November 07, 2003
Keanu Reeves is smarter than you think

Keanu at the LA Revolutions premiere
'Matrix' star had to be smart as a whip to shake image of being dumb as a post

By Stephen Whitty
Newhouse News Service

NEW YORK -- Keanu Reeves is smarter than you think.

Sure, those two long-ago "Bill and Ted" movies stereotyped him in a heinous way. ("I used to have nightmares that they would put 'He played Ted' on my tombstone," he admitted.)

And, yes, he has said some silly things in the past and even merits his own chapter in the snarky book "Movie Stars Do the Dumbest Things."

And -- OK, OK -- he does tend to overuse the word "awesome," and salute people with "hey, man," and wonder aloud about things like spontaneous combustion, and did utter the movies' most famous "Whoa!" in "The Matrix."

But Keanu Reeves is also smart enough to love Shakespeare, and read the great Russian novelists, and listen to Joy Division. He's been smart enough to say yes to working with Gus Van Sant and Bernardo Bertolucci, and no to making "Speed 2."

And he was smart enough four years ago to see something in the screenplay for "The Matrix," and to sign on for a sci-fi milestone -- and increasingly profitable payday. (Reeves' reported salary on "The Matrix Revolutions," which opened Wednesday: $15 million plus 15 percent of the gross.)

"When I saw the script for the first one, there was just a kind of modernity in it that appealed to me," he says, sprawled in a Manhattan hotel suite. "The synthesis of all the forms -- classic myth, a love story, even kung fu. I loved that. And the question, 'What is the Matrix?' you know, being really 'What is the world? What is reality? How do we get past that veil to see the truth?' I thought that was fantastic."

The movie's vision of a sexually liberated, casually colorblind society appealed, too.

"It doesn't draw attention to itself and yet it's there," says Reeves of a script by the reclusive directors Larry and Andy Wachowski that gives equal weight to all its characters. "It takes this opportunity to go beyond racial issues and gender orientation to create this kind of inclusive world, and I thought that was a really cool element as well."

The movies don't often feature that sort of multicultural world. Yet, growing up, it was the only one Reeves knew. [...]

"It was just awesome," Reeves remembers happily. "There was no fear, no worry -- I remember chestnut fights, and hide-and-go-seek games that would go on in the street until 11 o'clock at night. . . . People fought, but it was never about anything more than two people wanting to fight. I didn't hear a racial epithet until I was in high school, and when I did, I was just like, 'Are you kidding me? Did you actually just say that?' "

Reeves wasn't much of a presence in high school, where he seemed to major in hockey. But then one day in a sophomore English class, he was called on to recite one of Mercutio's scenes from "Romeo and Juliet." And something happened.

"I just remember that it was really fun, and I felt really alive, and I said, 'This is what I'm going to be,' " he says. " 'I'm going to be an actor.' "

The boy who had no interest in going to school during the day started taking serious acting classes at night. By 22, he'd landed a couple of parts on Canadian TV and a supporting part in the Rob Lowe film "Youngblood." Encouraged, Reeves moved to Los Angeles, where he got a bigger part in a better film: the creepy, alienated "River's Edge."

It was a dark little classic about aimless youth, but co-star Crispin Glover got most of the attention, while Reeves got stamped as a pleasant, not-too-bright hunk. Signing on for "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" in 1989 (and then doing the voice for the Saturday morning cartoon spinoff, and returning for the 1991 movie sequel) only confirmed his image as a handsome, vaguely hammered high schooler.

It was profitable for a while, but in the end it was unwelcome and mostly undeserved. Reeves' performance as the clueless Ted was sweet and unforced, and gave Hollywood its funniest dope since Sean Penn lit up "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Yet while everyone knew Penn wasn't Jeff Spicoli, no one seemed able -- or interested -- in telling Reeves apart from Ted.

Eventually Reeves pulled himself out of the rut by taking on more challenging material such as Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho" and Bertolucci's "Little Buddha." Neither was a mainstream success, but they helped Reeves shake the surfer-dude image and rebuild his credibility as something more than a movie stoner.

Then "Speed" hit and made him a major star at 30.

Since then, Reeves' career has been marked by some odd choices and even odder films. (Remember "Feeling Minnesota"? "The Last Time I Committed Suicide"?) For every "Speed" and "The Matrix," there have been two or three or four films such as "Sweet November," "The Watcher" and "Johnny Mnemonic."

His life has been marred by some horrible tragedies, too. [...]
Some of that Reeves has used in his work ("I've lost my best friends," he says, "and that can't help but be a part of certain scenes"). Much of it he's tried to deal with and move past.

And so Reeves now plays bass in an underachieving band called Becky. He rides vintage motorcycles, way too fast. He thinks about marriage, and kids, but not too much. ("Before you get married, you have to meet someone you want to marry, and you can't control that.") He hangs out with old buddies, some of whom he's known since grade school.

"I've been fortunate to make some pretty incredible friends in my life, and friends keep you down-to-earth," he says. "But my nature is pretty down-to-earth anyway."

He still looks like a college senior and talks like a bright high-schooler, but Reeves turns 40 next year. Although he has a number of projects either already finished or lined up -- including the romantic comedy "Something's Gotta Give" in December -- he has "no idea" what the next decade will be like. This one has been dramatic enough to last for quite a while.

Mostly, he says, he's looking forward to continuing to act, to "finding the truth in the make-believe," and to simply enjoying life.

"I watch my little goddaughter and I think, life is so precious, so beautiful. There's so much possibility and potential in it. It's all such a gift. So why can't we just enjoy it?"

It's not such a dumb question. And sometimes Keanu Reeves sounds like he just might be smart enough to figure it out.

red pill | from inside the mind of krix at November 07, 2003 10:52 AM .

krix, you've got the midas touch for making Friday's special. Good stuff!

Posted by: phoenix IX on November 7, 2003 12:08 PM

Thanks, krix. Very cool. :)

Posted by: Raiza on November 7, 2003 12:19 PM

I don't understand it, this perception that he's less than intelligent. I've seen practically all of his work, I read or watch most of his interviews as well as what is generally written about him, but I still don't see it. The elements just don't add up to dumb.

I find it hilarious that the media, who instigated and propagated the falsity to begin with, are now tripping over each other to claim that he is "not so dumb" after all. What began, in my opinion, because Mr. Reeves did not follow the typical, superficial Hollywood behavior of going after money and fame at all cost, is being put aside because he is now immensely rich and famous.

Posted by: Zen on November 7, 2003 12:23 PM

The media sometimes just happens to be "dumb" that way. Superficial too.

Posted by: Raiza on November 7, 2003 12:57 PM

Yes, the media thinks they can dig into a persons life and shape it the way they see fit...and that's what most Hollywood stars are, just ordinary people. They deserve our respect and admiration for doing what they do (entertaining us). The media is NOW trying to change their opinions of KCR, because they're finding they were wrong. Those of us that have seen/heard his work for the past 13 -15 years knew better all along....didn't we?...

Posted by: rhonda on November 7, 2003 01:44 PM

and thanks krix. I'll say it again...this makes my day..every day.

Posted by: rhonda on November 7, 2003 01:46 PM

Joy Division...I love Joy Division....

-running to dig out the cds now-

Posted by: Ander on November 7, 2003 06:11 PM

I guess it's mostly the mass media and the general public that keeps recycling the same old Ted and "whoa" jokes. Some mediocre columnist or copy editor thought they'd be clever and insert something about his supposed lack of intelligence to get a cheap laugh from readers. That always annoys the hell out of me.

But for the media's sake, lots great glowing pieces about Keanu have been published since the early 90s. I always love reading those profiles, since the journalist will show up expecting a Ted-like interviewee and end up getting a genuine Keanu. It always throws them off, but it's fun because they get converted to admirers after meeting him and they respect him as such when writing the article. I guess Keanu's genuine nature is refreshing after long days in the superficiality of a newsroom.

Posted by: clearscotchtape on November 7, 2003 06:49 PM

dear Mr. Whitty,

your opening sentence is an impossibility. keanu simply cannot be smarter than i think. he is a genius in daring and beauty and intellect and creativity and dedication and movement and in his blood, in his soul. but thanks for noticing.


Posted by: lori on November 7, 2003 08:01 PM

OK, nothing really pertinent to add but I LOVE KEANU - he's the perfect male specimen. YUMMY!

Posted by: preciosa on November 9, 2003 06:09 PM

keanu seems to be essentially a man of substance.. something hard to attain in tinsle town..its great that the media haven't 'got that'..I think he has a great sense of humour :)

Posted by: amba on February 16, 2004 11:06 AM
What's on your mind?.....
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