Keanu Reeves Is Too Good for This World
by Naomi Fry
Last week, I read a report in the Times about the current conditions on Mount Everest, where climbers have taken to shoving one another out of the way in order to take selfies at the peak, creating a disastrous human pileup. It struck me as a cogent metaphor for how we live today: constantly teetering on the precipice to grasp at the latest popular thing. The story, like many stories these days, provoked anxiety, dread, and a kind of awe at the foolishness of fellow human beings. Luckily, the Internet has recently provided us with an unlikely antidote to everything wrong with the news cycle: the actor Keanu Reeves.
Take, for instance, a moment, a few weeks ago, when Reeves appeared on “The Late Show” to promote “John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum,” the latest installment in his action-movie franchise. Near the end of the interview, Colbert asked the actor what he thought happens after we die. Reeves was wearing a dark suit and tie, in the vein of a sensitive mafioso who is considering leaving it all behind to enter the priesthood. He paused for a moment, then answered, with some care, “I know that the ones who love us will miss us.” It was a response so wise, so genuinely thoughtful, that it seemed like a rebuke to the usual canned blather of late-night television. The clip was retweeted more than a hundred thousand times, but, when I watched it, I felt like I was standing alone in a rock garden, having a koan whispered into my ear.
Reeves, who is fifty-four, has had a thirty-five-year career in Hollywood. He was a moody teen stoner in “River’s Edge” and a sunny teen stoner in the “Bill & Ted” franchise; he was the tortured sci-fi action hero in the “Matrix” movies and the can-do hunky action hero in “Speed”; he was the slumming rent boy in “My Own Private Idaho,” the scheming Don John in “Much Ado About Nothing,” and the eligible middle-aged rom-com lead in “Destination Wedding.” Early in his career, his acting was often mocked for exhibiting a perceived skater-dude fuzziness; still, today, on YouTube, you can find several gleeful compilations of Reeves “acting badly.” (“I am an F.B.I. agent,” he shouts, not so convincingly, to Patrick Swayze in “Point Break.”) But over the years the peculiarities of Reeves’s acting style have come to be seen more generously. Though he possesses a classic leading-man beauty, he is no run-of-the-mill Hollywood stud; he is too aloof, too cipher-like, too mysterious. There is something a bit “Man Who Fell to Earth” about him, an otherworldliness that comes across in all of his performances, which tend to have a slightly uncanny, declamatory quality. Like many true stars, no matter what role he plays, he is always himself. He is also clearly aware of the impression he makes. In the new Netflix comedy “Always Be My Maybe,” starring the standup comedian Ali Wong, he makes a cameo as a darkly handsome, black-clad, self-serious Keanu, speaking in huskily theatrical, quasi-spiritual sound bites that either baffle or arouse those around him. “I’ve missed your spirit,” he gasps at Wong, while kissing her, open-mouthed.
Though we’ve spent more than three decades with Reeves, we still know little about him. We know that he was born in Beirut, and that he is of English and Chinese-Hawaiian ancestry. (Ali Wong has said that she cast him in “Always Be My Maybe” in part because he’s Asian-American, even if many people forget it.) His father, who did a spell in jail for drug dealing, left home when Keanu was a young boy. His childhood was itinerant, as his mother remarried several times and moved the family from Sydney to New York and, finally, Toronto. We know that he used to play hockey, and that he is a motorcycle buff, and that he has experienced unthinkable tragedy: in the late nineties, his girlfriend, Jennifer Syme, gave birth to their child, who was stillborn, and, two years later, Syme died in a car accident. Otherwise, Reeves’s life is a closed book. Who is he friends with? What is his relationship with his family like? As Alex Pappademas wrote, for a cover story about the actor in GQ, in May, Reeves has somehow managed to “pull off the nearly impossible feat of remaining an enigmatic cult figure despite having been an A-list actor for decades.”
This inscrutability makes each new detail we learn about Reeves’s life seem like a revelatory gift. On a recent appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” the actor admitted, twenty-five years after the fact, that he had a crush on Sandra Bullock when the two were filming “Speed.” Last week, a Malaysian Web site claimed that, in an interview, Reeves confessed to being lonely. “I don’t have anyone in my life,” he supposedly said, adding, “Hopefully it’ll happen to me.” The Internet responded with a collective shriek of longing. When it was reported, on Saturday, that, according to Reeves’s rep, the quotes had been fabricated, it almost didn’t matter. The Internet’s desire to plumb the hidden depths of this gorgeous puzzle of a man, and to serve as a balm to his perceived hurt, had been so strong that it willed this bit of news into existence.
The outpouring of horny sympathy recalled an earlier episode, in 2010, when paparazzi pictures appeared showing the actor, sitting on a New York City park bench and eating a sandwich, while looking scruffy and in low spirits. So emerged the “Sad Keanu” meme; June 15th was even declared, by fans, “Cheer Up Keanu Day.” But, unlike the “Sad Ben Affleck” meme, which came in response to a swaggery alpha male’s public descent, Sad Keanu was not animated by Schadenfreude. It simply brought to the fore the retiring, not-long-for-this-world sensitivity that we had always intuited was there.
Recently, a slew of people have come forward to share their real-life “Keanu Stories.” (A bizarrely large number seem to have encountered him at one time or another, perhaps owing to the fact that he often travels alone and without handlers.) The image of him that emerges from these anecdotes is of a considerate man who is aware of his status as a celebrity but doesn’t take advantage of it, and who is generous but careful with his presence. After a flight he was on from San Francisco to L.A. had to make an emergency landing in Bakersfield, Reeves helped passengers recruit a van to transport them the remaining way; en route, he read facts about Bakersfield aloud and played country tunes on his phone for the group. He signed an autograph for a sixteen-year-old ticket seller at a movie theatre after intuiting that the teen was too shy to ask him for one directly. He called an indie bookstore in advance, once a week, before arriving, on his motorcycle, to pick up new books. He was a wallflower at a party, asking another actor on the outskirts of the gathering if she would show him pictures of her dog in costume.
My colleague Jessica Winter was involved in a well-known Keanu Story, though she didn’t know it at the time. In a minute-long viral video taken on a New York City subway car, in 2011, Reeves is seen getting up and offering his seat to a woman who is carrying a large bag. Winter happened to be sitting next to Reeves when the video was shot—she is the strawberry-blonde woman absorbed in reading a magazine, initially unaware of her famous fellow-passenger. Watching the clip today, Winter recalled the courtly way in which Reeves reacted to being filmed: “He was calm and beatific and ever so slightly puzzled, like, Why are you doing this? I am not upset, and perhaps it is not my business.” If only more of us could learn to adopt Reeves’s attitude in our own lives. It’s O.K. to take a pause sometimes, to not engage, to let the world separate from you a little bit, he assures us. Just watch me.
I have two Keanu Stories of my own, both brief but sweet. In 2006, at a performance by the dancer Pina Bausch, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I saw Reeves seated a couple of rows away from me—in the cheap seats—his gangly legs crammed into the small space in front of him. Three years later, at Film Forum, I spotted him emerging alone from a Kurosawa movie, carrying a large tub of popcorn. These moments aren’t much, but I keep them close, picking them up every once in a while, the way you would a crystal or an amulet.
Naomi Fry is a staff writer at The New Yorker.