Enlightened Speed: Keanu Reeves
(Translated from Italian)
by Fabia Di Drusco
The tone is relaxed, the mood pleasantly chatty, the recurrent exclamation: “Sure!”. His voice on the phone is the same from the time of My Own Private Idaho, naturally without the arrogant intonation of the young one-percenter who became a gay hustler to spite his father. It has been nearly 25 years since the Van Sant film which, just a few months after the release of Point Break, sparked an explosion in the States, and by extension in the rest of the world, of “Keanu-mania”.
For the entire first half of the ’90s, up to the major box office success of Speed, Reeves was the hottest actor in Hollywood, despite (or thanks to?) an elusiveness – he describes himself as “private” – that created an aura of mystery around him, rendering him ineffable, unclassifiable, the dozens of pages of Arena, Details, Interview, The Face and Vanity Fair that have tried to capture him notwithstanding. And although he often limits himself to platitudes in interviews, the images speak for themselves.
His Chinese-Hawaiian father, who left home when Keanu was a child, left him with the exotic features that made him unique in the cinema at the time. What Reeves has above all is an undeniable sensuality that appeals to both genders. If women are willing to do anything to meet him (from the groupies of his period with the band Dogstar to the two fans who broke into his house again last September), men are no different. To the point that in a mix of fiction (in addition to the Van Sant film, his stage debut in Toronto, in Wolfboy) and rumors, he would end up being allegedly married to record producer David Geffen, despite the fact that both declare they’ve never even met.
Adding to the appeal is his agile body language, charged with adrenaline yet always graceful, which perfectly conveys physical courage, an instinctive disregard for danger. In the collective imagination, Reeves “is” the agent Johnny Utah in Point Break, the guy who does not hesitate to jump out of a plane without a parachute or surf at night despite being a beginner. Especially since his love of motorcycles is well known (Norton Commando, but also Kawasaki, Guzzi, Harley - for years he would buy one for each film he did, and then sell it at the end of the shoot), his passion for speed, for racing down Sunset Boulevard at night without headlights, his accidents, his scars, particularly the impressive one that runs across his abdomen, provocatively displayed in many shirtless poses.
Today, though Reeves claims that limiting his speed has comes naturally to him now, his passion for motorcycles has remained intact. "Years ago I unsuccessfully tried to make a film that was a kind of personal diary about motorcycles". To compensate, he persuaded Gard Hollinger, custom bike designer, to form the Arch Motorcycle Company with him. The first fruit of the collaboration, the KRGT-1, was presented to October: Reeves calls it retro-modern, with the right dose of technical innovation and maximum emphasis on ergonomic comfort. "It took two and a half years to get to the prototype. I hope it’s just the beginning. It wasn’t easy to convince Gard. He didn’t see any reason to get into mass production, however limited. When he asked me why do it?, I said, because sooner or later we’re gonna die. And before we do, we have to do everything we truly love".
That must be why Reeves, who turned 50 in September, is working on a series of new projects, including film directing (after the documentary Side by Side, on the relationship between traditional cinema and digital innovation, he directed Man of Tai Chi) and his television debut in the dual role of producer and actor, "and probably also the director of an episode", he adds. "It’s an interesting time to experiment with the genre. The budgets are increasingly substantial, the attention is huge. Compared to the movies, there are advantages. You can investigate emotions better".
In November, Reeves started shooting a mystery thriller, “Daughter of God”, where he plays a detective who investigates the death of a partner of a woman who undergoes a series of supernatural experiences: «I don’t know if the devil exists, but I do believe in ghosts". Next year he’ll be coming out with The Whole Truth by Courtney Hunt ("a great director, I’ve admired her since Frozen River") and Knock Knock by Eli Roth, a “psychosexual thriller à la Polanski” in the words of the director, where Reeves plays a happily married man whose life is called into question by an encounter with two femmes fatales.
Meanwhile the revenge movie John Wick is gathering acclaim at the box office, in compensation for the disappointing results of 47 Ronin, yet another version of the famous Japanese legend. "Filming in China, apart from the language barrier, is not so different than shooting in America. The same goes for Hong Kong. The work flow and personnel are the same". Ever contacted by the great masters of Asian martial arts cinema, Zhang Yimou or Wong Kar-wai? "Not so far, but I’m very open to any possibility".
Though Reeves doesn’t follow any particular diet in normal life, when he’s preparing a film he submits to the "necessary discipline". (For a scene in Little Buddha where he had to be skeletal, he survived on an orange and 10 liters of water per day). "But part of the job that I always like very much is combat training (at the time of The Matrix he was training eight hours a day). It’s never just pure exercise, it’s a fundamental part of the process of creating the character".
In a sense, he revisited his own cinematic career, which numbers more than 60 films, including various hits (the Matrix trilogy in primis), numerous of auteur productions (he’s been directed by Stephen Frears, Kathryn Bigelow, Van Sant, Coppola, Branagh, Bertolucci, Richard Linklater) and lots of forgettable ones, shooting Side by Side: "I found Linklater, who directed one of my films I love most, A Scanner Darkly, the Wachowskis and Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer of one of the films that changed my life, Little Buddha. A special film, from a special moment. I experienced as a gift, it opened up a whole world for me. I’d definitely like to work with Bernardo again. And with Linklater – Richard, where are you? Please call me…".
Over the years, Reeves has also become more lenient with regard to his work. The youthful perfectionist who, upon finishing a scene, would start yelling at himself, as recounted by Sam Raimi, who directed him in The Gift, no longer exists. In retrospect, even his interpretation of Jonathan Harker in Coppola’s “Dracula”, at the time the object of relentless self-criticism, seems acceptable: "In the end, I think that Coppola got what he wanted, a certain innocence...".The same quality that both Bigelow and Bertolucci have often said they appreciate about him.
Over the years the innocence has merged into a kind of super role, the reluctant hero, at different levels in various films, from the existential doubt and melancholy of Neo in The Matrix to the desperate angst of Bob Arctor in A Scanner Darkly.
Among the chapters of his life that Reeves considers definitively closed is music, "although I do miss the excitement and fun of life on the road with Dogstar. I still play bass, but it’s a totally personal pleasure. What do I do when not working? Simple, I spend my time exploring new projects. Honestly I can’t remember the last time I took a vacation. Well, yes, I was recently in Chile for work, and I stopped two days in Santiago".
In the era of celebrity spokesmen, it’s surprising that he has never been the face of a fragrance or clothing line: "I thought about doing a Japanese whiskey, but in the end I have nothing to do with advertising...
Charity? I do it, but I don’t talk about it. I support organizations that help children in need and cancer patients" (it’s hard not to read this statement in a biographical key: Reeves was famously very close to one of his two sisters when she contracted cancer, and in ’99 his partner lost their daughter eight months into her pregnancy). Otherwise money has never been his main goal: he gave his share of the royalties from The Matrix to the special effects team, gave up part of his salary to allow the hiring of Al Pacino for The Devil’s Advocate and Gene Hackman in The Replacements. He seems sincere (and frankly amazed that anyone would think so) when he says that it wasn’t the sharp increase in his fee-per-film after the first “Matrix” (there was talk of $30 million for the sequel) to make a difference.
One last question, about his style. "Jacket, boots, t-shirt. But I also like to dress seriously. For years I dressed Costume National, for its extraordinary fit, which is both flattering and comfortable". Last question: do you feel better with long hair or short hair? "Better with long hair".