Keanu Reeves on his love of motorbikes and the 'Sad Keanu' meme
by Jan Janssen
Despite being one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Keanu Reeves has never been a fan of the spotlight. Unless, that is, it’s aimed on his motorbike
When it comes to riding a motorbike, Keanu Reeves is no celebrity dilettante. Like his alter ego Johnny Utah in Point Break, the enigmatic movie star is a self-confessed speed demon who regularly tests his limits as a fearless motorcyclist. As a young boy growing up in Toronto, Canada, where he first aspired to be a hockey goaltender before acting intervened, Reeves was fascinated by bikes. His stepfather owned a Norton Interceptor and to this day his favourite motorcycle remains his 1973 Norton Commando.
But it took a pretty German girl to actually get Reeves on his lifelong motorcycle journey: “When I was 22, I was working on a movie in Munich and a girl showed me how to ride her Kawasaki Enduro. Ever since then I’ve been addicted to everything about motorcycles,” he says. “Wherever I’ve been in the world – shooting a film or whatever – I’ve always looked for a used bike shop to get something very fast I could ride around for a few months and then sell back afterwards. I get very restless if I don’t get to feel the kind of speed and freedom riding a bike gives me.”
Reeves is a fearless renegade rider who cherishes the time and “incredible freedom” he experiences aboard an impressive collection of bikes that includes a 1974 BMW 750 (“I bought that while shooting The Matrix”), 1984 Harley Shovelhead, and Moto Guzzi T3, but he still finds time for his day job. His new movie, John Wick: Chapter 2, sees Reeves return to the role of the reformed hitman bent on atoning for his past. Not only did the original John Wick blow critics away and prove to be one of the sleeper hits of 2014, but it also gave Reeves his first truly galvanizing role since The Matrix films.
In John Wick: Chapter 2, Reeves’s retired assassin is forced back into action again in order to foil a plot involving a secret assassins’ guild. Like the original, the sequel sets out to replicate the same kind of kinetic and brilliantly choreographed fight sequences that show he hasn’t lost any of the martial arts techniques that he has honed over his career.
Says Reeves: “I can still hack it – I don’t want anyone else to do the fight scenes, and I still do virtually all of the fighting. The only problem is that you’re very sore and stiff the next day because you’re older and less flexible. I can’t jump as high as I used to, but my overall technique and ability to do the choreographed sequences is at a much higher level now and I still get a kick out of doing those scenes. I’ve also had some great teachers to get me to where I needed to be. It’s a lot of fun.”
Shot in Rome and New York, the sequel co-stars Ruby Rose (Orange is the New Black), Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Bridget Moynahan, Laurence Fishburne (his former Matrix boss), Common, Lance Reddick, Peter Stormare, and Riccardo Scamarcio.
Ironically, the high octane sequel sees Reeves take the wheel of a supercharged Chevrolet Chevelle and mow down a villainous motorbike rider in one particularly thrilling sequence shot in New York’s Times Square.
Despite any subconscious misgivings about running over a fellow biker, albeit for the sake of fiction, Reeves likes the fact that the new Wick movie raises the action bar even higher than the first. “I love John Wick. We had an amazing time making this story. I can’t say that we’re not geeked about continuing the idea and the character. We have some really cool ideas. We talk about what would be cool to take it to the next level… If the first one was a black belt, this one is third-degree black belt.”
Set for release at the end of February, John Wick: Chapter Two could well be the kind of monster hit that Reeves needs to recover his Hollywood mojo. Now 51, the ever-handsome and still rather boyish-looking actor has seen his legacy tarnished in a string of critical and box-office flops. But in the guise of John Wick, he is able to infuse his palpable single-minded, melancholy spirit into a character who after losing his wife experiences a profound sense of despair. That underlying sense of rage and danger turns Wick into a ticking time bomb – someone you wouldn’t want to provoke.
“One of the things that drew me to Wick was his sense of honour and desire to lead a better life,” explains Reeves. “He’s driven by a firm set of principles and he’s not someone who you want to mess around with after he’s lost his wife and simply wants to be left alone. But once he’s set in motion, he’s going to be a man who is very hard to stop.”
The image of the solitary warrior has been a prevailing theme in Reeves’s screen roles of late. Films like 47 Ronin, Man of Tai Chi, and Henry’s Crime all saw him play laconic, lonely figures railing against an indifferent universe. These kinds of stories have served to fuel the ‘sad Keanu’ meme that took hold after Splash News ran a photo of Reeves sitting by himself on a park bench munching on a sandwich. For a man with a personal fortune in excess of $100m it seemed like a tragic portrait of a suffering artist. Reeves, who has never married and has no children, rejects the notion that he is lonely, much less sad: “I don’t feel lonely. I don’t socialise a lot but I have good friends and I have a very good life. I just don’t do anything to attract any attention to myself and I find it’s much easier to live that way.”
The meme itself was simply a case of him taking a break while shooting a film in New York. Explains Reeves: “It was lunchtime, between filming on Henry’s Crime. I decided to have something to eat during the break and began thinking about something. You know, sometimes you just start thinking during lunch. And that’s exactly what I did, but people seem to have decided that I was very sad. It’s interesting: photos can generate a thousand words, but none of them would be true!”
Motorbiking is what excites Reeves more than anything else in life. He believes that the combination of fear and exhilaration that comes from riding a motorcycle at high speed is a “unique sensation” that has few equivalents. The desire to find “the ultimate ride” is what inspired him to co-found the Arch Motorcycle Company in 2011 together with custom-bike builder Gard Hollinger.
The fruit of that collaboration is the Arch KRGT-1, a bike that most motorcycle experts and enthusiasts consider to be one of the most elite custom motorcycles on the planet. It combines space-age design with state-of-the-art engineering, and is powered by a Twin Cam 124 cubic-inch (2,032 cc) 45-degree down-draft fuel-injected engine that generates 122 hp and 122lb-ft of torque.
According to Reeves, this is a motorcycle that delivers on every single level: “It’s a bike that’s really confident feeling going straight, and it has a lot of torque so whenever you get on the throttle, you can really feel the pull and push of the motorcycle. It can turn and handle. We knew we wanted to offer something unique, not only aesthetically, but also when it comes to the pleasure of riding.
“I told Gard: ‘OK, the reason we should do this is because the machine is amazing, and we’re going to die anyway,’” he adds, laughing.
Reeves was involved in the development process virtually every step of the way and found a kindred spirit in veteran bike builder Hollinger. They set up shop in Hawthorne, California, near to Elon Musk’s Space-X facility, and set about fashioning their dream machine.
Though Reeves tends to downplay his technical input versus aesthetic contribution, Hollinger, his partner in the venture, has suggested otherwise: “He’s being modest. He always has a lot of feedback. I think he has to temper his wishlist a bit, because he doesn’t want to overwhelm me. His thoughtfulness and passion for riding was a huge part of what caused me to commit to the project. I’ve ridden my whole life, and when we talked about the riding experience, I was struck and impressed by how in tune he was. Man, all the years I’ve been riding, I’ve been taking it for granted.”
At a premium cost of $78,000, the KRGT-1 incorporates aluminium construction, carbon fibre BST wheels, a futuristic instrument panel from MotoGadget, and a six-speed Baker transmission. While gearheads will be blown away by the custom specs alone, ordinary mortals and casual (albeit deep-pocketed) motorbike enthusiasts will be mesmerised by the bike’s otherworldly design.
Says Reeves: “When we were discussing what we wanted to do with the bike, it was not just about building something that looked unique from a design standpoint but something which offered a very distinct experience for the bike rider. First of all, you need to build a machine that performs at the highest level – then you can talk about the aesthetics. But in the end, it’s all about the ride!”
When he looks at the KRGT, which he classifies as a “performance cruiser,” Reeves’s expression lights up: “It’s a new class of motorcycle. It goes beyond anything we’ve ever seen in terms of aesthetics and ergonomics and the way it handles on the road. It’s the product of a lot of hard work and thought. I think it’s beautiful.”
For Reeves, “the ride” is also a metaphor for one’s journey in life. For years, he’s lived almost like a Ronin – a warrior without a master – seeking some form of solace amid the constant attention that comes with being one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.
Yet he was largely indifferent to fame and fortune. He lived in hotels such as the Chateau Marmont for his first 15 years in Los Angeles before buying himself a house. He has little use for his immense fortune and has given much to friends, charities, and cancer research (he funded a wing of a hospital where his sister was treated during her battle with leukemia).
Though he insists that he’s “not lonely”, motorbiking would appear to be his surest means of combating a sense of restlessness and finding peace of mind. He confesses that he’s often “happiest” cruising along Sunset Boulevard late at night when there’s little traffic and he can admire the beauty and spectacle of the Pacific Coast Highway.
“Riding a bike is pure freedom,” Reeves says. “I love the speed and how it completely clears your mind. When I’m out riding, I just feel like I’m very calm and focused at the same time. One of my favourite rides of all is taking the Pacific Coast Highway through the Santa Monica mountains and Malibu Canyon and then making my way back home along Sunset: there’s just nothing else like it.”