Doin’ Time on Planet Keanu
Keanu Reeves has established himself as an action movie star. But early on in his career, even Reeves wasn’t sure what kind of actor he wanted to be. As a young man, he could come across as unfocused. Clearly uncomfortable with being asked questions, Reeves was often inarticulate in interviews. It took Reeves a while to warm up to Stephen Rebello for this cover story from the November 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, but once he felt comfortable he cut loose.
Keanu Reeves yanks the long sleeves of his black Polo shirt over his hands, clamps shut his eyes, shoves out his arms, wriggles them into space and clasps his face in a Edvard Munch-like silent scream. For a chaser, I expect he might flip back his tumbling locks in that quintessentially imitable style we’ve come to know and love from watching him in two Bill & Ted movies, Point Break, I Love You to Death, Parenthood, Dangerous Liaisons, River’s Edge, The Prince of Pennsylvania and Permanent Record. But the 28-year-old actor eschews the head-bobbing thing just now, probably because he’s sporting a haircut that says, “My-bone-structure’s-so-bitchin’-I-can-pull-off-the-prison-camp-look.” What have I done to induce this theatrical catatonia? I’ve just asked him a simple, straightforward question. Yo, Keanu?
Now, I like this guy a lot in movies. He’s our hapless, sweet, gropingly inarticulate rebel, a gorgeous shambles, with the body language of Jacques Tati by way of Norman Mailer.
No way did I expect Joe Average from one of the few guys in his age range who actually holds major movie stardom within reach. But I’ve already spent 30 minutes eliciting mostly one-word answers. I repeat the latest inquiry–“Why do you act?”–and, eventually, Reeves opens his eyes, jiggles his Frankenstein monster boots, ponders the beat-up motorcycle helmet that he’s set on the chair beside him, grins an amiably goofy grin, shrugs, and finally says, “You know, man, whatever.”
Right about now, I’m thinking, you know, man, if the next 90 minutes continue this way, one of us must die. “My life’s in flux right now, man,” Reeves suddenly mutters, just picking up on how stymied I am by his behavior. Lightening up, he mugs, flinches, then pleads, “I don’t want to be on the rack. Please don’t put me on the rack.” Excuse me, but my question was only, “Why do you act?” After another long wait while Reeves stares at the ceiling, he says, “Let’s come back to that.”
Fine. Reeves strikes me, at this point, almost precisely the way he does in movies–a guy so tangled up in contradictions that even if he’d like to spill the beans, he couldn’t find the can opener. So I say, “You’re really good on-screen at physically displaying whatever’s going on inside your characters; want to show me how you think this interview’s going?”
“Well, I guess every action is an expression of it,” Reeves says. Windmilling his hands, searching the heavens for an expression that will convey the words, at last he decides to attempt language instead: “I’ll try to describe a physicalization of this interview.” I wait some more while Reeves cogitates. Then, after, maybe, five minutes, this: “My imagination lacks wind in its sails.”
Now I’m thinking of bolting and just giving up the game, but I don’t. And that turns out to be a good call, too, because, contrary to what Reeves has just uttered about his windlessness, something in him suddenly pries loose. It’s as if he’s now satisfied that he has demonstrated to me that he doesn’t have to answer my questions, and–all at once, just like that–he becomes funny, courtly, mock-poetic, out there, not only answering virtually everything I ask, but also spinning yarns available only in Keanu-land. No wind in his sails, huh? Hell, he lets out with enough power now to sail us both around Venus and back.
I decide to mention that I was tipped off the other night that I should show up at a Hollywood bar that’s so funky-hip it doesn’t even have a name. Reeves is all ears while I tell him about all the black-clad ingenues and studs queued up outside the joint, and how ripped some of them looked when the doorman waved me in.
“But we’re friends of Keanu, man,” one whined, pronouncing that Hawaiian name for “cool breeze over the mountains” as “Kee-no,” which is a dumb card game they used to play at church lawn parties in my hometown. Inside the club, a band wailed for a cheery, one-of-everything crowd–guys scribbling poetry, pool sharks, Kerouac-era hipsters, and those permanent fixtures of Hollywood’s hip underground set, lone Skye, Sofia Coppola, Donovan Leitch, Edan Everly, Katie Wagner–all jammed in so tightly, I felt my clothes took up too much space.
While next to me a Beat-era groovester bent the ear of a blank-eyed Lolita about how he and Miles Davis once shot smack together, three guys called “Dog Star” ambled out onto the makeshift stage to do a folk ditty about somebody named “Isabel.” The eye of every woman in the place appeared to be locked on the backside of the bass guitar player. He rarely turned around and, when he did, barely looked up. That’s right: Kee-AH-noo. The music didn’t exactly ignite the place–“Strong drugs, weak band,” one clubbie quipped, beating a hasty exit– and soon enough, there was room aplenty for all those kids who’d been clamoring outside. When I mention to Reeves that I liked the band better than some of the others who were there, he spews a dry, staccato laugh like bird claws on sandpaper.
“We were terrrrrrible,” he wails. “You poor man. That was about the seventh time we played, but we have played so much better. More often in the garage than anywhere else, but …” How aware is he that his movie-star presence dragged out so many people–vocal women, especially–that night? “No idea, I can’t hear ’em,” he asserts, shrugging, acting the Oblivious Sex God number to a T. Though he off-handedly mentions that he’d prefer to talk instead about such touchstone bands as The Ramones, The Velvet Underground, The Exploited and The Pixies, he circles, nevertheless, directly back to the subject of his own star power. “No matter who you are,” he observes, “in the end, you’ve got to put up or shut up.” On behalf of shy people the world over, I mention how I couldn’t help but notice how reticent he had looked onstage.
“I’m not very good with the microphone,” he admits. “I don’t quite get it there. When you’re shy, that shyness can come between you and the moment. Fuck our parents, man. I mean, fuuuuuuuuuuuck. They fucked up. But, you see, there it is, man: regret. Better to regret something that you have done than to regret something you haven’t done. A good, worthwhile notion, right? Except these days, at the end of it somebody might go, ‘Satan, Satan, Satan!’ But back to the band. We just have a very sincere effort to play music people, hopefully, will dig and dance to. We’re not hard-edge, we can’t have wicked irony; our music is so straight-up that you can’t have a flight of fancy.
“Jeez, you were there that night, of all nights,” he says, shaking his head. “Oh, well, at least that bar is a special place. It’s good, honest. You can die there. You can get drugs, beat your wife, spill your blood, spill your drink.”
On the subject of spilled blood, how does he feel he’s been treated by the press? “Sometimes, they have been very kind,” he remarks, before adding, “I’ve never felt any kind of action against me. I feel they are pretty fair. I have no idea, man, about some of those stories, though. It’s generally someone speaking from when they don’t know the whole story. They project whatever they want to project. Whatever. Who cares?”
Since Reeves, when he feels like talking, gives every indication of being able to do some major goofing on his image and on the press, I ask if he’d like to do a little parody of the “teen idol” interview.
“Well, what do those magazines ask?” he says, fish-eyeing me as if I’d just asked him to admit he once bought a New Kids On the Block record. Each time I hit him with another deliberately lame question–“Do you prefer blondes, brunettes or redheads?”; “What’s your idea of a dream date?”; “What’s the worst excuse you’ve ever given a girl when you want to take her parking?”–he shoots back, tightly, unsmilingly, “What else do they ask?” After I’ve run through a half-dozen, he growls, with exquisite scorn, “That’s absurd.” Exactly the point, of course, but Reeves can’t–or won’t–boogie.
Okay, okay, I remember, Keanu: “Don’t put me on the rack.” So, I’m guessing it might be about time to talk up something serious, like his Alex Winter-directed opus, Hideous Mutant Freekz. Is it a comedy? Drama? What? Suddenly, Reeves turns chummy again, sweetly spacey.
“Well, I worked in it for eight days with Alex, Tom Stern [Winter’s co-writer and co-director] his partner, and Tim, I don’t know Tim’s last name–sorry, Tim!” he says, cupping a hand over his mouth, the other over his heart. It turns out that I do know Tim’s last name, but just as I’m about to help him out, Reeves is rolling again. “Are you familiar with Alex’s ‘Idiot Box’ on MTV? His comedy is physical, dark, usually social commentary; I guess the base of it is bitterness at original sin, at the spit and shit of man. It’s Alex’s first film and he plays a successful actor who’s full of himself and gets hired by this company to push all these different products. The company suits are going, ‘We want you to represent all these things,’ and he’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ so then they say, ‘We want you to represent this chemical, Zygrot 24,’ and he goes, ‘No way, I heard that stuff was poisonous.’ But when they work up to, ‘Five million?’ he goes: ‘Okay!’
“So, he goes to this make-believe Central American place called Santa Flan and there’s protesters, then him and this biased American girl hook up. He buys a crutch, clothing and bandages so that he can disguise himself as a cripple, and they stop at this freak show where Randy Quaid, the freakmaster, captures them and rubs on him this poisonous Zygrot stuff that he was going to represent. It turns him into a half-beast, half-normal guy, Beast Boy. And I play Ortiz the Dogboy, the leader of the freaks in this house of freaks. I had canine teeth and makeup and got to play him–” he explains, bounding from his seat, opening his mouth wide, flinging out his arms, and bellowing out a resounding “Aaaahhhhhhh!” that makes me wonder if Ortiz the Dogboy is related somehow to Tarzan, the Ape Man. “Muy macho, man,” he says, settling down. “I based my character upon Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Tom Jones.”
As for the $50 million Francis Coppola costume epic, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there’s no doubt who Reeves based his character on, since it’s the latest film version of the Stoker novel. Reeves listens while I tell him how amused I’ve been by the preview trailers, especially by that radical wig on Gary Oldman that makes his vampiric Transylvanian bloodsucker look like a wacky combo out of Hellraiser meets “Wild Kingdom” meets The Golem. Reeves seizes onto the word “golem,” repeating it as if tasting it, digging its sound.
“You mean like Gollum from Lord of the Rings?” he asks, laughing.
“No,” I explain, “a golem like from that groovy German silent horror movie, a Frankenstein precursor, where the monster looks like some weird, stone gingerbread man.”
“Has that ever happened to you, man,” Reeves asks, rocking gently back and forth, “when you’re just in the world, you know, hanging out, you’re in your car and blah, blah, blah, you just look at someone and they look at you and you just feel they’re evil? Or they have, like, a golem in them?” Actually, I tell Reeves, it’s happened just about any time I’m within spitting distance of Hollywood–and that derails our Drac-chat a bit longer because it gets us both going on the subject of the L.A. uprisings that followed the “not guilty” verdict of the cops who hammered Rodney King.
“‘Not guilty’ was ludicrous, man,” Reeves snaps. “Ludicrous is a stupid word, I mean, it was a crime. The voice of reason means the fist of action and, hopefully, that will be the case. Things are very heavy now. We’re so many people so close together, there’s got to be a harmony. I’m not very active in politics, but it’s something that’s been awakening. I’m not supporting any local politicians and I couldn’t tell you who the head of the CIA is. I know the governor of California is Pete Wilson, right?”
Reeves has a way to go before he’s stumping for Rock the Vote–he’s still a Canadian citizen, anyway–but I’m curious about what he did while L.A. burned.
“I rode my bike around the first night. I saw some major shopping going on, 100 percent discount shopping. The second night, I had to pick up a friend around 12:30 at night and the air was electrified. It felt lawless. Like a Western town where no one wore their badges on the outside. Guns everywhere.” Shaking his head at the sheer heaviness of it all, Reeves adds, “Some people don’t like to feel that they’re in the same boat with you. They’d like to have more room in the ocean and pick their teeth with your bones. So, it’s pretty much a situation of, ‘Get the golem! Get the golem!'”