Keanu Reeves - Teen Idol's Excellent Adventure
"I'm an acquired taste and you either dig me or you don't"
Right from the beginning, Keanu Reeves was not typical of the hunks who've captured the imaginations of movie audiences.
First of all, he was born September 2, 1964, in - of all places - Beirut, Lebanon.
Keanu's English mother, Patricia, who was a student of design and a local dancer, did not name him. It was Keanu's Chinese-Hawaiian father, Samuel Nowlin Reeves, who chose his son's unusual name, which means "cool breeze over the mountains." Keanu's father was a geologist with a major oil company who moved the family almost immediately to Australia, then New York. By his third year on the planet, Keanu had literally seen the world.
Samuel just wasn't cut out to be the kind of family man Keanu and his mother needed - he divorced Patricia when Keanu was just a toddler and his sister Kim (why did she get the ordinary name?) was a baby. Father and son began an estrangement that would last at least through Keanu's early thirties, and which Keanu would avoid repairing even after he was famous, when Sam gave interviews to the press stating his desire to get back in touch with his adult son.
Finally, the family settled in Toronto, Canada. His exotic mixture of backgrounds lent Keanu an equally exotic aura, an interestingly clipped speech and a coolly sensual appearance. In an age when so many of Hollywood's hottest hunks are all-American (with exceptions!), Keanu Reeves's background is practically-everything-but-American. There is something almost otherworldly about him that makes it easy for his most dedicated fans to fantasize about him.
Keanu's next big adjustment in life was getting used to a new father figure - Patricia remarried when Keanu was six. He enjoyed having a male figure to look up to, and welcomed the rare stability. His new stepfather was Paul Aaron, an accomplished producer of Hollywood and Broadway hits, and though he and Patricia quickly divorced, Keanu and Paul remained good friends. Patricia promptly remarried, this time to music promoter Robert Miller, with whom she had her third child, a girl named Karina.
Keanu attended the Jesse Kitchum Grade School and fantasized about one day playing hockey with the Toronto Maple Leafs. To that end, he became devoted to hockey, earning the nickname "The Wall" when he became a star goalie. It was judged nearly impossible to penetrate Keanu's defenses, so no one was surprised when he routinely won "most valuable player" awards.
As an especially moody teenager, Keanu became preoccupied with acting. His mom was making a good living as a costume designer for rock and roll acts like Alice Cooper, theatrical performers who showed up at their home from time to time. Possibly inspired by these rockers, he enrolled in Toronto's High School for the Performing Arts, hoping to live an exciting sort of Canadian Fame existence. Instead, he received formal training in acting that would serve him well later in life.
His first-ever performance was in a small role in his school's production of The Crucible. It was all the encouragement he needed to nurture his growing fascination with acting.
Keanu excelled in dramatic arts and won internships with the Second City comedy troupe and also for a summer at the Hedgerow Theatre in Pennsylvania. He made his debut on TV in a Coca-Cola commercial, showing up for his audition in a cycling outfit with shaved legs, just like real cyclists had. He got the part. (Haven't you heard? Nothing beats a great pair of legs.) He had tiny roles on the racy drama Night Heat and the teen series Hanging In, both on Toronto TV, but was also starring in local plays. Keanu made extra money with a series of legendarily inane jobs, such as being an ice skate sharpener and a tree trimmer.
Frustrated with the time he felt he was wasting in school, Keanu dropped out in his senior year to pursue acting full-time. He instead became a resident student at Leah Posluns, a respected acting school in the nearby suburbs.
Keanu's first major attention - and his legitimate theater debut - arrived in 1984 in the form of a local smash-hit play called Wolfboy. He played a teenager in a mental institution who develops a fixation on another boy, who in turn drinks his blood like a modem-day vampire. The homoerotic drama won acclaim and the first of Keanu's many gay fans.
Keanu's most important experience in the theater came in the form of a coveted role as "Mercutio" in a Leah Posluns production of Romeo and Juliet. He was spellbound by Shakespeare's language and his complex role, and more convinced than ever that he was born to act.
Thanks to his training and his undeniably sensual looks, young Keanu immediately found work in an inconsequential Canadian movie and was sufficiently encouraged that he moved to Los Angeles to compete for larger roles in American fare. He drove in his first car, a '69 Volvo 122, and sometimes stayed with his ex-stepfather, Paul Aaron, who was always there for Keanu.
Unlike so many other actors, 20-year-old Keanu Reeves was very lucky to find lots of work coming his way very quickly. He went through a bad time with an agent who tried to "de-ethnicize" his name by switching it to "K.C. Reeves," and he was slightly disillusioned that so many of the roles he was offered were of the shallow, teensploitation variety. It may have been because of this discouraging period that Keanu decided to aim for quality over quantity, and to downplay his sex appeal, which seemed to grow with each passing year. In his early twenties, Keanu Reeves was arguably among the most beautiful actors working, and he was attracting a large number of teenage fans who purchased teen "boy magazines" by the bushel to get a look at their idol. This was not a trend Keanu wanted to encourage. He wasn't even famous yet, and already he was worrying over his image!
Signing with a major agency (ICM then, CAA now), Keanu's early work was a mixed bag of TV series and movie-of-the-week projects and small parts in Hollywood movies. In 1986, he was in the Rob Lowe ice hockey drama Youngblood thanks to his hockey experience, and he earned his Screen Actor's Guild card with the movie (plus enough bread for a bass guitar and amp) but wouldn't score major screen time until the following year with the film River's Edge. In it, a group of teenagers react with chilling apathy and confusion when one of their drug-addicted friends strangles his girlfriend, whose corpse he puts on view at the edge of a local river. The movie starred an impressive array of talented actors, including Dennis Hopper, Crispin Glover and Ione Skye.
River's Edge, directed by Tim Hunter, was one of the first films of the '80s that showed the chasm between the old guard of film critics and the younger crowd who were just getting into film. Barely noticed by the mainstream, the film nevertheless mesmerized youthful audiences and won an Independent Spirit Award for best film as well as a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. After having appeared in schlock like an update of Babes in Toyland on TV with Drew Barrymore (who was still several years away from becoming cool again), Keanu felt that by appearing in River's Edge he was doing something artful. It inspired him to search for quality projects.
In Permanent Record, Keanu received good notices as an under-achiever whose best friend - Mr. Perfect in high school - suddenly commits suicide. Keanu struck out with the silly teen farce The Night Before, in which he plays the class nerd who has a drunken night at his prom with a popularette, the twist being that the next day he has no idea what happened ... or what happened to his date! It was the kind of drivel he was looking to avoid, but it did at least show that he could play completely against type convincingly.
Keanu's performance in Rob Nyswaner's The Prince of Pennsylvania, in which he sports a very strange Mohawkesque hairdo, playing an aimless teen searching for himself, was a standout, even if the film itself was yet another small, flawed gem. It was never released theatrically, a major disappointment for all involved.
Keanu was thrilled to land a small but juicy role in Dangerous Liaisons, a lushly filmed adaptation of the famous French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses that would star Glenn Close and John Malkovich as well as rising star Michelle Pfeiffer. Uma Thurman was also in the process of shooting to stardom, and she shared the screen in a small role alongside Keanu. The film marked the first of many period films that Reeves would land in, despite his thoroughly contemporary look and feel, making him sort of like a male Winona Ryder. To their credit, both Keanu and Winona have acquitted themselves well in even their most unlikely roles. Keanu was just happy to be in the movie at all - he'd had a near-fatal motorcycle crash that left his stomach scarred, the first major collision of many to come.
The next movie Keanu made was every bit as risky as his previous films, but its unexpected success put Keanu on a fast-track toward the slightly ditzy image the intelligent, contemplative actor has yet to conquer.
Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure is an extremely low-budget comedy (it cost $9 million) about two hilariously dim-witted slackers who daydream of becoming rock stars, but who get sidetracked when their knowledge of history decides the future of the world. They take an outlandish adventure through time, and the result is a Monty Python-like collection of appealingly lame jokes and dead-on dumb-dumb impersonations by Keanu as "Theodore 'Ted' Logan" and Alex Winter as "Bill S. Preston, Esq."
The movie, regarded as a comic classic by its fans, shocked its distributor Orion by making over $40 million dollars in the US alone and later burning up the home video rental charts. It also made Keanu Reeves famous worldwide virtually overnight. But his most excellent performance as a mentally challenged rocker wannabe was a little too excellent - to this day many of his critics dismiss Keanu thanks to his participation in this funny film and its rousing sequel, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey.
But the sequel was several movies away. First Keanu turned in delightful performances as a college dropout in Ron Howard's Parenthood (1989), a drugged-up "hitman" in Lawrence Kasdan's I Love You to Death and a young man smitten by his older aunt (by marriage) in Tune in Tomorrow (1990). Critics were generally kind to Keanu he played dumb characters or performed in quietly oddball comedies like these. There was no denying that Keanu was carving a niche in small movies, becoming the Prince of Quirkiness. And yet so many of these roles played on a sense of cluelessness that the public (and critics) were beginning to think of Keanu Reeves as an airhead. Typical of the love-him-or-hate-him attitude critics had toward Keanu is a quote from the June 5, 1995, issue of People magazine: "Reeves's acting style - a detached deadpan somewhere between artful and awful - has never been the primary reason for his success."
His next film after so many small, quirky projects was his first to appeal broadly to a mass audience, a big-budget action flick costarring Patrick Swayze called Point Break in which Keanu plays a young FBI agent ("Johnny Utah" - nobody is ever named "Sam Smith" in the movies) who infiltrates a surfer gang responsible for a series of bank robberies. Called "silly brain candy" by VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever, the film was nonetheless a strong performer in theaters and on video. A still of Keanu in a wet black T-shirt became one of the best-selling movie star pictures of all time, and is probably the most indelible image of Keanu Reeves for most audiences. That T-shirt alone earned him Most Desirable Male of the Year at MTV's irreverent movie awards ceremony.
By the time the "Bill & Ted" sequel was released, Keanu Reeves was a well-known teen idol and the original had been seen by millions of enthusiastic fans. Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, which was made on a budget several times that of the original, was a huge success. It helped launch spin-offs like Bill & Ted's Excellent Cereal: A Most Awesome Breakfast Adventure (which really did taste good, by the way), a Saturday morning cartoon (with voices by Keanu and Alex Winter) and even a short-lived TV series on the Fox network, with Evan Richards and Christopher Kennedy taking over the leads.
Ever since they costarred in I Love You To Death, Keanu and River Phoenix had been best friends. After Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (in which the lovable (dudes are murdered and trek through heaven and hell), Keanu made a movie he had promised River they would do no matter what after they had read the brilliant script. The movie would go on to become River's defining moment as a screen actor, a wonderful showcase for Keanu's own talents and for his predilection for Shakespeare that he had been nursing since high school. It was called My Own Private Idaho and was written and directed by Gus Van Sant, an openly gay filmmaker who had wowed audiences with Drugstore Cowboy, starring Matt Dillon.
The poetic Idaho is about "Mike" (Phoenix), a narcoleptic, gay street hustler in Seattle in search of his mother. He falls in love with his friend, "Scott" (Keanu), who is the son of the mayor but who turns tricks for cheap thrills. For kicks, and partly out of heavily suppressed feelings of love, "Scott" travels with "Mike" to Italy and to Idaho in search of "Mike's" mother.
Keanu was proud of the film's emotional core and of his carefully orchestrated Shakespearean scenes with an aging pimp who lusts after "Scott". He was also happy with a particularly hilarious segment that featured the male models on the covers of gay sex magazines coming to life and speaking the unerotic thoughts that are really on their minds. He didn't mind that segment or the classic scene by a campfire in which "Mike" tells "Scott", "I really wanna kiss you, man." Keanu had no idea that this film would engender persistent rumors that he is secretly gay.
Of all of Hollywood's leading men, Keanu Reeves is one of the most private. Think of it: How many times have you seen photographs of him out on the town with glamorous dates? He tends to avoid any high-profile events, and his silence for so long as gay rumors swirled around him led many of his fans to decide that they were true. When he asserted his heterosexuality in Interview, he added, "But you never know," which to some seemed like an open door.
One thing that we know about Keanu's personal preferences is that he loves riding his 1972 Norton 850 Commando motorcycle. He wowed paparazzi with his James Dean-like entrances on his bike, but his tendency to crash continues to worry his fans.
Keanu's next role was a coveted part in Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, playing young "Jonathan Harker", who is seduced by a roomful of thirsty vampirettes. The film was a big hit, although Keanu and costar Winona Ryder took a drubbing from the critics for what some say was miscasting. He followed it by costarring with Kenneth Branagh in his adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.
Keanu was getting good notices and had worked with the most talented artists in Hollywood before turning 30, and yet there was still an undercurrent of surprise that someone as flighty as "Ted" would be showing up in so many prestige projects. Like, get a clue, dudes!
Keanu scored big points with his ethereal role in Bemardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha, the mystical story of an American child who is deemed to be the reincarnation of a monk and who stands to achieve great spiritual power within Buddhism. Keanu played Buddha himself in a parallel story, and for once his inherently exotic nature was put to good use on film, in a work deemed to be a flawed masterpiece by arthouse audiences.
But 1993 was a horrible year for Keanu, a year in which he suffered a humiliating arrest for drunk driving. The experience of being arrested reminded him of his own father, who was serving time in jail for cocaine possession and whom Keanu hadn't even seen since he was 13 years old. Worse, Keanu's close friend River Phoenix suddenly collapsed and died on Halloween outside Johnny Depp's L.A. bar, The Viper Room. It was discovered that Phoenix, always thought of as a health nut, had overdosed on a ridiculous mixture of illegal and legal drugs. Rumors emerged that River had turned on to heroin and other drugs while filming My Own Private Idaho, in order to get into his character, and that he'd been hooked ever since. Keanu and director Van Sant have denied such talk, although Keanu had unwisely given an interview in 1990 in which he'd recklessly exclaimed that he wanted to try heroin and be a "speed freak" for a while.
River Phoenix's death has been the greatest tragedy of Keanu's life, and one he has suffered with dignity and in silence.
After an ill-advised cameo in Van Sant's complete misfire Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (where he was reunited- with his Dangerous Liaisons costar Uma Thurman), Keanu took the most important "movie star" role of his life, a film that would accelerate him from being a famous ditz or a respected, quirky actor into being a major marquee idol.
The surprise hit of 1994, Speed was also one of the best films of the year, a well-made thriller with top-notch action-style direction by Jan De Bont (whose Twister would descend on moviegoers two years later). Keanu was pumped and primed for his role as hands-on L.A. SWAT team member "Jack Traven" who must keep one step ahead of a phantom bomber (Dennis Hopper) who has rigged an elevator and a public transportation bus to blow sky-high if he doesn't receive a huge ransom.
Keanu, deepening his voice to be as manly as any SWAT member would be, easily carries the movie with appealing girl-sidekick support from Sandra Bullock in the role that also made her a star. Together, they were voted favorite screen couple at the MTV Movie Awards.
At this time, an outrageous rumor began circulating around Hollywood, a whispered tale that would become one of those pesky urban legends that refuses to die: Keanu was said to have secretly "married" gay entertainment mogul David Geffen (in a Jewish ceremony, no less). The fact that the two had never met didn't seem to quell the rumor, and Keanu was eventually forced to acknowledge its existence with an exasperated denial. He also told interviewers that he is definitely not gay. He doesn't feel it's an insult to be called gay, but wanted people to know that he was not involved with Geffen. Geffen also laughed off the report, confirming that he and Keanu had never met. That sort of intrusive rumor can really annoy a star, more for its inexplicable origins and malicious intent than for its content.
In the wake of all the gossip and the overpowering surprise success of Speed, Keanu retreated to his rock and roll band, an outfit that would have made "Ted" green with envy. Dogstar had been born in 1992 with very little fanfare, featuring Keanu playing bass. Anything but a vanity project, Dogstar is a group of guys who love to play rock and roll, and the band has toured Europe doing gigs in small venues to get their feet wet. They were signed by Zoo Entertainment in the US, and their debut CD was just released, yet more proof that Keanu Reeves is interested in doing the unexpected, stretching his talents. Still, Keanu has been quick to point out in print, "I don't want to become a rock star. This is not a second career or anything like that. I'm an actor."
Keanu followed up Speed with several poor movie choices, films that seem to have taken him down a few notches at the box office even though he consistently ranks highly among female (and male) fans as a sex symbol and favored actor. Keanu inherited his next role from Val Kilmer, who departed the project after financing was secured. Johnny Mnemonic is the futuristic tale of a "data courier" (Keanu) whose brain is used as a receptacle for hi-tech information. When he accepts one job, he realizes it's so massive that if he doesn't download it promptly it will destroy his brain. (More mentally-challenged comments were made about this plot.) The film, directed by newcomer (and well-known artist) Robert Longo, tanked at the box office despite its leading man and the fact that it was written by cyberpunk superstar William Gibson.
Keanu's image as an airhead, despite truly exceptional film work that argues otherwise, led to a tongue-in-cheek course at The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Califomia, called "The Films of Keanu Reeves." The readings included Hegel and Foucault to help the class unterstand how an actor like Keanu Reeves could become so popular thanks to his flighty image. The class was, no doubt, highly affectionate, but it didn't help Keanu's image as a serious artist when the wire services found out about the focus of the unusual course. Critics seemed to forget his credible screen work, instead recalling his "most excellent" comic characterizations, confusing them with the real Keanu Reeves.
"I have to admit to feeling like the critics' whipping boy," Keanu told the gay magazine Attitude in 1995, referring to jokes made at his expense by the press, especially regarding his forays into prestige projects. But his next move shocked the entertainment world.
Turning down a role in the DeNiro/Pacino flick Heat, Keanu returned to the stage for the first time in a decade to play the title role in a Canadian production of Shakespeare's Hamlet at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg. His nervy portrayal drew raves and boos, but also reinforced in the minds of the public that Keanu Reeves had no intention of settling into a niche as a Hollywood pretty boy. For Keanu, playing Hamlet was the highlight of his acting career, a major triumph that could not be dimmed by the few negative reviews. "Reeves simply lacks the equipment to sustain such a role," sniffed the Ottawa Citizen. Still, the paper's reviewer conceded, "He is never less than interesting onstage," a sentiment echoed by the thousands of eager fans who made his tun a sell-out. For all its importance in his life, Keanu's Hamlet was only witnessed by about 19,000 people due to the theater's size (789 seats) and the limited run (24 performances).
Showing little regard for maintaining his hunky image, Keanu allowed himself to pack on a few extra pounds, leading to a rounder face and slightly slouchier form than his fans were used to. If anything, his slight weight gain erased his previously androgynous edge and rounded out his looks, making him even cuter.
Keanu went back to period pieces for a headily romantic role in A Walk in the Clouds, directed by Alfonso Arau, who had directed one of the most successful foreign films of all time in Like Water for Chocolate. Keanu plays "Paul", an idealistic young man who offers to marry a young pregnant girl, "Victoria" (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), who is too afraid to face her family, a wine dynasty. "Paul" falls in love with "Victoria" and must win her family's love. The movie did not repeat the success of Like Water for Chocolate.
After allegedly turning down the sequel to Speed because he didn't want to pump up all over again, Keanu starred in two action flicks in a row, Chain Reaction and The Devil's Advocate, seemingly trying to reestablish his box office potency. He was back down to fighting weight by the time he shot The Devil's Advocate. He followed it with an appearance in a no-budget Sundance Film Festival contender called The Last Time I Committed Suicide, based on an eight-page letter from Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac.
According to an article in Entertainment Weekly last year, Keanu Reeves's movies raked in an average of $100 million dollars worldwide, leading the magazine to suggest that he ask for and receive around $6.6 million dollars for his services. But several steps ahead, Keanu usually gets in the $7 to $9 million-dollar range, an ambitious and dedicated thespian whose charismatic presence helps the appeal of any film.
What's up next for Keanu Reeves? He has said that his pet project is a film about Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Keanu, ever-obsessed with the Bard, is fascinated by De Vere partly because he is one of the historical figures who's thought to be one of the authors of Shakespeare's works. Whether or not The 17th Earl is ever produced, it's an insight into the actor's serious nature that he would be more interested in an Elizabethan biopic than in Speed 2. Or Bill & Ted Meet Francis the Talking Mule.
Keanu Reeves has, more than any of his teen idol peers, rejected his image as nothing but a hunk, instead challenging himself as an artist and actor at every turn. His drive and his secretive private life only make him sexier to his fans - if that's possible!
The Enigmatic Love Life of the Original Shy Guy
So he's not Keanu Reeves-Geffen - this much we know and accept.
But who does make Keanu's heart flutter?
Keanu Reeves is not the swinging bachelor that George Clooney is, nor is he terribly open about his personal life. In fact, his future love life is completely unpredictable in light of his steadfast refusal to discuss romances or even to appear in public with love interests.
He has said that he plans to get married and have kids one day, so don't give up hope if you've always wanted to be the lucky girl to marry Keanu Reeves.
Time will tell.
Until then, if you can't get enough of Keanu, you should consider joining his unofficial but officially excellent fan club, Zero Distortion. ZD's fearless leader Sylvie McCann personally fact-checked our Keanu section and gave it the thumbs up, which is high praise coming from the woman who knows everything you ever wanted to know about Keanu.
Wanna join? Write:
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