a rare conversation with keanu at the peak of his nirvana phase in the 90s
Time travel back to 1993 with your favourite internet boyfriend, and a nostalgic interview from i-D's Sound Issue.
Photography Stephen Hamel.
This article originally appeared in The Sound Issue, no. 115, 1993.
Keanu Reeves: without doubt, the sexiest young male actor on screen today. However, from the air-guitar-wielding dude in the two Bill and Ted films to the FBI man undercover as a surfer in Point Break, the impressionable young nobleman in Dangerous Liaisons, and, most recently, the unfortunate Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker's Dracula, Keanu has asked as many questions as he's answered.
First off, why do people (yes, that's girls and boys) find him so irresistible? He's not a Swayze hunk or a clean-cut Cruise or a Jason Priestley dreamboy. Instead, he has this unaffected gawky charm, a loose-limbed posture, a certain wayward innocence; there's something completely uncalculating about his personality that attracts people to him. He'd have been perfect as a leading man in the Hollywood of the '30s with the goofy glamour of a fantasy boy-next-door.
Secondly, can he act, or is he just the Bill and Ted dude surf-speaking his way through parts that are way too weighty for his flimsy talent? Opinions here differ. He was impressive as the wayward son of a businessman potentate in Gus Van Sant's tale of street misfits in Portland, Oregon, My Own Private Idaho, an update of Shakespeare's Henry IV in which he played the middle class kid alongside River Phoenix's narcoleptic drifter, slumming it with the rent boys and drugheads, all the while anticipating the time when he has to embrace the straight world, reject his lowlife friends, put on a suit and take over his dad's role.
Reactions to Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula were less positive. Reeves struggles with an English accent, not to mention a wooden role, causing titters in British cinemas with his unintentionally comic renditions of expletives like "blooming" and "bloody."
Born in Beirut in 1964 and brought up in New York and Toronto, he started acting at 15 and had his first role in the forgettable Rob Lowe ice hockey romance flick Youngblood in 1986. Punk aficionado and bass player in the thrashy mutant rock band Dog Star, Reeves' career has, to some extent, been defined by his face.
However, he seems to have escaped the fate of the 'brat pack' of the early '80s -- Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Rob Lowe and Emilio Estevez -- who had bright starts but ended up in dodgy films and straight-to-video no-hopers. Reeves has already gone further: actors say that the three most desirable directors to work with are Bertolucci, Scorsese and Coppola; Reeves has already done two of them. His career could be seen as evidence of the increasing power that young, hip actors have in Hollywood these days. None of the above directors (nor Gus Van Sant, for that matter) have any real box office pull: their films don't make any real money (although Dracula did alright) and they need people like Keanu even if they don't have the same intense talent as Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel or Christopher Walken.
You could draw a comparison between Reeves and Mel Gibson, who started out strictly as beefcake but escaped the stereotype by taking on risky roles (appearing in Kenneth Branagh's interpretation of Much Ado About Nothing is a step in the right direction for Reeves, rather like Gibson's Hamlet). He's past the stage of taking on roles just because they're there and will probably end up forming his own production company and picking projects more judiciously.
Historically, those actors who the camera and the public love do alright. And although the jury is still out on Reeves' long-term worth as an actor, he's more than bankable and the parts keep coming. This year he'll be starring in Much Ado About Nothing, but the most exciting project on the horizon (it'll probably come out next year) is his role as Siddhartha in Bernardo Bertolucci's Buddhist epic The Little Buddha. Currently blanketed in secrecy, The Little Buddha is a fairy tale set within a contemporary framework. The story of the search for the reincarnation of a dead lama, it contains within it the ancient myth of Siddhartha, the central tale of Buddhism. Siddhartha, born a prince, was cosseted in luxury by his father, before rejecting his privileged enclave to seek spiritual fulfilment. This eventually came after years of fasting and deprivation, while sitting in meditation under a tree, where, finally enlightened, he reached nirvana....
The film, reportedly, will look spectacular. Filmed in Kathmandu and Seattle, it's being made by the same team that produced Bertolucci's visually amazing Chinese dynasty fable The Last Emperor. This is Buddhism for the mass market. But for Reeves, Siddhartha has been more than just another role. "He was a great spiritual, intellectual, social redeemer, a radical," he says with the respectful awe of a novice. "He became a liberator within his lifetime. People took up his practices, his ways." Soaking up Buddhist teachings through books and then, in Nepal, through direct contact with Buddhist lamas, there's a sense that the experience has struck a chord deep within him. "You're just invigorated by them," he says of the lamas. "Even now when I read books I find myself getting energy from them. I feel it going up my spine, up my back. All of a sudden I'll be bolt upright as I'm reading. I'll stay awake longer, I'll be more active. It's very, very cool!"
Reeves was interviewed in Nepal by film-maker and photographer Stephen Hamel, a friend of eight years' standing, just after completing the filming of his part. The conversation shows a more thoughtful, introspective Keanu Reeves than we're accustomed to. "This was a huge thing for him," says Hamel. "He was overwhelmed by this whirlwind of experience that affected him a great deal, made him start questioning himself."
Reeves certainly seems serious about it. You couldn't imagine the Keanu of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure talking about dharma -- but that was five years ago. From dude to Buddhist? Perhaps it's still too early to pin Keanu Reeves down.
i-D: How did you get involved with Bernardo Bertolucci and The Little Buddha?
Keanu Reeves: Bernardo had seen My Own Private Idaho and he saw me. I didn't know anything about Buddhism. When I was a kid my mother had Chinese artifacts, so to me Buddha was this big fat smiling guy. I come from a background that is not Christian. My mother is English and has no interest in the church, no Western religiosity. In my life I have searched for and asked about God. I joined a Bible group for a bit when I was 11 but it was boring. We met in New York City in a hotel and Bernardo told me the story of the script. He spoke about the lamas he had met and how he had come from a non-religious background, a disbelieving aspect, and he felt he had met religious men and they infected him, you know? And as he told the story, I was crying, I was very excited to be there. When I said I was crying, I didn't, like, drench my jeans, but I was fucking moist on it because it was very sweet and moving and I was affected by seeing this man affected. I was thinking, my God, this is audacious!
While you were filming Much Ado About Nothing in Italy, you met the actor Brian Blessed, and he helped you out with preparing for The Little Buddha.
There was something about Brian Blessed which made me think that he meditated. He's an actor, he climbed Everest, and there was just something about him that made me want to ask him about the dharma (truth). So I asked him if he would spend some time with me, teach me about meditation. I had to prove to him that I wanted to learn. He taught me a basic, very simple meditation. It was my first introduction to many other experiences, to a magnetism that draws you. Throughout the three months that I've been involved I've had many examples of running into Buddhists out of thin air. Driving to Florence to meet my sister and picking up a hitch-hiker and me just asking out of the blue 'are you Buddhist?' And yes, he was. It's occurred many times. Sometimes I've had moments when it's been a little maddening -- like, leave me alone! Man, these fucking guys! There's a power about them, things get taken care of for them without them asking for it. Higher energies, I guess.
When did you start to get totally immersed in Buddhism, on your first visit to Nepal?
I started to have books shipped out to me whilst I was doing Much Ado About Nothing, and began reading, practicing posture and sitting. The first things I learnt were the four noble truths: suffering, the cause of suffering, the path that leads to suffering, and the sensation of suffering. The Buddhists believe in no 'self.' The 'I' -- what we call the 'ego' in the West -- does not exist.
When I was in Nepal to do the costume fittings I met a 'master', a Rimpoche (Buddhist adept), who was working with Bernardo. I had some sessions with him doing personal training, he gave me a couple of meditations and he spoke to me about basically working on the notion of 'self'; you have to come to terms with that, then move onto subtler, greater aspects, and basically come to compassion and wisdom and happiness.
When I began working with the Rimpoche and dealing with the sense of self and the practices that he taught me. It's terrifying, it's so painful it's terrifying to give up that idea and the whole notion of the 'I' itself. The Rimpoche said to me do not take what I say on faith! Taste it, bite it, test it like gold. That is Buddhism's strength. It's not proselytising. A Buddhist will not make you fucking say 14 Hail Marys before they give you food. It's not about that the principle that has kept me interested in this is that Buddhists are interested in truth. The bottom line is love and compassion and kindness and happiness.
You were obviously very influenced by the Buddhist teachings. Did you want to become a monk?
No, but there was something inside of me that wanted to. There was a part of me that was searching for a vow to take, you know? There is something in you that can put you over the edge and basically it is only now that I am considering Buddhism. I am going to continue to study it.
How did the influence of Buddhism affect you as an actor?
I've trained as an actor for the past ten years: watching myself, asking why do I feel this, what do I feel now, physically learning expressions, trying to delve into the emotional and intellectual aspects of relationships. And this helped me. It's been therapeutic in a sense -- I've been training my mind.
The first shot you did for the film was the scene of Siddhartha's enlightenment. How did you prepare for that?
I just tried to invoke in myself a calm and a vastness. Bernardo had a picture from a book of the facial expression that he was interested in seeing. I would just try and relate to that and conjure it up.
What about the restricted diet you had to eat while you were doing the scene where Siddhartha is naked and starving himself in the forest?
You and I know, I fucking love feasting! Feasting is one of the great joys of life! But in the past couple of weeks we've been doing the mortification scene, so l fasted; I had an orange and ten litres of water a day, it's crazy, things are revealed to you, that's one of the kicks! Siddhartha was this man who was seeking release from old age, suffering and death. He was conquering his body, he was conquering his desires, his cravings, he was testing himself. He thought, 'if I can conquer my desires, I will be liberated'. You should read some Dalai Lama books, he's very eloquent. There's this one book I've been reading recently called Kindness, Clarity And Insight; if anyone wants to have a little taste of any of these things, they should try to read it.
What's the overall tone of the film?
We're doing a fable-istic, emotive and compassionate representation of Siddhartha. That's my view of it. It's trying to push out and magnify the pain that this man felt.
How are Buddhists going to react to this film?
I don't know. I haven't seen the film yet.
Originally the Indian director Satyajit Ray was against the idea of a film about the story of Buddha. There must be other people who think that too.
The film isn't about the story of Buddha. It's a representation of Siddhartha and his life. Bernardo has been very careful about his responsibility. Tradition, ritual and practice is reflected in the film very accurately, and the teaching of the dharma is subtle, rich and deep, and hopefully that will help.
How do you feel about going back to Los Angeles after the filming?
I've come to believe that there is so much ludicrous about America, I can't even believe it! (laughs raucously) Being here (in Nepal) I realise the sewage is so good in America, how we take care of our shit -- the technology is so great, the industry of America is so beautiful. You can see its wonderful, incredible promise -- the potential of a land to really, really help everyone with its ideas and machines, to really fucking help everyone.
When I arrived in Nepal, I'd never ever seen anything like it before in my life. It was amazing. The shock of seeing the culture, the cows everywhere, people brushing their teeth in the street, the bare feet. How did you deal with that?
I had the really bizarre feeling of being very comfortable and not thinking that it was strange at all. It seemed to make sense. I like cows! One of the most amazing things was an evening I spent at a sacred burial ground where they burn the dead. The sun was going down. On one side was a Hindu temple, some monkeys and dogs; on the other side were people praying and the preparations for a cremation. There were children playing around and selling food and the monkeys were playing with the dogs, the river kept flowing and the sun was going down and the whole of life was there. I didn't grow up on a farm, I grew up in the city. As a bourgeois white boy, sometimes you don't get to see the whole thing -- the morning, the joys, the children, the beginning and the end, the respect and the holiness. The feelings that coursed through me were awe, respect and just being a part of it and looking at all these different people. That was, to me, the most affecting time I spent there.
So you're going back to LA in two days.
Whoo hoo! It's hilarious, man, I've had, like, visions in my bathtub, of going home, lying on my lawn and pouring red wine over my head, soaking myself, going 'forget it, I'm just going to be an ordinary guy, just eat and shit and love and do whatever
, man!' I'm looking forward to seeing my friends and family and riding my bike, hanging out and reading, eating some crab and relaxing. I shipped all my books home -- I'm very interested in learning more about the doctrines, maybe becoming Buddhist. In the world that I'm in, you just want to talk to your friends, hang out, kick back; it's hard sometimes to see deeper things. All we want to do is be happy, have a sense of ease, comfort and joy. Most of us aren't looking for anything beyond that. We all want pray to something, we all feel that something more is 'out there' sometimes. I know I do. And all this has helped me come into contact with that -- an actual experience of it. And that is cool!
Text and photography by Stephen Hamel.
Additional research by Matthew Collin, David Eimer and Stephanie Dosunmu.