Why It Took Keanu Reeves 30 Years to Become an Overnight Sensation

8 minute read

One of the great things about living in the modern world is that everyone is finally hip to Keanu Reeves. Right now he’s everywhere: Not just in the superb sequel John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum, but on talk shows, as a character in the upcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077, and as a hotter-than-hell but also endearingly insecure Canadian daredevil doll in Toy Story 4. He’s on Buzzfeed answering the public’s questions as puppies scramble around him, and he has a cameo in a Netflix romantic comedy, Always Be My Maybe, playing a version of himself, if he were sort of a jerk, which, from all reports, he surely is not. Reeves has become the Internet boyfriend du jour, thanks in part to a series of photographs swirling around the web that show how respectful he is when posing with random fans—or even with Dolly Parton—taking care to avoid anything that could be construed as inappropriate touching. Keanu enthusiasts have even launched a change.org petition to make him TIME’s Person of the Year. That choice is made solely by TIME editors, but hey, you never know.

Keanu here, Keanu there, Keanu, Keanu everywhere: This is a 54-year-old overnight sensation who has been making movies since 1986, the year he appeared in Tim Hunter’s teens-in-trouble thriller River’s Edge. At last, he’s getting the unqualified love he deserves, and those of us who have always loved him can rest easy. Now is not the time to gloat.

Who are we kidding? Of course it’s the time to gloat. There have always been people who love Reeves, ferociously and defensively, as a personality and as a vibe. How could you not like him as a time-traveling, mop-headed swain in the Bill and Ted movies, as a surfing cop in Point Break, as earnest, searching Neo, the One, in The Matrix movies? But historically, even people who like Reeves as a performer have often been quick to add that they’re not sure he’s a good actor. Before the Internet, there was a thing called dinner parties, and when the conversation turned to Keanu Reeves, you could be assured of hearing some variation of the following: He’s a bad actor. What he does is not really acting, he’s just playing himself. He’s good in action roles. He’s OK but he really shouldn’t attempt Shakespeare. He has no emotional range. He’s just bad.

The problem most likely lies not with Keanu’s gifts as a performer but with a general perception of what good acting is. People are often afraid to say anyone is a good actor, unless it’s Meryl Streep. They don’t want their judgment to be found wanting, and thus they make their own insecurities the actor’s problem. In 1993, it was almost impossible to defend Keanu’s performance as the resentful, conflicted villain Don John in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing without being laughed at. It’s true he’s not Shakespearean in, say, the Laurence Olivier mode—he hasn’t lived inside the words of Shakespeare for a lifetime, perpetually kicking away at the best and truest ways to push those words out into the world. His Shakespearean acting is a movie-star version, a kind of pop interpretation that speaks to us more through an understanding of movie images than through deep Shakespearean study.

At one point, the preternaturally miserable Don John lies on a massage table, his muscles being worked over by Richard Clifford’s Conrade, who seems to feel his friend’s unrest rippling through his skin and asks him about it. Don John springs from the table. Anger and envy have been coiled inside him like the instinctive energy of a snake—they snap out into the air, a visible force. This physical outburst sets us up for a flurry of bitter but self-aware words: “Though I cannot be said to be a flattering, honest man, it must not be denied that I am a plain-dealing villain.” The line spins out in a pinwheel of self-degradation. This Don John knows himself, and hates himself for it.

Is this good acting, merely effective acting, or neither? No matter where you stand, I don’t think you can watch Reeves’ Don John and claim he doesn’t understand the character—his intelligence works its way through muscle and bone as well as heart and head. It’s performance as vibration. This might be the key to all that Reeves does an actor, including his magnificent gifts as an action star. Movement is acting, speaking is acting, listening is acting, just being is acting: Reeves reminds us of all that, often silently. There’s thought behind everything he does, and reading those waves of thought is part of the process of watching him.

We often talk of movie stars in the old-Hollywood studio-system sense, charismatic and distinctive personalities—like Cary Grant or Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis—who always look like some version of themselves but who create memorable characters by layering multiple, complex veils over their own particular mysterious essence. Maybe Reeves is one of the few modern-day actors whose style fits that model. He doesn’t work elaborate origami folds to transform himself into a character; instead, he beams radio signals from within. With a trim crewcut or a lanky shag, with a stubbly mug or a clean-shaven one, with a scowl or a slow-burning smile, he’s always starting from the base camp of Keanu.

None of this, though, answers the question of why Keanu, and why now? Other actors have passed through similar portals, seemingly expendable one minute and exalted the next. Before there was a Keanussance, there was a McConnaissance, the point at which Matthew McConaughey shifted from being an efficient actor in lame romantic comedies to being taken seriously in movies like Magic Mike and Dallas Buyers Club. The catchphrase became, “Wow, that guy can really act.”

But the recent blossoming of the Keanu orchid is different, maybe because, over the years, Reeves has proved that he doesn’t always need to be the center of attention. He launched a small art-book publishing house, X Artists’ Books, in 2018. He co-produced, and appeared in, the 2012 documentary Side By Side, an exploration of the differences between traditional photochemical filmmaking and digital processes. He has always been guarded about his private life, though we do know that in 1999 his then-partner, Jennifer Syme, gave birth to a daughter, who was stillborn. In 2001, after the couple had broken up, Syme died in a car accident.

We know this because it was reported at the time, and because it’s right there on Reeves’s IMDb page. But we don’t know about it because he’s talked about it a lot—he hasn’t. Reeves has erected some sturdy barriers against us, and yet somehow the membrane between his public life and what he truly thinks and feels seems fragile and permeable. What’s more, Reeves doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time on the Internet. Unlike most of us, he lives in the real world, and he makes it seem like a pretty good and grounded place to be. When People magazine, on the red carpet for the Toy Story 4 premiere, asked Reeves how he felt about the Internet-boyfriend stuff, he responded with a ripple of surprise: “I’ve been what?” When the interviewer elaborated, he smiled quietly, as if only to himself. “That’s wacky,” he said, clearly amused as he registered this new-to-him but not-to-us information, quickly adding, “But the positivity’s great.”

He also speaks candidly—on television, in the public eye—about things that would leave many of us speechless. In early June he appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to promote John Wick 3, answering the usual questions about what it’s like to fight while you’re on the back of a horse, and so forth. And then Colbert almost stopped time itself by asking a strange, potent question, as if knowing that if anyone might have the answer, it would be this radiantly centered person sitting just a few feet away: “What do you think happens when we die, Keanu Reeves?”

Colbert presented the question jauntily, as at least a half-joke, both courting and getting a laugh from the audience. That audience may or may not have known about the personal losses Reeves has suffered; they may or may not have known that Colbert lost his father and two of his brothers in a plane crash when he was 10. But what they know or don’t know matters so much less than the way Reeves responds, with composure and generosity and grace: “I know that the ones who love us will miss us.” Keanu Reeves is the man of the moment. Keanu Reeves is trending. Keanu Reeves is hotter than hot. But when our attention turns elsewhere, as it inevitably will, Reeves will still be out there surfing, not worrying whether we’re watching him or not. Because surfing, not trending, is the way to keep going.

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