Keanu Reeves rides his motorcycle every day. "It's my preferred mode of transportation," he explains. Often it is merely the easiest means of getting from one appointment to another. But when his mood and his schedule allow, he'll head up the coast on Highway One or into the San Gabriel Mountains and the Angeles National Forest where the riding is good, or take Sunset down to the Pacific Ocean. Or just head up to the Santa Monica Mountains and kick around for a while.
"It's the physical sensation of riding, the wind, the smell, the sights, the connection to the machine, the living-in-nature," he says. "It demands a kind of attention and presentness. It's also good to go out and think a little bit, so you can get lost in the now. Or you can also kind of reflect. You're moving on the surface of the planet."
As a hobby it is not without its risks. In 1988, he took a hairpin bend too fast and lay on the pavement for half an hour thinking he was going to die. The accident left a thick scar up his abdomen and necessitated the removal of his spleen. Since then, there have been other surgeries, fake teeth, veneers. Some broken ribs. For a while he'd joke that he worked to pay his motor insurance. He hoists up the right leg of his battered jeans and shows me thick, knotted tissue running from his ankle to his thigh. "This one took a car bumper off," he says. "It was, like, 'ooof'. You could see the bone."
Which one hurt the most?
"You know, it's weird. After the accidents the adrenalin kicks in, so it's not really painful. Maybe the broken ribs part," he reflects. "That was pretty uncomfortable."
We are talking at the Arch Motorcycle Company, the custom superbike builders Reeves co-founded with his friend Gard Hollinger, a well-known designer in the bike world, in Hawthorne, an industrial suburb south of Los Angeles. Reeves had already logged tens of thousands of miles on Nortons, Suzukis, a 1974 BMW 750, a 1984 Harley Shovelhead and a Moto Guzzi racer, all from his personal collection, before he approached Hollinger to make a modification to his Harley-Davidson. (He wanted to add a sissy bar, or passenger backrest. Hollinger told him that wasn't really his thing.) The two got talking and Reeves suggested they might go into business. Again Hollinger wasn't keen.
"He said, 'No!'" Reeves recalls. "He'd been around motorcycles for years and he knew what it would take [to set up a new business]. He was, like, 'Why do you want to do this?' Then we got to know each other and over the course of it it was just like, 'Come on, man'. Anyway, he said yes."
Reeves shows me around. For a working garage, the place is as clean as a museum. There's his current bike, a custom Arch KRGT-1 with 10,000 miles on the clock, in for repairs after the transmission blew. There's the Goodwood ExperiMental, an eccentrically-built racer they bought to the UK for last year's Festival of Speed in Sussex. And there are various clients' bikes lined up along the far wall. Elsewhere, lathes turn and machine presses press. Occasionally an employee wanders past.
Is this fun, running your own company?
"Oh, yeah," Reeves beams.
"You're always fighting for a career."
Until recently, Keanu Reeves's last blockbuster was the The Day the Earth Stood Still, a sci-fi remake released in 2008. It was not a critical success. "Sometimes I call that The Day my Career Stood Still," he says. "I kind of went to Studio Movie Jail." Odd as it may seem, even for an actor as famous and as enduring as Reeves—2016 marked his 30th year in film, and his big successes have been really big—he's apparently still only as bankable as his last movie. "For me that is true," he says. "Yeah."
Although disappointments haven't hindered Reeves in pursuing weirder, wilder and more interesting independent releases like A Scanner Darkly and Thumbsucker—a duality that's been a feature of Reeves' career ever since his 1986 breakthrough River's Edge—you get the feeling the last decade hasn't always been plain sailing. "You're always fighting for a career," Reeves says. "I mean, there's a few people who [don't have to worry]…" Then he changes his mind. "No: you're always fighting for a career."
Then in 2014 he made John Wick. A gloriously unhinged B-movie action romp perched on the edge of pastiche but played with unblinking conviction. Its first-time director was Chad Stahelski who had been Reeves' stunt double in The Matrix trilogy. This may not have been a coincidence. Once again, Reeves was required to say little, do lots of shooting and kung-fu and wear a tailored black suit, which is how he looks best. Even his character's name appeared to come straight out of a graphic novel ("Don't Set Him Off" advised the posters). In other words, it was the perfect Keanu Reeves film for Keanu Reeves. (This is not faint praise: there are any number of, say, Nicolas Cage films correctly casting Nicolas Cage that belong in any right-thinking film fan's Top 100. Dangerous Liaisons, featuring Reeves as the 18th century French courtier Le Chevalier Raphael Danceny, is an example of casting that was perhaps less successful.)
Brown cotton T-shirt, $60; black denim jeans, $125; black leather boots, $300, all by Polo Ralph Lauren.
John Wick wastes little time on anything as tedious as a backstory. Wick is a loner who's lost his wife to an unspecified illness—there are flashbacks—and inherits a puppy to help him cope with her death, spending his days moping about in a 1969 Mustang Mach1 Coupé, having retired from his previous job, which happened to be the world's greatest hit man. When he refuses to sell his car to some strangers he meets in a petrol station, who turn out to be Russian gangsters, they later break into his house, beat him up, take his car and kill the puppy. Wick comes out of retirement.
"High-jinks ensue," Reeves smiles. "I think a lot of people's responses to the first film were: 'You know, once you kill a dog you can just do whatever you want. Right?'"
As fellow hit man Marcus [Willem Dafoe] puts it: "There's no rhyme nor reason to this life." John Wick also borrowed two tropes familiar to any student of the director John Woo: "gun-fu" and "car-fu."
At 52, he is back in the position of being able to open a blockbuster.
"It really means just having some kind of multi-purpose with something," Reeves explains. "So, something like hitting people with a car, that's 'car-fu'. If you're doing 'gun-fu' it's, like: 'OK, I've got a pistol but now I'm also doing judo moves or going into jujitsu moves'. So it's integrating one skill into something else at a high level of dexterity. He he!"
Anyway, for the first time in a decade, Keanu Reeves had a hit on his hands. (Even the critics liked it.) John Wick: Chapter 2 comes out this month. At 52, he is back in the position of being able to open a blockbuster.
"Recently I'm maybe a little closer to being able to break into that world again," is how he puts it. "I don't know."
Talking to Reeves isn't straightforward. On one hand he is unfailingly polite, courteous, engaged and charming. Shy even. But his answers tend towards vagaries that peter out in a single sentence, or else he'll deflect questions with a quip or a funny voice. He is a master of speaking without saying much of anything at all. For example, when I throw out a feeble question about what appealed to him about John Wick, he has this to say: "I really liked the character. I liked John's grief, I liked his will, I liked his fighting for his self-agency," which at the time you nod along with in agreement, and only afterwards think: well, what does that mean? It's certainly a depth of character not immediately apparent while Wick is in the middle of a six-minute nightclub shootout.
Reeves has always had cult appeal. In the Nineties, clever-clever Brit cultural magazine The Modern Review put him on its cover, alongside a profile of Roland Barthes. A school in Pasadena ran a course on the films of Keanu Reeves, where students read Hegel and Foucault the better to gain insight into his stoic detachment. Last year, the hipster London bookshop Idea produced a range of popular "KEANU" totes and sweatshirts.
There remains no one else quite like him. He was a teenage hero in the Eighties (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Parenthood), an action star in the Nineties (Point Break, Speed), surfed the indie movie boom (My Own Private Idaho, Feeling Minnesota) and was a pioneer of the Noughties noir comic book explosion (The Matrix series, Constantine).
When you consider the biggest star of Point Break wasn't Reeves but Patrick Swayze, you start to appreciate that entire generations of A-listers have come and gone in his wake. Rob Lowe had a good run of it as did Charlie Sheen, as did Robert Downey Jr. before being rescued by Iron Man, but none has endured the same way as Reeves.
But you're a movie star, the friend suggested. "So's Mickey Mouse," he replied.
Today, Reeves bats away the suggestion these unknowable qualities have helped him endure. "Yeah, I am private. I mean, everybody's mostly private," he says.
You must be the only major Hollywood star who doesn't even have an official website. "I think actors and actresses are maybe a little more private than other celebrities," he offers. "I don't know. Let's look at the analytics, shall we?"—he mimes cutting to an infographic, as if on a TV news show—"'OK! So, in the modern day…' I don't know. I'm a pretty private person. But I don't have anything to tweet, or say, or anything."
There is, I persist, a neat parallel between the lone wolves in black suits he plays on screen, and the lone wolf in a black suit he appears to be off screen. "I think I'll neither confirm nor deny the observation," he says. "A couple! I've played a couple."
Come on. "Constantine."
Neo. "Yes, [Neo's alias] Thomas Anderson…"
John Wick. "John Wick. OK, there's a couple."
We could keep going. "Siddhartha," Reeves teases. He means Prince Siddhartha Gautama, or Buddha, from 1993's Little Buddha. Perhaps the coolest loner of them all.
His parents met in Beirut, which, before the country was destroyed by civil war in the Seventies, was a major commercial, financial and cultural center. It was also the crossroads for the narcotics trade of the Middle East. His Essex-born mother, Patricia, met his Chinese-Hawaiian father, Samuel, there. Some reports suggest Patricia worked as a showgirl, others that her parents met at university. Samuel's job has never been disclosed.
As children, Reeves and Kim were frequently left to fend for themselves.
"I don't have any memories of it," Reeves tells me. "I think I was only six or seven months old when my parents left."
For the next few years, the family moved around: America, Australia. Reeves' sister, Kim, was born in the latter. By the time he was seven, the children were living in Toronto with their mother. Samuel was now out of the picture and Patricia had married Paul Aaron, an American Broadway and film director. She worked as a costume designer, to David Bowie for one. Reeves recalls meeting Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. Alice Cooper babysat. In 1994, Reeves' father was arrested in Hawaii trying to sell large quantities of heroin and cocaine, and later sentenced to 10 years in jail (released in '96). Reeves has previously said they have not spoken since he was 13. Patricia divorced Aaron within a year, and went on to marry (and divorce) rock promoter Robert Miller and hair salon owner Jack Bond. As children, Reeves and Kim were frequently left to fend for themselves.
"We were latchkey kids," he says. "It was basically 'leave the house in the morning and come back at night'. It was cool."
You must have been the envy of friends.
"No, no, we were all doing that," Reeves says. "It doesn't have to be dangerous. We were in the park, playing street hockey, basketball… it wasn't like we were sitting in court. We did do a little bit of stealing candy. But, you know, if we're talking 11, 12, we were just running around. You'd build go-karts, go to the movies… you know?"
In what ways are you like your parents?
"Hmmm," he says. "I don't know my father that well but I think that we probably have the same kind of certain sense of humor, share a little sense of the humor, the way we look at the world. And then from my mom… she's English. There's a formality to her. So, I think partly some of my kind of formality. I would say that. Yeah."
Reeves recently published what he calls a 'grown up children's book.' He wrote the words and a friend drew the pictures. Here's "Ode To Happiness" in full:
I draw a hot sorrow bath in my despair room
With a misery candle burning
I wash my hair with regret shampoo
After cleaning myself with pain soap
I dry myself with my gorgeous white one hundred per cent and it will never change towel
Then smooth on my I don't deserve lotion
and I hate myself face cream
Then I put on my alone again silk pyjamas
And go to sleep
When the hue has gone blue
And you can't quite grin and bear it
Let this word picture remind you
It can always be worse.
What was your intent in writing "Ode To Happiness"?
"The intent is that if you've got the blues and a little melancholia then perhaps laugh. Then you might find it deliciously, horribly funny. Yeah."
And is that advice you follow? "Sure," he says. "But if you can't do, teach."
Reeves started acting professionally at 15. He was a self-motivated kid. "I got an experience of it from school. Doing scenes. And Shakespeare. It was fun."
Did you know you were good? "I think my Mercutio was pretty good."
It's still talked about today, I tease. "Yes! Yes! 'Let's go to the 'memory screen'…'"
By 16, he was driving eight hours to New York to sit it on acting classes at HB Studio.
He was going to night school doing Uta Hagen's famous Respect for Acting class, at the same time taking improv classes at Second City, the sketch and comedy troupe in Toronto. By 16, he was driving eight hours to New York to sit in on acting classes at HB Studio, alma mater of Robert De Niro and Jack Lemmon. An amateur psychologist might suggest all this self-motivation was spurred by a disruptive home life, his dad, a desire to make something of himself.
"Yeah, I would imagine," Reeves agrees. "I guess it's that nature/nurture kind of concept. Definitely I wouldn't say it didn't have an impact. Who can say whether or not those influences happen [to make a difference]? But I think it has to be in your temperament as well. I have a pretty self-motivated temperament. Even when I was a kid. 'Let's go make something!' 'Let's do something!' 'Yeah!'"
"But I loved to go to the movies as a kid and I loved watching movies. I don't know if it was escapism. Even the act of going outside to the movies for me, and watching them in a room. I wanted to be there, you know?" he says. "I wanted to do that. And that happened in Hollywood! So, I wanted to act in movies. In Hollywood. It was my dream! Whatever that meant. You know?"
White cotton T-shirt, $60, by Polo Ralph Lauren
In 1989, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure made Reeves a star ("it should open to tame reviews and peter out from there", predicted The Hollywood Reporter). In short succession came its sequel then Point Break and My Own Private Idaho. Reeves became a pin-up.
"Was I? Crazy! No!" he says. "I never thought of myself as that."
That wasn't something you felt comfortable with? "I didn't experience it like that."
You must have at least been aware of it. Teen magazines went nuts for you. (In Britain, Sky magazine devoted 15 pages to him in various stages of undress. Just Seventeen gave away a neon green Keanu keyring.) "I don't know. I didn't run into it a lot."
No screaming girls? "No, never had that."
How come? "I don't know. But that just didn't happen. I didn't have that experience."
As Reeves tells it, the first taste of global stardom came when he and a friend went to the movies one evening, somewhere near UCLA. "We went to get an ice cream and the guy's, like, 'River's Edge!' And he wouldn't let me pay. And I was, like, 'Come on.' And he was, like, 'No! River's Edge!' I was like, 'Cool.'"
Free ice cream. It's not the biggest deal ever. "But it was cool that it came with River's Edge! Because of River's Edge! The guy's, like, 'River's Edge!' And I was like, 'Fuck, yeah! Thanks, man!'"
Other young men in his position would have filled their shagging boots. "No! I didn't have… I played in a band [mid-Nineties grunge act Dogstar] for a few years. But I was dumb…"
You had underwear thrown at you then. There are photos. "Yeah, yeah. I had a little of that. I mean, I probably should have taken more advantage but I didn't. You know, I was a little self-conscious about that. I mean, I'm not saying it didn't happen sometimes."
It's a reason people form bands. "Yeah! But it wasn't something that I was, like… I mean, don't get me wrong. It's nice. But, no: I haven't had that kind of experience."
The other issue with Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and the Californian airhead Ted 'Theodore' Logan III whom Reeves played, was that for years people assumed they must be one and the same person. The implication being, of course, that Reeves can't act. Or rather, that he can only play one role: himself. (This conveniently overlooks two points, one biographically incontestable and the other blindingly obvious: he's not from California and he's not an airhead.) "Is Keanu Reeves a good bad actor or a bad good actor?" puzzled The New York Times.
Others have suggested his apparently limited range only proves how talented an actor he actually is: just think about it in terms of performance rather than technique.
Reeves has said his own gravestone would read, "He played Ted." "I mean: I think I still have that now."
You can't think that. "Yeah, I think so."
There's a few more roles you're famous for now. "I don't know. We'll see! I think it really depends on the work. But you know, it was a really great part. And what I tried to bring to it was definitely interpreted as 'that's me.' When I would meet journalists, mostly. I never really ran into anything like that from my peer group."
How did that make you feel? "Er, it really depends where they went with it. You know, man, I can say some pretty weird shit. So, you know, I didn't clamp down on it."
You don't seem much like Ted to me. "I'm 52 years old! Maybe when I was 25, 26… bouncing off some walls…"
"Put it this way: he's the opposite of full-of-shit. I think audiences pick up on that."
"It would be one of the biggest misreadings you could ever do to say, 'that's not a super-intelligent person,'" says Richard Linklater, who directed A Scanner Darkly. "It takes a smart person to play a dumb person effectively. It's that curse: if you're a young, good-looking actor, male or female, everyone projects on you a shallow stupidity, whatever. No one gives you credit. It can take a career, a couple of decades of solid work, for them to go, 'Oh, maybe they're not as dumb as I thought…' He thinks it all matters. Put it this way: he's the opposite of full-of-shit. I think audiences pick up on that. That's why he's so effective in so many things. They go with his quest. They come onboard Keanu's train. You look at him and think you know him. You kind of do but you don't. I don't pretend to know anything about him and I worked with him for a long time. I don't know who he's sleeping with. I don't know what he's doing when we're not together. It's an innocence, actually."
A script for the third Bill & Ted film has been around since 2009. "There have been different versions now for seven years. In the meantime, we just get older," says Reeves. "Luckily that fits the story."
Here, as Reeves tells it, is the story. "The premise is basically that Bill and Ted were told they were going to write a song that would save the world, and they haven't. And so they're collapsing under the pressure. So now their marriages are falling apart, they're unemployed and they've gone crazy with all the instruments. They're still Wyld Stallyns but now there are didgeridoos and zithers and all sorts of stuff and they've kind of lost their minds. So The Future comes to them and says there's going to be a cosmic event at this certain time and if they don't invent the song then all of the cosmos is going to collapse on itself. So now it's not just the world [in danger, as in Excellent Adventure], it's the cosmos and [the movie] starts playing with time and space. It's just all breaking down. And they just can't write the song."
Why has it taken all this time? "The rights and the money to make it."
The Hollywood process? "The Process!" announces Reeves, as though I've stumbled across the pulleys and the pistons that make Hollywood work. "Yes! Yes! It's The Process."
Blue denim shirt, $110; black denim jeans, $125; black leather boots, $300, all by Polo Ralph Lauren.
In the early nineties, the director of Die Hard was trying to get a new movie off the ground, Speed. Reeves wasn't interested. After years of playing high-school outcasts he'd proved he could do action with Point Break, playing Johnny Utah, an undercover cop who learns to surf to infiltrate a gang of bank robbers disguised as US ex-presidents. But a bomb on a bus, Reeves, figured: who cares? "I remember the script and I was like, 'Eh?'" he recalls. "I mean, the plot's ridiculous."
His agent lobbied hard for it. Reeves says he eventually relented when he found a way in, via his character Jack Tavern, an everyman who tries to be a hero. In a genre dominated by bare-chested cartoony types—Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis—Reeves' character, all close-cropped hair and deferential charm to co-star Sandra Bullock, represented something new and zeitgeisty. ("Speed is bare of emotional development. It's characters are no more than sketches. It addresses no social concerns. It is morally inert. It's the movie of the summer", The New Yorker.) Reeves did, however, draw the line at Speed 2. Even after director Jan de Bont and Bullock doorstepped him. "They said, 'You've got to do this'," he remembers. "And I said, 'I read the script and I can't. It's called Speed and it's on a cruise ship'."
The studio were furious. "I didn't work at Fox for 15 years," Reeves says.
That's some grudge. "Yeah." Is that how it works? "Yup! It's a jungle out there."
In fact, Reeves turned his back on a rumored $5.5 million for a completely different gig. Playing Hamlet at the Manitoba Theatre Centre, a 789-seater in Winnipeg, Canada for the standard Equity fee of less than $2,000 a week. He learned his lines while making Speed. "When I was shooting Speed," he recalls, chuckling at his own drugs joke. "Ha ha! Just fucking mainlining fucking speed!"
The Sunday Times ranked his Hamlet among the three best they'd seen.
Why did he do that? "I'd grown up on Shakespeare, so to have the chance to play Hamlet… I had the training, the experience."
Either way, it was an unusual career move. Nowadays, it's commonplace for actors to underline their commitment to the craft with a short run in London's West End before disappearing back to Hollywood and Hollywood money. But not then. And not doing Shakespeare. One group of Japanese women bought seats for 10 consecutive shows, while others flew in from Australia, China and Argentina and chanced their luck. The Winnipeg Free Press reported Reeves' arrival under the headline "Keanu Krazy" and launched a telephone hotline to register sightings. Reeves' recall of the time is typically Reeves-ian.
"I remember I went dry. I was there doing a scene with Horatio and I just turned to the audience and I just broke it down and said, 'Line?'. Another time I was doing the murder scene with Polonius — 'A rat! A rat!'—and the dagger flew out of my hand and I had a POV of the knife as it skittled down and landed on a woman's chest. I ran down, put my hand out and she gave me back the dagger. It was fun!"
Reviews were mixed. For some, the idea of Ted "Theodore" Logan tackling Shakespeare's most nuanced role was too delicious not to send up. "Excellent—not!" reviewed The Guardian. The Sunday Times ranked his Hamlet among the three best they'd seen. What the director Lewis Baumander remembers, though, is his actor's dedication to the part. Showing up not just with his own 1,476 lines memorized—The Bard's biggest part—but everyone else's, too.
It's a theme of Reeves' career. Kenneth Branagh, who directed him in his 1991 film of Much Ado About Nothing and someone who's presumably used to a degree of dedication from his actors, recalled his commitment: "He practiced some speeches while doing press-ups. His incredible keenness reminded me of an army cadet." For a role that never materialized in a film by Cyrano de Bergerac director Jean-Paul Rappeneau, he offered to learn French. He spent six months training before shooting anything for The Matrix. On YouTube there is fantastic footage of Reeves preparing for John Wick: Chapter 2. On a shooting range in Los Angeles, alternating between a rifle, a pistol and a shotgun and using live rounds, he spends a thrilling 37 seconds obliterating every target. "Holy fucking shit," reads a typical comment.
"You know, [that footage], it's OK," he says. "The transition between the first one isn't great [he means his first swap from rifle to handgun]. But guns are fun! The aiming of it, the execution process. I really enjoy it. And it kind of gives a truthful feeling to the film."
It's not something actors tend to bother with. "For me it's part of the pleasure of it."
"Yeah. I don't have anything better to do! I have nothing going on! I have no life! It's just going to work and preparation."
"Keanu's all or nothing. He's willing to give up six months of his time to train for a role."
"That level of dedication is incredibly rare," says Chad Stahelski. "It has nothing to do with being lazy or work-shy. It's a choice. It's about what level of commitment an actor or an actress is willing to make for a project. Keanu's all or nothing. He's willing to give up six months of his time to train for a role. Some people would try and get another film in, or work two. When I first met him he'd had surgery and he was doing kung-fu in this big, cold warehouse with a neck brace on. I knew he was a serious guy. That set the standard for the rest of our relationship. That YouTube footage is four months worth of three-gun training. In a non-movie way, what Keanu is doing in that video is competitively impressive. Real guns, real bullets, hitting real targets. If you told him to go learn how to crochet, he'd go and be an expert in that. That's just what he's like."
"I had one of the craziest years," Reeves says. He is talking about 1991. "I believe the order is Point Break, My Own Private Idaho and Bill & Ted Go to Hell, which is what it [sequel Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey] was originally called. Those films were back-to-back."
Two years after the release of My Own Private Idaho, River Phoenix died of a drugs overdose. The two had oddly similar backgrounds and they had become firm friends. What does Reeves remember of that time? "Oh, I recall so much," he says.
Keanu Reeves photographed for Esquire, Los Angeles, October 2016
I'd read that Gus Van Sant's script seemed so strange that you and Phoenix made a pact: he'd do it if you would. "Yeah. Well, he was on board first. He had met Gus Van Sant. I think he would have done it even if I hadn't."
There wasn't a pact? "I remember there was a kind of conversation had on Crescent Heights, south of Sunset. I miss him dearly. Fucking sucks. I know so many people miss him dearly."
In the nineties, Reeves worked with heavy-duty European directors Bernardo Bertolucci, Stephen Frears and Kenneth Branagh, as well as Americans Francis Ford Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow and Gus Van Sant. This, too, was unusual. "Emilio [Estevez] and I sit around and just scratch our heads thinking, 'How did this guy get in?'" Charlie Sheen grumbled at the time. "How does Keanu work with Coppola and Bertolucci and I don't get a shot at that?"
"I was really fortunate," Reeves says. "That was really it. They're just such wonderful people and wonderful directors. Working with Stephen Frears [on Dangerous Liaisons], you know, that's amazing. But yeah, to be in Bhutan with [Little Buddha director] Bernardo Bertolucci… ha ha ha!"
Why are you laughing? "Because it's awesome! You know? You're, like, I'm showing up in Bhutan a few weeks early to kind of get my Siddhartha on and spend some time and walk around in the woods and do some thinking and some reading and some sitting. I mean, those are moments of a lifetime."
When you think, "this is my job"?
"Yeah, I do! Yeah, yeah. For sure."
For The Matrix sequels, Reeves renegotiated his contract so the crews got a share of his fee, a deal that cost him tens of millions.
For all his closely-guarded privacy, a few personal stories concerning Reeves have leaked out. The sorts of stories that belong in that special category where rather than revealing something embarrassing or relatable or human about the subject, something that make them people who, in the common parlance, are just like you and me, seem only to make them more interesting and unusual. They concern his kindness. For The Matrix sequels, Reeves renegotiated his contract so the crews got a share of his fee, a deal that cost him tens of millions. When making The Devil's Advocate, he took a pay cut so the producers could afford to bring in Al Pacino. A thread started on Reddit is devoted to these stories—it runs to thousands of comments. There are stories of Reeves taking out stage hands for lunches, of giving a set-builder $20,000 to prevent him from being evicted, of stopping to help a woman jump-start her car. He bought each of his Matrix stunt team a Harley-Davidson.
You're known for being a nice guy. "Oh-kay," he says, perhaps wary of where this might be heading.
You know about this. "No."
You bought each of your stuntmen a motorbike. "Oh, I did that for the gentlemen who were involved in this really big fight in The Matrix, in the second one, the Agent Smith fight [the set-piece sees Neo fighting dozens of clones of his nemesis]. I worked with these stuntmen every day. That fight was 17 shooting days. We trained every day for seven hours for three weeks going through all the motions. We learned the term 'super-perfect.' You want to go for super-perfect. So, obviously I was getting paid well. And so, you know, just as a thank you to those guys. Got them some gifts. Yeah."
There are other stories. Stopping to help a motorist out… "Whatever!" Reeves bats it away. "I'm just a normal guy, man."
You're known for being a good guy in an industry not known for it.
"Oh!" he says. "Well, that's a nice thing to be known for. That's really nice. True or not."
Another story, true or not. Reeves is a voracious reader. He told one interviewer he'd finished Proust's In Search of Lost Time, all seven volumes and 1.3 million words of it. Gus Van Sant said he would send him reference books like The Satyricon, Petronius' satire on vice and decadence in ancient Rome, and City of Night, John Rechy's novel about drag queens and prostitutes, and be amazed to find he'd devoured not just them, but sought out the authors' other writing, too.
"Oh, I'm not a massive reader," he says. "But I like to read. I go through phases. There's always a book."
What's the book now? "Sapiens: a Brief History of Human Kind."
Our old friend the amateur psychologist might say you were overcompensating. The lack of schooling. The dyslexia. "I don't know. I mean, if I had to pin it to anything, my step-grandfather worked for Encyclopedia Britannica. In my room, I would just open them up. There was a curiosity there. I really enjoyed it."
You liked learning stuff? "I guess. Stories, storytelling. You know: curiosity. Like, I mean, when I was going to the School for the Performing Arts, around that time, immediately after I'd be going to the library and reading Chekhov plays. I mean I'm definitely one of those kids who was influenced by Hemingway and Jack Kerouac and Ginsberg. The kind of New York/French deal. 'Let's go to Paris! We're 18, let's get a car, let's go listen to jazz music, the blues, Sleepy John Estes, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, The Clash, The Jesus And Mary Chain, Pixies…'"
The good stuff. "Right? Joy Division, Apocalypse Now…"
It was a good time to be young. "Fuck, yeah! What have kids got now? They've got lots. Come on, man. 'Let's hit the road! Let's go to New York! Let's go to Broadway! Let's go and see plays! Let's get the tickets in Times Square!'"
"He can be a very monastic cat," says Laurence Fishburne, who co-starred in The Matrix. "Particularly when he's working. His career has not been without its failures. And that gives him a tremendous amount of grace and humility. Sometimes things have not gone well and he's learned from these things. He understands the business he's in, he loves acting and he considers himself grateful to be able to do it. Some of his choices are deeply personal. It's not about, 'How am I going to do the movie that makes all the money?' I first saw him in River's Edge and there was a quality I'd never experienced. It's honesty. It's that elusive thing called 'star quality'. That's part of it. But he's also incredibly curious and intelligent. It takes intelligence to be funny. His comic timing is excellent. He's survived because he's managed to evolve with the business we're in. That's down to curiosity and intelligence."
A conversation about Sad Keanu. In 2010, Reeves was taking a break from some post-production work on Henry's Crime. He sat on a park bench in New York and ate his sandwich. He wore tatty jeans and a fed-up expression. There was a pigeon at his feet. A paparazzi photo became a meme. "Sad Keanu" was soon being cut out and doctored in inventive and amusing ways. Sad Keanu sitting next to Forrest Gump. Sad Keanu stopping the tanks in Tiananmen Square. Sad Keanu in a Lady Gaga video. At least 14,000 versions. On Facebook, 15 June was anointed Cheer up Keanu Day. But unlike other celebrity-related online fads, the whole thing seemed based on sincerity and affection.
"Oh, that's fun!" Reeves says. "I mean, it's ridiculous. But it's cool."
It really took off.
"It's pretty meta."
Right. It's hard to imagine Cheer up Chris Pratt Day.
"Right," he says. "Yeah."
It suited you. "It's my melancholy. My melancholic thing, the Melancholic Dane. I thought it was funny."
The apparent enigma surrounding Reeves, even his identity, has been called into question.
You're not really so down in the dumps? "No. A picture says a thousand words and none of them can be true. The best in nature is subjective. But, I mean, I looked pretty sad. I was hanging out on the street…"
"Pigeon! New York! Cobblestones!"
There is an even better internet obsession about you. The one that suggests that you are immortal. "Yeah," he says. "I mean, people say my age [Reeves appears terrifyingly unaffected by the passage of time]. But I'm just waiting for that to change."
It's not just that. They really do mean immortal. There's a website proposing you've lived through time under various different identities. Charlemagne. 19th century French actor Paul Mounet.
"Oh, what? Really?"
You and Mounet do look quite similar. "That's crazy," Reeves says. "Oh my gosh."
Such is the apparent enigma surrounding Reeves, even his identity, has been called into question. It is customary for all interviewers to refer to his exotic name and its Hawaiian translation, "Cool breeze over the mountains". Perhaps emboldened by the notion of Reeves as The Man who Isn't There, his unofficial biographer contacted a Hawaiian language consultant in Honolulu. They deduced that since "Cool breeze over the mountains" should translate as "Keanuhea", then it followed that an abbreviated version would more accurately mean "the coldness" or "the coolness." "Nothing, but nothing about this man was straightforward!" concluded the writer. The Coolness. It would be an even greater name. Even more apt.
Sadly, it isn't true. "'The coolness'? I don't even know what that is," Reeves says. "'Cool breeze over the mountains'—Ke'anu. That's correct," he says. "Yeah."
Another movie Keanu Reeves has awaiting release is Replicas. He plays a scientist who becomes obsessed with bringing back his family members who died in a car accident. In 2001, Reeves' ex-girlfriend was killed in a car accident. They had split up the year before, after the daughter they were expecting was stillborn. ("Paps," he says at one point earlier in our conversation, "have done some pretty fucked-up things. 'I can take your picture because you're famous'. Get the fuck out of here. I get it if it's work related. But don't come to the cemetery.")
Would you like to settle down? Maybe you have already? "I'm too… it's too late. It's over."
What do you mean? "I'm 52. I'm not going to have any kids."
People have kids at all ages. Mick Jagger just had another.
"He's ageless. How old is he? I mean, he's… Oh my God!"
It's not too late; 52 is fine. "I know. I know. I'm going to start using chemistry."
At least you're not a woman. "That's a whole other… But no. I'm glad to still be here."
We're glad you're still here, too. "Oh," he says. "That's kind of you to say."
Some souvenirs Reeves has kept: the sword from Hamlet. The sword from 47 Ronin. Some scripts. A couple of film-set named-chair backs. The jersey he wore to play Shane Falco in the American football drama The Replacements ("which I think I may have given away to a friend"). Canned celluloid versions of My Own Private Idaho and Henry's Crime. "I have a lovely letter from Francis [Ford Coppola]."
On day one of filming The Matrix, the cast found a gift in their hotel rooms. "A black box and inside was a red pill." (In the first film, Thomas Anderson/Neo is asked to choose between a red and blue pill, the former leading to enlightenment and The Truth.)
Which of your films stand out as favorites? "Oh good God, man! That's a long list."
You've made some good ones. "No! I mean: off the top of my head, if I'm going to answer this question: River's Edge, Permanent Record, Bill & Ted's 1 and 2, Matrix trilogy, Constantine, Thumbsucker, A Scanner Darkly, Constantine, Speed…"
You've said Constantine twice. "Did I? Constantine… let's give it three. John Wick, My Own Private Idaho, Generation Um…, Man of Tai Chi, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Little Buddha, Dracula. I mean, I've been a part of some films that are… good. You know, the directors, the scripts. All those films kind of change your life."
"I'm every cliché," Reeves tells me. "Fucking mortality. Aging. 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 smiles. "I'm that guy."
Reeves steps outside to smoke a cigarette and I follow him. His plans for the rest of the day involve an interview about Arch Motorcycles. Then dinner with Nicolas Winding Refn. "The Neon Demon, man! I forgot The Neon Demon." The Danish director's latest, which opened to what might politely be called mixed reviews. "Should you see it? Of course you should see it."
There are no filming commitments on Reeves' immediate horizon. But, of course, something will come along soon. And it will be as surprising and cool and individual and unexpected as any number of other choices he has been making since 1986. Just don't think that any of that stuff comes easy.
"I'm working on working. Moving the needle. I've got some scripts in development. Trying to get the money. Trying to get some casting."
"Yeah, man," Reeves says.
Styling by Jenne Yang. The March 2017 issue of Esquire UK is out now.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.