The Quiet Man: The Riddle of Keanu Reeves

Demons, drugs, and the 'Matrix' sequels

August 31, 2000
Keanu Reaves on the cover of Rolling Stone issue # 848.
Keanu Reaves on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

Keanu Reeves' first big spill came in the spring of 1988. He was a twenty-three-year-old Canadian actor, living in Hollywood, who had already shown an odd, edgy presence in River's Edge. The motorcycle accident, on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, one of the twisting links between the Los Angeles Valley and the Pacific Ocean, would leave him with a thick scar rising vertically up his stomach, out of which his damaged spleen was removed. There are many things Keanu Reeves simply will not discuss, but this is not one of them.

"I call that a demon ride," Reeves now reflects. "That's when things are going badly. But there's other times when you go fast, or too fast, out of exhilaration." He was doing about fifty when he hit a hairpin turn. "I remember saying in my head," he says,"'I'm going to die.'"

He lay on the pavement for half an hour before help arrived: "I remember calling out for help. And someone answering out of the darkness, and then the flashing lights of an ambulance coming down. This was after a truck ran over my helmet. I took it off because I couldn't breathe, and a truck came down. I got out of the way, and it ran over my helmet."

What did the experience teach you?

[Dryly] "I should have gone on the brake, released the brake a little bit, leaned into the turn."

No more abstract moral lessons?

"Now I know that if I want to take a demon ride and I don't want to die . . . then I shouldn't take it."

Did that stop you from taking demon rides?

Leading Men on the Cover of Rolling Stone

"Yeah. Well, I had to get a couple more out of my system." Reeves smiles. "And I probably have a couple more left."

A conversation with Keanu Reeves is not always easy. He is not overtly obstructive, and he seems to make a huge effort to be polite. But there is an agony involved. For example, I ask him why he acts. For forty-two seconds, he says nothing. Not a word, a grunt, a prevarication, or a hint that an answer might come. For most of that time, his head is angled at ninety degrees away from me, as if that's where the oxygen is.

"Uh," he finally says, "the words that popped into my head were expression and, uh, it's fun." A few minutes later, I lob a vague question about whether he ever wants to write or direct. He lets out a kind of quiet sigh. At its worst, it's like this. You ask Keanu Reeves a question and . . . just wait. Out in space, planets collide, stars go supernova. On earth, forests fall, animals screech and roar. People shout and rant and weep with anger and joy and just for the hell of it. And, all this time, Reeves sits there, entirely silent.

On this particular occasion, the silence lasts seventy-two seconds.

When the answer arrives, it includes no complete sentences and adds up to a vague, unremarkable, "No, not really."

Keanu Reeves has been busy. He has four movies awaiting release and will make one more before committing himself to nearly a year and a half's work on two Matrix sequels. His band, Dogstar, has also just released an album. The first of these movies to appear, The Replacements, is a part-comic tale of some replacement football players loosely based on the 1987 NFL strike. He says that he has not seen the completed film. "The script that I originally read and the film that was made were very different," he notes. He agreed to it because he liked his character, Shane Falco. "I felt like he was a good hard-luck character who gets a second chance," Reeves says. He reminisces about a scene in the original script where the principal female lead beats up two hookers who were trying to rob Shane Falco. He really liked that. But they didn't even film it. "Didn't win that one," he says. "Tried, but . . . just didn't." He nods. "In the spirit of collaboration, the film went the other way," he says. "There's not much you can do."

I ask about one scene in which he and his teammates are in jail and begin dancing to "I Will Survive." I point out that he seemed a rather reluctant participant.

"That scene wasn't in the original script. You know . . . it was a tough one. Does it work? Is it OK?" He begins asking questions in a slightly mocking voice: "Is it romantic? Is this a slapstick? Or is the dr- . . . It's a dramedy! The new synthesis! Synthesis of form . . . " Later he points out, quite accurately, that "it feels like a period film . . . like an Eighties kind of picture. It's very traditional, the way it looks, the colors – I think it helps the film, actually, because it's like old-time good movie entertainment." As that, the film may work, but watching it, I can't shake off the feeling that Reeves is always at the film's edge, staring off into the distance, trying to find a slightly stranger and more beautiful film that never got made.

When I ask Keanu Reeves – in one of these many failed invitations to conversation – to tell me some things about him that are true, his single reply, after a certain amount of delay and discomfort, is, "I was born in Beirut, Lebanon." Back then, in the mid-Sixties, Beirut was a thriving cosmopolitan city. His mother, Patricia, was British, his father, Samuel, Chinese-Hawaiian, and this was where they lived for a while.

I ask him what he was like when he was young.

"Private," he says. "Probably a pretty private kid."

Private how? Kids are usually pretty social.

"I was pretty social, too," he says.

Private but pretty social? "Yeah." He half-smiles. "It's a particle, it's a wave."

For his first seven years, the Reeves family moved around: Lebanon, Australia, America. By the time he was seven, he had settled in Toronto with his mother. That's where he lived until he moved to Hollywood to make it as a young actor. By then, his mother had become a costume designer. He remembers meeting Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. "There were musicians around," he says. "I was going to music-recording studios and hanging out." Up the road, Alice Cooper was recording Welcome to My Nightmare. "I was forever trying to use their pinball machine," he recalls.

Who did you think Alice Cooper was? I ask.

"A friend of my mother's," he says.

But he looked weird and he had a weird name . . . .

Keanu Reeves Photos

"He didn't look weird to me. Not the way I grew, man. Shit."

What do you think that kid back then wanted? Or cared about?

"Oh, gosh," he says. (When he says, "Oh, gosh," it usually marks a kind of incredulity that the preceding question has been asked.) "That's one I'll keep to myself."

Well, pulling back, what sense do you have of why you wanted to do, or ended up doing, what you did?

"Oh, I don't know. There are things I have thought about it and things I have perspective on, but for some reason I just don't want to speak about them."

Later, after communication has become easier but after he has just paused again for an eternity, I ask this: When you take a long time to answer a question, what are you thinking about?

"How to answer it," he says. "In a way that you can understand. In a way that I want to express it."

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