Keanu Reeves is a unique Hollywood star whose talent remains underrated. He is also an enigmatic actor with a complex reputation both personally and artistically.
For over 20 years, since starring in Dangerous Liaisons with John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer in 1988, he’s shown consistently that he’s not in the least dazzled by fame, is not desperate for adulation and has personal values far from the norm among his fellow film stars. Artistically, there are film critics who rate his acting negatively and others (see below) who say he has superlative talent. His box office successes have made the 45-year-old Beirut-born actor a multi-millionaire as fans around the world vouch for the fact that his acting can entertain vast audiences.
While most Hollywood stars calculate their every move in order to further their careers, impress their fans and earn lots of dollars, Reeves treads a different path. He chooses films he wants to act in and, if he doesn’t want to do them, he’s not swayed by the money on offer or the prospect of greater fame.
After the box office success of Speed, the actor turned down the offer to star in the sequel because he preferred to act in indie film The Last Time I Committed Suicide. He also rejected an offer to work with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat because he was more interested in playing Hamlet on stage in Winnipeg, Canada.
From the start of his acting career, Reeves’ choices have been determined by his own quirky personal and artistic inclinations rather than the film studios’ demands.
After appearing in adverts for Coca-Cola and Kelloggs Corn Flakes as a teenager, he got his equity card by interpreting troubled teenager Bernie in the homoerotic stage play Wolfboy at Toronto’s Passe Muraille Theatre. This led to an offer of a part in Youngblood with Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze, and then on to the film River’s Edge. After more stage work, he was offered the part subsequently taken by Charlie Sheen in Platoon. Deciding the film was going to be too violent, he simply turned it down.After taking roles in The Night Before and The Prince of Pennsylvania, Reeves was simultaneously offered the role of Chevalier Danceny in Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons and the lead role in The Fly 2.
Fly 2 would have paid Keanu nearly twice as much as Dangerous Liaisons. He chose Dangerous Liaisons.
Part of the critical response to Reeve’s work has undoubtedly been shaped by his early success as Ted in the Bill And Ted films.Some critics, I would argue, got confused about his entirely convincing portrayal of teen lunkhead Ted and decided Keanu was Ted. They haven’t updated that assessment even though he’s provided them, by now, with plenty of evidence to the contrary. Bruce Willis, though a very different actor from Keanu Reeves, faced a similar stereotyping when he made the move from TV to film acting and was long seen as ‘that guy in the lightweight sitcom Moonlighting.’ Yet Willis went on to make films like Twelve Monkeys, Pulp Fiction and Sixth Sense which showed his acting range was much wider than the Die Hard action movies and comedies like Blind Date had suggested.
Any assessment of Keanu Reeves’ work has to take account of his roles in Point Break, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, My Own Private Idaho, directed by Gus Van Sant, Dracula, (Francis Ford Coppola) and Little Buddha (Bernardo Bertolucci), Constantine (Francis Lawrence) as well as the films mentioned above.
When Reeves took the leading role in Hamlet in a modest production in Winnipeg, the respected British theater critic Roger Lewis said that Keanu’s performance was one of three best Hamlets he’d ever seen. Keanu, he said, was Hamlet.
The critical response to Reeves’ work has probably also been influenced by his indifference to his own fame. In 1999, The Matrix shot him to superstardom which continued with the sequels The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Though Keanu’s earnings from the trilogy were estimated at between $200 and $330 million, neither his increased wealth nor his celebrity made him any more inclined to play to the press. He has described interviews dismissively as “talking about one’s personal life to strangers – and we’re not even taking a train anywhere.”
He’s also commented that “I’m not interested in showing anybody what’s behind the curtain. I like watching a good documentary about how something was made. I just don’t want it to be my life.”
Interviewers have consistently reported that Reeves gives little away in interviews. He comes across as funny, introverted, shy – and intensely private.
Actors and directors who have worked with him say much the same. Here are some typical comments about the reserved actor:
Shia LaBeouf: “I’ve worked with him for a year and a couple of months but I don’t really know him that much. I don’t think he hangs out with other humans much.”
Francis Lawrence: “Do I really know Keanu after working with him? No. I know things about him: he’s hardworking, he’s generous, he’s a sweet, sweet guy. But it’s all just sort of on the surface.”
Erwin Stoff has been Reeves’ manager since the actor was 13. He, at least, must know him well? “Keanu is a really private person” he says. “He’s sort of perfected for himself a way of keeping a distance from people.”
Yet Reeves’ rationale seems to be perfectly sound. He lets his work, and his actions, speak for themselves. Everyone knows that he’s had tragedies to cope with. He has no relationship with his father. His best friend River Phoenix died suddenly in 1993 after a night out at Johnny Depp’s nightclub The Viper. Six years later Keanu’s girlfriend, Jennifer Syme, was due to give birth to a little girl around Christmas. The baby, found to have died, was delivered stillborn on Christmas Eve. Given the name Ava Archer Syme Reeves, she was buried in Los Angeles. In April 2001, Keanu suffered another bereavement when Jennifer died in a car accident, also in Los Angeles. As if all that weren’t more than enough to cope with, the actor’s sister Kim, with whom he has a close relationship, has leukaemia.
Reeves is as generous as he is private. As well as taking care of his sister and donating millions to cancer research, he has shown extraordinary generosity to film crews he’s worked with. Working in Australia, he gave Harley Davidsons to a team of stuntmen. He also shared around 75 million dollars of his Matrix earnings with the costume and special effects teams.
Asked why he had been so generous he said simply: “Money is the last thing I think about. I could live on what I have already made for the next few centuries.”
There are few Hollywood stars who reason like that.
Keanu Reeves is underrated as an actor. He can shift seamlessly between dopey comedy and serious drama, between romance and sci-fi and between stage and screen. That many journalists in the past have mistaken his private and thoughtful nature for empty-headedness is their failing, not his. Reeves gives every impression of being absorbed by his art but not by the celebrity circus which surrounds it. He has lots more to offer audiences. Not long ago he told Time magazine that he wants to play Macbeth, feeling he is now old enough to portray the ambitious and murderous Scottish Thane of Glamis. If he does, it’s a fair bet that he’ll make the role his own. An actor who was Ted and was Hamlet (and clearly was Neo…) has, by definition, a pretty wide range – and lot of talent.
** Keanu Reeves’ current projects include producing and starring in science-fiction space drama Passengers, acting in a film adaptation of series Cowboy Bebop, a samurai film 47 Ronin, Chef and a new version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde **