"Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," a goofball spoof of teen consciousness starring Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter, was savaged by the critics when it hit the screens in 1989.
It was hugely successful nonetheless, and it branded Reeves, the 25-year-old actor who had turned in several well-received film performances before the "Bill and Ted" phenomenon, as the quintessential stoner dude. (For those not up on the lingo, a stoner dude is a suburban dimwit who lives on junk food, speaks in incomprehensible slang, is prone to spontaneous fits of air guitar playing and fantasizes about rock stardom.)
That this is possibly a less-than-accurate take on Reeves is suggested by the fact that he's currently in preparation for his 16th film in eight years, and that he's appeared in everything from starched period dramas ("Dangerous Liaisons," "Much Ado About Nothing") and horror films ("Bram Stoker's Dracula"), to gritty underground independents ("My Own Private Idaho") and offbeat action flicks ("Point Break").
If further proof of Reeves' range is needed, look no further than the two films he currently stars in. In "Speed," a hyper-tense action picture that opens this week, Reeves is cast as a heroic cop who spends a sequence of the film being dragged beneath a runaway bus. In "Little Buddha," Bernardo Bertolucci's fable of the life of Buddha that opened May 25, we find Reeves in the title role, which requires him to appear in exotic makeup and a series of elaborate wigs a more uptight actor wouldn't even consider wearing.
That he carries it all off with poise will only surprise those who failed to take note of the beautifully nuanced performances turned in by the actor in such films as "River's Edge" and "My Own Private Idaho."
Reeves is aware of the discrepancy between his public image and his body of work, but accepts it with equanimity.
"I get that more in America than Europe, and that persona wasn't entirely inaccurate a few years ago because I have a goofy side and I've certainly had my moments," says Reeves, who can also be seen in a small role in Gus Van Zant's recently released "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues."
"But I've made several fairly serious films and seen a few things in the last 10 years--I've really been lucky in that I've been around some great artists. Almost every director I've worked with has been exceptional."
Reeves' sterling resume hasn't gone unnoticed by some students of popular culture, and it certainly wasn't missed by Stephen Prina, the Los Angeles artist and teacher who recently taught a class at Art Center College of Design on the films of Keanu Reeves. With 500 pages of Reeves-related required reading by such authors as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, the class received considerable media coverage, much of which was derisive.
"People are dismissive of Keanu Reeves because most people don't take popular culture seriously, but he's a huge international star who's been in lots of different kinds of movies and is a highly provocative performer," Prina says in explaining why he found Reeves worthy of a semester of scholarly scrutiny. "An art critic I know named Tim Martin recently commented, 'When Keanu performs, it's as if he has a foot of Robert Bressonian space around him,' and he does have a peculiar detachment that doesn't allow for the kind of psychological relationship you have with a traditional method actor."
How does Reeves feel about the class? "My understanding of it is that he's using an artist as a jumping-off point or a sort of strobe light on popular culture," he says with a shrug, "and I'm flattered he used me as that jumping-off point."
Meeting with Reeves at his agent's office on Sunset Boulevard, one encounters a jet-lagged actor who does his best to be accommodating, despite the fact that he came to the appointment straight off a plane from Toronto and is clearly tired.
Arriving punctually, toting a motorcycle helmet and a copy of "Hamlet," Reeves still dresses like a rebellious teen-ager--faded jeans and a T-shirt--despite the fact that he'll turn 30 in September. His wardrobe doesn't seem to have caught up with his career, which is in the midst of shifting from quirky, troubled youth parts to leading-man roles.
"One of the great things about Keanu's role in 'Speed' is that it allows him to play an adult character," says cinematographer Jan De Bont, who makes his directorial debut with the film. "He finally grows up in this film and leaves that 'Bill and Ted' dude thing behind.
"When I saw Keanu in the few action scenes he had in 'Point Break,' I thought this was something he could really be good at," De Bont adds in explaining why he cast Reeves. "Physically, this is an extremely demanding part and he wasn't completely convinced he could do it at first, but once he did a few of his own stunts, he loved it--from then on he wanted to be involved in every little thing."
Reeves is so convincing in the role of the heroic Jack Traven that 20th Century Fox, which is releasing the film, is already angling to sign him for a sequel. Reeves, however, has several other obligations to fulfill before he gets back on that runaway bus. He recently wrapped "Johnny Mnemonic," an adaptation of a story by cyberpunk guru William Gibson, directed by New York artist Robert Longo.
In July, Reeves will head to the Napa Valley to star in Alfonso Arau's "A Walk in the Clouds," a remake of Italian director Alessandro Blasetti's post-World War II love story, "Four Steps in the Clouds." In January it's up to Winnipeg, Canada, where he'll star in a stage production of "Hamlet," after which comes Steven Baigelman's "Feeling Minnesota," a film currently in development that Reeves has committed to.
As is evident from his agenda for the next year, action films are a bit far afield for Reeves, who usually opts for more creatively adventurous fare. "Speed," however, interested him "because it attempts to bring an element of realism to action movies. Jan didn't want gratuitous violence in the film and it doesn't fetishize gore," he says. "It plays instead on very real human anxieties--the fear of elevators, buses and public places, the idea of being held prisoner, the helplessness of being forced to wait. It's a film about suspense, movement and physical speed.
"The film didn't give you a headache did it?" he suddenly blurts out with concern. Surprising interjections of this sort come regularly in a conversation with Reeves, who has a charmingly freewheeling conversational style once he gets past his initial shyness. Prone to jumping out of his chair to physically demonstrate a point he's trying to make, he's a colorful storyteller who slips in and out of accents with ease and has a sharp eye for detail. Reeves really gets rolling when he talks about "Little Buddha"--he speaks of the film with an unbridled enthusiasm that verges on naivete, and at moments like this it's easy to see why directors keep falling for him.
"I'd looked at several Indian actors and was getting desperate because I couldn't find my Siddhartha," says Bernardo Bertolucci, "when I read in the papers that Keanu was half-Western and half-Hawaiian and Chinese, so I arranged a meeting. He obviously wanted the part, because he arrived dressed in a way I've never seen him dressed since--he was wearing a suit and tie. I guess he thought I was an old European academician.
"He was shy and not too articulate, and he blushed a bit and occasionally burst into nervous laughter. He was adorable and I was very taken, and within five minutes I'd decided to go with him," Bertolucci says.
"I knew people would find this an outrageous choice," he adds. "How can Keanu, the idol of American teen-agers, be Buddha? I tried to put such things out of my mind and I'm enchanted with what he came up with--he seems as though he's not touching the ground when he walks in the film. Keanu has an innocence I felt was crucial to the role of Siddhartha--his innocence is on his face and it goes to the core of his personality, and that's why I cast him."
Though early reviews of "Little Buddha" have been less than glowing, critics have been uniformly impressed by the subtlety and focus of Reeves' performance.
"I knew nothing about Buddhism prior to making this film, so I really went into it like a child," says Reeves. "I learned I had the part when I was in Italy shooting 'Much Ado About Nothing,' so I started reading books and trying to learn to meditate, and by the time I got to Nepal I found myself immersed in spiritual questions. I became very confused and it was a difficult time because I was doing it pretty hard core--I didn't read or watch fiction for several months.
"Buddhist thinking is somewhat nihilistic in that it forces you to confront the question of why," he continues. "I couldn't answer the why and I became so bare inside, especially when I began to fast. I fasted throughout the duration of the shoot, which made it hard to keep my energy up, but I loved how I felt--I called it the white zone. I got into this zone where I wasn't sleeping much and my mind was very active--I felt like I was sticking my finger into an electric socket," he laughs.
"I dreamed about bread and cheese when I was fasting and had fantasies of pouring wine on my head while I rolled naked in the dirt. The appetites I quelled--not vanquished, but quelled--returned with a vengeance when I quit fasting too. My desire for chocolate was ferocious.
"I loved everything I learned, but I'm not going to be a Buddhist," he adds.
"However, I don't think I'll forget that although this table sounds and feels hard," he says, knocking on the conference room table, "in a certain consciousness it's empty space."
Asked if he always immerses himself in his parts to this degree, he says, "Yes. I can't just show up and do it. Whenever I think I don't need to prepare, I quickly discover I'm wrong."
Reeves' commitment to his work is perhaps rooted in an unusual upbringing that involved a lot of travel.
The eldest in a family of three children, Reeves was born in Beirut in 1964. Why was he born there? "I don't know--my mother knows that," says Reeves. "She's the one who was in Beirut."
Reeves' mother was British, his father was a geologist of Chinese-Hawaiian descent (Keanu means "cool breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian), and his family bounced from Beirut to Australia to New York City before settling in Toronto, Canada, where Reeves spent his teen-age years.
Reeves knew he wanted to be an actor by the time he was 14, but can't recall what his fantasy of the life of a successful actor was at the time.
"I don't remember what that boy was thinking, but there were various things that probably led to my interest in acting," he says. "My mother worked in rock 'n' roll doing costumes for people like Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton--in fact, when Alice Cooper was recording 'Welcome to My Nightmare' in Toronto he stayed at our house. So, I was around performers from a fairly young age.
"My stepfather, Paul Aaron, was a director--he did Broadway, off-Broadway and film--and the people in his world seemed incredibly exotic to me. One time when I was in elementary school, people from a nearby high school came to teach a drama class, and I remember looking at them and thinking who are these people? They seemed like Gypsies and had a completely different vibe."
Naming "The Ruling Class" and "A Clockwork Orange" as the first films that made an impression on him, Reeves spent a lot of time at Toronto University's Repertory Cinema when he was a teen-ager, seeing everything from Russ Meyer's trash classic "Supervixens" to Andre Tarkovsky's "Solaris." At 14 he began actively pursuing an acting career, landing bit parts in U.S. productions shooting in Canada and Canadian television series. It didn't take him long, however, to realize that his ambitions were bigger than the country he lived in.
"I moved out on my own when I was 18 and was leading kind of a cool life in Toronto then," he recalls. "I had roommates and we had a cool pad in a cool neighborhood, I'd just done a play and had some bank from a movie of the week, I had a girlfriend and a car and was going to clubs and everything was fun. Why did I leave? In Toronto you always ended up auditioning for the part of the main character's best friend--you were always No. 2, and that was frustrating. I knew I wanted to go for it--I guess there was a part of me that wanted to be a movie star--so I came to L.A. in 1984 when I was 20.
"When I first got here, I stayed at my stepfather's house at Sunset and Doheny, then I got my own place at Fairfax and Beverly. I had a car and a couple of bucks, but I didn't have any friends and I didn't work for the first eight months, so it was kind of tough until I got the part in 'River's Edge.' "
When one comments that it seems like he's worked nonstop ever since, he laughs, "It might seem that way, but it didn't feel that way to me!" In fact, Reeves has been on location for so much of the past two years that he finally moved out of his house in L.A. and is currently without a permanent address.
"I lived in L.A. for 10 years, but I don't have a domicile now and don't know where I'm gonna live," he says. "I moved out of my house here two days before I went to Toronto to shoot 'Johnny Mnemonic,' and landing in L.A. today I didn't feel like I came home."
Asked if the idea of having a home and family of his own means anything to him, he says, "Sure, that would be great, and if I could find someone it would be very important to me. But this work is on the road a lot and right now I don't feel a need for a home. For now, I just want to stay at my sister's house or at a hotel, learn my lines, work on 'Hamlet' and relax."
Part of what Reeves needs to recuperate from is the recently wrapped "Johnny Mnemonic," which stars him in an intensely demanding role.
"Johnny is a guy with a computer in his head who doesn't remember his past because he's cut out a chunk of his childhood memory to make room for other data--he's a courier who transports other people's data for them," says Reeves of the part. "He's like a rock 'n' roll star of new technology, and he starts out his story in a beautiful suit with a '60s tie, and by the end of the story his suit is in tatters and he's totally beat up.
"I choreographed Johnny's movements which are very robotic and rigid, and it was exhausting maintaining that intensity and precision," he continues. "It's an extraordinary part though because the character goes through such extremes of duress--he really gets broken down and screams and fights and gets hysterical. It's an incredible journey and it was great to take it with Robert Longo because he was so supportive. Hopefully it will be a cool film."
Having talked with Reeves for a while, one is struck by how remarkably centered he seems in his work--he comes across as curiously immune to the dark undertow of the movie business and to the psychological distortions it seems to engender in many young actors.
Asked in parting if he feels that movies--and working in the movies, in particular--create false expectations of life, Reeves laughs and says, "Shouldn't you be asking Michel Foucault or Camille Paglia that question? Yes, of course they do. That question reminds me of a line in a song by the band Fugazi: 'It's not what they're selling, it's what you're buying.'
"In other words, it's up to you to investigate what you take in. I've always found that the simple act of paying attention can take you a long way in life."*