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Keanu Reeves - An A-list slacker grows up

His next role sees him playing the toy-boy next door. But is Keanu Reeves really the guitar-strumming, eternal teenager of popular repute? Kaleem Aftab finds out

It's quite disconcerting meeting Keanu Reeves in the flesh. The 44-year-old looks at least a decade younger than his age, with his prominent cheekbones, flowing locks and smooth, other-worldly complexion. Deflecting questions with a mysterious gleam in his eye, there's something of the teenager about him.

So it's not entirely surprising that his next role is playing Robin Wright Penn's toy-boy in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, a film adapted by Rebecca Miller from her own novel, though the actors are only a year apart in age. "The cougar complex [younger men with older women] is something that happens all the time," shrugs Reeves, who stars as Chris Nadeau, a free spirit, Pippa's neighbour and her eventual love interest. "It's definitely something that needs to be explored in film. In terms of older women and younger men, at the end of the day it really doesn't make a difference to whether a relationship will work."

In person, Reeves has a gentle manner that makes him immediately likeable but on paper, he remains one of cinema's greatest enigmas. It's too easy, never mind wrong, to typecast him simply as a pretty-boy actor who happened to be in the right place at the right time – the living embodiment of the dumb, feckless character he played in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, the film that first charmed a predominantly teenage fanbase back in 1989.

In one daft thrash of an air guitar, his performances in Stephen Frears's well-received adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons and the 1986 independent hit River's Edge were quickly forgotten. Ever since then, his career has been one long battle to be taken seriously. It doesn't help that, even in his mid-40s, he still looks like a slacker, dressing as if the clothes on his back were the first things that he found on his bedroom floor that morning.

I wonder if Reeves feels that people sometimes have a false impression of him because of the roles he has taken and how he looks. "I feel that once in a while, that's for sure," he says, slowly.

Of course, the main reason for this misguided perception of the actor is that Reeves is so very, very good at playing dumb. His career highs in terms of box-office hits and critical acclaim arrived in the shape of Speed and The Matrix, both of them roles in which an ordinary American surpasses and surprises himself by showing guile, intuition and fleet-footedness.

The impact made by both these films on popular culture was such that it's easy to forget some of the more eclectic choices Reeves made in the 1990s. In 1991, he played the Prince Hal role in My Own Private Idaho, Gus van Sant's loose adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I, which is principally remembered for the performance of his co-star and great friend River Phoenix, who died soon after the film was released. Van Sant then cast Reeves again in his disappointing adaptation of Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Reeves also played Don John in Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing, while Bernardo Bertolucci, recognising Reeves' unusual complexion and looks, cast him as the Indian Prince Siddhartha in the disappointing Little Buddha.

Since then, he's made some surprising choices, none more so than his decision to disappear and play Hamlet in a production in Winnipeg at the height of his fame. Critics travelled across the world with their poison pens at the ready, but Reeves came away with mostly positive reviews. His desperation not to be typecast as an action hero saw him turn down a huge paycheck to reprise his role of Officer Jack Traven in the sequel to Speed (Jason Patric stepped into the breach). "I don't really have a preference between making independent films and blockbusters," says Reeves. "All I hope is that I can continue making these choices. I'm just glad that I've worked on so many different kinds of genres and popular films in the past."

He's also worked on some truly unpopular films. He had several career lows between 1995 and 1998, a period during which it looked like Reeves' career was quickly heading towards oblivion. The woeful choices included A Walk in the Clouds, Chain Reaction, Feeling Minnesota, The Last Time I Committed Suicide and The Devil's Advocate.

The feeling that Reeves was becoming a laughing stock was compounded by his decision to form a rock band under the name of Dogstar, with the band-mates Bret Domrose and Robert Mailhouse. Reeves played the bass guitar and sang backing vocals. Largely on the back of the actor's fame, Dogstar soon found themselves opening for Bon Jovi in Australia and sharing a stage with David Bowie. They also performed at Glastonbury in 1999 but their debut album, Our Little Visionary, was only released in Japan, the country where they played their last concert in 2002. Today, Reeves seems almost embarrassed by his musical escapades. "The band broke up. I haven't been playing bass recently. I sometimes play with some friends and do some jamming. I'm interested in different sounds, country. I play a lot of Neil Young."

But, just when you feel that Reeves is cornered, like a tiger he comes out fighting and tips the balance back his way. Ewan McGregor, Nicolas Cage and Will Smith were all offered and turned down the lead role in the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix. Reeves' decision to take the role propelled the actor to the top of the A-list. This time, he didn't turn down the sequels and picked up a huge cheque that reportedly also included a percentage of the gross.

Post-Matrix, Reeves could get films greenlit simply by agreeing to star in them. His power was such that he could even decide who directed films. When James Ellroy's The Night Watchman was adapted into Street Kings, it was Reeves who had a major say in David Ayer being the director. His only recent success has been Constantine, in which he starred opposite Tilda Swinton. He has also become more choosy. In the last three years he's appeared in three films: Street Kings, The Day the Earth Stood Still and now, Pippa Lee.

Of this latest role, he asserts firmly that "nothing about my character Chris comes from my own life, everything is taken from the novel." He continues: "I think that films end up becoming short stories when you do adaptations of novels. You have to condense and the film-maker just picks whatever part of the story that they want to tell. It's a process of cutting, editing and censoring. All that has to be the same is that you capture the essence of the characters and the story."

Reeves was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1964. His mother, Patricia, was a costume designer and his father, Samuel Nowlin Reeves, was a geologist. The name Keanu means "Cool Breeze in the Mountains" in Hawaiian. After his parents divorced, his mother resettled the family first in New York and then in Toronto. It's an eclectic background that has made him appreciate stories from all walks of life. "It's what stories are, they are reflections of the environment. Stories are told so that we can survive and learn from experiences, pass on and share knowledge."

He's famously guarded of his private life. The actor has not been in a long-term relationship since the death of his girlfriend Jennifer Syme in a car accident in 2001. Her death came after she gave birth to a stillborn daughter, Ava Archer Syme-Reeves, in December 1999. He was recently linked to the fashion guru Trinny Woodall, around the time of the break-up of her marriage, and has since been photographed with the actress Parker Posey.

In his spare time he has been busy learning to cook. He reveals that he's been reading Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavour by the popular French television chef Hervé This. "I'm dabbling in it and looking at becoming a chef. He is fantastic. I didn't really cook before but this book may be changing my life." It's hard to tell if he's joking or researching a role. He also admits to being a bit of a wine connoisseur. Recently he got his first computer and started using email; in the past he'd made a point of being something of a luddite. "My friend finally bought me one," he admits. "And of course I use it."

This is as far as it goes, though. When a question becomes more personal he replies by making the sound of the sea. Ask him about poor reviews and he breaks into song, crooning, "One drop of water does not make an ocean, baby."

Finally, he relents. "I want to see what they [the critics] write, for sure. You know it's going to be whatever it's going to be and you have to take a review as it is. I mean, whatever they write is whatever they write, and I'm not going to be able to change it. The review is part of why you want to entertain. You want to know what your audience thinks about the film and the performance. I'm interested in what people think, even if it's just one person." And with that he's gone, back to his kitchen.

'The Private Lives of Pippa Lee' is released on 10 July