The Total Film Interview: Keanu Reeves
Bill & Ted launched him and Point Break reinvented him. Speed catapulted him to the A-list and The Matrix shot him into the stratosphere. But what makes him tick? "I'm kind of a loner," says Keanu Reeves. "I deal with things by myself..."
by Aubrey Day
It's coming. A quiet murmur of anticipation colours the expectant crowd. They jostle for position as the NYPD manfully struggle to keep everybody calm and in line. Suddenly: a blinding flash of light; a strange high-pitched squealing sound. Every man, woman and child strain to get a glimpse; a first sighting.
The tinted glass slides down. The doors open. And out steps... Jessica Simpson.
Blonde, buxom and porcelain perfect, the real-life Barbie looks only vaguely human as she breaches the celebrity airlock and dashes through the doors to the safety of the Ritz-Carlton's reception desk.
Some 12 floors up in a comfortable suite, Keanu Reeves ponders the existence of ETs. "I don't think aliens have landed in Central Park, yet..." he opines, looking out the window at the commotion below.
Reeves has just had to sit through a round table of international press release where, in order to promote The Day The Earth Stood Still, he has faced such interrogative jewels as "Do you like science-fiction?", "Is the end of the world really nigh?" and "Do you believe in aliens?" Simpson aside, he's not convinced.
"Um, I don't really have any particular thoughts on aliens," he reflects, now safely shepherded away from the Q&A crowd. His press chores (and they are chores to the quietly-spoken, somewhat introverted actor) are almost over. One interview with "that British film mag" is all he has left today. And when we confirm we "have no problem at all" with him lighting up a smoke, he cracks his first genuine smile of the day.
Now 44, the English (on his mother's side)/American-of-Hawaiian-Chinese descent (on his father's side) has genes that pitch him around 10 years younger in the flesh. Still Bill & Ted boyish when he grins, the gravitas that comes with age is only present when he furrows his brow or gathers his thoughts. Something that's fairly frequent, as Reeves is nothing if not thoughtful. He has managed his career thoughtfully, often side-stepping the more obvious option or the higher-profile part for left-field choices and supporting roles in more challenging fare. For every Day The Earth Stood Still or Constantine, there's a Thumbsucker or My Own Private Idaho. He takes his craft seriously and for years led a nomadic existence, going from film to film wiht little more than the clothes on his back, living in rented rooms and using his downtime to go out on the road with his bands (Dogstar and, later, Becky).
Reeves is a little more settled these days, with homes on both coasts and rumours that he's seeing the actress Parker Posey (the couple, it is whispered, are expecting their first child). And, though his private life is not up for discussion, he's happy to contemplate his career, twice waving away his publicist to extend our chat.
What do you think was your first breakthrough role, the one that made you believe: "Yeah, this is going to work out as a career..."
River's Edge. It was a great script. I remember going to the audition, where I met Crispin Glover. That was an exciting day. And then I got the role and that was an even better day! Working with Crispin, meeting Dennis Hopper... It was one of my first jobs in Los Angeles and a great artistic experience.
Back in those early days, was acting something you were passionate about or something you fell into?
I got into it by, I remember, playing Mercutio in high school in Romeo and Juliet and that was just fun. And I kinda grew up in it: originally my mother was a costume designer and my stepfather was a director on Broadway. He also did some films, so I was working as a production assistant when I was like 15. About that age, my mother says that I came up to her and said, "Do you mind if I become an actor?"
So you had quite a strong focus on what you wanted to do, even at that age?
Yeah. I remember having that feeling when I was talking to my friends in high school. They were like, "I don't know what I wanna do," and I was already doing what I wanted, but we lived in Canada. My stepfather was American, so when I was 18 I applied for my Green Card. I left home, got my card when I was 20 and drove down here. Before that I'd done a couple of things: an American TV film; some commercials; some theatre. So there it is... [laughs] "The Beginning!"
Your next significant step was Dangerous Liaisons, which must have been a bit intimidating: John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer...
I'd just driven across the country from Los Angeles to New York and I got the role. I guess I was about 23. I mean, I was so excited. I didn't know the novel before I auditioned, but after, I eventually read it. It didn't get any rehearsal and my first day was with Malkovich. I really was a fish out of water. But then, I think I got hired for my innocence.
So was working with Malkovich a good experience for you as a young actor?
It was thrilling to be doing sword fights with John Malkovich all the time and you know, [laughs] getting our nails done together. I remember sitting in the trailer with him and chuckling, "John, we're getting our nails done!" "Yes, Keanu. We are!" Everyone was very nice to me but at the same time I remember it was pretty lonely because I had a kind of supporting role, so they'd go off and shoot for two weeks and I'd be in Paris and not know anybody. I ended up playing a lot of chess with the night watchman at the hotel.
And then, from period dramas in Paris to Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Did you have any idea that a 'dumb comedy' was going to prove so popular?
Well, the material was just... funny. The heart of the film was good and Stephen Herek was a really good director for it. I met Alex Winter and he and I got along famously but, did I know it was going to be so popular? No. When I got the audition, I probably didn't even have the whole script.
Didn't you audition with Alex?
Yeah, there were 10 actors and they just put us in pairs in different rooms. We both played Ted and we both played Bill. I mean, even when I went ot my costume fitting I thought I was playing Bill and Alex thought he was playing Ted. I'd done some comedia dell'arte [a form of improvisational theatre] and stuff like that. Alex was an NYU fucking film student, film snob, intellectual, you know - a brilliant, caustic, fantastic fellow, so those roles made us laugh! We talked about it as playing it from the clowning tradition, with an innocence, a naivety. So we did this kind of twin but opposite thing. That's how we approached it.
The curse of such big success of course is that the role kind of typecast you in the public's perception as this sort of "Whoa dude!" guy.
I didn't get that from my peers but from journalists certainly. It was frustrating at times in the sense that you want your work to be understood and you want people to appreciate it and stuff. So when that doesn't happen its frustrating, but on the other hand it is what it is. All in all it was pretty... excellent. [laughs]
You appear somewhat laid back, even when critics are getting on your case.
Yeah, well I don't really have that much to be angry about, do I? I mean I'm trying to do interesting work. I hope people like it, [laughs] you know, in different kinds and different ways - whether it's The Matrix or Hardball, The Replacements or Thumbsucker, or you know, Little Buddha or Constantine. And I just got to work with Rebecca Miller... Oh I'm sorry, I'm taking you off your track.
That's alright. You worked with Rebecca on The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.
Yeah, it's an adaptation of her novel, which I believe has been released over in the UK. It's an excellent book - I recommend it.
It's another example of how you tend to yo-yo from big to small budget, lead to supporting role...
Yeah. But now you say that, I think I need to add a third direction. [laughs] See, you just went here and there, but now I need to go here, there and [points to the middle distance] over there. I need to do more! I need to mix it up a little more now.
Talking of which, you went from comedies to indies to the balls-out action of Point Break. At the time it seemed a surprising piece of casting...
Kathryn Bigelow - what was she thinking? She obviously saw something that no one else could see, God bless her heart, and she cast me in Point Break. Opposite Patrick Swayze! You're right, it was a kind of erm... surprise - who would have thought of me as an FBI agent? But, you know, I grew up playing sports so I was physically able and kind of coordinated and I didn't think of it as an action movie. I thought of it as a drama, a kind of fun movie with a great role in it.
It holds up. It's still great fun to watch.
Yeah - it's a fun, well-done film! And it inspired a lot of people. To get outside. To play. To jump out of aeroplanes! But hopefully not to rob banks... [grins]. It also introduced me to, like, training, you know hanging out with cops and learning to shoot guns and all that kind of fun stuff. Sort of cowboys and Indians, but Hollywood style. [laughs]
Bigelow was pretty full-on wasn't she?
She was just doing some great stuff, getting her camera in there. Patrick Swayze did 35 jumps out of an aeroplane. They did a cease-and-desist on four of the cast members because they were jumping out of aeroplanes. So she got Patrick after the film wrapped, with no insurance, to jump out of the butt of an aeroplane. I jumped out of an aeroplane... she was, like, balls-to-the-wall.
In quick succession you made Point Break, My Own Private Idaho and the Bill & Ted sequel. That was a pretty packed 12 months...
Yeah, I don't recommend that for anybody! They were great opportunities, but, I mean, I finished after 88 days of filming, I was in the ocean in Hawaii, with Lori Petty all night, then about 13 days later I remember going down an escalator with Gus Van Sant and River Phoenix to do a street hustler. And then two-and-a-half weeks after that I was filming Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey Whhhhooooeeeee! It was intense.
Filming that was an extraordinary experience. I had met River [Phoenix] before and we previously worked together on I Love You To Death. River was such a remarkable person and artist and to play with him and be with him was great. The camaraderie of the film... Man, it was just extraordinary.
How did you get involved with Francis Ford Coppola and Bram Stoker's Dracula?
I was approached with that project by Winona Ryder and then I met up with Francis. I remember being psychologically really beat up after three films in close succession but, again, it was a great opportunity and there was Francis and he liked me. Then I met Gary [Oldman] and then they sayd "Yes" - that was another good day! We went to Napa and started rehearsals, which was, you know, Gary, Winona, Anthony Hopkins, Richard E Grant...
If it hadn't been that cast and that director, do you think maybe you would have taken a break?
I don't know if I would have known how to take a break. I didn't have a mentor and I'm kind of a loner. I deal with things by myself. So I don't think I was in any situation to be able to know what situation I was in. But also, to me, playing Jonathan Harker was a good role. I know I got killed in the reviews, which was a drag, but the experience of it was great and looking back on it again, I think that Francis really liked the unexpectedness of it.
Have you seen, Dracula in recent years?
I saw it a couple of years ago. I don't know, I think I work in it! It's a wacky movie!
And then came Speed...
I tried to bring a character into it - an everyman kind of thing. I mean that was the story. That was Jan de Bont's take and for me, I guess I took that and ran with it. And I also had a great stunt coordinator in Gary Hives, who really put me there. In the same way that Kathryn put the camera there, so did Jan. And I kind of knew a little bit more about what I was doing so I could say, "OK, let's get me under the bus. Let's hang me upside down on a wire in the elevator shaft. Yeah, I can shoot guns."
After Speed there was a litle run where you did Johnny Mnemonic, A Walk in the Clouds and...
Hey! Let's not run over Johnny Mnemonic that quick...
I mean I had a great experience with that, working with [director] Robert Longo. The film got taken out of his hands a little bit, but if you look back on that movie it's really ahead of its time. [Laughs] It is!
Didn't you defer part of your salary on The Devil's Advocate to ensure there was enough budget to get Al Pacino on board? That seems rather noble.
Really? To make that film and to have Al Pacino play that role, it was... "Is that all I have to do? Sure! What else do I have to do? 'Cause I'll do it!" When I found out he said yes my blood just turned to ice. Working with him, being able to throw down those last scenes between he and I... I'll be lucky to reach those heights again, you know.
And then you agreed to another salary deferment to get Gene Hackman on board The Replacements.
Oh yeah. He and I had lighter, much lighter, scenes to do. But to hang out with him and to see how - both actors - just see how they go about their craft... They're both such beautiful actors. we don't think of Al Pacino now with economy, but that's what he has. He's just a beautiful actor and Gene Hackman is another nonpareil, you know?
When you got the script for The Matrix, did you immediately get a sense of the film's potential?
I didn't know how other people were going to receive it, but I knew how I did. I was absolutely taken with it. The construct, you know, the platform that they had of reality and what you perceive of reality from a science fiction aspect, the idea of the agents - and then there was kung-fu thrown in! It was like, "How come no one else ever thought of this? It's just so perfect..." And then meeting Andrew and Larry Wachowski... those guys were such visionaries, you know, with the 'bullet-time' effects.
Does it bug you that the second and third movies weren't as well-received?
I don't mind someone not liking a film - just as long as they give me some good reasons. I saw The Matrix Revolutions the other day and it's unbelievable how much story and action and ideas are in there. I mean, I just wish that for the people who didn't get as much out of it, that they did, you know, because there's a lot in there. [Leans into tape recorder] So watch 'em again! [Laughs]
Between the three Matrix shoots, you did a number of more leftfield choices, perhaps most tellingly in The Gift, where your performance as Donnie Barksdale was deliberately unsympathetic.
Donnie Barksdale didn't care what you think! [Laughs] That was a lot of fun. I was the villian but I was a villian that didn't have that obligation to be, you know, enjoyable and fascinating in that sense. I was a force of nature. I was an element, you know? It was great to go to Savannah, Georgia and 'Get my Donnie on', as I call it. It was actually a pretty empowering role. By nature I'm a very polite guy; Donnie's not so polite.
You took another supporting role in Something's Gotta Give. How was working with Jack Nicholson?
Amazing. He's a generous actor. He offers so much variety and the director decides to pick. He's very practical too - like there's a scene between he and I where he's just had his heart attack and it's kind of sensitive. He's crying and doesn't know why he's crying. He told me later: "I was driving to the studio and I had to take a piss desperately, so I took a piss on the highway." When I asked why he was so desperate, he said, "Because you gotta drink a lot of water when you've got a crying scene. If you don't have a lot of water in your body the tears won't come."
You also straddled Constantine - an adaptation of the Hellblazer comics. You seemed to have a blast playing the troubled detective...
Thank you. I think Francis Lawrence [the director] did a great job. And yes, I did have a blast playing that role. I know that we went from blond to brunette and from English to American, but I hope that fans of the piece thought that we captured at least some of that 'Constantinian' edge. His anger, his world-weariness, his circumstances.
You clearly like the character of John Constantine. Were you ever tempted to do a sequel?
It wasn't an option. The film did well, but not well enough for them to want to do a sequel. We got killed by the 'R' rating because I don't think it's an 'R' rated film. It's borderline, perhaps... Anyway, personally, yes, I was really happy the way it turned out.
Final question, also on the sequel front: we've always wondered - what made you say 'No' to Speed 2?
The script. Also, I was in Chicago at the time shooting Chain Reaction and having a really tough time with the story - with just running and jumping for no reason. I mean, to be fair, Chain Reaction had some good ideas; we tried to do something but didn't quite make it. So when I saw the script for Speed 2 I already knew that I didn't want to run and jump for no reason. In the first movie, I had a reason to run and jump. This time it didn't develop the character. I said to Jan de Bont, "Are you going to ask me to go under water? Because I don't know if I'm going to come up. And also, you know, boats aren't that fast."
The Day the Earth Stood Still opens on 12 December and will be reviewed in a future issue of Total Film.
BILL & TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989)
Party on! Keanu nails time-traveling dimwit Ted so winningly that people still think they're alike. (4/5)
POINT BREAK (1991)
Ted goes undercover. Reeves' FBI dude Johnny Utah sizes up spiritual surfers in Kathryn Bigelow's homoerotic actioner. (5/5)
MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)
A hustle here, a hustle there: Reeves sizzles inscrutably as River Phoenix's crush in New Queer road movie. (4/5)
Vest, pecs, crop? Check> A "totally buff" (co-star Dennis Hopper, there), self-made Keanu re-confirms his action chops (4/5)
THE GIFT (2000)
A daring, post-Matrix revelation as Hilary Swanks abusive yet slyly seductive redneck husband in Sam Raimi's supernatural thriller. (3/5)
A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)
Keanu's inscrutability fits Philip K. Dick's identity-troubled narc cop like a scramble suit. Think The Matrix without gymnastics. (4/5)
Keanu goes down the rabbit hole in a sci-fi classic...
by Rob James
As Oscar Wilde almost wrote, to help reinvent the action movie once (Point Break) may be regarded as fortunate. To do it again (Speed), the devil's own luck. But to do it a third time? Whoa! All hail Keanu: perhaps the dude is The One...
Sure, we'd seen action Keanu before. We've even felt familiar enough to call him "Keanu". We know the Keanu who said, "I don't use the internet. I don't send email. I don't have a secret identity." That'll be the guy in Johnny Mnemonic, a film that wouldn't know cyber-mail from a stamp. But a cyber-spook warrior plugged into the future mainframe? Punching through space and time, wrapping his head around some gnarly high concepts? He's new, this one.
As a movie, the Wachowskis' epic sci-fi was the bar-raising 90s actioner. The premise is pure paranoid noir. From there, its experiments with bullet time, body horro and virtual brain-scapes opened Hollywood up to new terrain, downloading from Hong Kong, Cronenberg, Philip K Dick, Logan's Run, 1984, Dark City and Die Hard but absorbing each influence, making it new.
And Keanu rises to it. He looks good in black. OK, looking good isn't a stretch for the guy. Nor is looking like he doesn't know where he is, although his initially nonplussed half-frown fits the role well. But Reeves stretches himself in other ways. He looks ready to rumble, sci-fi style.
From here, Keanu was ready to choose his own adventures. "It has afforded me situations where I could afford to say no," he said of Neo's success. And if you odn't like it, he can kick your arse into next week. Who's stoopid now, dude?