Keanu Reeves Wants to Read You Some Poetry
Spend an afternoon driving the man who played the monosyllabic Neo in The Matrix around Los Angeles in a rental car and you might come to an unexpected conclusion about the Hollywood enigma: He is a genius.
by Jeff Gordinier, cover photograph by Steven Klein
He has heard of a sandwich. An excellent sandwich. "I've been looking," he says, "for a good sandwich in Los Angeles."
It is a Monday in September, precisely noon. The morning fog is burning off. The sky over Hollywood is turning cornflower blue. Keanu—really, for a guy who's been a star for two decades now, the Reeves just feels like a vestigial tail—appears on the sidewalk along Sunset Boulevard, in front of Book Soup and a block away from the Viper Room. He's wearing jeans, a black blazer, a plain gray T-shirt, desert boots, and a black motorcycle helmet. His face is scruffy. He's 44. He removes the helmet and grins. The grin is crooked and contagious. Our plan is to go shopping for books. But he is wondering whether at some point we should drive to Santa Monica, because a friend of his has passed along word of a sub, a magnificent sub, that is made at a place called Bay Cities Italian Deli & Bakery. "I was told that it's got the shredded lettuce," he rhapsodizes. "It's like, you know, a good sandwich."
Everything is conveyed in the unmistakable hollowed-out-trunk-of-a-redwood timbre of his voice. The voice speaks of so much more than leafy greens. The voice says: We will be co-conspirators in a quest for pleasure. It says: Provided, my friend, that you don't turn out to be a dick, you are welcome to accompany me in an adventure. "We can do," he says—and there's the crooked grin again—"a feast of the senses."
First, though, a banquet for the brain. Keanu lopes through the front door at Book Soup—he's been coming here for about 20 years, often late at night—and gallantly kisses the cheek of the pretty blonde at the cash register. "Hello, Fawn!" he proclaims.
"How are you?" Fawn says. "I saw your mom the other day."
"You did?" he asks, and then, after he and Fawn have traded a few pleasantries, he sends up a quick signal flare: "This is a journalist."
"I'll keep all your secrets," she tells him. "Don't worry."
"Everyone says that," he says.
Today is an all-about-the-journey-not-the-destination kind of day. The point is to hang out in the vicinity of stuff that Keanu likes, and Keanu likes books. This might come as a surprise to those who still cling to the impression—one fostered by his past residency in the stoner/slacker/surfer precinct exemplified by films like Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, River's Edge, and Point Break—that Keanu is, you know . . . kind of dumb. "He is the opposite of dumb," says Scott Derrickson, who directed him in December's The Day the Earth Stood Still. "That is a word that has no application to him. This is not just a director trying to defend his actor and say, 'No, really, he's not dumb.' He's fiercely intelligent."
It does, to be sure, take a certain strain of otherworldly brainpower to be a movie star in an era of microscopic tabloid scrutiny while somehow managing to keep your private life as trackless as a tabula rasa. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, a remake of the 1951 sci-fi movie, Keanu plays Klaatu. Klaatu is an alien who has inhabited a human body in order to mingle with mankind and figure out whether we deserve to be saved or wiped out. Keanu observes that "playing an alien is tough." Which is probably true, though if anyone's up to the task it's Keanu, the most extraterrestrial celebrity in our midst. "He's really still," says Emma Watts, the president of production at Fox, the studio that's putting out Earth. "He's got a stillness, and he's also a man of action." She remembers meeting with him to talk about the movie and noticing that he had jotted down three or four pages of exhaustive notes about the script. In very tiny handwriting.
So could it be? Is Keanu Reeves some kind of . . . stealth genius? "I've swapped a lot of books with him in the last nine months. He is one of the most voracious readers I've ever met," Derrickson says. "He's very unpretentious about it. Nobody really knows, and he doesn't really care that nobody knows." Nor does his reading come across as a glued-on Hollywood affectation—like a habit, say, of toting around a yellowed copy of Leaves of Grass in an attempt to look a few millimeters deeper than a smear of Kiehl's eye cream.
No. It becomes clear after 30 seconds of watching Keanu pinball around the aisles of Book Soup that he approaches the printed word as both a glutton and a gourmand: He inhales a lot, and he's game to order off-menu. He tells me he just finished all of the novels in John Updike's Rabbit series. "So fantastic," he says with a reverent hush. I mention another work about suburban crisis, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, and he rears back and slides the helmet onto his head so that he can free up his left hand. "Oh, YES!!!" he shouts. "Let's high-five on Revolutionary Road!" We slap palms. This prompts a rumination from Keanu on the primary characters in that book, Frank and April Wheeler, and "the identities that they're wearing—you know, their authentic self and then their external self and that dialogue that's going on."
As we pass Proust, Keanu reveals that he devoured every page of the meticulous colossus that is Remembrance of Things Past. "It took a couple of years, but I did it," he says. The grin has straightened itself; it's ear-to-ear now. "I didn't do the Moncrief, I did the newer translation. Some books would come in between. But I found that it was a thread—like time—that you could walk away and come back to. I didn't feel like I had lost the momentum of the story at all. It was like meeting a good friend or someone that you like, and you're like, 'Hey, dude! How's it goin'?'"
James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime? Yes, he's read that. David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas? That too, yes. The Butcher, an erotic novel by Alina Reyes? Absolutely. He's never put off by a dash of kink—in fact, he'd be happy to recommend a volume in that vein. "You've read Bataille, right?" he asks.
I admit that I haven't.
"Oh, dude," he says. "Well, let's get you a book."
We search the shelves but find no Bataille. "Dude, I'm not seeing any," I tell him, and then I apologize in case my use of that timeless West Coast honorific looks like a way to curry favor—a transparent ploy to dude-bond with Johnny Utah. I tell him I can't help it sometimes, I went to high school in Southern California, and . . .
"No, dude is an excellent word," Keanu says. "I won't take it personally. I had a great run with dude."
He bounds over to the poetry section and mentions a night years ago when he saw Allen Ginsberg performing at McCabe's guitar shop in Santa Monica. "He had, like, a little piano, and he was reading his poetry," Keanu says. "I just remember him. His eyes, his sweat—he was kind of beautiful and passionate. And there was an eroticism that came off of him too."
"Yeah," he says. "Yeah!" (The word yeah, as a crucial instrument in the orchestra of Keanu's vocabulary, has the nuanced up-and-down dynamics of a Nirvana song: There are whispered passages, and then brassily emphatic ones—all in the course of one syllable.) "He was just . . . illuminated." Keanu still wants to recommend a book. An idea surfaces. "I'm sure you've read it," he says. "The Elementary Particles? Michel Houellebecq?"
I admit that I haven't.
"Oh, fantastic!" he says. "I hope they have it . . . " He lurches back to fiction and spies The Elementary Particles, a book that was kinky enough to scandalize the French. It's near the bottom of a shelf. "Oh, yeah, baby!!" he says. "When I read this, my head exploded."
By now the two of us have amassed a heap of homework—along with my Houellebecq are Borges, Robert Lowell, and Kay Ryan, which I've picked out for Keanu's home library—and I wonder out loud if it's too awkward a load for him to carry on his Norton motorcycle. "Not at all," he says. "I'm a professional."
We bring the books to Fawn at the cash register and pay up. Only later will I learn that Fawn—I'll keep all your secrets—is in fact Fawn Sugerman, née Fawn Hall, the woman who was thrust into the glare of fame in the eighties as the secretary who shredded Colonel Oliver North's documents during the Iran-Contra scandal, and who later battled crack addiction with her late husband, Danny Sugerman, the author of No One Here Gets Out Alive and the onetime manager of the Doors. I find this out on my own, by accident. During our time together, Keanu never breathes a word of it.
Back on the sidewalk. Although the sandwich beckons, Keanu is starting to have doubts. "Why don't we go to your hotel and we can just sit by the pool and have lunch?" he says. I remind him of the quest. The mission. The shredded lettuce.
"It's far," he says.
"How far is it?" I ask.
"It's far," he says. "It's like 45 minutes away."
But there is some interior negotiation—an invisible duel, perhaps, between the authentic self and the external self—and he rallies. Keanu delivers that emphatic "Yeah!" and a few minutes later my rented Ford Explorer is at a red light on La Cienega, and Keanu's sitting in the passenger seat checking out the cover of a Mission of Burma CD and telling me how he spent the morning. "I was dealing with the fallout from the sky that still hasn't resolved itself," he says. He's been collaborating with a screenwriter and a producer on a movie tentatively called Passengers. Roger Michell, the director of Enduring Love, has an interest in it. But there are obstacles, Keanu says: "Making movies is tough." He tends to use words sparingly, but the subject of this script gets him rolling.
"It's a cosmic romance," Keanu says. "Guy is on a ship from the Excelsior Company, and he's going to another planet that sustains life, called Homestead. There's 5,000 people on this ship that resembles an ocean liner, and for reasons that you find out later in the film, he wakes up. But he wakes up alone. And he can't go back to sleep. There's a bartender-robot on it named Arthur, who he can talk to, but eventually that stops being a kind of solace. As he says to Arthur, 'You're a machine.'"
At this very moment there is an electronic beep in the rental car. Keanu hasn't put on his seat belt.
"We're gonna get busted, man," I tell him.
"Breakin' the law! Breakin' the law!" he sings, instantly and knowingly referring to Judas Priest, Beavis and Butt-head, and his own cultural legacy. He clicks the seat belt and continues talking.
We dip into his affection for stage plays, many of them stark or absurd: Waiting for Godot, Ubu Roi, True West. He ticks off the names of musicians he likes: the Clash and Randy Newman, Howlin' Wolf and John Coltrane, Boston and Discharge. When he was a high-school kid in Toronto he once drove to Buffalo to see the Ramones. "Yeah, man," he says. "'One two three four—go!' It was fantastic. We talk about the impression that people have, because of 1993's Little Buddha, in which he played the Buddha himself, that Keanu is a Buddhist. "I haven't taken refuge in the dharma," he says. And yet as we hit traffic Keanu registers his concern quietly, almost imperceptibly, with a slow straightening of his spine in the passenger seat, like a Tibetan monk in meditation who's just had a mosquito land on his nose. We on-ramp to the 10 freeway. Cars unsnarl. Forward motion resumes.
"We're movin'," he says.
"This better be worth it, this sandwich," I say.
"I don't know," he says. "I've never been there."
"Who told you about it?"
"A friend of mine," he says.
"A famous friend?"
Keanu pauses for three comically perfect seconds.
"Really famous," he says.
In his blazer pocket he's got a pack of American Spirits. We talk about his smoking habit. "It was an outcome of having to smoke on a film," he says. "I got hooked making a film. Feeling Minnesota. I didn't start smoking until I was 30. Now I'm just in prison."
"You should stop," I say.
"You're right," he says. He is capable of an irony that hangs in the air, like incense.
He remains stoic in his refusal to talk about his personal life. (There are reasons to remain stoic. In 1999 he lost a daughter with his girlfriend, actress Jennifer Syme; the baby was stillborn. Almost two years later Syme died in a car accident in Los Angeles. To ask him about these things would seem merely cruel.) Later in the day Keanu notices the query GIRLFRIEND? scribbled on a page of my legal pad. He answers, politely and preemptively, like this: "No."
"No you don't have a girlfriend or no you don't want to get into it?"
"No," he says. "All of its implications." (Recently, for what it's worth, the rumor mill has tethered him to Parker Posey.)
He will talk a bit about his motorcycle accidents. He has veneers on a couple of teeth. "I think they smashed against the handlebars. I don't really remember," he says. "Shock works. I mean, when you fall off a bike you're pretty much in shock. You're sitting on the ground, blood's pouring out, but it doesn't really hurt. Heh heh. I mean, it's not like my arm is hanging off."
"Break On Through" starts playing on the car radio.
"How do you feel about the Doors?" I ask him.
"The Doors rock," Keanu says.
"Do you mean that?"
"I do," he says. "Nothin' like 'em."
"There's nothin' like Ray's organ sound," I say, "but I think Jim was kind of a buffoon."
"Listen to that voice," Keanu says. "He went for it. Showmanship. Showmanship! The shamanism. The shamanisticus. The frontman. The frontman. The front of the band. Rockin'. I think we have to get off this street."
"'When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,'" he intones—very quickly, and in a cadence that calls to mind a surfer having a panic attack, "'I summon up remembrance of things past / I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought / And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste.'" Here in the rental car Keanu is reciting, from memory, Shakespeare's Sonnet 30. He also reels off 116 and 119 while we wait at a stoplight.
Remembrance of things past, yes. Amazingly, it's nearly the 10th anniversary of the release of The Matrix, the 1999 metaphysical sci-fi kung-fu extravaganza that did for Keanu what The Pirates of the Caribbean did for Johnny Depp: It fixed for him an everlasting place in the Hollywood firmament, and it made him really rich. Keanu remarks on how the film gave the "vernacular," as he puts it, a "nomenclature"—turning, for instance, the question of whether you should swallow a red pill or a blue pill into a 21st-century Rorschach inkblot. "You know, you can take red pills and then sometimes they can turn into blue pills," he muses. "You thought you ate a red pill but really you had a blue pill. But then you can take another red pill. Maybe. But obviously I was drawn to the red pills. When I first read that script, it made my blood happy."
Right now, the thing that would make his plasma sing is an excellent sandwich. Which means we must return to our quest. "I know a couple of places to get a good sandwich," Keanu says, "but I'm talking about that other level. Like, in Chicago you can get the other level. And I'm sure that other level is here in Los Angeles, as well. I just haven't found it. But I've been on this search."
We exit the 10. Now we're on Lincoln, blocks from the storied sandwich. "This could be it," Keanu says, "here on the right." Yes. We see a deli. We see neon signs. We don't see a line, though. So transcendent is this repast that there is supposed to be a line out the door every day. But there is no line. And in the windows there is only darkness.
"There it is. Bay Cities Italian Deli and Bakery," Keanu says. "Oh, shit. What day's today?"
"They're closed Monday," he says.
"You're kidding," I say.
He grins. Ear to ear. And then he says it: "Awesome."
Letter from the Editor
MY NEPHEW JACOB CAN NAME ALL 50 STATE capitals. He's 5.
Not long ago, I sat with him at his kitchen table and tried to stump him. (I couldn't, by the w.ay, much to his delight and that of his father.) What I took away from this exercise, more than anything else, wasn't necessarily my nephew's Rainman-caliber brilliance or the fact that Frankfort is the capital of Kentucky ("That's an easy one, Uncle Dan"). No. The real lesson for me was that I couldn't rattle off all 50 states.
"Wow! You got all of them," I said when Jacob finished.
"You forgot New Mexico and Mississippi, Uncle Dan," he reminded me.
So I had.
Nothing bruises an inflated ego more than having a 5-year-old school you in geography. But why, I wondered, pumping myself back up to size, did I even need to know this crap? Did this kid really have something on me? Is that kind of knowledge really even a currency anymore?
Or does the fact that I can name more celebrity babies than state capitals get me further in today's world? Such is the reality, albeit the sad one, of my life. Let's see-there's Apple and Suri and Shiloh and Maddox and Jayden James. There's Violet and Kingston and Brooklyn and Trig.
Whether you're willing to admit it or not, we've all become a little too celebrity-obsessed. Who didn't watch Britney Spears shave her head? Or Paris Hilton walk out of jail? Or Paris Hilton have sex, for that matter?
Celebrities are everywhere we look. They're saving the world on CNN. They're dancing on network television. They're not wearing panties on the Internet. They're explaining why they broke up with Jennifer Aniston in an impromptu press conference outside the gym.
There's very little we don't know about these people. Which is why when one of them manages to fly below the radar. it's almost more fascinating. Such is the case with the enigmatic -- and often monosyllabic-- Keanu Reeves.
As editor-at-large Jeff Gordinier found out when he went to interview this issue's cover subject, some movie stars are quite adept at not letting you in at all. Gordinier was with Keanu for the better part of a day, most of it spent on a quest for the perfect sandwich, and not one personal question was answered, or asked, for that matter. Instead, the two engaged in little more than small talk, the result of which is one of the most revealing profiles we've published in some time.
Keanu Reeves, it turns out, is a pretty smart dude.
"This might come as a surprise to those who still cling to the impression -- one fostered by his past residency in the stoner/slacker/surfer precinct exemplified by films like Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, River's Edge, and Point Break -- that Keanu is, you know ... kind of dumb," Gordinier writes. Actually, he may be some kind of "stealth genius."
Still. I'd like to see him name all 50 capitals.