The Diavel's advocate
(Transcribed by Anakin McFly)
Speed fiend Keanu Reeves talks 'demon' rides, dumping bikes and going hell for leather on Ducati's latest beast
by Paul Henderson
Photographs by Nick Wilson
Arranging an interview with an A-list Hollywood actor doesn't happen like this. Normally, there are formal requests, e-mail discussions, careful telephone negotiations and the massaging of monstrous egos. And that is just to get through to the agent. They are called stars for a reason, you know. You can see them, but you can't get to them. And they are really busy. Lots of commitments. They can't say "yes" to everything. As Ron "Anchorman" Burgundy would say, they are kind of a big deal.
And what they won't do, what they will never, ever do, is just call you on your mobile and say: "Hey, is that Paul? This is Keanu Reeves." (In case I just happen to know another Keanu.) And they don't, after chatting for five minutes, usually give out their address. It's at times like this I wish I were a stalker.
But the thing is, Reeves is not your stereotypical Hollywood actor and he certainly won't let you get away with branding him as such. When I ask if he goes riding with like-minded bike-minded men like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, he is on it in a flash. "The 'Hollywood set'? Is that a concept? What do you mean by that?"
You know, that all you Los Angeles actors live in a big house together, working out, grooming each other and flicking through "Cool Hair" magazine, like the Monkees. He laughs. "Yeah, we do actually. We live in a Hollywood compound, you're right." Reeves, you see, has a sense of humour as well. So much for the "Sad Keanu" of internet fame.
And it is just as well, because when Reeves and I finally meet up one Saturday morning to go motorbike riding, I decide to put his laid-back, unstarry bonhomie to the test by getting lost in deepest, darkest Surrey. We are looking for the Chobham Test Track near Chertsey, and they have clearly hidden it. If it wasn't for my acute embarrassment as we ride from village to village, I might have been able to appreciate the irony of our situation. Namely: I am riding with the man who found his way out of the Matrix, and I can't even find a two-mile long motor-racing circuit following directions from a map.
Reeves, though, isn't bothered. When we eventually get to Chobham, he is in good spirits. After a coffee and a cigarette, he's good to go. and he can't wait to do a few laps on the Ducati Diavel he has been riding around town. He is in London for three months filming 47 Ronin, and in his rare breaks he likes to ride motorbikes. "I started when I was 22," he remembers. "I moved to LA when I was 20. I met his girl who had a bike, and I asked her if I could ride it. She said, 'Sure', then I told her I didn't know how to ride! So she showed me where everything was, and I just started riding around the studio. I just got into it."
He started off on a Kawasaki 600 Enduro, but his first two-wheeled love was a Norton Commando. "When I was growing up, a friend of my mother's had a Commando, and I could always recall a picture she took of this canary-yellow Norton. Back in LA, I ended up getting a 1973 Norton Commando 850. It's been Nortons ever since."
At home in LA, Reeves owns three Nortons - a Fastback, a Roadster and an Interstate that he has had for nigh on 20 years. He also has a West Coast chopper that Sandra Bullock and her ex-husband, Jesse James, gave him, and a Porsche 911 Carrera 4 for non-bike days. But over the years he has had flings with various bikes. "Often, I would buy motorbikes while I was filming in Portland or Chicago or wherever, then sell 'em back after the shoot. I bought my first Harley on a film in Pittsburgh. And I had a Suzuki GSX-R750 in Massachusetts when I was doing a play. I dumped that bike," he says, laughing.
"Dumping the bike" is the all-purpose phrase Reeves uses to describe the many accidents he has had over the years. There was one on Mulholland Highway where he somersaulted over a car and cut his knee down to the bone. Another time, on Sunset Boulevard, a car pulled out in front of him and he snapped two front teeth and filleted the skin on his shin. ("What was odd about that was a woman came over after the accident, she was just a bystander, and asked me for my autograph while I was lying on the ground.")
And then there was the time he "ran out of road" in Topanga Canyon. "That was the first time I thought I was going to die. I was on this road, at night, and I came around a turn going too fast and hit the side of the mountain. I remember thinking: 'I'm dead.' And then it all went black. The next thing I knew I was off the bike. I stood up and tore my helmet off, and a truck ran over my helmet. But shock is a tremendous thing. Shock helps you carry on to the next stage of survival!
"That was also the first time in my life that I cried out for help. Which is embarrassing. But I just didn't want to die. And then this sound came out of the darkness and it said: 'Help is on the way'. Then I saw the ambulance lights coming up the canyon. When I got to the hospital they said I had internal bleeding and I ended up in hospital for a week." Despite urban myths to the contrary, though, he didn't lose his spleen in the accident.
Reeves happily admits that most - but not all - of his accidents were his fault. Which brings us on to his infamous "demon rides", where Reeves would race his bike at night with the headlight switched off. "Ahh, that was back in the day," he says affectionately, before pausing. After a little reflection, he eventually says: "I think we deal with our emotions differently when we are older, and I think the demon rides were a way for me to blow off steam when I was younger. It just always seemed to be at night. You know, some of those rides, I guess that was the outcome they wanted. So now, when I get those feelings, I think maybe I'll just handcuff myself to the bed. Wait for the sun to come up."
Reeves is 47, but he still has a taste for speed. After joyously taking a few pictures without his helmet - "I still remember when LA introduced the compulsory helmet law in the early Nineties: a sad day" - he gets down to business in a protective jacket and full-face lid. On the track, it takes him a few laps on the Diavel, but pretty soon he's hitting 120 on the straights and leaning the bike into the corners like a pro.
"I love this bike," he says when he finally comes in. "I mean, you walk up to it and it has such striking lines. It reminds me of old American muscle cars, with that huge rear tyre and the big gas tank. It's not aggressive, but it is big and bold and powerful. What I really liked was the versatility. In the country you can have real fun cruising windy roads, but in town it is smooth and comfortable. And then on the track, it's just a beast."
Happily switching between the Diavel's three modes (Urban, Touring and Sport), Reeves, despite his love of Nortons, is clearly comfortable on a state-of-the-art machine. "To be honest, I'm not used to bikes this quick. The Diavel goes from 0-60mph in under three seconds, man! Plus with all the technology on board, the ABS and all that, I mean, I didn't push it on the track, but it gives you lots of confidence. It's fun. You could ride this bike every day, you could take it on the track, but for me it would be perfect on smooth, twisty roads. Maybe in LA, or the south of France. That would be beautiful."
Before we leave, I ask Keanu if there is anything he doesn't like about the bike. "I don't think there is," he says. "The only thing that spoils this bike is the weather in England. I love London, but seriously, where is the sunshine?" And is that all? "Well, I guess it could do with a GPS. But only if you were riding it."
Don't you just hate "normal" Hollywood stars?
Keanu's most excellent adventures
"A great ride for me would be to go up Sunset, hit PCH [Pacific Coast Highway], go through the Santa Monica mountains, go to the 101 and then come back to Crescent Heights or Laurel Canyon and that brings you back to Sunset. That's a 50-mile loop and that's fun.
"During the filming of the second Matrix movie, I went riding out by Cairns. That was stunning. There were just so many different climates, from the sea to a Mediterranean aspect. It was around Christmas and the roads were empty. It was beautiful."
"I've got to say, riding motorbikes in a city at night is fantastic. I remember riding my old Harley in New York for a couple of days. And you can actually loop the island of Manhattan. Riding through Wall Street at two in the morning is just the best.
1. Keanu revs: GQ's A-list road-tester prepares to put the Ducati Diavel through its paces, Chobham, Surrey
2. Point, brake: Keanu Reeves takes a star turn around the bend of Surrey's Chobham Test Track