He is Legend
Keanu Reeves: he's still got it. So says novelist Sloane Crosley (and pretty much all of Team ELLE)
by Sloane Crosley
One thing I will not be doing is hugging Keanu Reeves. This I promise to myself as I wait for him amidst the sleek furniture and orchids that seem to be bred specifically for posh hotel lobbies. It's been a bright and long day at the Toronto Film Festival and I catch a glimpse of Keanu, or, rather, Keanu's foot - swinging out from behind a wooden partition as he chats with a local reporter. Her face brightens at just about everything his disembodied voice says. I approach the smattering of publicists and photographers to peer around the corner. I confirm that this is, in fact, a famous person's foot. The foot of Ted, of Johnny Utah, of Neo
The foot that stepped with confidence and machismo onto a runaway bus. The foot of a man made famous by a particular decade (the 1990s) and kept famous by continuing to surprise the world with his choices since (Something's Gotta Give, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Thumbsucker). By the time my eyes lock with Keanu's, he's graciously posing for pictures with the reporter. So overcome was she by the bottomless hazel pools of Keanu's eyes, she put down her notepad and had one of the photographers snap a photo of her with her arm around Keanu's waist. She succumbed, reverted; in short, she became a fan. Is this to be expected when you send a 30-something woman to interview Keanu Reeves? Is it a lost law of physics? Some inertia that causes a woman to shed her professional coil and get close enough to sniff Keanu? The intoxicating musk of Eau d'Excellent? Oh, God. No hugging, no hugging, no hugging.
He's not ageless exactly but... how to put this bluntly? At 46, Keanu Reeves looks like your best-looking 36-year-old friend. He carries himself carefully. If he's been leaning in too close for too long, he straightens up again. When he catches himself being distant he energetically pops back into the conversation by saying something like, 'OK, let's really talk about this.' For someone notoriously shy, loath to do interviews, flat-out silent on subjects that veer too close to the personal, he is a thoroughly charming one-on-one. It's a sweet spot of simultaneous wonder and world-weariness ideal for his latest offering, Henry's Crime, a surprisingly tender film seven years in the making that Keanu not only starred in but co-produced. It is the story of a tollbooth collector wrongly imprisoned for a bank robbery. Imagine Shawshank Redemption but funny. Though perhaps you're stuck on this little nugget: Keanu Reeves, a tollbooth collector? Really?
'Well,' says Keanu, 'the film plays with identity, with versions of who we are and who we can be. It has a lot of asks. It asks you to come along with it.'
It does this quite successfully, but I do still wonder which is the greater imaginative leap: the bank robbery via underground tunnel or one of the biggest heartthrobs the teenagers of earth have ever known collecting change in the middle of the night? This is to say nothing of the urban factoid that tollbooth collectors have the highest suicide rate in America.
'Really?' Keanu grins (and in doing so transforms himself from your best-looking 36-year-old-friend to a movie star).
'Well... there it is. Don't forget to tip your waitress! You know, I liked that the story plays with fate. It plays with what happens once you say "Yes". Everything has a kind of consequence to it.'
Of course, this is just as applicable to Keanu the person as it is to Keanu the actor. Keanu began his acting career at the age of nine on stage in Damn Yankees. This led to more theatre, a comedy series, a move to Los Angeles and then, in 1989, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. In the decade that followed, Keanu became a full-blown teen icon (see also: MTV's Most Desirable Male 1992 recipient). Although Keanu claims the world of celebrity really has changed in the Robert Pattinson era. The press tornado has gotten bigger and stronger since his day.
'I can't experience it like they do,' Keanu says of the trail of tabloid photographs that follow each time these guys stop for gas, 'I don't know - if it's an obsession with celebrity; or because there's more output opportunities for it. In 1992, there weren't as many Twitter, all of that stuff, is definitely a new world. Their privacy is a lot less.'
But even a celebrity veteran like Keanu isn't entirely immune to it. The tragedy-junkie storm clouds gathered when his best friend, River Phoenix, died of an overdose in 1993 and again when his girlfriend gave birth to a stillborn baby a decade ago and died shortly thereafter (there is an absolute rule that he does not talk about these events). Years later, Keanu tabloid coverage is calm but, of course, not perfectly so. Just this past summer, pictures surfaced of Keanu sitting by himself on a bench. eating a sandwich and frowming. Not exactly a sex tape, but enough to give the good people of the internet fodder for a video montage entitled 'Sad Keanu'. The clip quickly became viral and something of a web phenomenon. I ask him if he's seen it. Indeed he has.
'Someone was playing. It kind of has its own construct for me and I didn't interact with it. Maybe I just don't get out much.'
I suggest he get a dog. In my experience, everyone in Los Angeles owns a dog.
'I know! How do I live with any happiness? I'm not living if I don't have a golden retriever! I see articles all over about what is the new happiness. What's the happiness length? How many units of happiness does it take? Well,' he puts on a faux-scientific tone, 'you have to have at least six portions of four units of happiness in every cycle.'
What makes Keanu truly happy, the magic key to who he was, what he is and where he's going is actually hiding in plain sight: acting. He is not one of those celebrities walking around bemoaning the road not taken. Keanu wouldn't have been a teacher, a lawyer or even a tollbooth collector. This life is what he wants and he works hard to keep what he has.
'I just try to put myself in positions where I can finance films. I want to create work for myself and for others. I auditioned for Something's Gotta Give five times. I don't mind auditioning. I run into situations with young actors where their agents don't want them to audition because they don't want their actors or actresses to not get the job. But that's rejection. And [auditioning] itself is a creative endeavour. I'm trying, I'm trying to "hustle and rustle", is what I call it.'
While he keeps moving forward, much of his fanbase is stuck in the past. For a certain generation, Keanu's voice is best suited for screaming 'Cans! It's just cans!' (Speed or confessing 'I caught my first tube today... sir' (Point Break).
'I love those moments. I'm glad that some people like the films I've been a part of. I'm a fan of them. I get some Utah, I get some Bill & Ted, but I also get some great ones - like the other day. I got A Scanner Darkly.'
The day is minding down. The orchids are wilting a little. There are planes to be caught and as we say our goodbyes, in lieu of a hug I do have one teeny tiny semi-inappropriate intrusion into the life of Keanu Reeves. I ask him if he lived in New York along, long time ago. He did. I ask him if, by any chance, he rented an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He did. 77th Street?
'Oh... sure, I was on 77th, between 2nd and 3rd.' At which point I tell him that my best friend from college lived in his very apartment after graduation and I know this because - up until 2002, at least - Keanu was still receiving post there.
Nothing creepy, I assure him. Mostly catalogues. Keanu humours me with one last wide grin, nonplussed by thinking about the past but clearly very removed from it now. I am reminded of a line from Henry's Crime: 'You have to let go of the past to create a new life.'
'That resonated with me, too,' he says, 'in the sense of "go forth, young man" or "seek and ye shall find". It's about gaining independence. About growing up. About living your life.'