movies.' She wanted to talk about Star Wars," says Reeves. "That was around the time I became interested in movies."
Reeves says he had no idea he would become the world-famous actor he is now, but maybe there's a pattern to be found in the way life unfolds, consciously or unconsciously.
"When we think of the things behind us, we can see the wake and we might see there's a shape and meaning to what we're doing," he says. "It's like we prepare for the things we hope and ask for, but when you actually get there, it looks much different. I always think of it as being a particle in a wave, and that really is a description of the physical world," says Reeves, who's clearly up on his theoretical physics -- and other things.
"The Eastern religions try to find a way to make us feel comfortable with that . . . but I'm absolutely NOT there yet."
Reeves is clearly still seeking a Zen relationship with his career, his persona and the pressures of fame, but he seems to be coping well nonetheless.
"When I come to the Toronto International Film Festival, I think of staring at this building for 12 years. I grew up around here," he says of the tony Yorkville area that provides the Gucci soul of festival central.
"I had no idea how to get into the business. I wondered if there was a place I should go (to get in the door). And now, here I am."