The Man Who Isn't There
Keanu Reeves is very good at playing loners. Maybe that's because he's Hollywood's ultimate introvert.
by Lev Grossman
Keanu Reeves got a star on the Walk of Fame a couple of weeks ago. The stars are kind of devalued currency these days--Reeves' is No. 2,277 -- but Shia LaBeouf, who plays Reeves' sidekick in the new movie Constantine, came out to watch the ceremony anyway. He didn't have a lot of company. "There's about one or two people that he invited, and the rest are Hollywood execs," LaBeouf says, sounding a little stunned. "His mom was there, and one guy from his band, and then a bunch of f___ing execs. Francis [Lawrence, who directed Constantine] and me were just sort of looking at each other."
Here's what they were thinking: Keanu Reeves is one of the most famous and, since the Matrix movies, one of the richest people in a city where fame and money are the major natural resources. But could he also be one of the loneliest?
You won't find a lot of people who say they know the real Keanu Reeves. On set he has a reputation as a workaholic who keeps to himself. Just ask the people who made Constantine. "I've worked with him for a year and a couple of months, but I don't really know him that much," says LaBeouf. "I don't think he hangs out with other humans that much." Says Lawrence: "Do I really know Keanu after working with him? No. I know things about him: he's hardworking, he's generous, he's a sweet, sweet guy. But it's all just sort of on the surface." Erwin Stoff, Reeves' manager and a producer on the movie, has known the actor since he was 13, and even he's still guessing. "Keanu is a really private person," Stoff says. "He's sort of perfected for himself a way of keeping a distance from people."
Reeves is notoriously inscrutable onscreen as well as off. His face, exotically handsome as it is, is often blank. His voice has a certain forced, hollow depth, like a 12-year-old trying to sound grownup. His talent is hard to pin down, which is one reason a lot of critics think he doesn't have any. But they're wrong. Reeves can handle goofball comedy (the Bill & Ted movies), high drama (River's Edge, My Own Private Idaho), cockle warmers (Hard Ball) and the occasional romantic comedy (he really should have wound up with Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give).
But Reeves really scores in high-concept, high-budget action films, where his signature earnest gravitas and world-weary innocence turn what could be standard-issue, effects-heavy tent poles--Speed, the Matrix movies, the underrated Point Break--into genuinely compelling entertainment. Something about that mysterious reserve, the total earnestness, the unwinking way he commits to the most absurd scenarios, makes free falls from planes and wire-fighting cyberninjastics feel like a philosophy lesson. Industry scuttlebutt has it that Will Smith was offered the lead in The Matrix before Reeves, but passed. Can you picture the Fresh Prince taking on Agent Smith? He would have turned The Matrix into Wild Wild West: smirky, expensive and empty. Truly, Reeves is the One.
In person, Reeves comes across as funny and charming--but excruciatingly shy. He's determined to neither offend his inquisitor nor give away an iota of personal information. He does not enjoy being interviewed, which he describes, not inaccurately, as "talking about one's personal life to strangers. And we're not even taking a train anywhere." Critical whipping boy he may be, but Reeves takes himself utterly seriously as an artist, and he thinks too much personal stuff distracts from the work: "I'm not interested in showing anybody what's behind the curtain. I like watching a good documentary about how something was made. I just don't want it to be my life."
That's a standard-issue celebrity excuse for keeping mum in interviews, but if you look at Reeves' life, you have to wonder whether he has more personal reasons for keeping people at a distance. His parents split when he was a toddler. His younger sister Kim, to whom he's devoted, is currently battling leukemia. In 1999 Reeves' girlfriend Jennifer Syme became pregnant, but their daughter arrived stillborn. The couple separated, and in 2001 Syme died in a car crash after leaving a party at Marilyn Manson's house. That kind of baggage is no fun to unpack.
A sense of that buried pain comes through onscreen in Constantine: Reeves' flatness has its own kind of depth. He plays a private eye who keeps order in a Los Angeles infested with demons, angels, wizards and less easily definable supernatural entities. He's also dying of cancer and looking for a way to redeem his checkered past before the clock runs out. The genius of the movie, which is based on the long-running comic book Hellblazer, lies in the way it melds its metaphysical mumbo jumbo with a hard-boiled film-noir vibe: Constantine is like a seedy, cynical Harry Potter, 20 years older and cooler and worse for wear. It's the kind of movie in which Reeves' famous reserve and the anguish it almost--but not quite--hides work for him.
Although Reeves, who turned 40 last September, warns against overdoing the Keanu-grows-up theme, things are changing for him. He finally gave up his much mocked side career as a rock bassist. He bought a house in the Hollywood Hills, something he resisted doing for years. He also has a very grownup pile of money: the Matrix movies brought Reeves $15 million up front for each of the sequels, plus 15% of the gross, which comes to upwards of $150 million total. And he's reading Proust--he's up to Volume IV, which, to anyone who has ever read Volume I, is an achievement that demands respect.
Because he keeps his inner life so heavily guarded, Reeves is at his most self-revealing when he's talking about other people. While discussing his new indie flick Thumbsucker, about a teenager with a very infantile addiction, he goes off on a tangent about a line spoken by Tilda Swinton in the film. "She says, 'You know, you expect that when you have a family, that you will never feel alone.' And she does. I think that's a lovely piece of writing, and insight--if I can only have a family, these relationships, I'll be all right. And oftentimes you're not." Then, sensing that maybe he's said too much, he flips to a hyperironic voice: "But at least they're around to help ya. As opposed to really bein' alone!"
As it happens, Swinton is also in Constantine--she has a devastating cross-gender star turn as a cruel, foulmouthed angel Gabriel--and Reeves, who has become a fan of the British actress, would like to put on record, in TIME, that he is available to play Macbeth to Swinton's Lady Macbeth anytime, anywhere. He figures that he's now just about old enough to play the Scottish general, and he may be right. His Constantine is more Morpheus than Neo: he's not the befuddled innocent anymore--he's the guy who knows how the world really works, who pulls back the veil so that others can see the truth.
Reeves is finally pulling back some veils of his own. Want to know how a hundred-millionaire international icon celebrates his 40th birthday? "I went out to dinner with some friends. The year before I was alone," he admits, "so maybe I am moving up. This year I have a quiet, intimate happy birthday. Maybe next year I can do some carousing."