MTC's excellent adventure
by Kevin Prokosh
Twenty years ago Winnipeg was hit by a powerful storm never experienced in these parts before or since.
It hit Dec. 9, 1994, when a tall, dark, suddenly famous movie actor named Keanu Reeves arrived in town to begin formal rehearsals for his lead role in Hamlet at Manitoba Theatre Centre.
No one could have forecast the arrival of Keanu-mania. In two months, Winnipeggers went from "Keanu who?" to "Keanu whoo!"
That summer he starred in the action thriller Speed, which fast-tracked the Beirut-born, Toronto-raised performer to the top of Hollywood directors' had-to-have list. There were plenty of studio types shocked that he even showed up in Manitoba, given that he was now in line for $7 million-a-movie paydays. Did he really refuse that much money and an opportunity to work in the crime drama Heat with idols Robert De Niro and Al Pacino?
"He did turn it down because he had a commitment to MTC for scale, $1,000 a week, to play Hamlet," recalls MTC artistic director Steven Schipper, who struck the deal with Reeves. "He was a man of his word."
The two had talked about just that contingency during a lunch earlier that year in the Venice Beach neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Reeves inquired about how much notice the theatre would need if he was offered a big film and needed to bow out. Schipper counselled him to say no right then and there, because it wouldn't be right to say yes and then change his mind, forcing MTC to break its promise to Winnipeggers. A month later, despite his agents and managers wishing otherwise, he said, "Let's do it, man."
Schipper took the good news to the MTC board, many of whom responded with, "Keanu who?" Speed hadn't opened yet so he brought along videos of My Own Private Idaho, Bram Stoker's Dracula and, of course, the 1989 slacker comedy Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, in which Reeves played the dim-witted Ted.
Any misgivings the board had about Reeves were erased when Speed hit theatre screens in the summer of 1994 and generated $120 million at the box office. In what looked like either a stroke of genius or an unbelievable stroke of good luck, MTC had the latest sigh-guy about to do something audacious on its stage.
"That was fortune smiling upon our theatre company," Schipper says.
The 30-year-old agreed to talk to the Winnipeg media after flying in from Los Angeles with director Lewis Baumander after three weeks of one-on-one rehearsals. He admitted to being scared; Hamlet is an actor's Everest, a climb with 1,530 lines. He wanted to get to work and be treated just like the other 21 actors in the cast. And he was, but it was a different story outside of MTC's Market Avenue headquarters, which became ground zero for the Keanu-crazed.
"For me, it was being in It's a Hard Day's Night, complete Beatlemania," says Winnipeg director Robb Paterson, who played Reynaldo in the $550,000 bargain-priced production. "I drove him home most nights, and the moment you stepped out of the building you were swarmed by young women with bits of paper and Instamatic cameras."
Paterson who, no matter how many times he told Reeves his name, was always called Bobbie, witnessed first-hand what it was like to be the object of such public passion, which included one Free Press classified ad that read in oversized letters, "Dearest Keanu I adore you, sincerely Lisa."
"We would go out for lunch at the concert hall and after we got up to leave a bunch of young women rushed the table and picked up the crusts of bread he hadn't finished," Paterson recalls with a laugh. "They were stuffing the cutlery in their purses."
On opening night, 20 years ago Monday, Market Avenue was lined with TV transmission trucks as the eyes of the unbelieving entertainment world turned its focus on Winnipeg and this excellent dude wearing the famous dark tights of the melancholy Danish prince. The audience included British critics, including one writing for the Sunday Times of London, and scores of international visitors from Japan, China, Australia, Germany and the United States.
Reeves looked like a deer in the headlights when he stepped on stage, but rallied with an intense, heroic performance. The Times critic compared him to acting icon Sir Laurence Olivier.
"I had seen Hamlet half a dozen times and this was the first time I didn't fall asleep," says Schipper. "It was the first time I was brought to tears by the untimely death of such a young, vital life snuffed out so heartbreakingly before its time."
Reeves settled into the run but not the role. Used to multiple takes of a scene in a movie shoot, he brought his spontaneity to Hamlet, sometimes wandering on stage to the point where the rest of the cast weren't sure where he would show up.
"While he stuck to the script, he wasn't very fond of the blocking," says actor Richard Hurst, who regularly ran lines with Reeves. "He would do new things every night. One time Rosencrantz and Guildenstern came out on stage and they couldn't find him. He was hiding behind a staircase. Why? Nobody knew. It was always a case of Keanu doing the unexpected, and keeping everyone on their toes."
His improvisational skills were also in the spotlight while out in public. He and actors Robert Benson (Polonius) and Stephen Russell (Claudius) went shopping successfully for clothing at Polo Park Shopping Centre without much fanfare.
"We got separated and then we heard over the loudspeaker, 'Mr. Reeves, you left your credit card at American Eagle,'" says Russell, over the phone from Stratford, Ont. "So all of a sudden there was a stampede to American Eagle. Security grabbed all three of us and we got the card and got out of there."
Even on the most frigid nights Reeves couldn't avoid the throngs of autograph-seekers, no matter how many times MTC sent out decoys looking like the actor jumping into a cab. Most nights he would stand stand outside with his fans until the ink in his pen froze. He couldn't turn his back on anyone willing to endure frostbite to meet him.
Their presents were another thing. The bins placed by MTC in the lobby were filled with books, chocolates and teddy bears that ended up in his dressing room with 240 floral arrangements. MTC took four van loads of the plush toys to kids in Winnipeg hospitals.
"I would ask why he wouldn't open up one of the boxes of chocolates in his dressing room," says Paterson, whose son played ball hockey with Reeves in the back lane behind their house. "He said, 'I feel if I open one I have to respond (to the fan) and then I have to open them all.'"
Over the decades, Reeves has not had much to say publicly about his time in Winnipeg. He once revealed his feelings in, of all places, the Forbidden City in China. In 2007, MTC board member Margaret Redman and her husband were visiting the palace in Beijing when they noticed a crowd taking photos of a man who turned out to be Reeves. As he scurried away, Redman's husband tried to get his attention by calling out Manitoba Theatre Centre. He stopped immediately.
"If you had called my name I probably wouldn't have come over but you called out 'Manitoba Theatre Centre,'" Redman quoted him as saying. "I had just a great experience there."