It’s exactly three decades since Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter sauntered into a casting audition for a clumsy, somewhat crass, stoner-themed movie without even a script in their hands.
Two hours later, they emerged with what they imagined at the time was little more than an acting job, but in actual fact Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was the catalyst, for Keanu at least, to excel well beyond the realms of teen action comedy.
Through The Devil’s Advocate, Speed, 47 Ronin and The Matrix, and a career on stage that even saw the now 57-year-old guitarist play at Glastonbury, that hastily attended audition has opened up career, wealth and global adulation to an actor who has never allowed fame to go to his head. After all these years, if anyone doubted whether Reeves could still sway between the sublime and the ridiculous – the bullet-dodging Neo versus dim-witted, laid-back Ted; the global superstar versus a motorbiking hipster – worry no longer…
RSNG It seems to be a case of two sequels occupying your attention at this point in your career, both decades after their previous incarnations. What has that been like to go back to those characters after so long away from them? KEANU REEVES, ACTOR “Well, with Neo (The Matrix 4), I am absolutely happy with where he is. Because, if I am honest, unless I was going to be totally ramped up with how he is for this fourth installment and where the landscape is and everything else around it, I would not have agreed to do it. I couldn’t do that.”
“I have already read the script and I am stoked to do it because it’s a very ambitious piece, and rightly so, as it’s such a huge part of a lot of people’s movie past. Those who watched the first movie were captivated with it and they’ve been hooked ever since.”
“I mean, as was I when I first picked up the script for that first movie - I was pulled in immediately… but like everyone I was a little confused as to what exactly was going on. I had to speak to the Wachowskis about how I could play the role and what I could give away, because it’s such a heavily layered and cloaked movie.”
“Because it’s always said that Neo is ‘The One’ - we had to make sure it was perfect.”
RSNG How did those conversations go then? KEANU REEVES “I wanted to do the role justice and play it with conviction, and I had to ask the Wachowskis if Neo knows that he has the capability inside him, that something which convinces him to go along with Morpheus and Trinity, (played excellently by Larry Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss).”
“Does he know he can be what they want and need him to be or is he simply a brilliant hacker who just happens to be in the right place at the right time? That was something we absolutely had to get right to make sure the whole film worked.”
“Obviously we are still some time away from the new movie being released but I suppose that gives us all of that time to make sure we get the film absolutely right. I’ve been geeked out for a while since I knew Matrix 4 was coming and since I read the script. So, I am as excited as a fan will be about it!”
RSNG The way the previous three movies have been, the focus was on the visuals and the CGI. Do you think that the dialogue doesn’t get talked about enough? KR “Well, it was definitely what the writers wanted. They wanted the film to be an action classic, to have its own world… emotional content and mind-bending storylines and layers, instead of it just being a shoot ‘em up, sci-fi, run-of-the-mill thriller.”
“They wanted it to stand out, to be talked about for years to come; and the fact we’re coming back to film a fourth one surely validates that wish. Those people who love the franchise will do so for different reasons – despite that fact I think for most it’s the look of the movie, not the dialogue.”
RSNG In stark contrast, we’ve seen Bill & Ted Face the Music, the third film in that franchise. What encouraged you to return to the character of Bill after all these years? KEANU REEVES “We started speaking about this around 2010, 2011 or 2012. And at that time it was really just an idea. It goes to show these things take time, right? It’s one of those where we’ve all come a long way, and it sure is nice to go back.”
RSNG Do you still remember that first audition, way back? KEANU REEVES “Sure. First off there was no script to work from. I was just given a few pages and was told to go from there. There were about 10 different Bill and Teds and we were all interacting with each other to see how best we could play as a pair. It was weird.”
“I was relatively new to acting and only had a handful of movie credits to my name before Excellent Adventure. I hadn’t done that kind of audition before and I had to learn on the job; I had to try to attack it from the angle I felt would work best.”
“Maybe because we didn’t look to play the characters as the ‘stoners’ that a lot of others were, it helped us.”
I’ve been geeked out for a while since I knew Matrix 4 was coming and since I read the script – so I’m as excited as a fan about it!
RSNG Before you were anywhere close to becoming an actor, you had lived in four countries. How was that growing up? KEANU REEVES “A lot of that time I was very young, I mean like a baby, young. I was born in Beirut in Lebanon in September 1964 and after a few months, my mother and father who were in their early twenties at the time, moved to Sydney, Australia, where my sister was born. They then went to New York and then from there, they split up!”
“My mom married a guy called Paul Aaron who worked in the theater on Broadway, but they were only married for a short time. But I did keep in touch with him and I started out in the movie business as a PA on one of his projects at the age of about 15 years old.”
RSNG You went to Hollywood, but your first film was back in Toronto, Canada? KEANU REEVES “Yeah, that’s right. That was called Youngblood and that was with Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Cynthia Gibb. It was a hockey film, where I played a young buck with a puck, haha! Rob played the lead character from the title of the movie and I was in there, with me playing hockey in high school in real life, so it was easy for me.”
Whenever I would get angry or upset about something I would just take the bike out and go as fast as I could but that's not always the best mood to be in if you're riding at 150km or faster – I don't do that anymore
RSNG For all the time you are rebooting movie projects, there must be a temptation to get Dogstar back together? KEANU REEVES “Ha. Dogstar. I played bass guitar. To be honest, we were just a bar band, but we wanted to live a little and have some life experience. We organized a tour of the United States and that went well, and we did another and another and a fourth.”
“We got to be able to go and play in Japan, in Europe, where in 1999, we managed to book ourselves onto Glastonbury, but that one didn’t go so well, because I got loads of fruit thrown at me, haha! But I seem to remember that we played, and they were throwing stuff just to try and get my attention. It didn’t work that well, because I was concentrating on trying not to mess up!”
“It’s always been about trying to fit the gigs in around my filming and when I was able to, we ended up playing in some pretty cool places and touring alongside some huge and cool bands. There was a time when Bon Jovi gave us a proposal to play with them at some point on their tour, and it was obviously dependent on where they were in the world once we called a wrap on The Matrix.”
“It turned out that we would be supporting them in Australia, and we did a couple of nights with them. The crowd didn’t come to see us, and we knew that. We were just happy to be able to perform our stuff to a lot of people, but the crowd were nice to us and we’re grateful for that.”
RSNG While we’re talking about things away from work, you’re still keen on riding those bikes too? KEANU REEVES “Yeah, I have the need for speed haha! It all started when I was young and growing up in Toronto and there were gangs on motorcycles who would come through the town where I lived, and I was instantly hooked.”
“When I was filming in Germany in the mid-1980s, there was a young lady who was riding a motorbike there and I asked if she could show me how to ride one properly. She did and when I got back to LA, I bought my first one and I’ve never been the same since.”
“One of my favorites is a Norton and I’ve a 1973 Mk2A Commando which I’ve had for about three decades – we have shared a huge number of hours and miles together. Such great memories and amazing times. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do; in life you’ve got to have these distractions, these escapes – they are what truly make us the people we are. It’s not work that ever does that.”
RSNG Didn’t you have a huge wipe-out on your Commando? KEANU REEVES :Yeah, that was bad. I suffered a ruptured spleen from that. Usually it's just slide-outs although I've broken my arm, broken a few teeth, lost a lot of skin and got road rash on my knees. I've tried to slow down and become a little safer over the years, though.”
“Whenever I would get angry or upset about something I would just take the bike out and go as fast as I could but that's not always the best mood to be in if you're riding at 150km or faster. I don't do that anymore.”
RSNG But becoming the co-founder of a custom motorcycle shop must in some way have felt like destiny for you? KEANU REEVES “It's my way of indulging my passion for motorcycles and creating the kind of riding experience you dream about. I've always been fascinated by the way bikes are put together, the kinds of parts used, even things like finding the best seat. I’m a geek, I admit it!”
WHAT NEXT? The ‘nice guy’ routine, for real – proof that Keanu Reeves is a gent.