Just a breeze for Keanu

Matrix star receives Deauville tribute.

by Richard Mowe

Keanu Reeves:
Keanu Reeves: "This 51-year-old man feels very lucky to have lived the dream and the hope of that 15-year-old boy.” Photo: Richard Mowe
Keanu Reeves, the star who remains forever Neo from the Matrix franchise and who has worked with directors as varied as Gus Van Sant, Francis Ford Coppola, Bernardo Bertolucci and Richard Linklater, gave the 41st edition of the Deauville American Film Festival a suitably rousing send-off in the sleepy Normandy resort last night (September 4).

The actor – whose name means Cool Breeze over the Mountain (a nod to his Hawaiian roots) – sports dark locks framing his chiselled features and beard. He shared his early beginnings with the appreciative crowd while acknowledging his gratitude to the event’s organisers.

Keanu Reeves:
Keanu Reeves: "I got my first agent by playing Mercurio in Romeo and Juliet at a Jewish community centre.” Photo: Richard Mowe
“I had my first acting role when I was 17 and my first line was, ‘Lady where’s the bathroom?’ I was playing a troubled youth in a local TV show in Toronto, who had problems trouble with authority and that has been a motif throughout my career both personally and professionally,” he recalled.

“I loved movies and I looked at movies the way another kid would look at a fireman or a policeman or a race car driver or an astronaut. I asked my mother when I was 15 years old if I could be an actor and she said, ‘Of course son, you can do whatever you like.’ So merci, maman!’”

He started to take acting classes and worked on Stanislavski and improvisation. He was kicked out of performing arts school after his first year - “not for bad acting but for trouble with authority. I got my first agent by playing Mercurio in Romeo and Juliet at a Jewish community centre. And I started doing some commercials, selling cornflakes and cola and I did a couple of films, but like so many before I had the dream of wanting to act in Hollywood.”

At 20 years old Reeves just got in his car and drove to Hollywood. “The first thing that happened when I got to Hollywood was that they wanted to change my name. They said that the Keanu bit was ‘kind of something’ but they never explained what. So I said what about John Templeton 111. They said ‘No we think K C Reeves will do it.’ I was young and my first head shot said K C Reeves. I had a disastrous year after that and I decided to change it back to Keanu and my second head shot said Keanu Reeves,” he said.

“My first job in Hollywood was in a TV movie called Under the Influence. I played the alcoholic son of Andy Griffith playing a long-time alcoholic, which was a fantastic experience. He was very supportive. After that there followed a lot of rejection.”

Deauville American Film Festival pays tribute to Keanu Reeves
Deauville American Film Festival pays tribute to Keanu Reeves Photo: Richard Mowe
His first feature in Hollywood was River’s Edge directed by Tim Hunter, and starring Crispin Glover and Dennis Hopper. “That launched my career. Thirty years later here I stand. When I watched the clips of the films featuring in this retrospective I think of the great artists I have had the privilege to work with including River Phoenix. This 51-year-old man feels very lucky to have lived the dream and the hope of that 15-year-old boy.”

Beside the career tribute, Reeves is at the Festival to support the world premiere of his new film Knock Knock, directed by Eli Roth, in which he plays a 47-year-old architect and married father of two. Left alone in his home over Father's Day weekend due to a shoulder injury, he offers help to two young women who arrive on his doorstep after suffering phone trouble. What might seem a dream scenario to some middle-aged men turns into a nightmare. “I was much taken with the tone, the ambition and the humour,” he said.

Despite the pay cheques from the Matrix and other blockbusters, Reeves is not a flashy spender. He said simply: “I have people who look after it well and invest it. I make sure my family lives well. Most of it just goes straight into the bank. I don't need a lot, except when I'm travelling, and I like to buy a bottle of fine Bordeaux once in a while. It's nice not to have to worry about the rent or paying your bills but, like the cliche says, money doesn't buy you happiness though it does buy you the freedom to live your life the way you want to.”

Freedom is an important part of the Reeves’s persona. “I’ve led pretty much a nomadic lifestyle. My mother Patricia latterly worked in rock n roll, doing costumes for people like Alice Cooper. My stepfather was a theatre director.”

He ascribes his rootlessness to his childhood. He was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1964. His mother was English and a showgirl at the time and she worked in a casino. His Chinese-Hawaiian father Samuel walked out when he was just a toddler and then his mother moved the family to Toronto, where she remarried.

Keanu Reeves unveiled a beach hut named in his honour on Deauville’s walk of fame on the historic beach board walk.
Keanu Reeves unveiled a beach hut named in his honour on Deauville’s walk of fame on the historic beach board walk. Photo: Richard Mowe
He found it a bit of a struggled at school because he was dyslexic but he was good at ice hockey and basketball. His name also attracted a certain unwelcome attention. Despite his sporty strengths he decided at the age of 15 to go into acting and managed to find work in local television and theatre productions.

He has made some odd commercial decisions, eschewing the chance to play with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat, preferring instead to do Hamlet on stage in a theatre in Manitoba, Canada. And he turned down the Speed sequel in 1997 (possibly a wise decision given the paucity of his replacement Jason Patric). He did take on Pacino eventually in The Devil’s Advocate, a thriller in which he seemed out of his depth. Until The Matrix and the confidence of Wachowskis, Reeves’s career seemed to be meandering precariously - and we won’t even mention Little Buddha.

What exactly is appeal apart from the obvious former hunk status? Kenneth Branagh who worked with him on Much Ado About Nothing suggests it has to do with his “aloof appeal.” He once told me: “He has a far-away quality. You can’t quite get close to him, he is somehow unattainable. That makes him very, very attractive. Yet he seems to display all the qualities one would want: a very sexy, erotic, physical being.”

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