The Total Film Interview: Keanu Reeves
TOTAL FILM, NOVEMBER 2008
It’s coming. A quiet murmer of anticipation colours the crowd. They jostle for position as the NYPD manfully struggle to keep everybody calm and in line. Suddenly: a blinding flash of light; a strange high-pitched squealing sound. The crowd surge. Chaos threatens. Every man, woman and child strain to get a glimpse; a first sighting. The tinted glass slides down. The doors open. And out steps... Jessica Simpson. Blonde, bouncy and porcelain perfect, she looks more Barbie than human as she breaches the celebrity airlock and dashes through the revolving doors to the safety of the Ritz-Carlton’s reception desk.
Some 12 floors up, in a comfortable suite, Keanu Reeves ponders the existence of extra-terrestrials.
“I don’t think aliens have landed in Central Park, yet...” he opines looking out the window at the commotion below.
Reeves has just had to sit through a round table of international press where, in order to promote The Day The Earth Stood Still, he has faced such interrogation jewels as “Do you like science-fiction?”, “Is the end of the world really nigh?” and “Do you believe in aliens?”
Simpson aside, he’s not convinced.
“Um, I don’t really have any particular thoughts on aliens,” he reflects, now safely shepherded away from the Q&A crowd. His press chores (and they are chores to the quietly-spoken, somewhat introverted, actor) are almost over. One interview with “that British film mag” is all he has left to do today.
Now 44, the English (on his mother’s side) American of Hawaiian-Chinese descent (on his father’s side) who grew up in Canada has genes that pitch him around 10 years younger. He’s still Bill-and-Ted boyish when he grins, the hints of age only present when he furrows his brow or gathers his thoughts. Although that’s fairly frequently as Reeves is nothing, if not thoughtful.
He has managed his career carefully, frequently side-stepping the more obvious option or the higher-profile part for left-field choices and supporting roles in more challenging fare. For every Day The Earth Stood Still or Constantine, there’s a Thumbsucker or My Own Private Idaho. He takes his craft seriously and for years led a nomadic existence, going from film to film with little more than the clothes on his back, living in rented rooms and hotels and using his down time to go on the road with his bands Dogstar and, later, Becky.
He’s a little more settled these days, with homes on both coasts and rumours of a long-term relationship. He's been remarkably successful at keeping his private life private and isn't about to start chatting about it now. Though he is happy to contemplate his career to date, twice waving away his publicist to extend our chat...
What felt to you like the first breakthrough role, the one that made you believe: “Yeah, this is going to work out as a career”?
River’s Edge when I read it was a great script, and I remember going to the audition, where I met Crispin Glover. That was an exciting day. And then I got the role and that was an even better day! Working with Crispin, meeting Dennis Hopper... It was one of my first jobs in Los Angeles and a great artistic experience.
Back in those early days, was acting something you were passionate about or something you fell into?
I got into it by, I remember, playing Mercutio in high school in Romeo and Juliet and that was just fun. And I kinda grew up in it: originally my mother was a costume designer and my step father was a director on Broadway, and also did some films, so I was a production assistant when I was like 15. About that age, my mother says I came up to her and said, “Do you mind if I become an actor?”
So you had a quite strong focus on what you wanted to do, even at that age.
Yeah. I remember having that feeling when I was talking to my friends at high school, and they were like, “I don’t know what I wanna do” and I was already doing what I wanted to do. And my stepfather was American so when I was 18 I applied for my Green Card. I left home when I was around 18, got my card when I was 20 and I drove down here. And before that I had done a couple of things: an American TV film; some commercials; some theatre. So there it is... [laughs] “The Beginning!”
Your next significant step was Dangerous Liaisons, which must have been a bit intimidating: John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer etc...
I’d just driven across the country from LA to New York and, um, I got the role. I guess I was about 23. I mean, I was so excited. I didn’t know the novel before I auditioned, eventually read it, didn’t get any rehearsal, and my first day was with Malkovich. I really was a fish out of water. But then, I think I got hired for my innocence.
And it was a good experience?
It was thrilling to be doing sword fights with John Malkovich all the time and you know, [laughs] getting our nails done together. I remember sitting in the trailer with Malkovich and chuckling “John, we’re getting our nails done!” “Yes, Keanu. We are!” Everyone was very nice to me but at the same time I remember it was pretty lonely because I had a kind of supporting role, so they’d go off and shoot for two weeks and I’d be in Paris and not know anybody. I ended up playing a lot of chess with the night watchman at the hotel.
And then, from Parisian period drama to Bill and Ted. Did you have any idea that was going to prove so popular?
Well, the material was just... funny. And the heart was good and Stephen Herek was a really good director for it. And I met Alex Winter and he and I got along famously but... did I know? No. When I got the audition, I probably didn’t even have the whole script.
Didn’t you audition with Alex?
Yeah, there were 10 actors and they just put us in pairs in different rooms. We played Ted, we played Bill. I mean, even when I went to my costume fitting I thought I was playing Bill and Alex thought he was playing Ted. I’d done some Commedia dell’arte and stuff like that. Alex was an NYU fucking film student, film snob, intellectual, you know, brilliant, caustic, fantastic fellow, so those roles made us laugh! We talked about it as playing it from the clowning tradition, with an innocence, a naiveté. So we did this kind of clowning, this twin but opposite thing... that’s how we approached it.
The role kind of typecast you in the public’s perception as this “Whoa dude!” guy.
Well, I didn’t get that from my peers but from journalists certainly. It was frustrating at times in the sense that you do want your work to be understood and you do want people to appreciate it and stuff. So when that doesn’t happen it’s frustrating, but on the other hand it is what it is. All in all it was pretty... excellent. [Laughs]
You appear pretty laidback, even when critics get on your back.
Yeah, well I don’t really have that much to be angry about, do I? I mean I’m trying to do interesting work; I hope people like it. You know, in different kinds and different ways – whether it’s The Matrix or Hardball, The Replacements or Thumbsucker, or you know, Little Buddha or Constantine. I just got to work with Rebecca Miller... Oh I’m sorry, I’m taking you off your track...
That’s alright. You worked with Rebecca on The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.
Yeah, it’s an adaptation of her novel, which I believe has been released in the UK. It’s an excellent book – I recommend it.
It’s another example of how you tend to yo-yo from big to small budget, lead to supporting role...
Yeah. But now you say that, I think I need to add a third direction [Laughs]. See, you just went here and there, but now I need to go here, there and [points to the middle distance] over there! I need to do more! I need to mix it up a little more now.
Talking of which, you went from comedies and indies to the balls-out action of Point Break. At the time it seemed a surprising piece of casting...
Kathryn Bigelow – what was she thinking? She obviously saw something that no one else could see, God bless her heart, and cast me in PB. Opposite Patrick Swayze! You’re right, it was a kind of erm... surprise – who would have thought of me as an FBI agent? But, you know, I grew up playing sports so I was physically able and kind of co-ordinated and I didn’t think of it as an action movie. I thought of it as a drama, a kind of fun movie with a great role in it.
It holds up. It’s still fun to watch.
Yeah – it’s a fun, well-done film! And it inspired a lot of people. To get outside. To play. To jump out of aeroplanes! But, you know, hopefully not to rob banks... It also introduced me to, like, training, you know hanging out with cops and learning to shoot guns and all that kind of fun stuff. Sort of Cowboys and Indians, but Hollywood!
Bigelow was pretty full-on wasn’t she?
She was just doing some great stuff, getting her camera in there. Patrick Swayze did 35 jumps out of an aeroplane. They did a cease and desist on four of the cast members because they were jumping out of aeroplanes. So she got Patrick after the film wrapped, with no insurance, to jump out of the butt of an aeroplane. I jumped out of an aeroplane... she was like balls-to-the-wall.
In quick succession you made Point Break, My Own Private Idaho, and the Bill and Ted sequel. That was a fairly packed 12 months.
Yeah, I don’t recommend that for anybody! They were great opportunities, but... I mean, I finished after 88 days of filming, I was in the ocean in Hawaii, with Lori Petty all night, then about 13 days later I remember going down an escalator with Gus Van Sant and River Phoenix to do a street hustler. Two-and-half-weeks after that I was filming Bill and Ted. Whhhhooooeeee! It was... intense.
That was an extraordinary experience. I had met River before and we worked together on I Love You To Death. He was such an extraordinary person and artist, and to play with him and be with him was great. The camaraderie of the film – man, it was just extraordinary.
How did you get involved with Coppola and Dracula?
I was approached with that from Winona Ryder, and I remember I met with Francis. I remember being psychically really beat up after three films in close succession but, again, it was a great opportunity and there was Francis and he liked me. And then I met Gary and then they said yes, and that was another good day. And then we went up to Napa and started rehearsals, which was, you know, Gary Oldman, Winona, Anthony Hopkins, Richard E Grant....
If it hadn’t been that cast, and that director, do you think maybe you would have taken a break?
I don’t know if I’d had known how to take a break. I didn’t have a mentor and I’m kind of a loner. I deal with things by myself. So I don’t think I was in any situation to be able to know what situation I was in. But also, to me, playing Jonathan Harker was a good role. I know I got killed in the reviews, which was a drag, but the experience of it was great and looking back on it again, I think Francis liked the unexpectedness of it.
Have you seen Dracula in recent years?
I saw it a couple of years ago. I don’t know, I think I work in it! It’s a wacky movie!
And then came Speed...
I tried to bring a character into it – an everyman kind of thing. I mean that was the story. That was Jan de Bont’s take and for me, I guess I took that and ran with it. And I also had a great stunt coordinator in Gary Hives, who really put me there. In the same way Kathryn put the camera there, so did Jan. And I kind of knew a little bit more about what I was doing so I could say, “Okay let’s get me under the bus. Let’s hang me upside down on a wire in the elevator shaft. Yeah, I can shoot guns.”
After Speed, there was a little run there where you did Johnny Mnemonic and A Walk in the Clouds, and...
Hey! Let’s not run over Johnny Mnemonic that quick. [Laughs]
I mean I had a great experience with that, working with Robert Longo. The film got taken out of his hands a little bit but if you look back on that film it’s really ahead of its time. [Laughs] It is!
Is it true that you deferred part of your salary on The Devil’s Advocate to ensure there was enough budget to get Al Pacino on board. That seems rather noble.
Really? To make that film and to have Al Pacino play that role, it was... “Is that all I had to do? Sure! What else do I have to do? Cos I’ll do it!” When I found out he said yes my blood just turned to delicious ice. Again, it was one of those moments of just great news. Working with him, being able to throw down those last scenes between he and I… I’ll be lucky to reach those heights again, you know.
And then you agreed to another salary deferment to get Gene Hackman on board The Replacements...
Oh yeah. He and I had lighter, much lighter, scenes to do. But to hang out with him and just see how, both actors, just see how they go about their craft... And they are both just such beautiful actors, with, you know... We don’t think of Al Pacino now with economy, but that’s what he has – he’s just a beautiful actor and Gene Hackman is another nonpareil, you know?
When you got the script for The Matrix, did you immediately get a sense of its potential?
I didn’t know how other people were going to receive it, but I knew how I did. I was absolutely taken with it. The construct, you know, the platform that they had of reality and what you perceive of reality from a science fiction aspect, the idea of the agents, and then some kung-fu thrown in! It was like, “How come no one else ever thought of this? It’s just so perfect...”
And then meeting Andrew and Larry Wachowski... they were such visionaries, you know, with bullet time.
Does it bug you that the second and third one weren’t as well received?
I don’t mind someone not liking a film – just give me some good reasons. I saw Matrix Revolutions the other day and it’s unbelievable how much story and action and ideas are in there. I mean, I just wish that for the people who didn’t get as much out of it, that they did, you know, because there’s a lot there. [Leans into tape recorder] So watch ‘em again! [Laughs]
Between the three Matrix shoots, you did a number of more left-field choices, perhaps most tellingly in The Gift, where your performance as Donnie Barksdale was deliberately unsympathetic.
Donnie Barksdale didn’t care what you think! [Laughs] That was a lot of fun. I was the villain but I was a villain that didn’t have that obligation to be, you know enjoyable and fascinating in that sense. I was a force of nature. I was an element, you know? It was great to go to Savannah, Georgia and ‘Get my Donny on’ as I call it. It was actually a pretty empowering role. By nature I’m a very polite guy; Donny’s not... so polite.
You took another supporting role in Something’s Gotta Give. How was working with Jack Nicholson?
Amazing. He’s a very generous actor. He offers so much variety and the director decides to pick. He’s very practical too – like there’s a scene between he and I and he’s just had his heart attack and it’s kind of sensitive. He’s crying and he doesn’t know why he’s crying. He told me later: “I was driving to the studio and I had to take a piss desperately, so I took a piss on the highway.” When I asked why he was so desperate, he said: “Because you gotta drink a lot of water when you’ve got a crying scene. If you don’t have a lot of water in your body the tears won’t come.”
You also seemed to have a blast playing Constantine...
Thank you. I think Francis Lawrence [the director] did a great job. And yes, I did have a blast playing that role. I know we went from blond to brunette, from English to American, but I hope that fans of the piece thought that we captured at least some of that ‘Constantinian’ edge. His anger, his world-weariness, his circumstances.
You clearly like the character. Were you tempted to do a sequel?
It wasn’t an option. The film did well, but not well enough for them to want to do a sequel. We got killed by the R rating because I don’t think it’s an R rated film. It’s kind of borderline, perhaps... Anyway, personally, yes, I was really happy the way it turned out.
Final question, also on the sequel front: What made you say ‘no’ to Speed 2?
The script. Also, I was in Chicago shooting Chain Reaction and having a tough time with the story and with just running and jumping for no reason. I mean, to be fair, Chain Reaction had some really good ideas; we tried to do something but didn’t quite make it. So when I read the script for Speed 2, I already knew that I didn’t want to run and jump for no reason. In Speed 1, I had a reason to run and jump. This time it didn’t develop the character. I said to Jan de Bont: “Are you going to ask me to go under water? I don’t know if I’m going to come up. And also, you know... boats aren’t that fast.