Director Bernardo Bertolucci must be a visionary. Who else but a dreamer would hire totally excellent Bill & Ted dude and Dracula heartthrob Keanu Reeves to play Prince Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism? (''I was too ignorant to be daunted,'' says Reeves of the role, ''but I knew it would be blessedly intense.'')
The unorthodox casting is part of Bertolucci's strategy to breathe life into Little Buddha, the epic that marks his return to Asia after 1987's Oscar-winning The Last Emperor. In Little Buddha, which the director is currently editing for release late this year, a Seattle couple (Chris Isaak and Bridget Fonda) learn that their young son (Alex Weisendanger, in his acting debut) could be the reincarnation of an important Buddhist lama. Around this tale, Bertolucci tells the story of the mythic Siddhartha in spectacular flashbacks. Working with a 130-member cast and crew (along with, at times, up to 3,000 extras), he spent three months shooting the $35 million epic at 20 locations in Nepal and neighboring Bhutan-all with the approval of the Dalai Lama, who, as a mentor to Richard Gere, is no stranger to Hollywood.