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Keanu Reeves, the next action star?

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MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

Little Frida’s, a lesbian coffee shop in West Hollywood, may be one of the few places in America where the androgynous beauty of Keanu Reeves is lost on the local populace. Its sole customer, who’s wearing a nose ring and has a large, colorful tattoo crawling up her back, barely offers a bored glance as Reeves glides by, singing along with piped-in U2. Soft-spoken and courteous, Reeves has a china-doll complexion, black beads for eyes, and a worn leather book with handwritten notes on Hamlet poking out of the pocket of his scraggly suede jacket. Sipping his cranberry juice and appearing politely horrified by the femo-phallic artwork on the walls — “Good morning!” he says, astounded, to one graphic painting — Reeves appears more like a slacker poet than the next great action hero.

Looks can deceive. In Speed, Reeves’ nerves-of-steel performance as LAPD SWAT cop Jack Traven has Twentieth Century Fox so commercially pumped it rushed the film’s release, changing it from August to June 10. Costarring Jeff Daniels as Jack’s partner and Dennis Hopper as the madman who has rigged a bus to explode if its speed falls below 50 mph, the action-infused suspense thriller has generated such good buzz that Fox is already talking sequel, and Hollywood insiders are lauding Reeves as the next — take your pick — Sly/Arnold/Bruce. The Speed star’s response: Thanks, but no thanks. “I don’t have any ambition to do that,” says Reeves. “I’m not averse to working in the genre again; it was good, clean fun. But my ambition is variety.”

The scruffy, skinny guy with a Chia Pet hairstyle is not the most obvious choice to muscle into testosterone territory. Nor does he have the resume. With 20 films to his credit, Reeves, 29, is best known for his portrayal of the burnout Ted in 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and its 1991 sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. He did Shakespeare last summer in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, and he hopes to play Hamlet next January on the Canadian stage. Indeed, Reeves’ current role as Prince Siddhartha — the last inaction hero — in Little Buddha may be better suited to his gentle, somewhat otherworldly demeanor.

But that doesn’t stop the makers of Speed from touting their star’s dude-of-steel credentials. “I’ve worked with Mel, Bruce, et cetera, et cetera, but people are ready for a new, younger action hero, especially one young people can relate to,” says Speed‘s first-time director Jan De Bont, previously the cinematographer for Lethal Weapon 3, Basic Instinct, and Die Hard. “I always felt Keanu would be perfect after seeing Point Break [in which he played a surfing fed]…. What is nice about him as an action hero is that he’s vulnerable on the screen. He’s not threatening to men because he’s not that bulky, and he looks great to women.” The Dutch director nonetheless felt that Reeves needed an image makeover. “To me he represented something too young, too cool — hippie. He’s represented too much the grunge look for too long. I felt like he had to grow up. In this movie he is really coming of age.”

Keanu. In Hawaiian it means cool breezes over the mountains. Named after his great-uncle, he thinks, Reeves, who is part Hawaiian, was raised by his mother and stepfather in Toronto, where he attended four high schools in five years before dropping out. After working at a hockey rink and in an Italian food store, he took acting lessons and found roles in community theater, local television, and commercials. At 19, the fledgling actor got into his “thrash mobile,” a 1969 Volvo, and drove to Los Angeles, where he’s lived ever since.

Reeves soon landed a TV movie with Lindsay Wagner, but his first real break came as an alienated, road-to-nowhere teen in Tim Hunter’s 1986 Gen-X forerunner River’s Edge. Directors took note: He has since worked with Ron Howard in Parenthood, Lawrence Kasdan in I Love You to Death, Francis Ford Coppola in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Gus Van Sant in My Own Private Idaho.

If Reeves does become an action star, he’ll probably go down as the shiest one in history. When asked a few questions about his dinner the evening before, he defensively responds, “Have you ever read that American Psycho book by Bret Easton Ellis? The particulars you ask me (about) sometimes remind me of the first couple of pages.” His responses to a request to name his favorite action films also come from deep left field. “I like the action scene in Excalibur, the fighting scenes in The Duellists, um, The Three Musketeers with Oliver Reed,” Reeves says.

In terms of his favorite leading men — Sly (in Rocky mode) and Arnold — they’re only as good as the entire package. “I like it when they’re good in righteous films,” he sort of explains, “when their performances match the material, and they are given interesting cinematography and a good script. The reason that they are the guys is because they are the best at it. They have a hero aspect that’s above them.”

That may have been what Reeves was seeking when Fox presented him with Graham Yost’s original Speed script. He wasn’t initially enthralled. “The character (of Jack Traven) was very flippant. There were situations set up for one-liners and I felt it was forced — Die Hard mixed with some kind of screwball comedy,” he says. “I said, ‘I’m not really interested in that. I think we can do better.'” De Bont brought in Joss Whedon to rework the script by removing the glib retorts and making the character more earnest, per Reeves’ suggestion. “I dealt with the LAPD before on Point Break, and the thing that came off is their concern for human life: ‘We get the bad guys, and we get to save the good guys,'” he explains. “And with that basic tenet I began with Jack.”

Once he took the role, Reeves had to transform physically. “I really didn’t want (Jack) to have long hair,” says De Bont. “I wanted him to look strong and in control of himself.” So the actor pulled a Sinead O’Connor and shaved his head almost completely. “Everyone at the studio was scared s—less when they first saw it,” laughs the director. “There was only like a millimeter. What you see in the movie is actually grown in.”

Although he never approached Stallone-like proportions, Reeves did manage to fill out his lithe frame by pumping up for two months at Gold’s Gym in Los Angeles. “I didn’t want to be cut, but I wanted to have somewhat of a beefy aspect to my chest and arms,” he says. His efforts certainly impressed his costar Hopper, who shares Reeves’ trainer. “When I saw Keanu he was totally buff,” says Hopper, who was “amazed” by the transformation. “He had just finished Little Buddha. That character was so emaciated that at times he even looked like a beautiful woman. And in Speed he looks like a bulldog.”

Working out helped rev Reeves into the action mode even more than his director would have liked. “He was nervous in the beginning, then he got addicted to the adrenaline,” says De Bont. “He wanted to do the scene when Jack jumps from the Jag onto the bus himself, but I thought it was irresponsible.” Reeves rehearsed secretly, and when the day came, he just jumped. “I almost had a heart attack,” says De Bont. But this is one action hero with some chinks in his armor.

Sandra Bullock, who plays Annie, the passenger Traven recruits to take the wheel, was surprised by his introverted personality. “I was expecting this stud-muffin who was wild…but the Little Keester sits back and listens to everything,” she says. Bullock recalls that hours after the two got into an involved discussion about severing personal life from work, the actress returned to her trailer and found a small offering, an oatmeal cookie with a little note — “You’re right, I feel the same way” — awaiting her.

Bullock thinks she knows the source of Reeves’ sensitivity: He’s gone through harder times than he’s willing to admit. “I think there’s a lot of pain,” she says. “I would see him go off by himself, and there’s a hint of sadness in his eyes that makes you want to go, ‘What is it?’… But he keeps it to himself, and that makes you want to know even more about him.” Hopper, who has known Reeves since they costarred in River’s Edge, agrees. “He’s always been very serious about his work, and he’s always been very distant…. He has some inner turmoil that he deals with. I don’t know what that is, and I haven’t questioned him, (but) certainly he’s got something there.”

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The turmoil that Bullock and Hopper specifically noticed on the Speed set may have something to do with the death of River Phoenix. His overdose last October (while Speed was in production) is said to have devastated Reeves, a close friend and costar in My Own Private Idaho and I Love You to Death. Immediately after Phoenix died, De Bont changed the shooting schedule to work around Reeves and give him easier scenes. “It got to him emotionally,” he says. “He became very quiet, and it took him quite a while to work it out by himself and calm down. It scared the hell out of him.”

“It happened one day, and the next day we were working and he never brought it up, and I never brought it up either,” says Hopper, who also knew Phoenix. “I thought it was admirable on both of our parts. Hollywood’s a very glib kind of town, and it’s easy to have dialogue, and it’s easy to make serious things light. I felt that not talking about River Phoenix’s death didn’t put it in a common place.”

It is not a topic, even months later, about which Reeves has much to share. “Oh, I miss him,” he says quietly. “I miss him greatly.” Keanu Reeves doesn’t really live anywhere. He owns an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but says that a dispute over the L.A. building where he rented a condo forced him to leave. Reeves, who lives alone and is said to be unattached, moved his belongings into storage and sought refuge at the Chateau Marmont, the Hollywood hotel best known as the place where John Belushi died. In the empty, shabby-chic dining room, Reeves presses a buzzer on the wall and within minutes is enjoying a late-afternoon snack of hot chocolate and croissants. He is wearing a gunmetal-gray Issey Miyake suit complemented by tube socks and Timberland boots ripped at the seams, and he has a red motorcyle helmet with him that has obviously smacked its share of gravel.

In some ways, Reeves seems typically boyish. He enhances stories by making sounds of cars crashing and planes taking off, and he plays hockey in his spare time. He enjoys jamming on his bass with his folk band Dog Star, and even gets a kick out of the time when it led him astray during last year’s Milwaukee Metal Fest. “They paid for our flight and free beer, but we were not what they expected. I guess they were into the Reeves thing,” says the actor, in a rare reference to his own fame. Unfortunately, Dog Star opted to perform a Grateful Dead cover on the heels of the punk band Murphy’s Law. “Everyone started throwing cups and beer and s— at us, but we were laughing,” says Reeves, “We’re really bad, but our songs are fun in a stomp-your-foot kind of way.”

But the actor has a less accessible, less explicable aspect as well; who else could evoke the adjective lama-like from Bernardo Bertolucci? “He has this incredible shyness or embarrassment, then he explodes in laughter,” says the Little Buddha director. “The Tibetan lamas are like that, and you have no idea what they are laughing about.”

Bertolucci made a good call. The sight of black motorcycle boots at a photo shoot, and other insignificant objects and comments, can have odd effects on Reeves, sending him into paroxysms of guffawing. He tends to lapse into detached, almost Shakespearean actor-speak, which is punctuated by passionate, if unusual, descriptions of people (on Jan De Bont: “He is a beautiful warrior master!”) He can become almost rhapsodic when discussing the ballroom dancing lessons he’s taking for fun. But when he doesn’t want to discuss something, he can defend himself with an impenetrable shield of words. Reminded that a Keanu Reeves film class is being taught at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., he says: “I guess I’m not really involving my imagination to that of a circumstance or happening — I’m just kind of acknowledging it as an existence.” Exactly.

The class, which uses Reeves’ films as a departure point for discussing culture and philosophy (the students read Michel Foucault’s essay on Nietzsche for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure), will have two more films to add to next year’s syllabus. Reeves has just finished shooting Johnny Mnemonic, artist-turned-director Robert Longo’s cyberpunk thriller, due for release this winter; he stars opposite Ice-T as a messenger who has a disease cure implanted in his head. And in July he’ll start A Walk in the Clouds, a romantic story of a soldier returning from World War II, to be directed by Alfonso Arau (Like Water for Chocolate).

Reeves’ reserve is never more evident than when he’s asked whether Phoenix’s death affected how he looks at life. He sits silently for a 10-beat eternity. Turning his face to the window, he sniffs, then sniffs again, and parts with a hoarse “No.” On his face, however, a range of intense emotions flash by like film being projected on a moving target. When reminded that he doesn’t have to answer the question if he’s not comfortable, he replies, “I answered the question. No.”

With the interview finished, Reeves heads outside to unlock his vintage Norton motorcycle. Tucking his identification into his helmet, he hops on and zooms off to a bookstore to buy essays on Hamlet, clearly thrilled to be making a getaway. “Keanu is always very charming,” says Dennis Hopper. “But I think he would be more content if he could get away from people.”

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