He's worked with acclaimed directors (Frears, Van Sant, Bertolucci) and blown away the box office many times. An intriguing actor with a face to die for, his well-documented discretion is all the more remarkable in today's exhibitionist era. KEANU REEVES is a solid gold sex symbol….
Text: Didier Péron
Interview: Sabrina Champenois
Photographs: Amanda de Cadenet
Who is Keanu Reeves? Nobody knows, possibly not even himself and so much the better. A man of few words, distant and reserved, his silences are more eloquent than the little he is willing to reveal. An understated actor who comes across better on-screen than when trying hard to convince, he remains Hollywood's best-kept mystery. The Matrix trilogy, the box-office blockbuster of the Google years, made him a multi-millionaire. Reeves, who is known for his solitary, laidback attitude, is celebrating twenty-five years in the business and looks set to stay at the top for another ten years to come.
ANDROID: Reeves, who shares the androgynous remoteness of an alien Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, is outstanding in his portrayals of robots and androids. His natural melancholy, inscrutable nature and minimalist acting style (which his detractors mistakenly construe as a lack of expressiveness) come to the fore in sci-fi and fantasy films. Which already account for a large slice of his acting career, from Johnny Mnemonic, based on a William Gibson short story, to The Devil's Advocate, the Matrix trilogy, A Scanner Darkly, from the Philip K. Dick novel, and more recently The Day the Earth Stood Still. Possibly through no conscious choice of his own, Reeves has become the glorious incarnation of a future that is finally here; a paradoxical hero, almost a hologram in the wildest moments of Matrix, but still emitting weaker and weaker human signals: the delayed echo of a long-dead emotion. "The only truly alien planet is Earth." (J.G. Ballard)
BEIRUT: Keanu Charles Reeves was born in Lebanon, in Beirut, on 2nd September 1964 to a British showgirl mother (and later costume designer for the likes of Dolly Parton and Alice Cooper) and a Chinese-Hawaiian geologist father. "Keanu" means "cool breeze over the mountains". At least that's what he tells everyone. His parents split up when he was small and Keanu was traipsed from city to city (Sydney, New York, Toronto) by his mother who followed her heart, and her love affairs, more than her head. His father ended up on the wrong side of the law, taking a ten-year sentence after being arrested in Honolulu with large quantities of heroin and cocaine. Fallen father and triumphant son remain estranged. One of Keanu's stepfathers put him in touch with agent Erwin Stoff, who landed him his first roles.
CRASH: Often described as having a self-destructive streak, Reeves likes nothing more than to ride British motorbikes hard and fast. His favourite is a black Norton Commando. He's had two major accidents, the first in 1988 near Topanga Canyon, California, when he stayed on the road for half an hour, waiting for the emergency services and trying to avoid being splattered by passing trucks. He escaped with broken ribs, a ruptured spleen and a large scar running down his stomach. Crash number two, in 1996, left him with a smashed ankle and another scar, this time on his leg. An operation on vertebrae in his neck, a delayed effect of repeated falls, forced him to wear a neck brace during the intense physical training for the kung fu scenes in Matrix. "My body's a wreck."
DOGSTAR: An admirer of Peter Hook's bass playing with Joy Division then New Order, he went out and bought his own bass guitar. Various encounters with other musicians finally led to his starting Dogstar, the folk-grunge band he toured with for three summers in a row.
HORSEMAN: Although the part finally went to Olivier Martinez, Reeves was on the cards to play Angelo in The Horseman on the Roof, directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau and based on the Jean Giono novel. Reeves loved the book, the character and started frantically learning French. As it turned out, producer René Cleitman wrote to him to say the part had gone to someone else. He declared in an interview, "I should have gone to France and asked Rappeneau 'Why? Why? Why?'"
INNOCENCE: "'Innocence', that's what Bertolucci told me when I asked him why he picked me to play Buddha. I think in his book innocence also takes in youth, ignorance and naivety... That said, I think this innocence is one of my dominant characteristics. If I am so intrinsically innocent, it's because I'm lucky enough to hang around with people who have nothing to do with show business, that I'm not big-headed, and I definitely don't want to be a star."
KINSKI: Reeves talks animatedly about Uncut, Klaus Kinski's autobiography (which he describes as "Ernest Hemingway meets Georges Bataille"). In it, the demented German actor, who was known for his explosive performances under director Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo), writes: "I wish I'd never become an actor! I would rather sell my body on the street than sell my tears and laughter, my suffering and joy." Asked which actors he admires, Reeves also names Peter O'Toole, Charles Laughton, Christopher Walken and Robert Duvall. Unusual references, to say the least, for a Hollywood star.
RUMOUR: Because he has always kept his private life private, Reeves has become a target for speculation and supposition both among his fans and tabloid magazines. In My Own Private Idaho, his role as a male hustler, alongside River Phoenix, fuelled rumours that he was a closet gay. There was even talk that he had married billionaire David Geffen, producer and co-founder of DreamWorks Studios, at a secret ceremony in Mexico. Geffen, who is openly gay, said he was delighted to hear the news even though he'd never had the pleasure of meeting his alleged husband. Reeves preferred to let the rumour mill turn, but his agent made him issue an official denial.
SPEED: After reading the script for Speed, Reeves was adamant he wouldn't take the part. What was the point of a story about a bus carrying a bomb that would explode if it slowed down? A fiendish idea all the same. His entourage bent over backwards to convince him to accept the role, which he finally did. The cropped hair was his idea. Even though Speed turned out to be a blockbuster, and despite the promise of a fat pay cheque, Reeves categorically refused to reprise his role in Speed 2, which this time took place not on a bus but on a ship. Jason Patric stepped in and the film died a death at the box office. In not such a shrewd move, Reeves turned down Heat, directed by Michael Mann, not because he didn't rate the project but because he was committed to playing Hamlet on stage in Winnipeg. Enraptured fans made the trip to applaud him in his role as the Prince of Denmark, meditating on appearances. Reeves always defines himself, with an enigmatic smile, as a "tragedian".
TOMORROW: An amazingly youthful 45, Reeves has described turning 40 as like being in a club with a secret handshake. He lived for many years as a free agent, squatting at friends' homes, living in rented apartments or luxury hotel rooms. "I've never felt at home anywhere. The urge to keep moving must be in my blood." Still, in 2002 he bought himself a mansion in Hollywood Hills. "I found it hard turning 40. A lot of questions went through my mind: why haven't I started a family? How do I go about it? Is it really what I want?" Naturally anxious, he always expected to disappear from the movie landscape as quickly as he appeared. His career has had its share of lows, and his eclectic choices have left most commentators perplexed. In 2009, he will shoot David Fincher's Chef, set in the world of haute cuisine. So where exactly is he heading? The success of The Day the Earth Stood Still confirmed that Keanu Reeves is a bankable star, even though he refuses to be labelled a star: "I'm an actor."
"Taciturn", "laconic", "evasive"... when it comes to interviews, Keanu Reeves has the reputation of being a tough customer. This time, over the phone, he was perfect. Punctual (he was calling from Los Angeles), chatty and affable, he even called back an hour later to add a comment on his literary tastes.
So how are you, Keanu Reeves?
Not bad, not bad. I'm in L.A., it's 2009, family's good, friends are good, what more could I ask for?
You're not working on any movies right now, so what have you been up to?
Even when I'm not filming, I'm working. Three years ago I set up a production company, Company Films, and my business partner Stephen Hamel and myself are working on producing our own films. All that takes time. I only really stop working after finishing a film. The first thing I do is to "reconnect" with family and friends. You're very cut off when you're shooting a film. You live in your own space-time.
What about reading? I've heard you're a big reader.
I always find time to read. I just finished John Updike's Rabbit tetralogy. Brilliant stuff. Without using metaphors, he manages to express inner feelings and convey sensations while raising themes such as death and health. Really good. Lots of books have left an impression on me. Growing up, The Idiot by Dostoevsky, Journey to the End of the Night by Celine, Proust's In Search of Lost Time and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann all made their mark. I didn't take my studies any further than high school. At 15 or 16, I already had my first job. But my grandfather worked for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and I had a couple of volumes in my bedroom. I started reading them out of curiosity and couldn't put them down. After that I followed my intuition and friends' recommendations: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. I wish I could read in French, German and Russian.
What about sci-fi, a genre you excel in on-screen?
There are certain authors whom I enjoy. Philip K. Dick for his existentialist dimension, William Gibson, Ray Bradbury. Not so long ago I read some great short stories by a certain Pat James, and I was impressed by Roberto Bolano's 2666, parts of which have a sci-fi feel to them.
You've been described as an art lover, a collector even.
I don't collect art, and I don't go in for any particular school but yes, I do have some artworks at home. Paintings and photographs that mean something to me, that strike a chord. Works by Californian artists such as Robert Longo, Ed Shay and Raymond Pettibon. One of my favourite paintings is the very first one I bought for my home. It's an acrylic by John McCracken, called Blue Paint. It's a rectangle, about two metres high, painted blue, just plain blue.
You seem very attached to your home.
I lived at the Chateau-Marmont hotel for fifteen years, then in rented houses. I was happy with that, it suited the gypsy in me, which probably has something to do with the fact I was always moving around when I was young. Then suddenly I felt the need to touch base. I've never looked back, even though I'm always wanting to move here or there and spend a few months.
You speak French and you often visit France. Are you a Francophile?
That might be overstating matters but yes, I like France a lot. I appreciate the quality of life, the food, people's sensitivity, the light too. I have friends there; my business partner's wife comes from the Drôme in south-east France.
Why have you kept your Canadian citizenship?
I sometimes wonder. I've even regretted not having American citizenship, especially at election times. Although I'm by no means an activist, I think that voting is socially important. Ideally, I would take out dual nationality.
Barack Obama's election?
The past ten years have been so depressing that his arrival in office is heaven-sent. He's giving hope back to a lot of people who no longer had any. There's a chance now that the American people will be better represented. People had become very cynical, were wary of their government and were losing interest in the rest of the world. Hopefully all that will change.
You've been in movies for almost thirty years now. How does that make you feel?
Sometimes I feel like a veteran, but at the same time I have the feeling I'm on the brink of a second career, a new beginning. So I'm both at ease and very focused.
In your next film, directed by David Fincher, you play a chef.
I hope so. We hope so. But the studio that's producing the film hasn't made up its mind yet. I'd be playing a two-star Michelin chef, a big name in the early 1990s who gets caught up in drugs. He disappears for four or five years, then decides to stage his comeback and win a third star. Drama, comedy, romance, there are a lot of different aspects to the script. Plus I'm really interested in my character. He has a strong personality, he's a really motivated guy.
How would you define luxury?
I'd say it relates to quality. Luxury is the opportunity to experience quality, be it a place, a person or an object. Quality goes beyond the mere function of a thing or a situation. Take chairs. There are ordinary chairs and there are luxury chairs whose finish and craftsmanship clearly set them apart. You can feel the craftsman's hand. Do you see what I mean?
Yes. That's an aesthete's answer.
I think so.
What do you wish yourself, Keanu Reeves?
Interesting parts, exceptional films.
That's all very work-oriented.
It is, but my private life is intimately linked to my working life. As I said earlier, I feel I'm moving on to a second phase in my career. That's quite something. Anything else? Oh yes: I'd like to fall in love.