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Keanu Reeves boldly goes for box-office biggie

The actor often regarded as a 'space cadet' features in remake of a '50s sci-fi classic — and an upcoming Japanese epic

by George Hadley-Garcia

Keanu Reeves is a creature from outer space. More precisely, he is playing Klaatu, a superior being from beyond the stars who takes the form of a human male visiting a planet that, despite millions of years of evolution, remains too fond of violence for its own good.

“I could really relate,” says Reeves of his character, first incarnated in the now-classic 1951 movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still” by the equally impassive British actor Michael Rennie. “The character makes total sense. It’s the guys on Earth who are making war: Those are the ones who could be or should be looked at as being alien, if you know what I mean.”

The film, then and now, can be seen as embodying an antiwar message specific to its era — Korea then, Iraq now. But it’s also about the self-destructiveness of humanity, whether via wars or everyday aggression and violence.

Klaatu comes to Earth to warn that if human beings refuse to give up their bloody ways, then he and his people will have no choice but to annihilate the Earth for the general universal good. Of course, the movie also offers a romance story, with Klaatu becoming the love object of an Earth woman, played by Jennifer Connelly. The ending, even in the 1950s version, isn’t the conventionally “happy” one that audiences might expect; rather, it’s sobering, as Klaatu returns to his home planet after delivering a forceful wakeup call to Earth to stop the violent insanity.

Was the message a key factor in Reeves’ acceptance of the script? After all, he’s been known to turn down certain box-office projects, including the sequel to “Speed,” the 1994 picture that made him an A-list star.

“Yeah, it was.” End of subject, apparently. Reeves, whose first name means “cool breeze over the mountains” in Hawaiian, is not known for being terribly verbal. Like no actor since the golden age of movies’ Gary Cooper, Reeves has an image as monosyllabic that is, of course, an exaggeration.

He philosophizes, “The more you say, the more you can be tripped up.” He pauses. “The more you can trip yourself up. It’s not like in an interview they’re trying to trip you up, cos you mostly just talk about the latest movie you’ve done, and a little bit about your career and even less, or preferably not at all, about your own life; your personal life. Which, if you talk about it, it’s not really personal. Obviously.

“But, like . . . the more you talk about any particular topic, the more you can show your ignorance on that topic.”

Born in 1964 in Beirut, 44-year-old Reeves grew up in in Toronto and is a Canadian citizen. His father, an American geologist of Hawaiian-Chinese descent named Samuel, has served time in jail for alleged drug possession and dealing (not, as the surprisingly widespread urban legend contends, for murder.) His parents divorced in 1966, and the Eurasian Reeves reportedly has not kept touch with his father. He grew up with his mother, Patricia, a former showgirl of English origin, who has designed costumes for rock acts such as Alice Cooper, and with his sister, Kim (born in Australia in 1966), whom to this day he considers his best friend.

Some fan magazines, including In Touch and Star, have speculated that Reeves’ emotional aloofness stems at least partly from the shock of his father abandoning his young family, and also from media criticism of Reeves for being a supposedly poor actor and unintelligent individual. (The movie Web site imdb.com states that the actor has labeled himself “dumb.”)

What does Reeves have to say about comparisons between Klaatu and the emotionally impassive, superiorly intelligent Mr. Spock of the “Star Trek” TV series and movie franchise?

Keanu offers: “Yeah. There’s a similarity there. But it’s kind of funny, cos they’re both real, like, super-intelligent. But they don’t talk very much. Only when they have to. Even though they’re guys — or people . . . or whatever — who could afford to, you know, really run off at the mouth.”

A long-standing rumor has it that Gene Roddenberry, creator of “Star Trek,” based his Spock character on Klaatu, adding the pointy ears as an offbeat visual for the more mundane medium of television.

Is Reeves a fan of “Star Trek”? After a thoughtful pause, he declines to answer. “I don’t want to really get into what kinds of movies or, uh, other things I’m into. You know, like in interviews where they ask you your favorite color and your favorite movie, and stuff like that.”

Does Reeves see himself as aloof or emotionally unrevealing? After another long pause he says, “In everyday life, I’m not the most outgoing person. I’m not outrageous. . . . Like, I don’t go around laughing and yelling, or stuff like that. But when I play a character, I act the way the character’s supposed to act.”

This might be part of the problem, since Reeves broke through as a dumb character in the 1989 hit “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Because he seemed to be the character of Ted — in other words, he played him well — much of the media assumed he was the character, described as a shallow but “rad dude.” It’s a topic that Reeves will not discuss today (nor the widely panned 1991 sequel, “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey”). As to media perceptions, he notes, “Some critics actually make up their minds about you or about your movie before they even step inside the theater. Stuff like that used to, like, amaze me. It’s so unfair — to the star and to the movie and the public too. But now I’m used to it. Like, nothing could really surprise me now.”

Asked whether the media have been unfair to him, he says, “Some people just want to label you. It’s so easy for them to do that. And then the label tends to stick. You have to really struggle even to alter it. And maybe you can, or maybe you can’t. And maybe eventually the label or the labels don’t really matter. Like, who wants to keep spending their life in some sort of a struggle?”

It’s been said in trade publications such as Variety that Reeves is “desperate” — if so, it doesn’t show — for a hit movie, not having had a major success since the “Matrix” franchise (1999-2003). Asked if he hopes “The Day the Earth Stood Still” will be a big hit, he merely asserts: “Sure.”

Former girlfriend Jennifer Syme was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying that the low-key Reeves has a bigger ego than he likes to let on. When a reporter, years back, described “Speed” as the movie that made Reeves a star, he shot back, ” ‘Speed’ made Sandra Bullock a star. I was already a star.” And he was.

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