Keanu Reeves was born in 1964 in Beirut, Lebanon. His wide range of films include “The River’s Edge” in 1986, “Parenthood”, “Point Break”, “My Own Private Idaho”, “Speed”, “The Matrix” and “Something’s Gotta Give”.
Few moviegoers would have guessed from his laconic and occasionally blissed-out performances in films like “River’s Edge” (1986) and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989) that in less than a decade, Keanu Reeves would be one of Hollywood’s most popular and bankable leading men. He had to first endure a long, awkward period, during which he struggled to find his footing in big-budget features like “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992) and independent fare like “Little Buddha” (1993); in the eyes of most critics and pundits, he was ill-equipped for both. But his turn as a determined and resourceful police officer in 1994’s “Speed” proved him to be a capable action hero, which he underscored by playing Neo, the reluctant Messiah figure in the science fiction blockbuster “The Matrix” (1999) and its two sequels, as well as “Constantine” (2003). Perhaps sensing that his acting abilities remained in the crosshairs of many pundits, he strove to maintain a presence in quieter dramas and the occasional comedy, which received mixed results.
Born Keanu Charles Reeves in Beirut, Lebanon on Sept. 2, 1964, his early life was marked by turmoil and change. His parents, costume designer Patricia Taylor, and Samuel Nowlin Reeves – whose Hawaiian-Chinese-European heritage contributed to his son’s exotic looks and unusual first name, which translated as “cool breeze over the mountains” in Hawaiian – divorced two years after he was born. In fact, Reeves would not enjoy a close relationship with his father, as the elder Reeves worked as an unskilled laborer and earned his GED while imprisoned in Hawaii for selling cocaine at the Hilo airport. Reeves’ mother relocated her son and daughter Kim several times over the next few years; first to Australia and later to New York City and Toronto. She also married and divorced several times, which brought Reeves a half-sister from her mother’s marriage to rock promoter Robert Miller in 1976.
Reeves struggled with academics due to dyslexia, which contributed to a rambunctious attitude that frequently earned him expulsion from various schools. Ice hockey captured his attention during his school years, and for a time, he considered making it his profession. But his interest soon wandered towards acting, and by his mid-teens, he was appearing in local stage productions. By 17, he had dropped out of school for the last time, and made his television debut as a regular at a youth center in the teen-oriented sitcom “Hangin’ In” (CBC, 1981-87). Reeves bounced between odd jobs, television commercials and theater gigs – including Brad Fraser’s “Wolfboy,” a gay-themed drama with werewolf overtones – before finding regular work on Canadian TV and in features during the late 1980s. He covered all the angles of teen roles during this period, from youth in trouble in “One Step Away” (1985) to nice-guy boyfriends in “Dream to Believe” (1986). That same year, he had a small role as a hockey goalie opposite Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze in the sodden sports drama “Youngblood” (1986). The experience persuaded Reeves to pack up and move to Hollywood, which he did with just $3,000 in his pocket.
Once in Los Angeles, Reeves contacted his former stepfather, director Paul Aaron, who introduced him to agent Erwin Stoff. The latter took Reeves under his wing and helped to guide and mold his subsequent career, as well as co-produce many of his feature films. Stoff also persuaded Reeves to consider a professional name change, fearing that “Keanu” would read as too exotic to casting directors. For the TV-movie fantasy “Young Again” (1986), in which Reeves plays Robert Urich as a 17-year-old, he was billed as K.C. Reeves. The new moniker would disappear shortly thereafter.
Reeves’ first positive notices in Hollywood came with the grim crime drama “River’s Edge” (1986), in which he played the conflicted best friend of a young man (Daniel Roebuck) who has casually and brutally murdered his girlfriend. Though he was outshined by the film’s showier performances of Dennis Hopper and Crispin Glover, he did fine work in a scene opposite a hysterical and gun-toting Joshua Miller that assured him more work as decent but occasionally troubled young men. Most of his projects for the next few years were forgettable TV movies and unseen features, though he was quite moving as a young man struggling to come to terms with his friend’s suicide in “Permanent Record” (1988). He was, however, woefully miscast as the Chevalier Dancey, youthful love interest to Uma Thurman and pawn in the games of John Malkovich and Glenn Close in the period romance-drama “Dangerous Liasons” (1988). Critics who had offered praise for the actor in “River’s Edge” were now noting a wooden side to his performances. This label would plague him for decades to come.
Reeves bounced back with an unexpected hit in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” a goofy time-travel comedy about two good-natured but clueless teens (Reeves and Alex Winter) who stumble through misadventures throughout history. A low-budget feature shot two years prior to its release (and held up due to the bankruptcy of distributor the De Laurentiis Group), the picture struck a chord with younger audiences and fans of broad comedy, who frequently singled out Reeves’ performance as one of the most authentic representations of empty-headed suburban teendom ever captured on film. Reeves became so inseparable from Ted in the minds of moviegoers that he essentially repeated the role for the next few years. He returned to the role for the inferior sequel, “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” (1991), which began production as “Bill and Ted Go to Hell” and lost much of its irreverent edge in post-production, and later, for a season of “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures” (CBS/Fox Kids, 1990-93). He followed this with more dense young men in “Parenthood” (1989) and “I Love You to Death” (1990). Sensing that typecasting was setting in, he attempted to break free as a young radio dramatist in the comedy “Tune In Tomorrow” (1990), an inspired American adaptation of the Mario Vargas Llosa novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and as a maverick FBI agent in the guilty pleasure that was the ludicrous “Point Break,” which co-starred his “Youngblood” castmate Patrick Swayze as a surfer-turned-bank robber. At the time of their releases, audiences stayed away from both projects, and critical vitriol regarding Reeves hit an all-time high with the latter project – though in later years, the picture achieved some degree of favor as high testosterone-fueled camp. And as far as scenery-chewing went, even Reeves took a backseat to his co-star and on-screen detective partner, Gary Busey, who took the role and ran with it – leaving even Reeves and Swayze in the dust when it came to turning in an unintentionally hilarious performance.
Undaunted, the confident Reeves pressed on with his attempt to redirect his career towards more respectable roles. He earned a moderate amount of critical acclaim as a privileged youth-turned-street hustler in “My Own Private Idaho” (1991), director Gus Van Sant’s acclaimed revision of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV.” Though Reeves was overshadowed by the complex performance of top-billed River Phoenix, the film did convince some producers that there was more to the actor than just the “totally awesome” Ted S. Logan. Detractors, however, continued to declare that he was out of his league in adult roles, and pointed to his performance as lawyer-turned-vampire hunter Jonathan Harker in Francis Ford Coppola’s overblown “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992). Critics hammered Reeves for his dreadful English accent and hapless performance, and doubled their efforts to discount him when he tackled the villainous Don John in Kenneth Branagh’s bright and charming film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993). More even-handed writers noted that none of the “Dracula” cast – including Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder and Gary Oldman – could deliver a believable performance in this particular incarnation of the Bram Stoker story due to its execrable script, and that Reeves was, in fact, not bad at all in “Ado.” But the drums of dismissal had been beating a steady tattoo for Reeves for so long now, that for many reviewers, it seemed unfashionable to consider him in any other manner. He was roundly panned for his sensual turn as the Buddha in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Little Buddha” (1993), and few moviegoers saw him in Van Sant’s ill-fated film version of Tom Robbins’ “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” (1994). But public perception was about to change virtually overnight for the actor who had more than paid his dues as butts of jokes.
That same year, Reeves again shifted gears to play a no-nonsense police officer in “Speed.” The modestly budgeted thriller, which starred Dennis Hopper as a madman who hotwires a city bus to explode if it drops below a certain level of miles per hour, benefited hugely from former director of photography Jan De Bont’s energetic direction, as well as a star-making turn by Sandra Bullock as the young woman recruited by Reeves to pilot the bus while he attempts to disarm the bomb. The two leads shared enormous chemistry together, and the resulting mix of snappy dialogue and nail-biting suspense created a $300 million hit worldwide. Reeves in particular came off in a way he had not in past films, save perhaps “Point Break” – as the macho, believable leading man who saves the day and gets the girl. Female fans in particular fell for his newly buffed body and men flocked to get the “Speed” buzzed haircut.
Despite the astronomical success of the film which had singularly changed his image, the unpredictable Reeves refused to follow the regular patterns established by other actors who had found themselves suddenly thrust into superstardom. He turned down several high-profile action films, including “Speed 2: Cruise Control” (1997), which tanked due to his absence, and returned to Canada to tackle “Hamlet” on stage. Reviews were largely kind, but his subsequent movie efforts were stunningly lackluster and raised the specter of doubt about his recent box office potential. Reeves treaded water in dreadful action pictures like “Chain Reaction” (1996) and misbegotten “indie” efforts like “Feeling Minnesota” (1996) until 1997, when he was cast in “The Devil’s Advocate.” As an ambitious young lawyer whose entry into a top legal firm leads to the discovery that its chief (Al Pacino), is in fact Satan, Reeves acquitted himself well to a role that allowed him some moral ambiguity – to say nothing to standing up admirably to Pacino, who devoured whole scenes in the picture with relish. The picture was a sizable hit, and restored his leading man status.
A two-year hiatus, during which Reeves performed frequently with his alt-rock outfit Dogstar, preceded his role as Neo, a computer programmer who discovers that he is the chosen savior in a future struggle between humans and machines. An overwhelming blend of science fiction, Japanese anime, computer gaming, and action movie tropes, “The Matrix” (1999) was a worldwide blockbuster and eventual pop culture juggernaut thanks to its eye-popping visual effects and dense, interpretation-heavy script. And Reeves, who himself always seemed a little otherworldly, was the perfect choice to play the slightly befuddled everyman who finds himself at the center of a titanic war for the fate of mankind. He would return to the franchise several more times, including its two inferior sequels, “The Matrix Reloaded” (2003) and “The Matrix Revolutions” (2003), both of which were shot back-to-back, and several animated spin-offs and story permutations. Always one to march to the tune of his own drum, the extremely generous actor – who seemed to have little use for fame or money – gave up $50 million of his take from the “Matrix” sequels to the costume and special effects teams – whom he considered the real stars of the film – as well as buying each member of the Australian stuntmen crew a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Even in a town famous for giving, Reeves’ many financial overtures just made him an even more enigmatic figure.
The success of “The Matrix” was overshadowed in 1999 by the stillborn death of his daughter, Ava Archer Reeves, with actress Jennifer Syme. Tragedy would strike again two years later when Syme – who had never really recovered from the miscarriage of her nearly full-term baby, was killed in a car accident, in which she was sent through the windshield. Reeves remained largely silent about the incident, a precedent he set in the early 1990s when his sister Kim was diagnosed with leukemia. Because he was so hard to read in the first place, only close friends knew the level of grief Reeves must have gone through, losing both his daughter and girlfriend in such a short time, as well as dealing with his sister’s ongoing illness. Instead, Reeves remained exceptionally busy during this period in a wide variety of roles. Perhaps sensing that he could again be typecast, he bounced from breezy comedies like “The Replacements” (1999) and “Hardball” (2001) to sudsy romances like “Sweet November” (2001), which cast him as a self-obsessed businessman who discovers his capacity for love after meeting the terminally ill Charlize Theron. Reeves also stepped far afield from his screen persona on two occasions; first as an abusive husband who meets a grisly fate in Sam Raimi’s underrated supernatural thriller “The Gift” (2000), and later as a serial killer stalking Marisa Tomei in “The Watcher” (2000). Unfortunately, both of these films failed to find a substantial audience in theaters. It seemed audiences wanted the ass-kicking, yet Zen-like Reeves or nothing.
Reeves finally struck gold with a non-genre picture in “Something’s Gotta Give” (2005), a good-natured comedy in which he played a younger doctor who becomes smitten with Diane Keaton, much to the consternation of Jack Nicholson. The film performed admirably at the box office, and preceded his next big screen adventure in “Constantine” (2005), an adaptation of the popular graphic novel which cast him as a world-weary private investigator who deals with occult-related cases. Though quite different in appearance to Constantine in the comic book (who is portrayed as a blond Englishman), Reeves appeased fans of the series enough to make it another blockbuster. That same year, Reeves announced that he had left his band Dogstar for good, and was permanently hanging up his musical ambitions.
Due to over a decade of popular demand, Reeves reunited with Bullock for “The Lake House” (2006), a thoughtful science fiction romance based on the South Korean film “Il Mare” (2000), about correspondents who discover that they are living in the same house, though decades apart. Though the plot left many critics befuddled, audiences enjoyed the revived chemistry between the two actors and made it a substantial hit. He then returned to science fiction for “A Scanner Darkly” (2006), Richard Linklater’s adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel about a dystopian future riddled with intense police surveillance and an epidemic of drug addiction. Linklater originally balked at casting Reeves, thinking that he would resist doing another science fiction film, but the actor joined the project on the basis of the Dick source material and Linklater’s decision to shoot the film using rotoscope animation. Though a non-entity on the box office charts, “Darkly” had its critical supporters.
In 2008, Reeves returned after another brief hiatus to again play against type as a corrupt L.A. cop whose investigative methods put him in the line of fire from his superiors and other double-dealing cops. The film, penned by noted crime novelist James Ellroy, failed to impress critics, but it enjoyed a solid opening weekend at the box office. That same year, Reeves announced another return to science fiction: he was cast as Klaatu, the alien visitor who attempts to bring peace to mankind in a remake of Robert Wise’s classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951).
The above TCM overview can also be accessed online here.