TORONTO — Keanu Reeves, Hollywood Ur dude, is lunging, thrusting and dancing around a Toronto parking lot on a brisk spring morning. He’s lean as a greyhound, elegantly dressed, his hair cropped in a ruff, “Repo Man” style.
And he’s quoting the Bard. “When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state…”
“It’s a sonnet,” explains Keanu, a Hawaiian word for a cool breeze over the mountains. “Shakespeare is physically thrilling, it goes into my brain and into my heart.”
At the moment, the actor is being watched by Dina Meyer, his co-star in “Johnny Mnemonic,” a cyberpunk action adventure in its final days of shooting. Her mind is not focused on Elizabethan verse. As Reeves spins, leaps and tosses off a few more lines of iambic pentameter, Meyer darts across the parking lot to pin him against the trailer. “We only have one almost kissing scene,” she bemoans later. “I can imagine people watching and saying, ‘When are they going to get it on?’ “
Ever since he played Ted, the totally excellent dude of the “Bill and Ted” adventures, it’s been assumed Keanu Reeves is Ted — airhead, air guitar and all — which is to say, he isn’t always taken seriously. Even Reeves admits, “The line has definitely been blurred.” He’s known more for his sex appeal — to both men and women — a wild streak, dirty jeans and hair and Norton bike than for his film performances, which, from “My Own Private Idaho” to the “Bill and Ted” efforts, “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Little Buddha,” have been uneven, at best.
But now, Reeves seems poised for the ultimate unlikely development in his most unlikely career: to break out as the next Arnold-sized action star with this weekend’s release of “Speed” and follow that up with next year’s “Johnny Mnemonic.”
“He’s an action hero for the Nineties,” gushes “Speed” director Jan De Bont, who set Reeves up with an Olympic gymnast trainer to effect the transformation from dude to stud.
“I think he easily can go up against [Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger],” says De Bont.
In addition, he has remarkable, if not curious popularity. Last semester, the Arts College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., offered a 12-week course in the 29-year-old’s oeuvre, “The Films of Keanu Reeves.” “The first time I heard about it, I didn’t say, ‘Oh cool,’ ” says Keanu. “It was just something that existed. I hope the kids learn something worthwhile.” When Reeves — who plays bass — and his band, Dogstar, made their debut at a Northern California bar last fall, 75 percent of the audience was women. There are so many wild rumors about his personal life that at movie premieres he’s often besieged by TV crews asking, “Are you gay?” and “Are you a drug addict?” Reeves refuses to answer.
The basic facts about Reeves’s personal life include these: His mother is English and his father is half Chinese and half Hawaiian. He was born in Beirut, then moved to Australia, New York, and Toronto, and now stays at the Chateau Marmot when he’s in L.A. He has an apartment in New York. He has two sisters, was voted the most valuable player on his high school hockey team, but dropped out before graduation. So, who is Keanu Reeves, really? “He’s like a really sweet, kind person,” says L.A. tastemeister Sofia Coppola. “He’s not a scenester…He’s smart, too. People don’t give him credit. He’s definitely not like Ted. But he sounds like him sometimes.”
Bearing up under the comb and gel of a stylist on the set of “Johnny Mnemonic,” Reeves is gaunt, severe, but genial as Ted. In fact, it would be easy to confuse the two, except that in his new sharp-but-sinister persona, he’s more like Ted’s evil twin. But Reeves still slips into Californiaspeak and his preferred adjective is “cool.” He can’t remember the author or title of the book he’s reading (Oriana Fallaci’s “Interview With History”) but is animated about his role as Johnny, an “information courier” living in the 21st century.
“A lot of the characters I’ve played have had good hearts and are altruistic in some way,” Reeves says. “It seems to be what I get hired for.” Johnny Mnemonic, on the other hand, is a “yuppie gone berserk, who lives only for his work. I like Johnny,” he says. “I like how he feels, his physicality. I like his haircut. I like his taste in clothing…he’s cool.”
The general consensus is that since his friend River Phoenix, his co-star in “My Own Private Idaho,” died of a drug overdose, Reeves has undergone a marked transformation. “I think that [wild] period is over,” says “Speed” director De Bont. “What happened to his friend from ‘My Own Private Idaho’ helped settle him down. He’s very much at peace with himself.” When she auditioned for “Speed,” Sandra Bullock says she “expected a long-haired, lanky Keanu.”Instead, here was this beautiful, incredibly strong, silent person,” she adds. “I didn’t know him before, but it’s obvious he’s reached a good place in his life.”
“I knew River fairly well,” says Keanu, “I shared some special times with him. But in terms of his death changing me, no it didn’t. I’d say I’ve gone from loose and fancy free to less so. It’s just what happens when you get older and wiser.”
Reeves was also affected by his experience shooting “Little Buddha” in Nepal. “The movie had a huge impact on me,” says Reeves, who fasted for two weeks to better resemble Siddhartha. “I didn’t take refuge in the Dharma, like some people in the cast, but I learned about meditation and what that involves. I learned about the four noble truths. It introduced to me the concept that what appears to be solid isn’t solid. All of those things touched me.” Bertolucci, believes that the Tibetan monks who coached Reeves brought out an existing spirituality. “Keanu was fed by them. I think in some way, Keanu must have been a bit Buddhist before the film,” says the director. “I needed someone with an extraordinary inner peace in his face. Keanu must have done everything in his life, but he has the most amazing innocence in his face.”
Buddhistic karma aside, it will be his role in the summer action flick “Speed” that could really accelerate Keanu’s career. De Bont, who was the cinematographer for “Lethal Weapon 3” and “Die Hard,” has found a new side of Keanu. “I saw him in all of his movies,” says De Bont. “I knew he’d be perfect. There’s a need for a new, young action star.”
What’s more, “Speed” answers the question producers ask: “Can Keanu carry a gun?” The response: Without a doubt.
As Jack Travern, a member of the LAPD’s SWAT team, Keanu not only shoots with authority, he saves the riders on a Los Angeles bus and gets the girl. Yet Reeves remains circumspect about his career as an action star. “Are they really saying things like that?” he asks, when told he’s being compared to Bruce and Arnold. “I didn’t do anything. It’s not my ambition to pursue that.”
And he’s not. Reeves’s next project is a romantic drama, “A Walk in the Clouds,” directed by Alfonso Arau (“Like Water for Chocolate”). After that, he’s planning to do Hamlet at the Canadian Manitoba Theater Center. What remains to be seen is if the young actor can also make the leap from action star to full-fledged romantic lead. Or will it all end as Keanu himself once predicted?
“When my life is over, I’ll be remembered for playing Ted.”