Keanu - the enigma
A few years ago Keanu Reeves's career appeared to have stalled in a mire of box-office flops. Then came The Matrix. Now one of Hollywood's most bankable stars, he's still the most elusive.
by Christopher Goodwin
A few years ago Keanu Reeves crashed his 1974 850cc Norton Combat Commando motorcycle. The crash was bad. Photos appeared on the internet purporting to show the actor's spleen, apparently removed in an emergency operation. Nobody knows for sure if the excised organ really belonged to Reeves, but it's so metaphorically perfect you can't help wishing it were true. Keanu Reeves, a star totally without spleen in the Shakespearean sense, is actually a star totally without spleen in the literal sense. It just seems right. Almost as right as the RPM freak finally becoming an A-list fixture with a movie entitled Speed.
If Reeves remains a big name as he closes in on 39, it's because of The Matrix, a sci-fi hit back in 1999 which has now spawned sequels The Matrix Reloaded and, later this year, The Matrix Revolutions. Before The Matrix, this once-bankable beefcake - People magazine dubbed him one of the world's 50 most beautiful people - had lost his box-office allure with such commercial duds as Chain Reaction and Johnny Mnemonic and such indie turkeys as Feeling Minnesota and The Last Time I Committed Suicide, projects chosen to display a range Reeves actually didn't have. The Matrix fully exploited the star's relaxed, laid-back-to-the-point-of-comatose appeal - and its success means he can now command $30 million for each of the sequels. Who else but Keanu would play a character called Neo, a dazed hero who has somehow failed to notice that every moment of his existence is a computer-generated fabrication? Reeves provided The Matrix with a serene centre as the violence escalated to outrageous heights. He was an oasis of calm amid the martial arts eruptions. Read it the way you want. Either our hero is inscrutable - or just very, very dumb.
Who knows for sure? Certainly not his co-stars. As Laurence Fishburne says, 'I've known the man for five years and I love him, but I don't know a thing about him.' Pat O'Connor directed Reeves in Sweet November and found a study in contradictions. 'Keanu has a calm exterior and a turbulent interior. He's such a private person - very intelligent - that sometimes he becomes almost inarticulate.'
Indeed. In interviews Reeves rambles like he really is the stoned Ted of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Or a rather smart man whose inarticulate pronouncements are a smokescreen to protect his privacy. There are journalists who swear he's an oaf and there are journalists who swear he's a genius of prevarication.
In fact, so enigmatic is Reeves that the most bizarre and obviously false rumours quickly gain currency. Remember the story that he'd married gay entertainment entrepreneur David Geffen? Both men insisted they had never met each other and there's no reason to doubt them. Yet Reeves refused to deny the gossip itself and for admirable reasons. 'I mean, there is nothing wrong with being gay, so to deny it is to make a judgment. Why make a big deal of it? If someone doesn't want to hire me because they think I'm gay, well, I have to deal with it, I guess.'
So what can be stated plainly about Keanu Reeves? He was born in Beirut. His mother is English - a costume designer - and his father Hawaiian-Chinese. His name means 'cool breeze over the mountains'. His father, who was later jailed on drug-smuggling charges, left when he was seven and his son has seen little of him since. Reeves is (and this may be important) dyslexic. He played ice hockey at school. His campus nickname (undoubtedly important, too) was The Wall, not only for his 6'1" height but for his blankness in the face of pain. He drinks, smokes and has done drugs - 'One of the rites of passage,' he says. They helped me to see more.' At 19 he drove his Volvo from Canada to LA and was almost immediately signed by a major agent. He started playing bass guitar in 1987. His band is called Dogstar. Everyone says he's self-effacing, polite and generous to a fault. He is perhaps the only major Hollywood idol not to have an official website. A pity, when another domain insists that he is the Anti-Christ, whose 'ultimate goal is the ownership of every human soul on earth'.
And he's restless. For many years the nomadic Reeves has lived out of a suitcase, moving around with little more than his guitar and a copy of Shakespeare. Hamlet, in case you're interested. He attempted the part to some acclaim a few years ago. 'I love the melancholy of it,' he explained. Is melancholy the secret of his placidness? Is it sadness, not beauty, that we pay to bask in? The lack of a relationship with his father has been hard for Reeves to deal with. His sister, Kim, has struggled with leukaemia. A baby he was expecting with his girlfriend Jennifer Symes died in the womb at eight months. Jennifer herself was killed in a car crash in April 2001, and Reeves was a pallbearer at the funeral. She is buried next to their baby, whom they named Ava.
It's not hard to fathom why Reeves threw himself into the Matrix sequels with obsessive intensity. He's fully aware that Neo is the part he was somehow born to play. And he needed to escape. But ask why the part is so important to him and Reeves is impeccably Reevesian. 'Neo has a lovely line: "What truth?" he says. What truth? It's something that's part of my make-up. One of my earliest phrases was "How Come?" So I related to the piece.'
The Matrix Reloaded opens Fri 23 May. The Matrix Revolutions opens in November.