What Keanu Reeves was like before all the fame
by Jane Harkness
Keanu Reeves has never been your typical celebrity. It seems like he genuinely just wants to leave a legacy as an actor who has always been intensely passionate about his craft, and the other perks of working in Hollywood are just bells and whistles. They say that fame changes people, but when it comes to Reeves, it doesn't look like those changes have gone to his head. After all, this is the guy who's a little-known philanthropist, has taken pay cuts to bring other actors on to his films, and more recently, helped out some fellow passengers when his flight to Los Angeles got stranded at an airport two hours away.
With his starring role as Neo in the Matrix franchise, Reeves went from rising star to an actor who demanded to be taken seriously. And with his recent starring role in the John Wick films, he's reminded everyone once again just how talented and versatile he's always been. But clearly, there's more to Reeves than the characters he plays. Here's how Reeves went from high school dropout to the captivating actor he is today.
He lived all over the world
Reeves is Canadian, but he was actually born in Beirut, where his mother, Patricia Taylor, a British costume designer and performer, met his father, Samuel Reeves. But his dad was essentially out of the picture by the time Reeves was a toddler, and a few years later, he was arrested in Hawaii for selling drugs. As a result, Reeves basically went wherever his mom's career took them. They lived in Sydney and New York City, and eventually, they settled down in Toronto.
Reeves definitely has a multicultural background. In addition to his travels, he was also exposed to Chinese and Hawaiian culture through his grandmother. He also said that his mom taught him British mannerisms and passed down some of those customs and formal attitudes. His upbringing may have been unconventional, but he definitely became more cultured because of it.
He had celebrity babysitters
Reeves' mother was quite well connected in her line of work. As a result, he met lots of celebrities when he was a kid. His mother spent some time working for David Bowie, and Reeves also remembers spending time with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton as a child. Apparently, Alice Cooper even babysat for Reeves.
It's easy to see why Reeves became interested in acting at a young age. Although he certainly didn't get into it for the purpose of chasing fame and money, the exposure to so many celebrities made it seem like breaking into Hollywood wasn't just a far-fetched fantasy or an unrealistic daydream — it was entirely within the realm of possibility. If his mother could work her way up and connect with some of the biggest rock stars in the world, why couldn't he achieve his own dreams? Reeves' exotic childhood of traveling the world and hanging out with famous people probably factored into his decision to pursue acting as a career.
He was Paul Aaron's production assistant
Unfortunately, Reeves' mother was unlucky in love. Her marriage with Reeves' father ended after only a couple years, and Reeves barely saw him after he turned six; in fact, Reeves says they haven't spoken since he was 13. After divorcing Reeves' father, his mother went on to marry Paul Aaron, a director working on Broadway and in the film industry. While that marriage didn't last, Reeves stayed connected with Aaron, and when he was 15, he went to work for him as a production assistant.
His mother later married and divorced Robert Miller, a rock promoter, and Jack Bond, a hair salon owner. But Aaron definitely made an impression on Reeves, and he supported him as he began his career as an actor. Aaron expressed admiration for Reeves long after their brief working relationship ended. "Keanu is clearly a man who has worked very hard for a very long time," Aaron told People. "It's not as if, 'Gee, isn't it wonderful you went to work and all of a sudden, you're a star?'"
He was expelled from high school
Reeves is an exceptionally talented actor, but he was not the world's best student. Over the course of five years, he attended several different high schools. When he was a freshman, he wanted to go to a high school that was highly ranked for academics, but later, he decided to audition for Etobicoke School of Arts. Unfortunately, he was expelled from this performing arts school, and while Reeves said he enjoyed his time there, he simply wasn't cut out for that structured academic environment. "I was greasy and running around a lot," Keanu told US. "I was just a little too rambunctious and shot my mouth off once too often. I was generally not the most well-oiled machine in the school."
Reeves isn't the only actor in Hollywood who didn't finish high school, and like many other creative young people, he thrived in alternative environments. He also had dyslexia, which certainly didn't help matters. But he enrolled in a class called Respect for Acting, as well as sketch and improv courses with Second City Toronto, and he continued attending these classes at night and honing his craft.
He always loved to read
Reeves is known for his love of reading. He likes to use his downtime to dig into a good book, which began when he was a kid. His step-grandfather worked for Encyclopedia Britannica, and he's said that sometimes he would simply retreat to his room with an encyclopedia and read them out of sheer curiosity. While he was in performing arts school, he also went out of his way to read plays outside of class. Right after his courses let out, he would head to the library, where he was especially fond of reading Chekhov's plays.
Impressively, Reeves has also read all seven volumes of Proust's In Search of Lost Time. He's also a big fan of writers like Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, and Allan Ginsberg. In 2011, Reeves eventually went on to publish a short (and somewhat depressing) poetry book of his own, titled Ode to Happiness.
He was a great hockey player
Reeves is a man of many talents. In addition to acting in movies and theater productions, he was also a great hockey player. In fact, at one point in his life, he hoped to go professional. While attending De La Salle College, he played goalie for the hockey team, and he was a formidable opponent. He was so skilled at defense that he earned the nickname "The Wall." At the time, his athletic abilities probably exceeded his academic achievements.
When he was younger, Reeves dreamed about representing Canada in the Olympics one day. But when he decided to dedicate himself to acting, he put that dream on the back burner. He kept playing hockey on a recreational basis and put acting first. Reeves may have started out as a young jack of all trades, but he chose to commit his life to becoming a master of one — and that decision has clearly paid off.
He began his career in theater
Like many other actors, Reeves began his career with school plays and community theater. When he was nine, he made his first appearance onstage in Damn Yankees. A few years later, he decided he definitely wanted to become an actor after playing the role of John Proctor in a high school production of The Crucible. "From that moment I decided — they always ask you when you're coming out of school or university what you want to be, and I knew then that I wanted to be an actor," Reeves said in a Reddit AMA, as reported by The Star.
At the time, Reeves was also auditioning for local commercials. However, theater was really where he began to impress local crowds. He occasionally came back for productions even after his film career started taking off. In 1995, he starred in Hamlet at the Manitoba Theater, and the performance was such a hit that for a limited time, Winnipeg Citizens could call a "Keanu Hotline" to say where they had spotted the actor around town.
He landed bit parts on Canadian TV
One of Reeves' first professional gigs was working as a correspondent on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation TV youth program Going Great. The show, which focused on child prodigies who were able to accomplish amazing things at a young age, also aired on Nickelodeon.
In addition to Going Great, Reeves appeared in another local TV production called Hangin' In, a scripted series about kids who attend the same counseling center in a rough part of Toronto. Reeves described Hangin' In as a "godsend" for young actors in Toronto at the time who were just trying to get a foot in the door and make some connections in the industry.
Reeves spent a few years getting smaller parts like these in Toronto because he couldn't legally work in Los Angeles yet — he had to wait until he secured his green card. He took on all the work that he could in Toronto to build up his career and gain experience, and once he finally got his green card, he was off to Los Angeles.
He was a musician
Reeves is not just skilled as an actor — he's also a gifted musician, and was the bassist in a band called Dogstar from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s.
The band got its start when Reeves ran into vocalist Robert Mailhouse in a grocery store in 1991. The two bonded over their mutual love of hockey, and eventually, they realized that they both liked jamming out together too. Two more friends joined the band, and as their fanbase grew, they started touring; they even played some pretty big festivals, like Glastonbury in England.
The band broke up after releasing their second album because the members were getting busy with other work commitments. In particular, Reeves' career was really taking off with the popularity of the Matrix films. yet even after Dogstar's demise, Reeves and Mailhouse continued to perform together in a band called Becky for a while.
He didn't have many real goals
When Reeves started seeing some small successes in his acting career, he wasn't really thinking about his specific goals. Without a doubt, he knew he wanted to be an actor, but the question lingered: what kind of actor would he be, and which projects did he really want to work on?
For a while, Reeves said that he just went from audition to audition, but in his early twenties, he realized it was time to get clear on his vision for his future — otherwise, he worried that people would take advantage of him. Shortly after he came to that realization, his career really started taking off with roles in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Parenthood, and My Own Private Idaho. He may not have had much direction in the early days of his career, but once he started going after roles that really resonated with him, it took his career to the next level.
He never saved money
If you were a young actor, and you had resigned yourself to living out the starving artist story for the rest of your working years, what would you do when money suddenly started pouring in? If you're anything like Keanu Reeves, you would probably spend the cash as soon as it was in your hands.
When Reeves began landing commercial work with major international brands like Coca Cola and Kellogg's, he also started cashing some serious checks. He's described himself as living "out of a basket" for a few years — instead of saving his money or investing it, he would spend it however he liked. He recalled going to the bank to cash a $4,000 check for a Kellogg's commercial, and the teller asking him if he wanted to open an account. "I said, 'No, just give my my money,' and for the next year I'd just say, 'Well, I've got money,'" Reeves told US. Eventually, his finances started getting complicated, so he hired accountants and became more careful about his spending.
He didn't really care about getting famous
Even after working in Hollywood for decades, Reeves often comes across as though he's oblivious to his own fame, and in the beginning of his career, this was true. After Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Point Break, and My Own Private Idaho came out in quick succession, his face was all over teen magazines, yet Reeves insists he was barely aware of his growing fanbase.
Reeves says the first time he realized that he was actually becoming famous was when a fan who recognized him from River's Edge bought him free ice cream. In true Keanu Reeves fashion, he told the fan that that wasn't necessary, and he was a little hesitant to accept the kind gesture. Even today, it's clear that Reeves hasn't forgotten who he was before he became famous. He doesn't exactly revel in his celebrity status — and that's a big part of why so many people love him.