Inside Keanu Reeves' Inscrutable Private World: Tragedy, Motorcycles and Epic Movie Stardom
by Natalie Finn
When Keanu Reeves was asked the other night, "What do you think happens when we die?" interviewer Stephen Colbert probably wasn't expecting such a deep—or assured—answer from the movie star.
"I know that the ones that love us will miss us," the 54-year-old actor said sagely, rendering the Late Show host unusually speechless.
It was a sincere, thoughtful response—vintage Reeves, really—from someone who's had reason to think about such things.
"I haven't really thought about my career future, or what was going to happen, until really recently," he also told GQ in February. Asked why he started thinking about it, he replied, "Death!"
The still eerily youthful-looking Reeves, who's back in theaters Friday in the third installment of the blockbuster John Wick franchise, has become a brand unto himself, the name "Keanu" signifying not just movie stardom but also a certain kind of performance and even a state of mind: chill, zen, blissfully checked out ("Sad Keanu" meme notwithstanding). His name—which has lent itself to a comedy about a cat and a recent hit song by Logic, and which of course a studio exec wanted him to change when he first came to Hollywood—does mean "cool breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian, after all.
But still waters run deep, and despite being in the public eye for more than 30 years, he's one of the least-known people whose chiseled face you would recognize anywhere. Few play it as close to the vest as Reeves, who, though he does the occasional interview and shows up to fulfill his side of the bargain in promoting his films, does not talk about his personal life. And not in the way that most celebrities don't really talk about their personal lives.
As in, it's entirely unclear if he even has one, although—look at him—he must.
"I came to Hollywood to be in movies," Reeves told Parade recently. "I feel really grateful that I've had that opportunity, but I'm just a private person, and it's nice that can still exist."
He doesn't even publicize his charity work, but his causes include children's hospitals, fighting cancer, the arts and the environment.
"I always find it surreal that complete strangers come up and ask me personal questions," he told Parade back in 2008. "I don't mind speaking about work, but when the talk turns to 'Who are you?' and 'What do you do off-screen?' I'm like, 'Get out of here.' I've been in situations where people have felt they had a relationship with me or something and I didn't even know who they were."
Not that Reeves is an anti-star. He lives in the hills above West Hollywood, spent plenty of time enjoying the local nightlife in his youth and has starred in countless quotable action movies—and gets paid handsomely for them, enough so that he can take off and do passion projects like his first (and only, to date) directorial effort, 2013's The Man of Tai Chi, or show up unheralded on a Swedish sitcom (Swedish Dicks, now on Pop) or in any indie film he so desires, like the recent Destination Wedding, an acerbic comedy that reteamed him with Bram Stoker's Dracula co-star Winona Ryder.
He's perfectly congenial yet usually looks somewhat serious, but not because he's taking himself seriously—more as if he wants to answer even the most lighthearted of questions with respectful gravity. But hey, as Stephen Colbert just found out, if you ask Reeves a potentially loaded question, prepare to get an answer.
Asked by Parade in 2008 if he believed in aliens, because he was playing the alien Klaatu in a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, he replied, "Some days I do. Some days I don't. There's so much unexplained and unexplainable phenomena that's presented to us. But beyond that, the cosmos is so vast. We can't be the only sentient entity. It might not look like us, but it's going to be out there."
His signature Keanu cadence used to be mistaken for a sign of vacuity, but Reeves attributed however he came off in interviews to his overall discomfort with talking about himself.
"I've never played stupid to keep someone distant," he told Vanity Fair in 1995. "I don't play stupid. Either it's been a failure on my part to articulate, or my naivete, or ingenuousness, or sometimes it's the nature of the form... And you know, I find myself more able to give an explanation of a project five years later than in the middle of it. It's so present-tense! I can tell you how I feel, but its context is harder to explain... Sometimes when I'm interviewed I'm not ready to do that. So you say...'excellent!' And you know what, man? It's OK."
It certainly was.
Ted Theodore Logan, Johnny Utah, Jack Travern, Neo, John Wick: all characters that had to be played by Reeves. He's done everything from Shakespeare to sports flicks to A Scanner Darkly, and soon you'll be hearing his voice as Duke Caboom, a motorcycle-riding stuntman with a wistful backstory, in Toy Story 4, which will probably sneak in to top The Matrix Reloaded, which made $742 million worldwide, as his single highest-grossing movie.
"So I made Duke a little more gravelly but still tried to give him energy and a big personality," Reeves shared with Entertainment Weekly in March. "I just thought that Duke should love what he does. He's the greatest stuntman in Canada! I wanted him to be constantly doing poses on the bike while he was talking, to have this great extroverted passion."
He turned down Speed 2 to play Hamlet onstage in Canada. He was one of the first big stars who memorably jammed on the side with his own band, Dogstar, in the '90s and now he co-owns a custom bike shop called ARCH Motorcycle in Hawthorne, Calif, because he loves motorcycles as much as you think he does.
"Riding can be a place to think and feel. It's a way to work things out," he recently told Parade, noting that inclement weather doesn't stop him. "I like riding in the rain. It's a little more sketchy." He rides mainly alone, but he and the ARCH crew cruise Pacific Coast Highway on Sunday mornings.
And if motorcycles provide one soul-soothing salve for Reeves, acting provides another.
"In acting, you're constantly discovering new feelings and thoughts and exposing yourself to them," he told Parade in 2008. "I guess it could be considered psycho-therapy. All I know is that, as an actor, I can tell you a story that you'll listen to. Maybe it won't just entertain you, it might also teach you something. I think film has the power to change your life if you want to let it.
Combine his real-life inscrutability with his is-it-genius-or-does-he-just-do-the-same-thing-every-time approach to acting, and he's become more myth than man—and that, too, is a huge part of his appeal. He's just so Keanu.
"I don't own a computer and I don't e-mail," he said in the 2008 Parade interview. "I'm fascinated by people who freak out when they don't get an instant response to an e-mail. It's like they expect as soon as they send an email to get the answer back and if they don't it's like awful. I just hope people won't totally lose the ability to write letters because it's a good way to communicate."
He preferred typewriters, Reeves said—and we can only hope he and Toy Story star Tom Hanks had a chance to talk about typewriters together.
"I only have good things to say about him," Swedish Dicks star Peter Stormare, who met Reeves doing Constantine in 2005, which led to the actor's role on his show, told GQ. "Once a year, we'll have a beer together and talk about life and things. He's very private. He leads his life the way he wants to lead it. And I guess it can be lonely sometimes. But I think he's just like me. There's a comfort in being alone sometimes, especially when you're working on something."
"We bonded over motorcycles, bass guitar, and Harold Pinter," Alex Winter, the Bill to his Ted, also told the magazine. "Reeves had a really good book collection."
Reeves was born in Beirut, to a Hawaiian father and English mother, but they divorced when he was about 2. Mom Patricia remarried in the US., but after that didn't work out she settled with a 7-year-old Keanu and his younger sister, Kim, who was born in Australia, in Toronto. Reeves reportedly hasn't spoken to his dad since he was 13.
"We were latchkey kids," he told Esquire in 2017. "It was basically 'leave the house in the morning and come back at night'. It was cool." But, he told Parade, "Even for a runaway English girl, my mother gave us a proper upbringing. We learned manners, respect for our elders, formal table settings. I also learned a nonprejudicial, nonjudgmental acceptance of other people."
His favorite part of school was doing plays and studying Shakespeare in English class, so he dropped out at 17 to try his hand at acting.
"My attendance record was very bad. I was lazy," Reeves told Vanity Fair. "I knew I wanted to act when I was halfway through grade 11, I guess, and school wasn't important."
His first acting job came on the Canadian series Hangin' In in 1984. Then he moved to Los Angeles and made his big-screen debut in the Rob Lowe-starring drama Youngblood in 1986. Later that year he won his first major role in the gritty teen crime drama River's Edge, which went on to win Best Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards.
So it was off to the races for Reeves, who in the next five years made a wildly diverse array of movies, including the very-'80s comedy The Night Before, Dangerous Liaisons, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (and its sequel, Bogus Journey), Parenthood, Point Break and My Own Private Idaho.
He was very much living the fast Hollywood life, and it wasn't all charmed.
In 1993, River Phoenix died of an accidental drug overdose—another painful thing Reeves didn't want to talk about, but he spoke fondly of his friend and My Own Private Idaho co-star.
"I enjoyed his company. Very much," Reeves told Rolling Stone in 2000. "And enjoyed his mind and his spirit and his soul. We brought good out in each other. He was a real original thinker. He was not the status quo. In anything."
As for Phoenix's death, "It's something he thinks about all the time, something he never really talks about," a friend told People. "Friends know not to go there with him."
In 1994 his estranged father, Samuel, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for drug possession in Hawaii, but was released in two. "Jesus, man. No, the story with me and my dad's pretty heavy. It's full of pain and woe and fucking loss and all that s--t," he told RS around that time. In 1995, he told Vanity Fair, when asked why he didn't want to know more about his dad's case, "Why would I want to find out what I didn't know?" He called the situation "pretty incredible," and that was that.
Reeves has a massive scar on his abdomen from when he suffered a rupture spleen in a motorcycle crash while riding in L.A.'s Topanga Canyon in 1988. He went into a hairpin turn going about 50 mph.
"I call that a demon ride," he reflected to Rolling Stone. "That's when things are going badly. But there's other times when you go fast, or too fast, out of exhilaration...I remember saying in my head, 'I'm going to die.'"
"I remember calling out for help," he continued. "And someone answering out of the darkness, and then the flashing lights of an ambulance coming down. This was after a truck ran over my helmet. I took it off because I couldn't breathe, and a truck came down. I got out of the way, and it ran over my helmet."
Also while his star was on the rise, his sister Kim battled cancer for years starting in the late '80s. "He helped me through," she told Vanity Fair about her brother. "When the pain got bad, he used to hold my hand and keep the bad man from making me dance. He was there all the time, even when he was away."
Actor and Dogstar bandmate Roger Mailhouse told Rolling Stone about Reeves in 2000, "He's a really giving person. He'd give you his last shoe. Really smart, too. He's incredibly booksmart. He's a really interesting person who doesn't talk a lot of s--t."
Asked how his friend had changed over the past decade, i.e. the '90s, Mailhouse said, "I don't worry about him as much. I used to worry about him. Because I think of him as one of my best friends in the world, was he going to crash his motorcycle, or this or that. We did some wild things. I guess it's just growing up. I don't know—maybe it had something to do with River Phoenix, maybe. Losing someone close to him. But now I'm just proud of him. He's getting to do it the right way."
For years you'd be much more likely to see Kim or Patricia on Reeves' arm at a premiere or other big event—such as when he got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005—than any girlfriend, and the actor hasn't been publicly involved with anyone for years.
Not that he hasn't been linked to a bevy of his co-stars, including Sandra Bullock and Charlize Theron, but if he's in a serious relationship, it's not with a celebrity.
On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2013 he was wearing what anyone would take for a wedding band on his left ring finger, but no revelations ever sprang from that accessory choice.
When Parade asked recently if he remained a bachelor, Reeves replied (squirming a bit, according to the magazine), "Well, I'm not married."
Through the interviews he's given over the years, a theme running through them is the visible discomfort he starts to evince when the conversation veers toward the too-personal. And some topics are just off-limits altogether.
Reeves started dating actress Jennifer Syme after meeting her at a party in 1998 and they were expecting a baby together—but the child, a girl they named Ava, was stillborn at 8 months. They laid her to rest in January 2000, according to People, and broke up weeks later.
They remained close up until Syme, who suffered from severe postpartum depression, died in 2001 when she crashed her Jeep Cherokee into several parked cars on a L.A. street and was thrown from the vehicle. In 2002, her mother, Maria St. John, sued Marilyn Manson, who had thrown a party that Syme attended that night, for wrongful death, alleging he had given Syme the cocaine that an autopsy found in her system.
"After Jennifer was sent home safely with a designated driver, she later got behind the wheel of her own car for reasons known only to her," Manson, who knew Syme through filmmaker David Lynch and had worked with her on Lost Highway, said in a statement.
The rocker continued, "This lawsuit, which is completely without merit, will not bring back Jennifer's life. It serves only to reopen the wounds and the pain felt by all who loved Jennifer. It is a pity that St. John sullies her own daughter's reputation by filing this baseless claim."
They reportedly reached a settlement out of court, but Manson maintained he had nothing to do with Syme taking drugs that night.
Reeves has never spoken publicly about his relationship with Syme, which certainly fits right into how he was before, let alone since. But he grieved. And he eventually had something to say about that.
"I think, after loss, life requires an act of reclaiming," he told Parade in 2006. "You have to reject being overwhelmed. Life has to go on."
The actor continued, "Grief changes shape, but it never ends. People have a misconception that you can deal with it and say, 'It's gone, and I'm better.' They're wrong. When the people you love are gone, you're alone. I miss being a part of their lives and them being part of mine. I wonder what the present would be like if they were here—what we might have done together. I miss all the great things that will never be."
So he knew exactly what he was talking about when he told Colbert, "I know that the ones that love us will miss us."
Calling it "unfair" and "absurd," Reeves told Parade, "All you can do is hope that grief will be transformed and, instead of feeling pain and confusion, you will be together again in memory, that there will be solace and pleasure there, not just loss."
"Much of my appreciation of life has come through loss," he concluded. "Life is precious. It's worthwhile."
He said at the time that he would like to have a family, and reiterated the sentiment a couple years later, but Reeves told Esquire in 2017 with regards to "settling down": "I'm too… it's too late. It's over." Asked to clarify, he added, "I'm 52. I'm not going to have any kids."
Famous last words from a litany of 50-something men, and he was reminded of that. Reeves just said, "That's a whole other… But no. I'm glad to still be here."
"I'm every cliché," he continued. "F--king mortality. Ageing. I'm just starting to get better at it. Just the amount of stuff you have to do before you're dead. I'm all of the clichés, and it's embarrassing. It's all of them. It's just, 'Oh my God. OK. Where did the time go? How come things are changing? How much time do I have left? What didn't I do?' I'm trying to think of the line from the sonnet… 'And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er / The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan / Which I new pay as if not paid before.'"
"So, yeah," he added, reportedly with a smile. "I'm that guy."
In turn, Reeves can't help but come off as the solitary figure he so often plays in his films, from Constantine to The Matrix to John Wick. Heck, even Duke Caboom sounds a little melancholy.
At the same time, you're just as likely to see him in a romantic tear-jerker or a quirky comedy as a shoot-em-up. He's played heroes and hustlers, sweethearts and cruel villains, teachers and slackers, doctors and lawyers.
"For me, it's just continuing to be able to work with great artists and tell stories that people enjoy," Reeves told Parade. "I was always hoping, even when I was young, that I could do different things," he says. "I'm really grateful for that. I'm very fortunate. I'm glad to be here."
Though he had no idea John Wick would be such a hit, Reeves was in top form in the 2014 action extravaganza as a retired hit man who goes on a revenge spree after gangsters kill the beloved dog that was a gift from his late wife.
It made almost $89 million on a reported $20 million budget. Sequel time!
"You hope and you dream but the reality is even sweeter," he told E! News in 2017 about the first film's surprise success when he was promoting John Wick: Chapter 2. "It's great to be involved in a project that has so much affection."
Chapter 2 made $172 million worldwide.
Now back for John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum, Reeves has revealed that he started training heavily about three months before filming began to get back into dynamo shape, and he still goes whole-hog (or horse, in this movie's case) in the action sequences, right up until a car runs into him.
"I'll do some fight scenes and then John Wick will get hit by a car," Reeves explained to Colbert on The Late Show, "and that's Jackson Spidell, who's an amazing stuntman." Spidell has been Reeves' stunt double in all the John Wick movies. "He gets hit by the car, then I'll get up from the car, then I'll do a whole bunch more of, like, gun-fu and whatever, jujitsu, judo—and then, if I get thrown off something, Jackson does his thing."
Even more exciting for some fans, however, depending on whether you like your Keanu dark or more dude-like, is the news that he and Alex Winter are finally set to start shooting Bill & Ted Face the Music, the much-discussed follow-up to 1989's Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and sequel Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, which came out in 1991. The years-in-the-making comedy is tentatively due out in 2020.
And so on his latest press tour, Keanu Reeves left his usual trail of breadcrumbs. They may not lead you straight to his door, but they'll definitely keep you on the path.