ON DECEMBER 22, KEANU REEVES WILL BE returning to one of his most iconic film franchises when he reprises his role of Neo in Lana Wachowski’s game-changing Matrix Revolutions. The excitement around the fourth instalment of the Matrix franchise is a reminder that Reeves is indeed one of the most renowned movie stars in the world. He’s also one of the most humble.
Pop culture has exploded with a new respect for Reeves in recent years with fans sharing stories of how relatable the actor is, how kind he is to random strangers and the intense respect he shows for everyone he meets. The internet (rightfully) dubbed him the nicest man in Hollywood after it was reported that he waited patiently for 20 minutes in the rain outside the wrap party of his own film, Daughter of God, after a mix-up because he didn’t want to cause a scene. The thing is, this wasn’t the first time that Reeves has quietly proven he’s one of Hollywood’s finest. Or the last. He is aware of his celebrity status, but doesn’t take advantage of it and he’s generous but careful with his presence.
But, when the New York Times ranked Keanu Reeves at No. 4 in its 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century (So Far) last year – just ahead of Nicole Kidman and just behind Daniel Day Lewis, it generated plenty of social media chatter.
“Why DID you include Keanu Reeves on the list?”
To be fair, NOW critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis acknowledge that the list was “both necessarily subjective and possibly scandalous” for its choices. Scott wrote, “Maybe you’re surprised to find Keanu Reeves so high on this list. But ask yourself: have you ever been disappointed when he showed up in a movie?”
It’s true. There are still people whose impression of Reeves’ acting ability was forged during the Bill & Ted era, when it was a popular game to count the number of times the actor said “Whoa” in his movies — the official count is 113 times.
But Team Keanu is on firm ground as we pass the first fifth of this century and pop culture has exploded with a new respect for him. With a subtle deadpan and without an ounce of hamminess, he has become a go-to action star in three different franchises, John Wick, The Matrix and Speed. He bailed on the latter before the sequel.
In between, there’s been an almost whimsical unpredictability to his career. On the heels of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, for example, Reeves accepted the role of the melancholy Dane in a Winnipeg production of Hamlet.
If the purpose was to hone his acting chops under the radar, it failed on that score. Critics from all over the globe located Winnipeg on the map and showed up with pens pre-poisoned. Despite that, the grudging reviews ranged from lukewarm to highly positive.
A face that’s not always easy to read made him a natural for thoughtful independent films and a popular attendee at film festivals.
It also has sometimes made his quirky interviews a game of “He’s kidding, right?” I interviewed him at the Toronto International Film Festival when he played a New Age orthodontist in the Sundance Festival darling Thumbsucker. He told me that when he was growing up in Toronto, “I always wanted to rob a bank. It sounded fun — all the plotting and planning, the danger, the treasure. I also realized recently I wanted to live in a whale. All the pressure would be off me.”
Whatever, dude. What’s not to like about a guy who comes at you from left field like that?
He was born in Beirut, Lebanon to an English mother and Hawaiian father (the name Keanu means “Cool breeze over the mountain” in Hawaiian) and ended up in Toronto via Sydney, Australia and New York. Though he began acting as a child at age 9, Reeves was torn between hockey or acting as a career. The closest he’d get to the former was playing a French-Canadian goaltender opposite Patrick Swayze and Rob Lowe in Youngblood.
Whatever the film, Reeves delivered: as a slacker-with-a-conscience in the 1986 teen-murder film River’s Edge, as a street hustler opposite his real-life best friend River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant’s 1991 My Own Private Idaho, as an undercover FBI agent infiltrating a gang of surfers opposite Swayze in Point Break, or voicing a cat named Keanu in the Key & Peele crime comedy Keanu, or as a supernatural exorcist and demonologist in 2005’s Constantine, a character Reeves told me he would gladly revisit if the opportunity ever arose.
Revisiting characters is something Reeves has been more amenable to these days. The John Wick films started as a simple revenge story about a hit man’s dead dog and exploded into a gonzo global assassin free-for-all, but they are huge moneymakers with a fourth and fifth on the way. Reeves and pal Alex Winter released Bill & Ted Face the Music last year, 30 years after their last pairing, inviting ridicule but winning over audiences instead.
And come the holiday movie season, we’ll see him again as Neo, the savior of a captive humanity living an alien-generated illusion in Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Resurrections, 18 years later. The original Matrix was a mind-blower for a generation having its first existential thoughts.
He’s done Shakespeare, action films, horror films, indie films. He’s even indulged his rock star fantasies, a la Bill & Ted, as a bass player in the 90s grunge band Dogstar. And in the 00s, he played guitar in an alt-rock band called Becky. “I ended up having to stop playing with them,” Reeves told me. “My bandmates in Becky wanted to do certain things, like touring, and I was in the way.”
If his apparent Zen attitude gives any kind of slacker impression, his colleagues beg to differ.
Mike Mills, who directed him in Thumbsucker said there was not a trace of privilege to his attitude onset. “He never said in any way, ‘I’m special,’ or ‘I’m different.’ Working with Keanu is a lot like working with one of my electricians or a grip. It’s just someone who wants to come to work. The worst thing you can do is pay too much attention to him.”
Chad Stahelski, the director of the John Wick movies, goes back to his stuntman days with Reeves, working as his stunt double on several films, including The Matrix.
“I met him at a good time,” says Stahelski. “He’s always had this fortitude, this incredible work ethic. At the time, I was a fairly successful stunt performer; I was a former professional athlete with a devotion to the physical craft.
“And I paled when I met Keanu. I was like, ‘Oh my God. If I’m going to have to double this guy, I’ll have to work overtime.’
“We all expand our horizons as we grow older and Keanu and I both went on to new things. He’s directed. He’s produced. He’s written. To see that happen and collaborate with him at a much higher point of his career has been great.
“When I directed him for John Wick, he’d already directed his own martial arts movie, Man of Tai Chi. He’d done his own documentary, Side by Side, which he produced. He’s reached a very high level in Hollywood and to have him as a producing partner, I would call that a huge asset.
“If there’s one thing you can say about Keanu Reeves, it’s that he’s all or nothing.”
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