The private lives of Keanu Reeves
by Kaleem Aftab
There is a popular misconception about Keanu Reeves. It’s a problem that nearly every actor struggles with at some time in their career and comes from an inability of audiences to separate the characters that actors play on screen from their real lives. The problem for Reeves is that he will forever be associated with the goofy Ted Logan from the teen-cult classic Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Overnight, people forgot that he’d cut his teeth on such eclectic fare as Tim Hunter’s murder drama River’s Edge (1986), Marisa Silver’s high-school drama Permanent Record (1988) and Stephen Frears’s magnificent Dangerous Liaisons (1988). Instead, all people wanted to do was shout “excellent” and “party on, dude” whenever the actor’s name was mentioned.
In early interviews, journalists talked about how the name Keanu is a Hawaiian word meaning “cool breeze over the mountains”, about his good looks and his unusual background; he was born in Beirut in 1964, raised in Toronto and made his name in Hollywood. The actor, self-deprecating, would insist: “I don’t want to be another Tom Cruise.” The proof of this statement came in 1994 when, following the phenomenal success of the runaway bus movie Speed, Reeves could have easily capitalised on his new-found action hero status.
He became the most talked about actor of the year, but turned down a stadium-sized payday to do Speed 2. Instead, Reeves used his newly discovered star power to affirm his desire to be taken seriously as an actor. His decision to take on the title role in the Manitoba Theatre Center’s production of Hamlet in Winnipeg made headlines around the globe. The production sold out in the blink of an eye.
Critics travelled from all over the world, many undoubtedly armed with their poison pens, but Reeves came away with by-and-large positive reviews. However, all of this good work was undermined by some bad movie choices and the decision to use his name to promote his band Dogstar. (Note: This wasn't his decision. He was against it. - Ani) Like a lot of people, I’ve never seen Dogstar play, but there is a natural inclination to presume that the reason Reeves made it as an actor rather than a musician is because he’s not much cop at the latter.
The critical notices for the band seemed to support this impression. It’s nothing against Reeves. Most bands featuring famous actors, including Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe, suffer from this same lack of credibility. (Towards the end of our interview, Reeves informs me: “The band broke up. I haven’t been playing bass recently. All I do now is jam with some friends.”)
Reeves spent a number of years making arthouse films and potential action blockbusters that might as well have been screened on Mars considering the number of people who went to watch them. The list of films between 1995 and 98 includes A Walk in the Clouds, Chain Reaction, Feeling Minnesota, The Last Time I Committed Suicide and the disappointing The Devil’s Advocate.
Then came the break that reinstalled Reeves at the top of the A-list. Ewan McGregor, Nicolas Cage and Will Smith had all turned down the part of Neo before Reeves signed on to do The Matrix. All of a sudden Reeves would play a role that would finally, after a decade, start to erase the memory of Ted Logan. Older and wiser, the actor would not turn down the sequels this time. He used his position of strength to command the biggest paydays of his career.
The Matrix movies ensured that Reeves was box-office dynamite again. As is his wont, he used his star power to make smaller films such as Mike Mill’s Thumbsucker, Scott Coffey’s Ellie Parker and Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly. He also seemed to have developed a better eye for breakout movies such as the Oscar nominated Something’s Gotta Give and Constantine.
I ask whether he prefers making independent films to blockbusters. “I don’t have a preference really,” he says. “All I hope is that I can continue making these choices. I’m glad that I’ve worked on so many different kind of genres and popular films in the past.”
But sometimes in life people are drawn to repeat the same mistakes, and surrounding these films were far less critically acclaimed turns in Hard Ball, The Gift, Street Kings and recent big budget remake The Day the Earth Stood Still. Indeed, this idea that life is a series of lessons, only some of which we actually learn from, is the theme of his new film The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Rebecca Miller’s adaptation of her own popular novel.
Reeves plays Chris Nadeau, a man at a loose end in his life who is forced to move back into his parents’ house in a community for retired people. Here he strikes up a friendship with an older neighbour played by Robin Wright Penn. It says much about how good Reeves looks that he can play a man a decade younger than his 44 years. No wonder they had to apply so much make-up to make the 43-year-old Penn look older.
“It was a great script and with the opportunity to work with both Rebecca and Robin; I just couldn’t say no,” Reeves says. A fan of the source material, Reeves has grown to learn in his career spanning more than two decades how hard it can be to put a book on the screen. “I think that when you do adaptations of novels, then the films end up being like short stories in a way because of the way you have to condense them.
“A filmmaker picks whatever part of the story that touches them the most and deals with what they want to say at the time. With this film, as compared to the novel, I feel that the essence of the two is the same, you just have to cut, edit and censor. The point is that Robin’s character awakening is the same.”
Reeves is great at deflecting questions away from talking about himself, unless he wants to put something totally irrelevant out there. It’s the reason he has managed to keep much of what goes on in his private life out of the press. The actor has never married, although watching his mother go through several divorces may have had an impact on his impression of marriage. So even innocuous questions asking what part of his life he brought to the film are met with vague responses. He reasons, “I didn’t bring anything from my own life to the character. The novel was really the template for me. Nothing was personal.”
His (sic) then swiftly moves on to talk about how he thinks the film is really a movie for and about women. “I think, plot wise, the film investigates a lot of situations that women find themselves in,” he says. “You see an interesting mother and daughter relationship; the objectification of women in society; the idea of the wife being a second mother; the struggle to be your own person.”
He then makes clears that he sees the film as being about middle-class women in particular. He continues: “The film is very bourgeois, in a great way. It’s a reflection of the environment and the film is kind of like what it feels to be a human in the city. The film is about getting to know someone and unravelling all the layers.”
Speaking of breaking down traditional female roles, it seems that Reeves is trying to take command of the kitchen. He reveals that he presently has his head in Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavour by the popular French TV Chef Herve This. When I ask if he’s thinking of becoming a chef, he replies: “I’m looking at it.” It’s difficult to tell if that’s the truth or if he’s doing research for a future role.
He becomes a bit more open when talking about his relationship with critics. He’s not the kind of actor who proudly states that he doesn’t read reviews. “I want to see what they say, for sure,” he admits. “I mean whatever they write is whatever they write and I’m not going to be able to change it. However, the review is part of why you want to entertain. You want to know what your audience thinks about the film and the performance.”
Strangely – and this might explain why he has let his bass guitar career fall by the way side – he doesn’t feel the same about music reviews, dismissing them with a gruff, “Music reviews. Whatever!”
Penn overhears his comment on critics and argues that they are not his audience but just one member. She questions the value that is put on the opinions of critics with the derisory observation: “Have critics gone to critic school?” Reeves disagrees with her, and to diffuse tension, bursts into song with: “One drop of water makes an ocean, baby.”
Despite feeling like I’m not getting to know Reeves at all, I am warming to him, especially his ability to turn on the right amount of charm. He also seems to have an amusing riposte hiding up his sleeve for every question. What is the secret of acting? “Sugar,” he replies without missing a beat. When an attempt is made to move the conversation to something personal, he just responds by making the sound of the sea into the microphone. As our time draws to our close, I realise I’ve just been introduced to the private lives of Keanu Reeves, and it’s all one great big secret.
Photo Caption: Although Keanu Reeves became a household name through blockbusters such as Speed and The Matrix, the actor returns to the emotionally heartier fare of independent films in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Franka Bruns / AP