Keanu Reeves Is Whatever You Want Him to Be
by Laura M. Holson
When Keanu Reeves walked onstage at a video game conference in Los Angeles in June, Peter Sarkisyan marveled at how the actor seemed to transcend his earthly form.
Maybe it was Mr. Reeves’s lanky silhouette, shrouded in a cloud of smoke. Or, perhaps, it was the connection he felt with the actor, who, like Mr. Sarkisyan’s mother, was born in Lebanon and donates to cancer research. But Mr. Reeves was the man Mr. Sarkisyan aspired to be. He cried out from his seat: “You’re breathtaking!”
“I thought, ‘Dude, this is me in the future,’” Mr. Sarkisyan, 33, an online gamer who goes by the name “Peter Sark,” recalled in a recent interview. “Keanu speaks truth. He’s nice to people. I just said what everyone was thinking.”
Mr. Reeves has been a cipher-like presence for much of his three-decade movie career, shifting from the reluctant hero of “The Matrix” series, which brought in $1.6 billion at the worldwide box office, to a puppy-loving assassin in “John Wick,” to a sad-looking sandwich eater who launched a thousand memes.
People project onto the 54-year-old actor what they want to see in themselves. “There is an ambiguity about him,” said William Irwin, a philosophy professor at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., who lectures about pop culture and philosophy. “He’s not androgynous. He’s not alpha male. He’s masculine and feminine in a way.”
Like Bill Murray before him, who achieved status as a sometimes secular saint three decades after “Ghostbusters,” Mr. Reeves is accessible and, at the same time, not. He is a pop icon for these times when people seek mindfulness as a way to make sense of a confusing, cynical world.
Look. There he is, pensive. Like when the talk show host Stephen Colbert recently asked him in a half-joking tone, “What do you think happens when we die, Keanu Reeves?” The actor sighed. “I know that the ones who love us will miss us,” he replied.
It is refreshing, too, in an era of airbrushed social media influencers, to see a celebrity so at ease with fame. In March, Mr. Reeves and others aboard a flight from San Francisco to Burbank, Calif., got stranded in Bakersfield. A video of a rumpled Mr. Reeves in a van reading aloud to fellow passengers was posted on Instagram.
There are prayer candles with Mr. Reeves’s image and diaries for sale on Amazon that ponder, “What Would Keanu Reeves Do?” BuzzFeed recently had the actor cuddle with puppies while answering fan questions. (“No, we’re not going to play in the puppy pee!” he cooed.) He has his own film festival, KeanuCon, which debuted in Scotland in April. Fans, too, recently launched a petition to name him Time’s “Person of the Year.” (More than 150,000 have signed on.)
And his response to Mr. Sarkisyan’s adulation was very much in keeping with what we have come to expect from the actor who defined teenage exuberance in the 1980s in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” “You’re breathtaking!” Mr. Reeves shouted from the stage, while the crowd wildly cheered. “You’re all breathtaking!”
Mr. Reeves is achingly private, and what little is known about him is plowed terrain. His father left home when he was a boy, was arrested in 1994 for drug dealing and spent two years in jail. Mr. Reeves was born in Beirut and grew up in Toronto, before moving to Los Angeles to pursue acting. (His mother, a costume designer, is English; his father is Chinese and Hawaiian.) In the late 1990s, he had a child with his girlfriend at the time, Jennifer Syme. It was stillborn. The couple broke up and, two years later, Ms. Syme was killed in a car accident. Mr. Reeves owns a house in the Hollywood Hills and rides motorcycles. He is left-handed.
Perhaps it is his perceived vulnerability that people find so appealing. “He has his interests and pursuits, but he doesn’t have airs about him,” Mr. Irwin said. “He doesn’t pretend to be something he is not. He has a quest quality, searching.”
Of his movie roles, the cultural critic Joe Queenan said this in a 2008 article published in The Guardian: He plays characters that “the audience views more with affection than with reverence or idolatry, like a kid brother who has bitten off more than he can chew and may need outside help to survive.”
Of course, some critics might ascribe his current surge in popularity to the Hollywood marketing machine. In 2016, Mr. Reeves left his longtime agents at Creative Artists Agency for rival William Morris Endeavor Entertainment. This year, he has been everywhere promoting “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum,” his first No. 1 box office hit in 11 years; Netflix’s “Always Be My Maybe,” in which he plays a parody of himself; “Toy Story 4”; and the recently announced third installment in the “Bill & Ted” movies, due in theaters next year, more than 30 years after the first.
But stories about his Everyman quality abounded long before this recent spate of publicity. In 2014, the actress Octavia Spencer told the talk show host Meredith Vieira that Mr. Reeves had helped push her car when it had broken down on a Los Angeles street. That same year, he returned a lost credit card to a guest at a wrap party. Nearly a decade ago, he was filmed giving up his seat on the subway to a woman carrying a heavy bag. And last August, he posed for a photograph with a couple before their wedding at the Dream Inn in Santa Cruz, Calif.
I, like many others, have witnessed his graciousness. It was 2003 and I was attending the “Matrix Revolutions” premiere party at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles with my teenage nephew. Mr. Reeves was quietly standing in a corner of the terrace, and a publicist asked if we wanted to meet him. Mr. Reeves introduced himself to my nephew, shook his hand and asked if he enjoyed high school. (Mr. Reeves dropped out.) They talked about science and scuba diving. Mr. Reeves suggested a favorite book he should read; I cannot recall the name. A few years later, I saw Mr. Reeves at a party. He remembered my nephew without prompting and asked how he was.
By now, most people have forgotten Mr. Reeves’s role in “Replicas,” a sci-fi thriller released in January (four months ahead of the blockbuster “John Wick: Chapter 3”) that got a 10 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Like anything else, it points to the erratic nature of the actor’s moviemaking career. While Mr. Reeves has franchise hits, like “The Matrix” and the hyperviolent “John Wick,” he also has starred in a string of forgettable misses that hampered his career even as his online popularity has risen.
IndieWire, an online news site for independent film, asked him in a 2014 interview whether he preferred making independent films over big-budget studio blockbusters. “Not really,” he replied. It had been a decade since the “Matrix” had ended, and ensemble films about the X-Men and Marvel Comics heroes reigned on-screen. “I haven’t been getting many offers from the studios,” Mr. Reeves said.
Was he O.K. with that? “It sucks, but it’s just the way it is,” he said. He was just grateful to be working. “I want to keep going, making things, and telling stories,” he said. The timing was prescient. The first “John Wick” was released that year and earned $88.7 million worldwide, according to Boxofficemojo.com. So far, “John Wick: Chapter 3” has taken in $276.5 million worldwide, for a franchise total of $536.7 million. (A fourth film is expected to arrive in theaters in 2021.)
At the “Toy Story 4” premiere in June, an interviewer asked Mr. Reeves about his latest online persona: the internet’s boyfriend.
“I’ve been dubbed what?” he asked.
“Everyone is just kind of gushing over you on the internet,” the interviewer said.
Mr. Reeves shifted and stared at the red carpet. “That’s, uh, that’s wacky,” he replied.
Ever mindful, he added: “Well, the positivity’s great, you know.”