Here's an Excellent Flashback: Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter's Earliest 'Bill & Ted' Interviews (Exclusive)

As 3,000 Cinemas Reopen, Will Moviegoers Return?

Orion PIctures

Here’s an Excellent Flashback: Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter’s Earliest ‘Bill & Ted’ Interviews (Exclusive)

“I’m pretty bad,” Reeves said of his acting on the set of the cult classic from 33 years ago

In early April of 1987, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter weren’t particularly well known. “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” was an offbeat teen comedy that was in the final stages of production, but wouldn’t be released for two years and wouldn’t become a cult hit that spawned two sequels for even longer. But through circumstances that are explained here, I spent a couple of days on the set of the movie and interviewed the actors in what were surely two of their earliest interviews about their characters of Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan.

The interviews never ran because I didn’t actually have an assignment to write about “Bill & Ted” at the time and I had stopped by the Phoenix set as a favor to a friend — but with the film’s second sequel, “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” coming out on Aug. 28, I dug out my old interview cassette. So here, only 33 years later, are what a 22-year-old Keanu Reeves and a 21-year-old Alex Winter had to say about the roles they are now returning to after three decades.

I’ve added annotations along the way, because 1987 was a long time ago.

Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves with George Carlin in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” / Orion Pictures

KEANU REEVES If I’m really boring, just print anything you want. Make it interesting.

I don’t think I’ll have to do that.

So this movie is coming out next year sometime?
I don’t know. We’ve been saying “Bill & Ted 1988 World Tour,” so I assume it’s in ’88.* A long ways away.

*The film wouldn’t actually be released until 1989, because original distributor DEG filed for bankruptcy in 1988. Nelson Entertainment and Orion Pictures eventually bought the rights for a paltry $1 million and released it on Feb. 17, 1989.

How did you get involved in “Bill & Ted?” Did you just read for it?
Yeah, yeah. Um… yeah. (Laughs) There was one extraordinary event that occurred, in that the last audition was seven hours long.

Seven hours?
Yeah. It was like a revolving door with partners.* They were just matching people up. It was sort of sexual. It was sort of like an orgy. Reminded me of Rome. But they got who they wanted, I guess, and luckily I was one of the people they wanted.

*The filmmakers saw 200-300 actors for the lead roles, and asked them to read for both parts.

So you read with Alex but also with a bunch of other people?
Yeah, yeah. But the first day of auditions, I had read with Alex. I wasn’t supposed to, but as fate would have it (laughs), we did.

Did the pairing seem particularly good to you?
Yeah. There was a certain easiness. It seemed very natural. I didn’t have to compensate and I wasn’t overwhelmed. It was an honest exchange. We both had ideas about what we were doing, and serendipitously our ideas were the same. So yes, it was better than with most of the other guys.

Was it easy to just turn into these dudes? From what it saw on the set yesterday, it seems like you guys just switch on Bill and Ted.*
(Laughs) Well, we’ve been doing it for a while. The original building up of them was the normal journey that I’ve taken with other characters. The only thing with this role is that it’s a huge amount of energy in every scene. These guys are wired for sound and for light! That is fun to play, except when you’re stupid and you go out and drink and you get a hangover and the next day you have to be the white light, and you’re just, uhhh

*On the set, Reeves and Winter would often begin riffing in character as Bill & Ted between scenes.

The Beastie Boys imitation you were doing* — is that Bill and Ted or you and Alex?
(Giggles) Oh, the Beastie Boys! The Beastie Boys is me and Alex, Alex and I. Just raggin’ on the Beastie Boys, those f—in’ white scumbags! Have fun, boys, it’s your 15 minutes. Tick-tock! (Pause) No, no. They’re fine.

We have fun doing that. We hack around a lot. I’m glad I met someone I can do that with. It’s not often that you meet someone that your senses of humor are so tuned in to each other, and who you are constantly surprised by, and who is just fun. We do a lot of parodies of a lot of people. Yeah. We’re basically pretty cynical and patronizing and condescending. All those negative things.

*Winter and Reeves did a spontaneous, funny but vicious on-set imitation of the rap trio that at the time was best known for its recent MTV hit “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party).”

All the things that help you succeed in Hollywood.
Yes, exactly! Yeah. (Pause) Nope. Not. But anyway.

Reading the script, was it pretty much the Bill & Ted we’re seeing now?
Well, originally when I was reading the script, I was reading for Bill. It wasn’t until my first costume fitting that I found out I was Ted.* If you could imagine rehearsing and having your heart and your soul and your guts set on a role, getting it and then finding out that all this work you’d been doing was the wrong role, it wasn’t really depressing because I was still in the movie, it was just a big wallop of change. So then I found out I was Ted, and that, as they colloquially say, rocked my world. But I put it back together again.

*Apparently, the two actors thought they were cast in each other’s roles but the filmmakers decided that Winter should be Bill and Reeves should be Ted. I suspect the revelation was neither as surprising nor as earthshaking as Reeves suggests.

So how are Bill and Ted different?
Um, I judge more than Ted.* I’m not as good a human as Ted is. He’s a very good human. He’s a very nice, jovial fellow who’s very relaxed and sort of open to the world. He knows what he likes and what he doesn’t like, knows what he wants to do. He’s very nice. He’s not the wittiest guy, and not the smartest. You know, you wouldn’t want to talk about quantum theories and stuff like that. But I can’t talk about that either. But yeah, we’re different. But he’s a good human.

*He either misunderstood my question or chose to ignore it and answer a different question.

Before this, you did “River’s Edge,” right?

It’s about kids who killed somebody?*
Yeah, it’s pretty heavy. There’ve been lots of kids killing each other recently. This is one of the many deaths. This is one based vaguely upon things that happened out in Sacramento. I play one of the kids in the gang. And blah blah blah blah.

**”River’s Edge” was a Tim Hunter drama loosely based on the 1981 murder of a teenage girl by her boyfriend in Northern California.

Who else is in it?
Crispin Glover, Dennis Hopper… This is one of the Dennis Hopper renaissance pictures.* This is the Dennis Hopper renaissance year. He’s very good. He’s a cool guy, it was neat to meet him. He’s got cool eyes. He’s like a man, you know? One of those guys who’s been through a lot. Been through the belly of the whale, so it’s neat to see.

*Hopper’s other films in 1986-87 included “Blue Velvet,” “Hoosiers” and “Straight to Hell.”

Were there any actors you really looked up to or modeled yourself after when you started?
(Sighs) No. There’s actors who I really enjoy, like Peter O’Toole. And Crispin Glover. Which, I worked with him, so that’s like one of them out of the way, that was really great. He’s on the line, man. He’s on the edge, and it was fun to watch him walk it and take me along. I don’t know if it’s the drama or the histrionics or whatever, but I love English actors. Not the sort of reticent ones, but guys like Peter O’Toole and Alan Bates, who (changes into stentorian English voice) Take! Words! And! Rip. Them! Out! Of! The! Ground!

I love those guys, I love that style, I love that approach. That joie de vivre, that madness. I find a lot of the American actors sort of … I don’t know. Maybe it’s American movies, I don’t know.

Mickey Rourke is cool every once in a while.* He does s— that no other human would do. I have a funny feeling, though, that Mickey Rourke does stuff because he doesn’t understand. If I ever meet you Mickey, man, if this makes it there (in the story), I’m sorry, dude, but I just think that you don’t know. But you don’t tell anyone, and you’re really good.

But, like, all of the guys with the Os, like Pacino and Hoffman-o, they’re good. But I always… Anyway. Yeah. But no. Just a couple.

*Rourke’s recent performances had included “9 ½ Weeks,” “Angel Heart” and “Barfly.”

(Pauses) Actresses … Amanda Plummer. She’s out there, too. She’s on the line, and I really love that. I saw her in “Agnes of God.”* What a horrible play, but what a great, totally out-there performance. I had a blast.

*Plummer played the role of a young nun who becomes pregnant in the 1982 Broadway production of the John Pielmeier play. Meg Tilly played the role in the 1985 film version.

Were there performances that made you decide you wanted to be an actor?
Ummm, no. There were performances that changed me and affected me, but none that made me want to be an actor. I’m doing this for me. This is out of the void of me. My miasma.

Where are you from?
I mostly grew up in Toronto, Canada. Wasn’t born there* or nothing, but that’s where I grew up.

*Reeves was born in Beirut, Lebanon.

How old were you when you started acting?
Well, when I first started … I don’t know if I’m acting now. I’m pretty bad. I mean, I’m OK, but anyway…

I guess 17, 16. My first role was John Proctor from “The Crucible.”* In a girl’s Catholic school. That was my first role. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the role in the play, but it’s pretty heavy. Arthur Miller, don’t you know. Political Arthur Miller.

But yeah, I started doing acting classes when I was 17. Doing stuff basically out of Uta Hagen’s “Respect for Acting,” that’s where most of the teachers’ heads were at at that time. I was just this guy who didn’t know what he was doing, but it was fun. I hate acting most of the time that I do it, but…

*Reeves appeared in a high school production on “The Crucible” in the role of John Proctor, a farmer in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts who has an affair with a teenage servant.

But it doesn’t mean you’re gonna get out of it and do something else, does it?
I have other interests, but none as all-consuming as this godawful job.

Is “Bill & Ted” your biggest role?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t know. Maybe. I did a comedy called “The Night Before.”* It’s being played around with now with directors and producers. The Hollywood thing is going on. But if it comes out the way the director wanted it, it’s pretty good. That was, I think, a larger role, word-wise. (Laughs) The word count.

*The Thom Eberhardt comedy “The Night Before,” a high-school comedy starring Reeves and Lori Loughlin, came out in 1988 and was not particularly successful.

“I had 4,000 words in that, but only 2,000 in this…”
Well yeah, I used to do that! When I did Proctor I remember I had, like, 350 word cues or something like that. Exchanges of dialogue. But I only dropped two lines in four performances. I was impressed. In retrospect.

What else have you done recently?
Last year I was sort of like Movie of the Week Kid. I did four Movie of the Weeks,* which were great. If you want hands-on training, whoa! “That’s take two! Print and move on!” That teaches you how to be there.

*His TV movies in 1986 were “Babes in Toyland,” “Act of Vengeance,” “Brotherhood of Justice” and “Under the Influence.”

How old are you?
22. Creak, moan. I feel old today.

And in this movie you’re playing…
17. A high school senior. But these guys are, like, timeless. I’m playing, like, a child of the universe. A babe in the woods. An insouciant young man. So it’s OK. I’m pretty goofy, still. I look 17. Don’t I?

Yeah. It’s not like some high school movies. You guys look closer to high schoolers than Eric Stoltz* or…
Yeah. Poor guy! I walked out of that movie hating his performance, because it’s wretched. But then I read this article that said he had harnesses put on him where he had to, like, be non-offensive. Can you imagine being an actor, and there’s a guy going, “I want your performance to be non-offensive?” Whoa! It’d be like the Muzak performance, and it was. He did it perfectly. Poor guy. I’d hate that. What a compromising position. You get f—ed up the ass by Hollywood. (Laughs)

*Stoltz was 25 when he played a high-schooler in John Hughes’ “Some Kind of Wonderful,” which had come out shortly before “Bill & Ted” began shooting.

So you don’t feel like you’ve been…
F—ed up the ass? What’s the word when you f— yourself? There must be a word. No, I haven’t been. Not really.

Do you have anything set up after this?
No. Unemployment. I’m doomed.*

I hope I work. I want to do a play. I used to do plays. Community theater. Workshops with friends. Take time and get self-indulgent and just twist yourself in all these neat shapes. I did that for about a year and a half. I want to go twist myself. (Giggles)

*In the two years after “Bill & Ted,” Reeves would appear in “Dangerous Liasons,” “Parenthood,” “Point Break,” “My Own Private Idaho” and “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.”


So the final audition for this movie was, like, seven hours long?
Oh man, it was a marathon. It was incredible. We sat around for about seven to nine hours and went in with a couple of different people, and then we read together over and over and over again, different scenes. It was like doing improv. It wasn’t like, “Give your name, do the bit and get out of here.”

Did it click with Keanu more than with the other people you read with?
Absolutely. The first audition I read, he just kinda walked in the room. I was supposed to read with someone else, and it just clicked automatically. As a matter of fact, I heard when I went home that day, this was like months before the final audition, but I heard we were the first choice. The chemistry was just there, it was really odd.

So was the essence of Bill and Ted established right away?
Yeah. I think the reason we clicked is that we both had certain ideas of how we wanted to play them, and they were the same. And so it stuck. It was a little bit bigger in the auditions, because it’s sort of theatrical and we’re both mainly theater people.* I was in theater, on and off-Broadway in New York for eight years, and I know he’s done theater in Toronto.

So we were, like, real big. We were sort of into this commedia del arte style, hands up in the air, eyes real big. It got kind of toned down a bit, but it’s essentially the same character.

*Winter’s Broadway roles included “The King and I” and “Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.”

I think I saw a variation on that theatrical energy last night.
Yeah, you did. We do that all the time. It takes a lot of energy to do this and to maintain that sort of 12-year-old, pineal-gland energy. Now we’re 21 and it’s just not exactly the same anymore.

How close was the original script to what you guys are doing now?
I don’t know. Because when I read it, I read it with my interpretation, you know? I would assume so, because I get along with the writers really well.* We all have very dark senses of humor. And from what they tell me, this is how they wanted it to be played. I mean, a lot of people who read the script, like agents and things, came to me and said, “It’s a film about…” and it wasn’t anything like how I saw the characters. They sort of described them as these sort of surfer, Spicoli** characters, which it really isn’t. That wasn’t how I read it at all. They’re not stoners at all. They’re 13-year-olds. They’re just very innocent and naïve. Almost the opposite of a drugged-out Spicoli.

I mean, they’re not apathetic, either. They just live in their own bubble, their own world. It’s very detailed and very precise, it’s just not reality.

*Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson wrote “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” based on characters they created in an improv class.
**Jeff Spicoli is Sean Penn’s stoner character in 1982’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Well, from what I’ve seen of the movie, it isn’t really rooted in life as we know it, anyway.
No. In New York City I have had some experiences in phone booths* like that, but… I woke up in an alleyway.

*Bill and Ted use a phone booth to travel through time.

Are you from New York?
Essentially. I wasn’t born there, I was born in London, I lived there for a while and I lived in the Midwest for a while. But I’ve lived in New York for the last 10 years.

How long have you been acting?
I started acting in theater when I was 7, and then I worked on Broadway for a year when I was 13, and then I did another one for about two years on Broadway when I was 15. And then I did a lot of Off Broadway and went to NYU film school.

So you knew pretty early on that this was what you wanted to do?
Sort of. I mean, I really want to make films, but I love acting. And yeah, it was always something I enjoyed doing. The arts in general was something I enjoyed doing. And then eventually I started doing this again to pay for films and to pay my way through film school.* And that’s kind of how I got back in the business. Because I really didn’t do any films at all while I was just working on acting. In film school, I ran out of money. (Laughs) That’s when I started making movies.

*Winter enrolled in NYU’s film school in 1983.

Were there performances or films that really inspired or influenced you?
Yeah. They were pretty weird. I saw a double feature when I was in Chicago, when I was 14 doing “The King and I,” of Werner Herzog’s “Stroszek”* and Wim Wenders’ “The American Friend.”

*”Stroszek” is a road movie about Berlin street performer and prostitute traveling through America, shot mostly with nonprofessional actors.
**”The American Friend” is a neo-noir drama adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel, starring Dennis Hopper and Bruno Ganz.

Those are in a different universe from “The King and I.”
Yeah. Those had big impacts. There are so many movies it’s so hard to tell you. I mean, I love Orson Welles, in terms of people who aren’t working now. I like (Jean) Renoir, I loved Buster Keaton, in terms of comedians. Ernie Kovacs, Monty Python, the “Carry On” people, Spike Milligan.

Yeah, there’s a lot of performers and performances who had a profound impact on me. Like Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness in all those Ealing comedies like “Lavender Hill Mob,” “Man in the White Suit.” Definitely the Marx Brothers. All the early Buster Keaton films had a profound influence on the way I do comedy.

And before this you did “Lost Boys?”
Yeah. (Laughs) I played a vampire motorcyclist. In Santa Cruz. It’s pretty wild. It’s shot by Michael Chapman, from “Taxi Driver” and some of my favorite movies in the world.* “The Last Detail.” I mean, it looks great, and it was a lot of fun. I ride this motorcycle with a skull on the back, have my hair down to here and I eat people.

*Cinematographer Chapman’s other films include “Raging Bull,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Last Waltz,” “The Wanderers” and “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.”

A real change to go from that to “Bill & Ted.”
Yeah, I don’t do any comedy in “Lost Boys.” It’s just really great to have something like (“Bill & Ted”) you can just let loose with. It’s really fun to come to the set and just go completely crazy.

Is it hard to maintain that level of energy?
Luckily, I think we both have a high metabolism. I’m not as wired as the character in the film, but I was when I was a little kid … I’m sort of playing myself as a 9-year-old. Basically we’re all very laconic when we’re not shooting, but as soon as I get to the set… You know, my friends that have come to see me are all very embarrassed. They see me on the set and think, Whoa! We’re very high energy.

It gets hard. I mean, you work, you shoot all night long, and now I’m just running on nervous energy because I’ve been going for 14 days. I’m just an incoherent babbling git. We’ve been going solidly every day for eight, nine weeks now. So now I still have the energy, but I don’t have any sort of mental structure or rationality whatsoever.

How long are you going to have off after this one and before the next one?
A day. And the character is completely the opposite. It’s a period film and I’m playing a British surgeon. It’s about Lord Byron and Shelley.*

*Winter went from “Bill & Ted” to the Ivan Passer period drama “Haunted Summer.”

Ideally, do you want to go from this into making films?
Well, I’m still working on it. All my money from “Lost Boys” went into finishing some shorts I did. I’ve written two scripts, and I’m working on trying to get one to NPR, to PBS. It’s an hour teleplay. I’m just working on my stuff. I have a film company back in New York, and we just keep working on scripts. We’re trying to get a whole bunch of different projects going. There’s one feature that I really want to do, a couple of short films I made, and we do a lot of concert videos in New York. We just finished one for the Butthole Surfers, and we did one for Black Flag, and we’re doing one for a couple new SST bands.

I just want to keep working. As soon as I can get a feature going, I’d like to do it, but I’m not really in any rush.* I’d just like to make sure I can get it done right. I just want to make sure I have the time. I don’t need a $10 million budget, I just want to make sure it gets done right. I’m perfectly comfortable acting, forever if need be, because I love to do it.

*Winter would direct his first feature, the horror comedy “Freaked,” in 1993 with Tom Stern.

And you had a small part in the last “Death Wish?”
No, I was one of the main villains in the last “Death Wish!”* I was blown away by Ed Lauter while I held my gun very steadily, for a very incredible amount of time, on Charles Bronson’s head. That guy would have been spaghetti sauce, man. I’m up on a roof and I’ve got this high-powered rifle and I’m sitting there aiming. I’m like an idiot. Lauter gets me in the chest and I go off the roof.

That was one I did to pay for my junior narrative at NYU. I did it over the summer, it was like my summer job. “Death Wish” was my summer movie. I didn’t even let my mom see it. It’s $10 million, man, and it looks like the cheesiest porno film you’ve ever seen.

*1985’s “Death Wish 3,” a Michael Winner action film starring Charles Bronson, Deborah Raffin, Ed Lauter and Martin Balsam.

But it probably made a little money, didn’t it?
Dude, it made $15 million in advance sales. $15 million in advance sales.* And they’re making another one.** It was the worst movie, the most valueless movie you’ve ever seen. And that’s not even from an artsy New York point of view. I went to see it at Times Square, which is like the best place to see it, at midnight, with a bottle of Old English 800. I figured that was the best way. I went with a friend, and even the bunch of cretins from the Bronx were throwing things at the screen.

The funny thing was, we all knew it was bad. We were all shipped to London, and all the bad guys were played by these Method New York theater actors. We were all either Actors Studio or whatever. We all knew it was terrible, so we all just camped it up and had a great time. Not one of us took it seriously.

*According to Boxoffice Mojo, the film’s total domestic gross was $16.1 million.
**”Death Wish 4,” directed by J. Lee Thompson, came out in November 1987.

Did Charles Bronson take it seriously?
Um … I’d better not say any more about it.

(Tap photo and swipe to view gallery)

Steve Pond