Keanu Reeves: ‘Did you see my movie?’
As Keanu returns to action-hero duty in ‘John Wick’, Tara Brady finds him as fantastically unassuming as ever
Good gravy. The portrait hanging in Keanu Reeves’s attic must be hideous altogether. At 50, the actor is back on action-hero duty for John Wick. He still has the moves. He still has the growl. And, under some western white-hat fuzz, he still has the looks of a 30-year-old.
We’re not alone in thinking so. An entire cult has sprung up online, inspired by the idea that Keanu is no mere mortal. On keanuisimmortal.com you’ll find plenty of “evidence”’ that the actor is a time-traveller, whose most recent incarnation was an actor named Paul Mounet who died in 1922. Another “confirmed” Keanu identity, according to the site, is Charlemagne, the “father of Europe” who died in 814.
There is, to be fair, a striking resemblance between the two thespians, Reeves and Mounet. At a squint one might note a passing similarity between The Matrix star and popular images of the first Holy Roman emperor. Still, more rational inquiring minds need to know . . .
What’s his secret? Elephant foetus grindings? Sleeping in an oxygen tent?
“I don’t have an oxygen tent yet,” says Reeves. “But I may have to get one. It sounds good. I was reading recently about a study with mice whose life was prolonged by getting constant blood transfusions.”
So it’s mouse blood?
“No. I’m pretty sure it can’t be interspecies blood. It would have to come from another human.”
So he’s a vampire?
“Maybe. But I think the boring answer is that I got lucky with genes.”
The answer isn’t all that boring. Immortal or not, Keanu represents an exotic elixir of DNA. Born in Beirut and raised mostly in Canada, Reeves’s mother is an English showgirl turned costume designer. (Today, in London on promotional duties, he rather endearingly peppers his speech with Blighty-isms.) His father is Hawaiian-American, with Native Hawaiian, Chinese, and Portuguese ancestry.
His dad, who separated from his mother when Keanu was three, and who subsequently served time for smuggling heroin, has become a central plank in a second strand of Keanu-related lore. In 2010, a paparazzi shot of Reeves sitting on a park bench, staring forlornly at a partially eaten sandwich, inspired a flurry of internet activity under the Sad Keanu umbrella. First it was a meme. Look, it’s Keanu beside Forrest Gump. Here he is with Predator. This is what he looks like with Jesus Photoshopped in.
Then it was a date: the first annual Cheer Up Keanu day happened on June 15th, 2010, when fans bombarded the actor with billets-doux and donations to cancer charities: he’s known to support quite a few.
Unlike rival memes and vines – Chuck Norris facts, Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber – Sad Keanu was characterised by a genuine fondness. And quite rightly: this is an actor who gave away some $80 million of his $110 million salary for The Matrix sequence to people working in make-up and special effects on those films. For a decade he was his sister Kim’s primary caregiver as she battled leukaemia.
‘I’m always busy’
In person he’s fantastically unassuming. “I’m always busy,” he tells me. “But sometimes behind the scenes. I directed a martial arts movie, The Man of Tai Chi. And I made a documentary, Side by Side. Did you see it?”
He asks the question with the same tone I’d expect from a student film-maker who posted out spec copies of their short film.
For many folks, of course, it matters if Keanu looks down in the dumps.
“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s nice . . . I guess. But I’m just not engaged with any of that stuff.”
You mean the internet?
“Yeah. I did a Reddit thing once. But that’s as much involvement as I’ve had. It’s just not something I’m interested in. I don’t know anything about it.”
That’s probably just as well. Sad Keanu would also prove irresistible for armchair psychologists everywhere, thereby ensuring his biography has been re-hashed this way and that.
The actor has had more than his fair share of tragedy. In January 2000, Reeves and his then girlfriend, Jennifer Syme, buried their child, a girl named Ava, who had been stillborn at eight months. In April 2001 Syme was killed instantly when she lost control of her Jeep.
Internet theorists would contend that sorrow stalks Reeves: that he lost his best friend River Phoenix when the pair were barely out of their teens, that as a child he was moved around from city to city, all the while struggling with dyslexia and academic underachievement.
That’s not entirely accurate, he says. “We didn’t move around that much,” says Reeves. “And I wasn’t the best student but I don’t remember having trouble fitting in. I kind of blended in.”
‘Parade of stepfathers’
Much also has been made of Reeves’s “parade of stepfathers”, a line-up that includes film and theatre director Paul Aaron, rock promoter Robert Miller and hair salon owner Jack Bond.
In fact, the “parade” allowed him to feel normal as he entered the business of show: “Acting was a natural thing for me to do,” he says. “My mother was involved in the business. Other people around me were involved and had contacts. It didn’t seem like a strange choice.”
Nor does John Wick, a film that seems to hail from the same nexus of science fiction and fantasy that has given Reeves his biggest box-office hits to date.
What is about Reeves and other worlds? It doesn’t seem to matter if he’s working to scale in the indie sector (Thumbsucker) or taking the studio shilling, he seems happiest working with immersive material, even when it doesn’t necessarily translate into box office gold (see Johnny Mnemonic, 47 Ronin et al.)
“I know exactly what you mean even if I can’t quite quantify it,” he says. “It’s true that all movies draw you into a world. But I do like it when there’s something mythological about that world. It doesn’t matter if that’s a love story like The Lake House or The Matrix.”
The puppy gets it
In this spirit, John Wick sees Reeves play a legendary and retired assassin drawn back into the underworld when a gang of Russian mobsters kill his puppy.
No, really. The puppy gets it. A beagle called Daisy. Acting opposite the most puppy-eyed actor of the age. Oh, the humanity. And the caninity.
“It wasn’t an easy partnership at first,” says Reeves. “The puppy is so much younger than I am.”
Is he a dog person?
“I do like a hound.”
Post puppycide, shoot-‘em-up is perhaps too nuanced a phrase for the relentless and merciless action that follows. He must be pretty handy with a weapon by now?
“I did a lot of training for this movie,” he says. “I did a lot of groundwork because the directors wanted to do long takes. So I couldn’t just fake all of it. But they know everything about every genre and action. So they were able to point me toward great people.”
Away from the muscle, cars and gun-play of John Wick, Reeves speaks passionately about Lars von Trier and Bernardo Bertolucci. Yet at the height of his “Whoa, dude!”, Bill-and-Ted period, he famously described himself as “meathead”. Can the actor who the late Roger Ebert described as the best Hamlet he ever saw, really be a lunk?
“I really don’t remember the context,” he says, laughing. “You can say something or mean something. But it might not get written that way. You never know what you’re going to get.”
He really is better off without the internet.
John Wick is out now on general release