Slacker king takes the future lying down
by Dominic Wells
It’s hard to believe Keanu Reeves has just notched up his twentieth year as an actor. For those who grew up with him, he remains the living embodiment of the slacker generation — ironic, considering he’s now 41 and one of the richest stars in Hollywood. Thanks to his roles as a stoner in River’s Edge, a metal freak in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and a cop-cum-surfer in Point Break, the image has endured. Hampered by the monotonous rhythm of his speech and his shy demeanour, as well as the dyslexia he suffered as a child, Reeves has always struggled to shake this off.
Sitting in a ballroom at the luxurious Hôtel du Cap on the French Riviera, dressed in smart jeans, a green T-shirt and a navy jacket, Reeves may have abandoned the frayed apparel of his peers, but he is fully aware of what he represents and to whom. “I’m a Lost Boy,” he says, a sly reference to Joel Schumacher’s vampire film that rather crystallises just how he’s been doomed for all eternity to play the Generation X pin-up. It’s the perfect analogy. While his ever-boyish looks make you think that somewhere in his attic there is a portrait of him that’s ageing fast, he comes across as perplexed and preoccupied. He is a frustrating subject for an interview, his answers, like the expression on his face, perpetually confused. “There’s always a conflict in trying to overcome, see through, survive, happy endings, conscience,” he tells me. This, apparently, is the nature of drama.
Given his vibe, as he might put it, it is rather fitting that Reeves should finally hook up with Richard Linklater, the director whose 1990 debut, Slacker, practically wrote the dictionary definition of the word. The resulting collaboration is A Scanner Darkly, an animated adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s near-future novel about what happens when the drugs do work. “I think it’s a worthwhile story for our times, for all times,” says Reeves, who plays Bob Arctor, a vice cop sucked into a world of paranoid junkies. Reminding us that his best work is inextricably entwined with subcultures — notably his gay hustler in My Own Private Idaho — it’s as if Reeves has finally made an adult companion piece to the early movies that defined him.
Showcasing his best performance in years, it may — perversely — be the role he gets least credit for. Shot like a normal live-action movie, the footage has been animated over, in the way a painter might daub a canvas, via a process called rotoscoping (see box, overleaf) which Linklater previously used on Waking Life in 2000. “I was happy with just how the performance translated — the attention that was taken to really show the detail,” says Reeves. “It was beyond spectacle. It was a form that matched and promoted the ideas in the movie.” Never mind playing Shakespeare — from Kenneth Branagh’s film Much Ado About Nothing, to a stage production of Hamlet in Winnipeg — this is perhaps Reeves’s best riposte to critics who’ve always condemned his acting abilities as cartoon-like.
Arctor is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the kung-fu-fighting Neo in The Matrix; as he attempts to bust open a drug ring by going undercover, he is not so much The One as The Two. Arctor is hooked on Substance D, a hallucinogenic drug that induces schizophrenia so severe that he is unable to recognise that the low-life addict on the surveillance tapes he’s studying is himself. It doesn’t help that his colleagues have no idea what Arctor looks like.
Around the office, he wears a “scramble suit” — a hood that generates myriad faces to conceal its wearer’s identity. It’s a disorientating tale, and one that comes hard on the heels of Thumbsucker, Mike Mills’s intriguing story about a teenager prescribed the anti-depressant Ritalin. “There are a lot of people on it,” says Reeves, “which I guess turns into stress and turns into dialogues about how we live, how people live.”
Rather appropriately, all this drug chatter is making Reeves rather edgy. The man whose name means “cool breeze over the mountains” is anything but tranquil, as he fidgets and fiddles with a pencil for much of our meeting. A fan of Dick since he read The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, he is eloquent on the author’s work. “They’re all stories about people,” he says. “He has a real recognisable emotional platform, which a lot of science-fiction writers don’t have. His characters are greedy, or needy or scared or in love or trying to find their heroism. All of the characters go through some self-revelation when they become conscious about what the drug is and what the drug is doing, and what drugs do.”
But when I ask him if he has changed his attitude to drugs, he becomes truculent and blankly stares right through me. “You seem very drug-orientated today,” he comments. “Why? What are you looking for? Why the questions about drugs?” Perhaps, given that Reeves’s father served two years of a ten-year prison sentence for cocaine possession, his reticence is understandable. In the past he has implied that he has experimented (“I’m so glad I have hallucinated in my life”) without ever getting specific.
There’s still something very enigmatic about Reeves. Maybe it’s the colourful background — born in Beirut to a Hawaiian/Chinese father and an English mother, he was raised in Toronto by the latter when his parents divorced. Maybe it’s the mysterious private life that’s been tainted with tragedy — notably when his ex-girlfriend Jennifer Symes lost her life in a road accident two years after losing their baby during her pregnancy. Or maybe it’s his idiosyncratic choices — forgoing £8 million to make Speed 2 so he could tour with his (now defunct) band Dogstar.
For though as an actor he is too often dismissed, he is endearingly maverick: he’ll use his box-office muscle to get quirky films made. He tells me he recently talked with the French director Patrice Chéreau about an adaptation of the Norwegian classic Hunger, and with British director Roger Michell about a film of Macbeth; neither came off, but he is now set to work with Michell on Fishing for Moonlight, the story of a stockbroker who frees a prostitute from the Russian Mafia. He is clearly moving on from his years as a youth culture clown. “That’s just a part of growing up, getting older.” How does approaching middle age make him feel? “Today, I’m OK with it,” he says. Tomorrow, of course, is another day.
A Scanner Darkly opens on August 18
REVIVING AN ANCIENT ART
Gosh, but I’m bored with CGI animation. As a way of blinding you to a flimsy plot, as in The Ant Bully (see review), the novelty wore off long ago, 3-D or no 3-D. Audiences have yet to agree — Cars, despite its flaws, has taken $234 million in America alone — but some studios are trying to stay ahead of the curve with new techniques. So will the Next Big Thing be motion capture, or the ancient art of rotoscoping? Motion capture records an actor’s movements digitally — think of Gollum in Lord of the Rings. This can then be turned into animation, most famously so far in The Polar Express, whose director, Robert Zemeckis, has another motion capture extravaganza on the way with Beowulf. But it’s expensive, and rather too close to reality for interest. More fascinating is the new French film Renaissance, which paints over motion capture in minimalist black-and-white and expressive shadowplay. Shame about the plot.
Rotoscoping, used in A Scanner Darkly, is the poor relation: a technique so primitive that it was invented before the First World War, and used on Prince Charming in Snow White. It involves tracing over film footage to get the outlines of the character, which are then painted over. Ralph Bakshi used it in Wizards and Lord of the Rings, as did A-ha in their music video Take on Me. George Lucas even used it to create the glow on his light sabres in the original Star Wars trilogy. But it has been consigned to the dustbin of animation history by blue screen and digital imaging. Until now.
In Richard Linklater’s hands, rotoscoping is perfect for creating distortion and paranoia, for making the viewer question — as does the hero — whether they are seeing reality or fantasy. Will it catch on? Most US critics approve (www.rottentomatoes.com) and it has attracted raves from viewers (www.imdb.com), yet the box office has been less kind: $4 million after three weeks is no one’s idea of a hit. Perhaps a dystopian cartoon with an “R” certificate simply does not compute. Let’s hope British audiences are more open-minded.