From the haunting comedy of River's Edge to the warm hearted lunacy of Parenthood and the inspired idiocy of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Keanu Reeves has done better work in better pictures than most of his better known peers.
by Joe Queenan
Keanu Reeves has earned his reputation by portraying confused adolescents who toss their hair and arms around a lot, don't shave or change their clothes very often, like to hit the sauce, and seem to have trouble expressing themselves with anything other than their hands. No one meeting Keanu Reeves for the first time would get the impression that this is all an act.
The deal with Keanu (for the hundredth time, it's pronounced "kee- ah-noo"), much like the fidgety teens he has been portraying in a string of top-shelf films -- River's Edge, Dangerous Liaisons, Parenthood, and yes, even Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure -- is that he just can't get settled down. Although he has enlisted the services of a top-flight public relations agency to juice up his image ("I can only afford these guys for a couple of months"), Reeves clearly doesn't enjoy being interviewed, photographed, or doing anything else that requires staying in one place for more than a few minutes at a time. This could be a real problem, because Reeves may be in the process of becoming a big star, and big stars have to sit still.
Shoved into clothes that look a size too big, perched on a chair that looks a size too small, Reeves is working his way through a steak in a twee Franco-Manhattan restaurant that doesn't look like it gets much business from people named Keanu. All the while, Reeves is doing the Keanu Shuffle with the arms, the hair, the shoulders, the body. He's spent an hour and a half giving clipped, confusing, bizarre, or unfathomable answers to what seem on the surface like reasonable questions ("Do you go to many Knicks games?" "What do you think of William Hurt?") and now he's starting to worry that the interview isn't going so well.
"Are you the guy who wrote that story about Sean Young?" he asks, alluding to a recent Rolling Stone piece focusing on the colorful but perhaps unemployable starlet's perverse fascination with quadratic equations, logarithms and James Woods. "Oh, man, I can already feel myself being raked over the coals."
At which point, young Reeves has to be told, "Relax. Relax. Everything's going to be just fine."
Because everything is going to be just fine. When you've made as many good films as Reeves has at this point in his career -- he's only 24 -- you really have to pull a Sean Penn-or-Young to screw up your gig. Ignoring a couple of trashy flicks he made when he was getting his feet wet, Keanu has banged out a string of superb movies about important subjects -- love, death, murder, suicide, betrayal, getting your high school diploma -- and it sounds like two more are in the tank: Lawrence Kasdan's I Love You to Death, a comedy in which he appears with William Hurt, and an adaptation of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, based upon the novel by Peruvian novelist and erstwhile presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa. And Keanu's doing real good work here, work an actor can be proud of, work you can build a major career on. You getting all this, Kiefer?
All that said, Reeves is obviously an actor who enjoys only the work, and not the self-promotion that comes with it. He's also a little bit embarrassed about the interviews he has given in the past, concerned that some of his more effervescent remarks could come back to haunt him. He asks if his interviewer saw the article in which he expressed a nagging concern that he might be revealed at a crucial point on a big date to have certain stains on his underwear. His interviewer did, in fact, see that article. He asks if his interviewer saw the article in which he expressed an interest in fucking Meryl Streep, because "even if I wasn't good, she could fake it the best." Yes, his interviewer saw that article, too, an article in which Reeves also drew attention to the infrequency with which he bathes, and to the efforts he has made to squelch groundless rumors that his interest in personal hygiene has grown. At this point, Keanu does one of his trademark backpedals, whacking his forehead in his boyish way, eyes rolling.
"Oh, that was Keanu in fine form," he hoots. "Yes, that was Keanu in fine form."
If that was Keanu in fine form, today's Keanu is on his best behavior. Friendly, not at all menacing with his knife and fork, and ever so cheerful, the actor cannot quite bring himself to have what linguistics experts call a "conversation." His responses to questions are civil but curt, punctuated by frequent non-sequiturs. ("Hey, if it's William Hurt being a tree, then it's William Hurt being a tree.") Many of his answers consist of one short sentence; paragraphs still seem beyond his ken. But he is young.
And he is amusing. Though he doesn't have a whole lot to say about his upcoming movie, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, other than to express admiration for co-star Barbara Hershey and to voice his opinion that Mario Vargas Llosa will soon be killed by Peruvian drug lords, he does make an interesting remark about the accent he uses in the film. Noting that the setting has been moved from Lima in the 1950s to New Orleans in the 1950s, he says that he used a hybrid accent to get the job done.
"There is no New Orleans accent," he explains. "There are New Orleans accents, but I didn't use one. We shot sixty days in North Carolina and two days in New Orleans. So when I started talking, everybody asked if I was from Kentucky."
This is a pretty impressive knowledge of American geography, considering that Reeves is from out of town. Born in Beirut, Reeves spent time in Australia before moving to Toronto with his mother. Dad is apparently out of the picture, and has been for some time. His name "Keanu" comes from his grandfather, and supposedly it's Hawaiian for "cool breeze over the mountains," though, since Keanu's the one supplying the information, it might actually be the Hawaiian word for "Keanu."
Reeves grew up in Toronto in a neighborhood "where you could still be out playing at 11:30 at night," and drifted in and out of a series of high schools. Screwing up in high school laid the groundwork for his roles as a tortured youth in River' Edge, a tortured youth in Parenthood, a tortured youth in Permanent Record, and a tortured youth, albeit a bonehead, in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. At the age of 17, Reeves enrolled in a night school drama class, then started working in a local TV show called "Hanging In", as well as in such not-so-memorable plays as "Wolf Boy."
Eventually, he decided to abandon the Great Canadian Indoors for the Great American Outdoors, auditioning in the States for a role in a Disney TV movie. He didn't get it, but he did get hooked up with a big-time agent in Los Angeles, and, as he reports it, drifted west with $3,000, an ancient Volvo, and his stepfather's address. It didn't take him long to get work -- he landed a small part in one of Rob Lowe's vehicles, playing a French-Canadian goalie in Youngblood.
"It's an awful movie," says Reeves, acidly, of the Lowe point in his career.
Still, with the exception of the unnecessary and unseen teen comedy The Night Before, released in 1988, Youngblood was the last overtly bad project Reeves has been associated with -- no mean feat in this age of sludge. Since 1986, Reeves has been appearing in a bunch of films that always manage to get attention, either because they're good, strange, loony, twisted, or because John Malkovich and Glenn Close are in them too.
First came River's Edge, the cult classic about a bunch of real-life Northern California high school students who suppress the evidence that a deranged classmate has strangled his girlfriend. As is usually the case, Keanu plays a confused, alienated adolescent, one who initially colludes with his classmates and then realizes, Jesus, this is nuts, and goes to the police.
Reeves is outstanding in the film, and holds center stage in a scene that says more about what's wrong with contemporary American society (we can't tell right from wrong) than any other scene in a film of recent memory. That's when he has to persuade his nine-year-old brother that it's not really such a good idea to blow him away with the .38 he stole from drug dealer and all-purpose lunatic Dennis Hopper. "Come on, man, I'm your brother." Come on, man, I'm your brother. That disturbing, unforgettable scene is the moral high point of this disturbing, unforgettable movie. It's that kind of movie.
Reeves, who is generally generous toward other actors, is still especially impressed by Crispin Glover's performance in River's Edge, one regarded by many critics as the definition of "over the top." For those who have not seen the film, suffice it to say that River's Edge is the only motion picture in recent memory in which Dennis Hopper gives the second weirdest performance. Glover plays an unhinged character named Lane, a sort of townie Axl Rose, who becomes obsessed with the idea of protecting his murderous classmate by getting rid of the corpse. From the moment he upbraids the killer for only giving him a Budweiser after he disposes of the body -- "I thought it was at least worth a Michelob" -- the audience knows that it is in for a long, wild ride with one sick pup. "Crispin was amazing," says Reeves.
But did Reeves and the rest of the cast know how unsettling a movie they were making at the time, without the eerie soundtrack, without the grainy film quality, without seeing the whole package all at once?
"No way," says Reeves. "I saw the script and I didn't get it. I knew it was going to be funny, but no, I had no idea."
Using a word he has used in the past, Reeves says that if he had done the Glover role, "my Lane would have been a lot more pedestrian." Then comes the touchy subject of morality, of whether the Reeves or the Glover character is more representative of young Americans today. In other words, is Glover's demonic Lane an archetype of sorts, or just a sick fuck the actor dreamed up to put the fear of God into people?
"It's there," Reeves intones. "It's there. It's surprising what's out there." He adds, decisively, "There are Lanes."
After River's Edge, an instant favorite with critics, came Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, a spectacularly stupid film about two teen meatheads who can only avoid flunking out of high school by going back in time and kidnapping Socrates, Napoleon Bonaparte, Billy the Kid and Beethoven, and persuading them to appear in a show-and-tell end-of-term report in the school auditorium the following day. Reeves delivers an exuberantly idiotic performance as a Valley Boy so dumb that even Dick Clark would think twice about letting him appear on "American Bandstand."
"It was a pretty solid film," says Reeves, who, unlike many others in his line of work, doesn't mind talking about money, since he's making a lot of it. "It cost $10 million to make, and it made $43 million."
Did it make him a teen idol?
"Yeah, I think so. Girls like it; guys dig it."
Does getting typecast as bozo worry him?
"It's not like I'm Robert De Niro in Raging Bull," he says. "But if that's going to be my claim to fame, that's going to be my claim to fame."
Bill & Ted (which was made in '87 but not released until last summer) was followed by Permanent Record, a potentially good film that went off the rails. Reeves, a master at having mixed feelings about things, definitely has mixed feelings about this tale of high school seniors forced to cope with the Boy Most Likely to Succeed's decision to jump off a cliff. Keanu plays the doomed boy's best friend and does a real good job, but the film blows up about two-thirds of the way through. Permanent Record starts out with the same gritty quality as River's Edge, but then gets all mushy at the end (the finale is a hokey standing ovation when the Girl Most Likely to Succeed performs an impromptu a cappella version of the dead boy's last song at a school production of "H.M.S. Pinafore." Give it up.) In the past, Keanu has been quoted as saying nice things about the film and its director, Marisa Silver; he has also been quoted as saying that the studio sabotaged the film, wrecking what had otherwise been his most pleasant acting experience to date. He is politely asked which are his real feelings about this movie.
"All of these things," he says. "It's just, I couldn't believe it when it happened."
When what happened?
"When everybody stood up and clapped at the end," he says. "It was pretty cheesy."
Since Permanent Record, Reeves has starred in the so-so The Prince of Pennsylvania, in which he plays -- guess what? -- a rebellious teenager, and he delivered a sparkling performance as Steve Martin's wired but likable hot-rodding nephew-in-law (a rebellious adolescent) in Parenthood. In the first real stretch of his career, he also turned up as a "mawkish youth" in Dangerous Liaisons, a remarkable film that seems all the more remarkable because just about everyone in it seems miscast. Although it was a terrific idea for Reeves to go out and get himself a role as an 18th century pretty boy in a Stephen Frears film, and although Reeves does a whole lot more with the role than E.T. alumnus Henry Thomas in Valmont (Dangerous Liaisons, Part B), he was even more miscast for the role than some people say Malkovich was for his. The trademark clumsiness was actually a saving grace; he is most convincing when floundering around in the snow dueling with Malkovich, least convincing when he asks Uma Thurman if she does not, in fact find the opera "sublime," a word that Reeves's tongue does not seem entirely comfortable with.
Reeves admits to being surprised that he got the part in Dangerous Liaisons, considering the inauspicious circumstances of his audition.
"It was just a rag-tag thing: there I was riding my bike, and showing up late, with no pants and no shirt, just my cutoffs, and I do my thing for these two guys who are very English and they say, 'Thank you, but could you be a little bit less American?' I was, like, the classic American goombah," he says. Then he asks, "What's a goombah?"
What was it like working with Malkovich?
"Malkovich was ... inspiring," he says. "I only had two scenes with him, but wow. I walked up to him one day and slapped him on the back and said, 'Man, you're the greatest.' It was the classic young-actor/older-actor scene ..."
How did the "old" actor react?
"He smiled. He laughed."
Although appearing in the film was a good career move, breaking the mold of badly dressed adolescents getting "Fs" in trig, Reeves does not seem terribly happy with his performance in _Dangerous Liaisons_.
"My Danceny ... if you compare it to the book ... it's awful," he concedes.
Setting aside his foppish role in Dangerous Liaisons, you could argue that Reeves has been doing the same shtick for five films running. In River's Edge, Permanent Record, The Prince of Pennsylvania, Bill & Ted, and Parenthood, he's played a disoriented kid with hair. But if you look at the markets for these respective films, you can see that something unusual is going on with his career, that he's actually tailoring that role to four different markets. Parenthood is a mainstream comedy, the kind that comes to a better theater near you and stays all summer. Dangerous Liaisons is geared more toward the Ebert-and-Siskel crowd, the kind who leave the New Yorker lying around the guest bedroom. River's Edge appeals to people who can name five Jean-Louis Trintignant movies, folks who like the Kronos Quartet, Eraserhead, and not much else. And Bill & Ted is for people who either are, or wish they were, still 14. Similar roles; entirely different markets. This guy's no dummy.
But if you try to get Reeves talking about this stuff, you're out of luck, because he insists that he is just taking whatever roles come down the pike, that there is no method to his madness. For example, when asked which roles he has turned down recently, Keanu mulls it over, then volunteers, brightly: "I turned down The Fly II."
"I didn't like the script."
"But you really can't do movies like The Fly II at this point in your career, can you? Not after doing Dangerous Liaisons and Parenthood?"
"No you can't do Fly II." Then, Ted-style, he volunteers, "But I'd do Evil Dead III."
"Because I liked the guy who did Evil Dead II If it's schlock and it's superficial and it's frightening and it's scary and it's outrageous and it's clever and it's fun."
Whatever you say, Keanu.
Like many people in this business, Keanu doesn't seem to pay as much attention to certain recurring patterns in the roles he chooses as, say, critics. Asked why he repeatedly has affairs with older women in his films, not to mention the bedroom scene with Tracey Ullman in a recent episode of her show, Reeves just shrugs it off: "I don't know. Maybe it's my youthful, boyish character. Besides, it's only happened three times." Asked about the exotic hair styles he uses in his films -- the demi-Mohawk in The Prince of Pennsylvania, the asymmetrical razor-cut in Parenthood, the shaved look in the upcoming Kasdan film -- he says, "It's just hair." Asked about the arms and hands and shoulders and hair and what-not flying all over the place, Reeves says he's not aware that he's doing it. He's just doing it.
Unlike previous incarnations of Keanu Reeves, who was prepared to commit himself on such controversial issues as bathing and who he'd like to have sex with, Reeves now goes out of his way not to say anything unpleasant or impolite about anything or anybody. He lives in New York, but that's no reflection on Los Angeles. He likes the directors he's worked with. He respects other people in the field. He would be more than willing to do roles like Charlie Sheen's in Wall Street. He buys trucks for members of his family. He loves the theater, but he loves movies, too. He would like to be in a play, he would like to accept roles that would broaden him a bit, he would like to do all sorts of things. Mostly he wants to get the interview over with so he can go home and play his bass guitar. Here are a few Keanuisms:
On Steve Martin: "He seems like a genial fellow."
On Ron Howard: "I enjoyed working with him."
On Toronto: "It's basically just a big shopping plaza now."
On New York: "It blows me away."
On Sean Penn: "He has so much power and intelligence, it's incredible."
On People He'd Like to Work With: "Sean Penn, Christopher Walken and Dianne Wiest."
On Henry Thomas, who plays the Danceny role in Valmont: "Who's he?"
On Whether or Not He's Going to Become a Big Star: "There was one day last week... l don't know."
Oh, yes, and other than William Hurt playing a tree being William Hurt playing a tree, which we've already heard about, is there anything else Reeves has to say about his co-star in the upcoming I Love You to Death?
"He's a real serious, tense guy, you know? So I went up to him, asked him, 'Hey, Bill, what kind of movie do you think we're in?' And he said, 'Well, Keanu, if your name is Marlon and my name is Harlan, I guess we're in a comedy."
Like all 24-year-old actors who have spent more time on a skateboard than in the library, Keanu would like to play Rimbaud, the irrepressible French poet who burned out at age 19 and died in, or not far from, a gutter. But until The Arthur Rimbaud Story begins production, the young man will have to be satisfied with scripts like Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure II.
Actually, Reeves says, there is, as yet, no completed script for Bill & Ted II, and even if there were he hasn't made up his mind he wants to be in it.
"If we do it, I'm going to be 26, so I don't know. I was 22 or 23 when I did the first one."
But he does know enough about the preliminary plot to say: "We die and go to Hell. Then there's a parody of The Seventh Seal where we have to play Death at chess. But we don't know how to play chess. So we play Battleships instead."
Those who marveled at the infinite subtlety of Bill & Ted I will be pleased to know that in the sequel, Death will be portrayed as inhabiting a "stark, sterile suburban house." "It's like condo death," beams Keanu. Rimbaud would have loved it.
When I look back for a last glance, Keanu Reeves is standing at the corner of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue in front of the Plaza Hotel, where Robin Williams winds up at the end of Moscow on the Hudson. The actor is looking this way and that, trying to decide whether to go back uptown, or downtown, or across town, or perhaps into the park. His hands are thrust into his pockets, his shoulders are all hunched up, he's doing that thing with the hair again. He looks kind of worked up. Gee, Keanu, why don't you just try relaxing? Everything's going to be fine. Everything's going to be just fine.
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