Meet the Philly Man Who Played “Keanu” in Point Break Live
“My name is Johnny Utah,” the man on stage said. Everyone at Underground Arts screamed the next line along with him. “I am an FBI agent!”
The man on stage was Bob Babjak, a freelance copywriter in Philadelphia. Last Saturday night, he was playing “Keanu” at Point Break Live, a parody of the 1991 action/bank heist/surfing/skydiving film. The movie stars Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah — a former Ohio State quarterback-turned-rookie FBI agent — tasked to investigate a sting of bank robberies committed by surfers wearing president masks.
The conceit of the stage show, written in 2003 by Jamie Keeling, is that Keanu didn’t show up to play the lead in that night’s performance. But the show must go on, and so the role of Keanu is cast from the audience right there. People who audition have to read two lines and perform a physical feat.
It’s a trip. The stage actors playing outsized versions of Bodhi (Patrick Swayze in the film), FBI Agent Angelo Pappas (film: Gary Busey), Tyler (film: Lori Petty) and other characters from the movie while the fill-in Keanu reads off cue cards shown to him by a handler who is also his stunt double. A fake Kathryn Bigelow “directs” in front. The crowd, at least at Philly’s show last Saturday, was in to it.
We caught up with Babjak — who beat about 15 other people for his audition — to ask him about playing the fill-in “Keanu” last weekend.
What did you know about the play going in and why did you decide to audition?
I had broad strokes of what it was about. I had heard about the event through the blogosphere. When it came last summer one of my friends went, and she said it was awesome. When it came back this year, my friend Lily [Cope, executive director of COOK] actually called me and said, “I’m getting tickets now.”
We all said, “Let’s get everyone on stage.” We knew they picked someone from the crowd, but we didn’t know if it was random, or if there was an audition. But if there’s an audition let’s all go for it. But when it was an audition it was just me [from my group]. I’m not afraid of performing. I’ve been on stage before.
How did you feel your audition went?
The guy before me was the frat bro in the jersey. [The man, in a Johnny Utah Ohio State jersey, broke a prop broom over his knee as part of his audition.] I picked up the broom and started hitting him with it. And I think that just endured me to the organizers — any violence brought upon that guy.
What went through your head when you were picked?
It was all pretty fast, and they throw a wetsuit at me and were like, “Take off all your clothes and put this on.” I didn’t even stop to think, “Hey, I hope they have this cleaned after each show.” I wasn’t super nervous. I would be more nervous performing in front of 10 people then if I was performing in front of 200 people. If I can see your face, then I’m nervous. But if it’s just a wall of humanity, I was OK.
What was it like playing on stage unscripted?
There was no time to really contemplate the context of the event. It was just like, “Okay. Let me be the best Keanu I can be, basically.” I was just trying to be as much in the moment as I could.
It was really cool. Everybody was good in the cast. I don’t know how the other people did it, but I was throwing in like a couple ad-libs and playing off the cast. And I would play off some stuff and they would play off some stuff right back … It just felt like a regular performance.
You said you’ve been on stage before. What have you done?
I’ve been in musical performances with people like Shawn Hennessey, Ali Wadsworth and Kate Bernhardt. I’ve been on stage with a bunch of people before — usually in a background capacity. And I’m just performing a lot as it is in my everyday life.
You had an awesome Keanu voice. Did you prepare to use it?
I’ve been practicing that voice for about 25 years. You can kind of say this is a role that I’ve been preparing to play my entire life. I’m a huge fan of Point Break. I’ve seen it like 100 times, like I’m sure a lot of other people who were at that show. It wasn’t a challenge to play that role. It’s part of my cultural identity and a lot of other people who grew up in the 90s, who are pop culture junkies in their mid-30s. I pride myself on my Keanu voice. I don’t have a large repertoire of credible impressions but that’s definitely one of them.
What was the overall experience like?
I had a blast. The cast made it as fun as you can make it. I could see how you can pick somebody new every night for that role. Just in the context of the performance, you have a crowd of people who know the movie so well. When you’re in the role of Keanu, every couple beats there’s going to be some indelible quote that you’re going to say that has some kind of built-in applause line. The role itself is constantly providing you with validation. So your confidence will be growing the farther you get into the production when you’re generating these applause lines every few beats.