Reeves just gets better
by Sheila Johnston
Keanu Reeves bounds in looking fresh-faced, adorably rumpled and absurdly boyish. “I’m having a really nice time,” he beams, ready to do interviews for A Scanner Darkly, following its world premiere at a festival the night before. “You get pretty interesting encounters here that you don’t find anywhere else. Conversations about cinema late at night and people giving you scripts set in countries that don’t exist, and all the hustling. I like the imbroglio.” Imbroglio! Now there’s a turn-up for the books. Time was when Reeves was indelibly linked to the dopey slacker-dude he played in his first big hit, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).
As the monosyllabic Ted, he would whoop “Whoa!” or “No Way!” before launching into a manic airguitar riff. But opinions were divided on whether the actor could in fact walk, talk and chew gum simultaneously. Journalists found extracting coherent quotes from him like pulling teeth.
“You know, when you start out, these interviews can be a little odd,” he says in his slightly formal, yet unfailingly courteous manner. Matters have improved somewhat since then.
He once remarked, “I used to have nightmares that they would put, ‘He played Ted’ on my tombstone.”
Yet, writing a book about him more than a decade ago, I interviewed dozens of Reeves’s friends and colleagues, and the story was always the same. Kenneth Branagh, who cast him in Much Ado About Nothing, praised his “poetic imagination”; Gus van Sant, who worked with him on My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, spoke of his meticulous research and voracious appetite for reading. Now Richard Linklater, director A Scanner Darkly, adds his voice to the chorus.
“You care about Keanu,” he says “He’s a big-hearted guy. There were a lot of passages in German (in Philip K. Dick’s futuristic novel on which A Scanner Darkly is based), and he had them all translated. He was always digging deeper . . . Keanu’s the kind of guy who would call you up about it at two in the morning.”
Asked about this, Reeves just shrugs and smiles. “I was doing my due diligence,” he says. “Plus I thought Richard would still be up.”
Back in the Age of Ted, most critics would have voted Reeves, who is 42, the member of his generation least likely to succeed long-term. Yet in a 20-year career, he has seen off the opposition by repeatedly reinventing himself and demonstrating an unexpected versatility. He worked for such directors as Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons), Francis Coppola (Dracula) and Bernardo Bertolucci (Little Buddha), became a muscular action star in Speed, then developed sidelines as a romantic leading man (The Lake House), and as a nimble light comedian (Something’s Gotta Give).
With Johnny Mnemonic, the Matrix trilogy and Constantine, Reeves found another speciality: scifi. Perhaps his slightly unworldly presence suits the genre.
“I’ve liked sci-fi since I was a little kid,” he says. “It started with flying machines and distant planets and unknown mysteries where the imagination could go. Then, as I got older, I got more interested in what happened on those new planets. What the governments are and how people live, and that ultimately arrives at Philip K. Dick.”
Neglected in his lifetime, Dick became a key cult figure after his death in 1982, aged 53. His druggy, paranoid visions inspired Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report, and cast a long indirect shadow over The Matrix.
Reeves’ character in A Scanner Darkly is one of these: an undercover narcotics agent named Bob Arctor who lives in a squat with a motley trio of middle-aged Teds. Arctor’s work leads him into addiction and the unwelcome assignment to spy on his friends — and eventually, in a surreal plot twist, on himself.
Like director Linklater’s earlier Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly was shot as a live-action movie, then given to animators to paint over the footage so that it resembles a comic strip: a painstaking process known as rotoscoping.
Reeves had an unsettled childhood, blighted by his father, Samuel Nolan Reeves ('Nowlin', not 'Nolan' - Ani), a Chinese-American who bequeathed Keanu his Hawaiian first name and exotic looks shortly before disappearing from his life; later, Reeves Sr served a two-year prison sentence for heroin and cocaine possession. Keanu’s younger sister, Kim, suffers from leukaemia, and friends and colleagues have died — most famously, actor River Phoenix.
Reeves keeps his private life under wraps and does not date high-profile stars. His most serious relationship was with Jennifer Syme, a film production assistant and bit-part actress, but their baby daughter was stillborn in 1999 and 18 months later, after they had split up, Syme died in a car accident.
“I liked that Bob Arctor surrounds himself with this ‘family’. I can relate to that,” he says. There’s a wistful note in his voice: he admits that he longs to stop spending so much time alone, to get married and have children. That would, surely, would be the most excellent adventure of all.
A Scanner Darkly is out on November 30