Keanu Reeves: ‘When we would go to dinner together, people were, like, Whoa! Dudes!’
Reeves and Alex Winter on their excellent adventure through 30 years of Bill and Ted
In the chronicles of late-20th-century popular culture, you will find few friends as excellent as Bill S Preston, Esq and Ted “Theodore” Logan. The dopey southern California dudes and bandmates always stood faithfully alongside each other, whether bumbling through time in their 1989 film debut, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, or wheedling themselves out of the afterlife in the 1991 sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. These movies helped bring a bodacious bounty of slang into the wider lexicon while providing early career boosts to their leading men, Alex Winter (Bill) and Keanu Reeves (Ted).
Three decades later, the actors, both now 55, have remained close friends themselves. Reeves is now the star of franchises such as The Matrix and John Wick, and Winter is a director of documentaries such as Showbiz Kids and the upcoming Zappa. But they’re forever connected by Bill & Ted and the fact that they genuinely like each other, as they explain in a Zoom conversation from earlier in the summer.
“There’s very little constancy in this business,” Winter says. “You come together on a set, you’re, like, ‘We’re like a family!’ And then it’s, ‘Okay, bye.’ You never, ever see them again.” But with Reeves, Winter says, “I think of him as my brother.”
Reeves says: “We enjoy each other’s company and our thoughts and takes on the world. When we come together, it’s, like, ‘What are you thinking?’ ‘I don’t know, but this is kind of funny.’ ‘Yeah, that’s kind of weird, too.’”
Now they are reuniting in a third film, Bill & Ted Face the Music, which after a lengthy and occasionally heinous development process, will be released on demand and in cinemas on Friday, August 28th. The new movie, written by the Bill & Ted creators, Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, and directed by Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest), finds the title characters muddling through middle age, still chasing their unfulfilled dream of uniting the world with their music – this time with the help of their daughters, Thea Preston (Samara Weaving) and Billie Logan (Brigette Lundy-Paine).
Reeves and Winter speak about their enduring bond, their formative experiences on the original Bill & Ted films and the making of Face the Music. These are edited excerpts from the conversation, dude.
You both started acting when you were young. Had you ever crossed paths before you made Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure?
Keanu Reeves Nope!
Alex Winter We met in the audition process. Keanu had come to Hollywood from Toronto. I had come from New York.
Reeves I turned professional when I was 15, 16. Al, you first got paid when you were, what, five?
Winter Eight. [Laughter]
Reeves We both grew up in show business.
Winter We hit it off early on in the audition. We had similar training and similar interests, about acting and drama and the plays we liked.
Reeves And cinema!
Winter When they told us we both got the part, we were both, like, ah, that’s great that you got it. It’s like when you start at a new school, you’re like, Oh great, you’re going to be in my class. It was that vibe.
What was the spirit like when the film went into production?
Winter Everybody involved was superyoung. [The director] Stephen Herek was in his late 20s. Chris and Ed were only a few years older than Keanu and myself. Everybody didn’t know what the hell they were doing.
Reeves But Stephen Herek had a real vision, and we were all on board. Tonally, no one was off on their own. Let’s make this real, but it’s hyper-reality. Bill and Ted were Chris and Ed’s characters, but they really let us have our voice.
Was it meaningful to you that you got to work with George Carlin, who played Rufus, your time-travelling guardian?
Winter We didn’t know who Rufus was going to be until well into shooting, and it was scary. There were names that were being floated around – they were great actors, but just not right for that role. Scott Kroopf [a producer of the Bill & Ted series] had worked with Carlin before, so that was where he came in. Keanu and I were blown away that it was George. He was an extremely grounded, down-to-earth person off camera. And I would say he was very charitably nice to both of us. [Laughter] We were well aware of the gravitas of having him.
Reeves We were young and we were trained, but it was very helpful to have people to help elevate us. We felt very fortunate about that.
Did the release of the film have a noticeable impact on your lives
Reeves I was just happy it came out.
Winter DEG [the film’s original distributor] went bankrupt, and it got shelved for a year. We were told it was never, ever going to come out, ever. So we went on with our lives and careers. Then it was bought in a fire sale by a company called Nelson Entertainment. They had done a test of the movie, and it had done incredibly well. I was shooting a Butthole Surfers video in Austin the weekend it came out. I got a call from my agent to get a copy of Variety. There was a picture of me and Keanu, like, really cheesy, sitting on top of a giant pile of cash. I remember thinking, Well, someone’s making money off this; I guess that’s nice for them.
Reeves I don’t know where I was when it was released. After a while, I would just have people calling from the streets, like, “Excellent!” “Be excellent!” There was an affection for it.
Winter I was in France on a vacation that summer and heard kids in the Champs-Élysées skating and talking like Bill and Ted with thick French accents. I was like, Oh, okay, this thing is having some kind of impact.
Reeves Our personal lives changed a little bit. When we would go out to dinner together, people were like, “Whoa! Dudes!” We would just be, like, “Yeah. Yeah.” “Party on, dudes!” “Yeah.”
Winter I remember somebody doing an air-guitar slide on their knees, all the way across the floor of the restaurant up to our bar stools. I remember saying to Keanu, ‘You realise that this – no matter what happens – is never going to stop?’ [Laughter]
Were you at all hesitant to make a sequel – like, if we play these characters again, we’ll be associated with them forever?
Winter That door ain’t closing anyway. [Laughter] I mean, it could be worse. I remember walking down the street with Alan Rickman once. A fan came up to us, and afterwards Alan was, like, “You’re so lucky that you’re known for playing Bill and not Hans Gruber the terrorist. People come up to me and spit in my face. They come up to you and tell you how much they love you.”
Was there a different energy on the set of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey
Reeves I had just come from shooting 88 days playing Johnny Utah [in Point Break]. And then I was playing Ted. [Pause] So that was a bit wacky.
Winter And My Own Private Idaho.
Reeves Right! So it was Point Break, Private Idaho and then Bogus Journey. I’m sorry. I’m already getting trippy.
Winter Some of [Bogus Journey] grew out of the fact that on Bill and Ted 1, Keanu and I and Chris and Ed would riff, off camera, on all kinds of subjects. They were writing for us now, which was a benefit. We could make something that was more physical, more linguistically complicated, and, plotwise, much more far out.
When you’d see other dude-duo comedies that followed Bill & Ted, like Wayne’s World or Beavis and Butt-Head, how did you feel?
Winter I think that people have the chronology wrong, in our favour. I don’t think it was chicken-and-egg. I think the zeitgeist barfed all this stuff up at the same time. Those comparisons really came later.
Do you think Bill & Ted was unique, for its time, in how it presented an innocent and nonjudgmental take on male friendship?
Winter That’s interesting.
Reeves I don’t know if I agree with you.
Please, feel free to knock down my theory.
Reeves No, no, no, we’re talking about something that’s subjective. You think Bill & Ted is the rebirth of friendship in American cinema?
Winter I think for youth films, that’s probably true. The sweetness of [Excellent Adventure] struck me when I first read the script. Because of the popularity of John Hughes, it was much more common to get youth comedies that were about sex and neuroses. It was all about adultifying kids. And this was about two really good friends. There’s an authenticity to that.
Reeves Okay, so I agree then that the story was uncommon, and not necessarily that it was common, then it went out of favour and came back.
Winter We’ve arrived at a thesis!
Reeves I’m always looking for catharsis. [Laughter]
What took so long to get Bill & Ted Face the Music made?
Winter Oy. Where to begin?
Reeves It’s show business, right? Many moons ago, the writers had an idea. And we said, Yes, that’s a good idea: let’s go try and do it. Then we brought on a producer; then we found a director. And then we got into the business.
Winter [Makes squealing noise] That’s a record scratch. [Laughter] To the fans, it was a no-brainer. To the marketplace, the movies have never been a no-brainer until they come out.
Reeves There’s a lot of, um, creative and business challenges to bringing it onscreen.
Did the movie always centre on the idea of Bill and Ted growing up to be middle-age losers?
Reeves That’s been the core premise from the very beginning – of course that’s what would happen.
Winter That was the heart, the comic engine that we responded to in the first place. The longer it took us to get it made, in a way, the funnier that got.
Reeves I think it’s safe to say that future versions of Bill and Ted are living the lives of the consequences of our present failure. [Laughter] For me, there was always a deliciousness to playing the dark side, the grumpier versions. I loved playing Evil Ted in Bogus Journey. There’s such a whimsy to it.
What was your experience like working with Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine, who play your daughters and who go on their own adventure in this film?
Reeves They did amazing work. They looked to the past films for how they would be, but then they created their own dynamic together. They have a unique fashion sense. They’re more modern. They’re connected to us but different.
Winter They really are their own people. They played the characters as two good friends who have grown up together from birth. They took a page from us, in terms of being our kids, but were by no means trying to be us. They picked up a little bit of surfacy stuff, just a couple of nuances that would just help connect us all, and they came at the characters in a very authentic way.
What, ultimately, made you want to come back to play Bill and Ted again?
Reeves I love the characters. I love the world and I love working with Alex. I’m grateful that we had the chance to play again.
Winter That’s how I feel. It’s a really fun playground to be in. And it’s very emotionally heartfelt. It’s hard to have any kind of a postmortem, because the real test lies ahead of us still.
Not to spoil anything, but your postcredits scene in Face the Music seems to reveal the extent of your devotion to the roles and to each other.
Reeves Oh, you got that!
Winter And it was the very, very last thing that he and I shot, which was great. The make-up was protracted and excruciating, but other than that, it was really sweet to do that at the end. That was our Martini. – New York Times