Famous (US), December 2008

Space Man

Keanu Reeves puts his aloof demeanor and detached stare to work playing the alien Klaatu in a remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still.

by Bob Strauss

The Day the Earth Stood Still stars Keanu Reeves as an alien who takes humanoid form. The joke practically writes itself, doesn't it? All together now: Is this typecasting or what? After acting in films for half of his 44 years, Reeves remains enigmatic and otherworldly in many people's minds.

Equal parts goofball, naif and sphinx, Reeves projects a not-of-this-Earth quality that makes you wonder why he hasn't played spacemen more often. But in truth, the Canadian actor isn't so far out. His background may be more exotic than some, and it's hard, if not impossible, to keep track of the depth and nature of his romantic involvements. Yet there's something about his Beirut-born, Toronto-raised, English-Hawaiian-Chinese makeup that lends him a universal quality mass audiences have obviously responded to in hits ranging from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure to Speed to The Matrix. And when we say universal, we don't mean as in some far-flung part of the galaxy. Although, when we asked Reeves about his latest sci-fi spectacle, he initially responded a bit like somebody from another planet. "It's a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and I play Klaatu, " he explains somewhat robotically during an interview in Los Angeles. "It's got Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jaden Smith, John Cleese. And it's kind of a reinvention/extension of the original." That's data we could access ourselves. One of the first serious science-fiction movies, Robert Wise's 1951 classic starred Englishman Michael Rennie as the herald of an outer space race who, with the help of his super-android Gart, shuts down our world's power systems so that Earthlings might listen, undistracted, to his dire message.

The new version, directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), keeps the big 'bot and the basic storyline, but puts a new spin on Klaatu's concerns and, with Reeves in the role, plays up the character's otherness. As he describes what goes on, the man who mastered the Matrix warms up and becomes more idiosyncratically human. "Originally, Klaatu came down and he was kind of saying, 'No more violence,''' Reeves explains. "It was a film born out of the Cold War, post-Second World War nuclear standoff. But this film is kind of oriented more about the Earth. It's not environmental, but it's kind of about the issue of the Earth. So, where the first was probably man against man, this is more man and nature, concerned with the way that we are being as humans now." There was, however, an accessible, reassuring side to Rennie's alien that may not be as evident in Keanu/Klaatu. Can we trust that this 2.0 version has humanity's best interests at heart? "One of the lines is, 'If the Earth dies you die, but if you die, the Earth survives,''' he tells us. "I'm a friend to the Earth, and I'm a threat to the humans if they don't change their ways." And in case we don't, Klaatu's robo-sidekick is badder than ever. Not that Reeves ever got to play with his zap ray-spewing co-star during the film's principal production in British Columbia. "We never really met; Gort's computer-generated," explains Reeves. "We wanted him to look similar to the original, but with a more organic feel."

All of which leads to an obvious question: Has Reeves jumped on the green bandwagon like many stars of his stature? His answer does little to dispel the enigma charge. "I'm pretty under the radar with charities and causes," he explains. "It's just not my way to be publicly involved with those kinds of things. I have a foundation and there are things going on there. But I tend to keep in the background." Perhaps that has something to do with the personal nature of some of his causes. His sister Kim was diagnosed with leukemia in the 1990s, and Keanu has surely contributed to the fight against that disease. There has been worse tragedy in his life, too; a former girlfriend, Jennifer Syme, was killed in an auto accident a little more than a year after the couple's daughter was stillborn. Understandably, Reeves doesn't care to dwell on such things with the media. But he was genuinely surprised to hear that some think he's opaque. "I don't know. Really?" he says. "I don't feel like I'm inaccessible. I feel pretty open, at least with the people I work with. But maybe because, in interviews and stuff, I'm not big on speaking about [my] personal life. I talk about how I feel about work and things like that, so maybe that creates the illusion of being ... underrepresenting." Reeves laughs. He evidently enjoys company and joking around.

But the actor has obviously known what it means to be an outsider from an early age. After his American father abandoned the family, Reeves' mom took them to Australia and New York before settling in Ontario, where young Keanu went through three stepfathers and four high schools. But that unsettled childhood also exposed him to many different types of people and lifestyles. So much so that, when he encountered prejudice for the first time, he didn't know what to make of it. "I remember when I went to one high school, there were these racial and class issues and I was like, 'What? What is that?'" he recalls. "So I really am glad to have the kind of perspective, especially coming from my youth and growing up with it, that didn't include that. Racism is weird." Sounds a little naive; but then, can there be a better attitude for any human being to have? All added up, Keanu Reeves is just like any other citizen ofthe world. And still a Canadian citizen, if you were wondering. Reeves has made a point of hanging onto his citizenship even though he hasn't lived here in years. Besides, more important to his Canuck status than residency is the fact that he's still into hockey. "I play net," says the artist formerly known as The Wall for his teenage goalie skills. "I haven't been in a league since the mid-'90s. But I play pickup and I'll play some charity games once in awhile. Not much has changed."

Bob Strauss lives in L.A. where he writes about movies and filmmakers.

Picture caption: The enigmatic Keanu Reeves shows off his more personable side, posing with fans at a recent movie premiere

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