Mail on Sunday Magazine (UK), November 23, 2008
The Three Billion Dollar Man
Q. Who can earn $100M a job...
Make films that gross $740M...
Give away $100M to his film crew...
And strip and fix his own motorcycles?
A. Keanu can
Words by Elaine Lipworth; Portrait by Norman Jean Roy
The New York Ritz-Carlton's most luxurious suite is on the 15th floor. It affords a magnificent view of Manhattan, as one of the world's highest-paid actors has just found out. A wail of police sirens has drawn him to the floor-length window. While I wait in a ridiculously ornate rococo chair, he swings a Starbucks coffee cup from his fingers and presses his face to the glass.
He looks a lot younger than 44. His hair is jet black, gelled and sticking up in spikes. He's over 6ft and has broad, muscular shoulders, but seems to be doing his utmost to disguise his handsome - even beautiful - face. He arrived without entourage, unshaven and dressed in ripped jeans, scuffed brown biker boots, black T-shirt and black blazer. The boots, incongruous in our plush surroundings, are no pose, but a symbol of Reeves' 'vagabond' spirit. Despite his wealth, Reeves has only just bought his first house, having lived in hotels and on-set trailers for much of his life.
He'd been talking about life on the highway before the sirens interrupted him. As they fade, he picks up the thread. 'I love riding through Los Angeles on my own, with the wind, the sound...'
He imitates the twin-piston noise of a Norton motorbike engine. 'And then there are the aesthetics, the beauty of the motorcycle and the smell of a hot Norton, the oil oozing out - it's fantastic. I have a 1973 Norton Commando 850 Mk II Roadster with an Interstate tank on it and raised compression. It's got rear sets [pedals] and a front fork stabiliser.
'I am also very fortunate to have a 1972 Norton Combat Commando and a 1969 Fastback with some period engine modifications - a camshaft and slightly raised compression again, which keeps things reliable, and a Manx fender on the front.
'There's a helmet law in California, but for years I wouldn't wear one. I crashed a few times. Once, a car pulled a U-turn in front of me, didn't see me coming and I couldn't get out of the way. That one's responsible for my fake teeth.'
He bares a perfect set of incisors.
'I sheared some skin off my right shin and I have a scar on my stomach from running into the hillside when I took a turn too fast.' He shows me the battle scars. 'I've ruptured my spleen, I've broken my ankle and I've got a couple of scars on my knees...'
I point to the scar above his mouth.
'Oh, yeah - that's when my tooth went through my upper lip,' he says. 'You go faster when you're younger, but I won't give up. I love it.'
Not only is Reeves unfazed by these injuries; they seem as meaningful to him as anything he's achieved in his 20 years in Hollywood. This is more significant when you consider the sheer extent of his success as an actor: in dollar terms, he's one of the biggest and safest bankers in the business, as effective at garnering profits for his films as Pitt, Clooney, Cruise or DiCaprio. It's estimated that in total his films have grossed a staggering $3 billion - the Matrix series made $1.7 billion, with The Matrix Reloaded alone pulling in $740 million. Which explains how, after the series was filmed, he could afford to share $100 million of his earnings with the costume and special-effects teams.
Reeves made his name with the cult Bill & Ted slacker comedies and followed up with the art-house classic My Own Private Idaho, co-starring his friend River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose in 1993. Next he appeared in the adrenaline-charged hit Point Break and Bernado Bertolucci's Little Buddha. After the 1994 action blockbuster Speed he was hailed as the new action hero - yet he turned down Speed 2.
'I don't want to keep doing the same things over and over again,' he says. 'What's the point?' It's an attitude more suited to a drifter than an A-list actor.
Some critics have questioned Reeves' acting ability, accusing him of getting by on good looks and luck. It's true he doesn't bring the same intensity to a role as, say, Robert De Niro - but perhaps that's the secret of his success. Reeves is a blank page, blowing in and out of movies, his Midas touch enabling him to earn pay cheques that dwarf those of his more 'actorly' peers. What's even more ironic is that Reeves does seem genuinely uninterested in money and is known to donate a large proportion of his income to charity. Could this self-confessed nomad in fact be one of the most astute actors of his generation?
Reeves has never married and remains extremely reticent about his private life (just before this interview, he was asked at a media junket if he was currently dating. He roared with anguish, pulled his hands over his face and shouted, 'Aargh! I am not going there!'). He's never played much of a publicity game and admits that he finds the media difficult to deal with.
This alienation gives the impression that there's something other-worldly about Reeves - which is apt, as we're here to discuss his new sci-fi film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, a $100 million remake of the 1951 classic. In this version, Reeves plays Klaatu, an alien who arrives on Earth with a warning to humanity to end its constant fighting or face annihilation. With a stunning CGI recreation of robot Gort and co-starring Jennifer Connelly, the film should be one of the biggest blockbusters of the Christmas season.
'I loved the original Michael Rennie film,' he says. 'I remember seeing it first when I was 14 on a black-and-white television. It's a cautionary tale. It's about our apocalyptic tendencies: man's extinction impulse. Klaatu is trying to get an international summit together and it's not happening. He's thinking, "I can wipe you out and yet you can't sit at the same table. How self-centred are you?" The film is about human nature, the fact that it's only when our backs are against the wall that we do anything to change.'
Sci-fi is the only genre Reeves works in consistently. As well as the Matrix films, he also appeared in Johnny Mnemonic, Chain Reaction and A Scanner Darkly.
'I used to escape into another world as a kid,' he says. 'I built spaceships. It was that whole idea of getting out of my own circumstances, a fascination with distant planets, unknown mysteries, going wherever the imagination could go. I loved Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner.'
He pauses and adds, quite without pretension, 'In Jungian terms, it's all about adventure and the heroic archetypes. In Freudian terms, it's all about swords. And mothers and fathers.'
Reeves laughs at his own attempt at pop psychology. But he's not showing off. Our interview is littered with references to his wide-ranging reading: he's just finished Proust's A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, talks at length about Updike's Rabbit novels and refers at one stage to his 'spatial conceptual predilection'.
It makes sense that escapism appealed to Reeves from an early age. He was born in Beirut to a British mother, Patricia, who was a casino showgirl. She married his Chinese-Hawaiian father, Samuel Nowlin Reeves, who abandoned the family a few years later (Reeves has two younger sisters).
After years travelling around the world with her children, Patricia eventually settled in Toronto, where she became a successful costume designer. Reeves and his sisters had a succession of stepfathers while growing up, but the actor is still estranged from his natural father. Reeves left home at 17 and headed for Hollywood three years later.
'I got a green card, jumped in my car, drove across the border from Canada and came to LA,' he says. 'I had some speakers in boxes in the back. If I was with a girl, I'd take out the speakers and put them on the roof so we could dance. I'd throw camping equipment in the back and go off for weekends. I stayed with my stepfather in his guest bedroom; he was a writer and director. Then I made some friends and moved into an apartment. I've had a vagabond life.'
So far that life hasn't included children. I know he's good with kids; I met him years ago during the filming of Feeling Minnesota. He didn't have a lot to say to me, but struck up a lively conversation with my daughter, who was two at the time, over tea in the hospitality suite, making her laugh and sharing his chocolate-chip cookie.
I remind him of this, and he begins to talk about his own childhood, which is interesting, as he has always studiously avoided the subject in the past. 'It was difficult,' he says. 'I went to four different high schools in five years. I was OK academically, good at English and creative writing. I was on the chess team.'
Poor at maths and science, he excelled at basketball and baseball and was such a skilled ice-hockey goalie he was nicknamed The Wall. His acting talent earned him a place at a prestigious performing-arts school, but the experience was traumatic.
'It was a very small school and I guess I didn't fit in. I had conflicts and run-ins with the staff. The principal and I didn't see eye to eye. I was one of those "Why?" kids - I asked too many questions about everything. I couldn't stop even if it got me into trouble. I wanted my autonomy, and if you wanted to impose something on me, then you and I would have a problem.'
The teenager was so rebellious he ended up getting expelled at 16. When I raise this, Reeves bursts out laughing, then sighs and covers his face with his hands. 'Of course, it wasn't funny then - it's a terrible letter to receive, saying you can't come back to school next year. Getting asked to leave was very upsetting.'
He had the last laugh, though. 'I did. Ironic, isn't it?'
Reeves believes his rebellious nature is due to being part-English. 'I haven't gone back to Hampshire [where his mother was born]. My mother left home when she was very young, 14 or 15. But she is a very independent woman and passed that on. She gave me British manners - which side of the plate the fork goes on, but also the two fingers [he gives me the V-sign]. That was an attitude I inherited. I do feel English. I was raised on The Two Ronnies, Monty Python... I always loved the irreverence. Maybe it led to me getting that letter from school.'
Four years after his long drive to LA he was effectively homeless. Even as a rising film star, his only semi-permanent base was the Chateau Marmont hotel, a popular celebrity haunt on Sunset Boulevard.
'The road has been my home for a long time,' says Reeves. 'I was in Australia for 16 months making Matrix Revolutions and Reloaded. I've made over 40 films, so I've lived in trailers for long periods. When you think about it, with 12-hour shooting days, it works out at four years in total sitting in a trailer.'
Reeves describes his new $4 million house in the Hollywood Hills as 'chateau modern'. It's got two bedrooms, 13ft ceilings and French oak floors,' he says. 'It's very rectangular with a lot of straight lines, but there's also a lot of limestone tile. I used stone, glass, steel and wood. I'm kind of behind on furniture, though. I must get some. And I don't cook yet. I eat out.'
It doesn't sound like he feels at home there, and it seems he's still happiest on the road, in his 1996 all-black Porsche Carrera, or riding one of his classic Norton Commandos, incognito in helmet and leathers, racing along the Pacific Coast Highway.
'With these bikes you have to break in the engine - you can't raise the rpms too much. I was given a $50,000 West Coast Chopper for my 40th birthday by Sandra Bullock's husband [motorbike builder Jesse James]. I took it out down Sunset late one night - it was only the second time riding it - and in my enthusiasm I revved it a little too high for too long and blew the engine... Oops. I can do my own minor repairs. If the cable breaks I can fix it, but I can't do a bottom-up rebuild.'
By now Reeves has almost forgotten that he's doing an interview. I ask about his favourite drive, and it's as if he's already pounding the Tarmac.
'I'd take Sunset Boulevard, a 30-mile-long street that's quite residential. If there's a good moon out you can coast all the way down to the ocean and make a right on the Pacific Coast Highway for 50 miles. It's pretty fantastic. I'm a city/countryside biker - I haven't done the trans-continental ride yet. What I do is nothing compared to Ewan McGregor. Now he is doing some riding.
'I also like riding at night. You shut off your lights and go. It's quiet and you're guided by the moonlight. You're getting away from it all. It's about getting out and feeling the wind in your hair, just having two wheels to ride. You have to be in the present, here and now - there's nothing like it. You take a turn and go.
'It's a cliché that money doesn't buy you happiness. But it does buy you the freedom to live your life the way you want.'
'The Day The Earth Stood Still' opens on December 12.
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Clockwise from top: Keanu Reeves as the alien Klaatu in The Day The Earth Stood Still - his spacecraft in the background; with Alex Winter (Bill) and Wiliam Sadler (Grim Reaper) in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey; at the beach with Patrick Swayze in Point Break; helping Sandra Bullock try to save a bus from exploding in Speed; digitally animated in A Scanner Darkly; as Neo in the stunningly successful The Matrix, the first of the trilogy; with Carrie Anne-Moss (sic) in the same film