Keanu Reeves boldly goes for box-office biggie
The actor often regarded as a 'space cadet' features in remake of a '50s sci-fi classic — and an upcoming Japanese epic
by George Hadley-Garcia
Keanu Reeves is a creature from outer space. More precisely, he is playing Klaatu, a superior being from beyond the stars who takes the form of a human male visiting a planet that, despite millions of years of evolution, remains too fond of violence for its own good.
"I could really relate," says Reeves of his character, first incarnated in the now-classic 1951 movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still" by the equally impassive British actor Michael Rennie. "The character makes total sense. It's the guys on Earth who are making war: Those are the ones who could be or should be looked at as being alien, if you know what I mean."
The film, then and now, can be seen as embodying an antiwar message specific to its era — Korea then, Iraq now. But it's also about the self-destructiveness of humanity, whether via wars or everyday aggression and violence.
Klaatu comes to Earth to warn that if human beings refuse to give up their bloody ways, then he and his people will have no choice but to annihilate the Earth for the general universal good. Of course, the movie also offers a romance story, with Klaatu becoming the love object of an Earth woman, played by Jennifer Connelly. The ending, even in the 1950s version, isn't the conventionally "happy" one that audiences might expect; rather, it's sobering, as Klaatu returns to his home planet after delivering a forceful wakeup call to Earth to stop the violent insanity.
Was the message a key factor in Reeves' acceptance of the script? After all, he's been known to turn down certain box-office projects, including the sequel to "Speed," the 1994 picture that made him an A-list star.
"Yeah, it was." End of subject, apparently. Reeves, whose first name means "cool breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian, is not known for being terribly verbal. Like no actor since the golden age of movies' Gary Cooper, Reeves has an image as monosyllabic that is, of course, an exaggeration.
He philosophizes, "The more you say, the more you can be tripped up." He pauses. "The more you can trip yourself up. It's not like in an interview they're trying to trip you up, cos you mostly just talk about the latest movie you've done, and a little bit about your career and even less, or preferably not at all, about your own life; your personal life. Which, if you talk about it, it's not really personal. Obviously.
"But, like . . . the more you talk about any particular topic, the more you can show your ignorance on that topic."
Born in 1964 in Beirut, 44-year-old Reeves grew up in in Toronto and is a Canadian citizen. His father, an American geologist of Hawaiian-Chinese descent named Samuel, has served time in jail for alleged drug possession and dealing (not, as the surprisingly widespread urban legend contends, for murder.) His parents divorced in 1966, and the Eurasian Reeves reportedly has not kept touch with his father. He grew up with his mother, Patricia, a former showgirl of English origin, who has designed costumes for rock acts such as Alice Cooper, and with his sister, Kim (born in Australia in 1966), whom to this day he considers his best friend.
Some fan magazines, including In Touch and Star, have speculated that Reeves' emotional aloofness stems at least partly from the shock of his father abandoning his young family, and also from media criticism of Reeves for being a supposedly poor actor and unintelligent individual. (The movie Web site imdb.com states that the actor has labeled himself "dumb.")
What does Reeves have to say about comparisons between Klaatu and the emotionally impassive, superiorly intelligent Mr. Spock of the "Star Trek" TV series and movie franchise?
Keanu offers: "Yeah. There's a similarity there. But it's kind of funny, cos they're both real, like, super-intelligent. But they don't talk very much. Only when they have to. Even though they're guys — or people . . . or whatever — who could afford to, you know, really run off at the mouth."
A long-standing rumor has it that Gene Roddenberry, creator of "Star Trek," based his Spock character on Klaatu, adding the pointy ears as an offbeat visual for the more mundane medium of television.
Is Reeves a fan of "Star Trek"? After a thoughtful pause, he declines to answer. "I don't want to really get into what kinds of movies or, uh, other things I'm into. You know, like in interviews where they ask you your favorite color and your favorite movie, and stuff like that."
Does Reeves see himself as aloof or emotionally unrevealing? After another long pause he says, "In everyday life, I'm not the most outgoing person. I'm not outrageous. . . . Like, I don't go around laughing and yelling, or stuff like that. But when I play a character, I act the way the character's supposed to act."
This might be part of the problem, since Reeves broke through as a dumb character in the 1989 hit "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure." Because he seemed to be the character of Ted — in other words, he played him well — much of the media assumed he was the character, described as a shallow but "rad dude." It's a topic that Reeves will not discuss today (nor the widely panned 1991 sequel, "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey"). As to media perceptions, he notes, "Some critics actually make up their minds about you or about your movie before they even step inside the theater. Stuff like that used to, like, amaze me. It's so unfair — to the star and to the movie and the public too. But now I'm used to it. Like, nothing could really surprise me now."
Asked whether the media have been unfair to him, he says, "Some people just want to label you. It's so easy for them to do that. And then the label tends to stick. You have to really struggle even to alter it. And maybe you can, or maybe you can't. And maybe eventually the label or the labels don't really matter. Like, who wants to keep spending their life in some sort of a struggle?"
It's been said in trade publications such as Variety that Reeves is "desperate" — if so, it doesn't show — for a hit movie, not having had a major success since the "Matrix" franchise (1999-2003). Asked if he hopes "The Day the Earth Stood Still" will be a big hit, he merely asserts: "Sure."
Former girlfriend Jennifer Syme was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying that the low-key Reeves has a bigger ego than he likes to let on. When a reporter, years back, described "Speed" as the movie that made Reeves a star, he shot back, " 'Speed' made Sandra Bullock a star. I was already a star." And he was.
In 1989, when the movie star ventured onto a stage in Lenox, Massachusetts, as Ferdinand (opposite Andre Gregory as Prospero) in Shakespeare's "The Tempest," critical reaction was condescending and cynical, as it was in 1995 when Reeves essayed the Bard's "Hamlet" (in the title role, of course) in a Winnipeg, Manitoba stage production. The actor hasn't returned to the stage since, nor will he discuss this sore topic today. Yet it was a brave move on the part of a major star willing to risk public judgment in order to try something new and expand his range (in fact, one of Reeves' most popular films — a cult movie — was Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho" (1991), which featured several allusions to Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part I".
Another topic not up for discussion is Reeves' friendship with "Idaho" costar River Phoenix. The two played male hustlers in the then-daring movie via openly gay Van Sant. All Reeves will say — but it's plenty, really — is that "Hollywood did not kill River," who died of a drug overdose. "Hollywood has not killed anybody. It's more to do with personal choices, with the, like, karma of making a bad choice that later comes back to haunt or harm you."
Speaking of karma, perhaps Reeves' most remarkable, if not most widely seen, role was as the Buddha in the past-time portion of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1993 film "Little Buddha," most of which is set in the present and concerns children and Tibetan Buddhism. Real-life Buddhist Richard Gere was reportedly approached for the role but declined it on the grounds that he wasn't "Oriental"; but then, the historical Buddha, born in what is now Nepal, may have been Caucasian himself. Reeves declares of "Little Buddha": "Yeah, that was a very . . . It was a really special experience. Very moving."
But, again, the media tends to exaggerate. At the time, it was widely reported that on the set, Reeves had suddenly become a Buddhist. Today, he won't say that he is, and he won't say that he isn't.
He also explains, in a quiet and possibly apologetic tone, that when he does interviews for his movies, he doesn't "really go into all the behind-the-scenes stuff that the big fans or film buffs love to read about. I think that's up to the writers — like, if you want all those details, read up on it in an article or maybe even a book.
"I'm an actor, see. I'm not a writer or someone who describes stuff in great detail. I admire people who do that. But I also admire good actors. Like, each of us has our own job to do."
After Reeves declined to reteam with Sandra Bullock for "Speed 2," there were the inevitable rumors that he disliked her, or that there was a feud. But in 2006 the amicable pair appeared together in "The Lake House," which was not a big hit. In recent years, Reeves hasn't worked quite as often as previously, and spent most of 2007 not filming. For one thing, his dudelike image is persistently boyish, though he's now past 40. Some insiders say that he's mellowed since turning 40, but since Reeves acts the same and isn't inclined to share whatever changes have occurred internally, who's to know?
When asked whether turning 40 was a major event for him, as an actor and as a man, he pauses, then offers, "It's . . . like, just so inevitable. If you survive to that age, then it's a good thing — it's good to survive. The only surprising thing, if you really think about it, is that you don't feel like 40, whatever that's supposed to feel like."
Despite the glamour of his successful acting life, the unwed Reeves has had more than his share of hard knocks. Apart from his early childhood leaving him without a father and moving from place to place (to New York City after his parents' divorce, then to Toronto, and all that after Beirut and Australia), in 1999 he and then-girlfriend Syme suffered the stillbirth of a baby daughter. Two years later, Syme, with whom he'd broken up, was killed in a car accident.
Reeves himself was involved in a 1996 motorcycle accident that broke his ankle and left him with a reportedly still-visible abdominal scar. In 1993 he was arrested for drunk-driving. Among his interests are motorcycles — he's said to own several — and playing ice hockey.
He is also a musician, having found moderate success with his band Dogstar, which formed in 1991 and split after two albums in 2002. Interestingly, though Reeves is left-handed, he plays right-handed bass. "I like music,' he notes when asked about his hobbies, offering little additional information. Years back, he was quoted in the British press as saying he'd like to play a rock star on screen, and that he admired the cult glam-rock movie "Velvet Goldmine."
Other Reeves pastimes include surfing and riding horses. In his teens, he danced in a soft-drink commercial. He also managed a pasta shop in Toronto when he was in high school, and got a role in "Youngblood" — an ice-hockey movie starring Rob Lowe — in 1986 when it came to Canada to shoot. That year, he moved to Hollywood to pursue his thespian career.
One wonders aloud why Reeves (a high-school dropout who instead chose to act) has had a longer run as a film star than Rob Lowe, who today is mostly relegated to the small screen.
Reeves responds, "Well, uh . . . a lot of it is luck — you make movies, and then some are hits, and if more are hits . . . that's cool. But, like, if you keep doing flops, that takes its toll on your career."
He also admits, "It's not very democratic, but if you start showing up on TV, the big-time Hollywood guys — the producers — start thinking of you as being TV. You're not movies to them anymore. And it's too bad, cos a lot of the more interesting stuff these days is sometimes what you see on TV."
Reeves' last TV appearances were in 1995, hosting a CBS special titled "Children Remember the Holocaust," and playing himself in the opening episode of the Fox comedy series "Action" in 1999.
Though understandably unwilling to relinquish his A-list status by venturing onto the small screen, Reeves is willing to do material that's considered quirky and which is not a cert to hit box-office gold. He played a much younger man smitten by Diane Keaton in the 2003 comedy "Something's Gotta Give," which costarred Jack Nicholson.
He reveals, "Some actors and their agents actually have list of types of roles they won't do. I don't have anything like that; I'll consider anything. To me, it's not what (the movie) is, it's how it's done. And I never wanted to get stuck in any one genre. Like, whether it was teen movies or action movies or romantic movies. Whatever. To me, acting means playing different and differing parts."
Indeed, Reeves announced this week that he will star in "47 Ronin," a Universal Pictures film based on the true story of a band of samurai in 18th-century Japan who took vengeance on a court official after he had their leader commit ritual suicide. The epic tale has been made into countless films, plays and TV dramas in Japan; and while it has been referenced in Western literature and movies, this will be its first Hollywood incarnation.
As for "The Day the Earth Stood Still," he states that "Science fiction is so big now. That's what they keep repeating now. When 'The Matrix' came along, it was called a big surprise. It also a, like, supposed surprise when 'Star Wars' came along. But I think any particular genre, any movie, can be good, I mean can result in big box-office, if it's done well. There's good sci-fi and there's bad sci-fi. I think this particular story really stands up, and I think the original is so long ago that most people don't remember it, which is good for our remake.
"But I think the original's good enough on its own terms that if our version's a hit, it'll make a lot of people want to go back and look the '50s version. Which to me, would be a good thing. It's not really a message movie per se, but it's got a good message. And a good message is worth repeating."
Finally, what does the title mean to Reeves, since it can be taken in a metaphorical or literal sense? For the first time, he laughs.
"Oh, the title! Yeah, right. That title. I've thought about that, and I haven't even been asked about it! I guess if the Earth stood still really, we'd all fall off, cos of gravity. That's just plain physics, right? But to me what it means or, like, implies is that if all of us, every single one on the whole Earth, stood still for at least a moment and thought out how crazy war really is, and how violence only begets more violence — which smart people have been saying since the Buddha — then we would just put an end to war and violence. But it has to be all of us: not just the protesters or the meek of heart.
"And of course, well, that means it can't happen. Not definitively, because there's no one issue that everybody on Earth agrees about. Which doesn't mean we should give up on it. I'm with Klaatu. If the warmongers won't quit, then they have to be made to quit. At least in the movies. But in reality too, if possible. Peace is the goal we have to keep on striving for. It's a goal that's worth the struggle."
"The Day the Earth Stood Still" opens Dec. 19.