Here, before you’re quite ready for him, is Keanu Reeves: At the top of the driveway of the Chateau Marmont, smoking a cigarette on a low couch, like he’s on his front porch.
He’s been coming here since the early ’90s. The Chateau was run-down and empty then—a seedier, pre-André Balazs version of itself. The faucets didn’t always work. The carpets were dicey. “You didn’t want to take your shoes off,” Reeves says.
It felt like anything could happen. Usually it did.
“You could have a conversation,” Reeves says. “You could have a tryst. You could fucking do drugs. You could hang out. For me, there’s still that pulse here.”
He basically moved in for a while there. Could be found splashing in the pool with the likes of Sharon Stone or hiding in a corner “playing chess with his computer and smoking compulsively to fight stress,” depending which tabloid tall tale you bought.
Now he lives in a house, not far from here, up in the Hills. He’s owned it for about 12 years. Sometimes he sits up there and wonders if it’s the house he’s going to die in. It’s not a preoccupation—he’s just curious, if this is going to be it, this place in the Hills. “I didn’t think about that,” he says, “when I was 40.”
Crossing the lobby, Reeves silently side-eyes a case of Gucci Chateau merch. A woman sees it’s Keanu Reeves crossing the lobby and gulps—like audibly gulps.
He’s shown to a semi-private corner in the garden. Chairs around a mirrored coffee table. A wet Monday morning has given way to a cold Monday afternoon. It’s early February and the No. 15 rap song in America is “Keanu Reeves,” by Logic, who was one year old when Point Break came out in 1991.
Every generation gets its own Keanu Reeves, except every generation’s Keanu Reeves is this Keanu Reeves.
Today the real Keanu Reeves has that same patchy beard. That same curtain of hair falling into his eyes. He’s wearing those same chunky Merrell hiking boots he was wearing pretty much regardless of context long before normcore made The New York Times. You have to look close at the gray flyaways in his eyebrows to remember what year it is.
He’s 54 and getting over a cold. His cough sounds like somebody punching their way out of a paper grocery bag. He zips his shaggy black fleece up to the neck. But then a Chateau guy wheels over a heat lamp for Keanu. Another Chateau guy wheels over another heat lamp for the other side of the table. Then the sun comes out, as if it, too, wants to make sure Keanu is warm enough. The sun bounces off the tabletop and up into Keanu’s face. It’s a nice, low fill light.
Keanu orders a BLT and a Coca-Cola. Fries, not salad. When it comes, the BLT, it’ll be on ciabatta bread. Keanu will find himself missing the crispness of toast. Keanu isn’t sure a BLT shouldn’t leave your soft palate ground up, a little. That a BLT shouldn’t have consequences. Soft bread is for soft-bread sandwiches. “Peanut butter and jelly,” Keanu says. Then, more dreamily, like Homer Simpson in reverie: “Peanut butter and honey.”
In his new movie, Reeves again plays John Wick, widowed master assassin and warrior with a broken heart. The first John Wick was shot for $20 million, without real expectations, by Reeves’s old Matrix stunt double Chad Stahelski and Stahelski’s co-director, David Leitch, who had been longtime stunt coordinators and second-unit directors but had never directed a feature before. And even with Reeves attached, the first Wick was not exactly a hot property at first.
“You have this over-the-hill assassin whose wife dies of natural causes, gives him a puppy, some Russian punk kills his puppy, and he kills 84 people,” Stahelski says. “How many studios do you think said no to that picture? The answer is all of them.”
Stahelski spent years doubling Reeves on three Matrix movies and knew exactly what he was capable of. “I don’t know anyone that puts more into the game, collaboratively, physically, intellectually,” he says. “I’ve never experienced anyone that could have survived [The Matrix]. It just took a different type of person. To be open to that. To allow yourself to be constantly soaking wet, sore, tired, beaten up, for years.”
“Now fast-forward to 20 years later,” Stahelski says, “and you’ve got your former stunt double directing you. So he knows what you’re capable of. And his expectations are even more psychotic than the last decade and a half of directors you’ve worked for. I can say, I know you have more. Don’t lie to me. Get up. And Keanu, 20 years later, is holding that up! That’s not just physical. That’s mental. That’s a certain kind of mental fortitude.”
Fight-movie fans hailed the first Wick‘s use of long takes and close-up martial-arts action as a bold stylistic throwback—anti-Bourne, a little bit anti-Matrix, even. And it was that. Reeves and Leitch and Stahelski wanted the audience to trust what they were seeing, so they didn’t have John do anything that Keanu couldn’t do. But there was another reason they staged the action the way they did.
“We had no choice,” Stahelski says happily. “We had no money. We couldn’t afford all the fancy editing and fancy camerawork. The long takes, the close-quarters gun stuff—yes, those were ideas we had. But we couldn’t afford not to do long takes. We had to do long takes because we only had one camera. The first guy who dies [in a fight scene] is also the last guy—he’s gotta get up, run behind the camera, and come back into the shot and get hit by Keanu [again].”
The Wick films have since become a $140 million franchise, something that no one, including the people involved with them, can quite believe. Starz is making a TV series set in the John Wick universe, further leveraging the series’ elaborately detailed underworld-building.
Meanwhile there’s John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum, which finds John excommunicado—assassins’ guild parlance for CANCELED—and on the run from a $14 million bounty after killing a guy in a no-killing zone. But the true stakes are the same as they’ve always been. John’s psychic struggle is what Reeves loves about these ludicrous, gun-crazy movies.
“He’s got this beautiful, tragic conundrum—these two selves,” says Reeves. “The John who was married, and John Wick, the assassin. John wants to be free. But the only way he knows how is through John Wick. And John Wick keeps fucking killing people and breaking rules. We’re really watching a person fight for their life and their soul.”
Plus in this one he rides around the streets of New York on a fucking horse. Leaked images and videos from the day he shot this scene had half the Internet screaming at John Wick: Chapter 3 to just take their money. Not since Eadweard Muybridge filmed one in the 1870s has a moving picture of a guy riding a horse made people so excited.
“Somebody took that picture while we were shooting in Brooklyn and released it,” Stahelski says. “I thought it was cool. Keanu thought it was cool. I don’t think the studio thought it was cool. I’m a big Sergio Leone fan, so no matter what, I was putting Keanu on a horse in this movie. If you’ve got an actor who can ride horses, ride motorcycles, do fight scenes, why not? I made a list of every skill Keanu has—we sat down and I said, Give me everything you can do really well. And we put all that in the movies. Drive a car, check the box. Ride a horse, check the box. Nobody wanted the horses. I had to fight for that one. People thought it was too weird.”
Horseback Keanu became a meme, one of many Keanu’s image has inspired. Sad Keanu, Conspiracy Keanu—Reeves’s Internet avatars, who go out and play on social media while the real Reeves sits at home with a book or something. He regards his own meme-ification from a disinterested distance. Actually participating further in the process is not for him, but he’s also not judging anybody who does play along. “People doing dances, people doing mannequin stuff or whatever—those people, they look like they’re having fun and doing some cool shit,” he says politely. To actively seek further meme-ification—hey, it’s Sadder Keanu—wouldn’t feel like a creative act, he doesn’t think.
Which of course makes him a perfect meme subject: He will never upset the precise balance of affection and irony critical to the life of a meme by announcing himself as being in on the joke, like Richard Marx or the official Twitter presence of Steak-ummm brand sandwiches.
But in late March, a few weeks after this interview takes place, a small plane carrying Keanu Reeves and a dozen other passengers from San Francisco to Burbank makes an emergency landing in Bakersfield, and Reeves delights the entire Internet again by joining his inconvenienced fellow travelers on a bus (and on their Instagram feeds).
He’s determined to act like a normal person, even though his mere presence creates an atmosphere of unreality, and it’s helped him pull off the nearly impossible feat of remaining an enigmatic cult figure despite having been an A-list actor for decades.
You remember. He headlined the Matrix trilogy to the tune of something like $3 billion. Changed the way action movies looked and felt and moved, changed the culture. People come up to him, say it turned them on to cinema, made them question the power structures shaping their perceptions of reality, inspired them to go to grad school.
You’d think he’d have his choice of projects. But you’d be surprised. “Movie jail” is real. He’s been there. He was excommunicado at Fox for a decade after turning down Speed 2 to go play Hamlet onstage in fucking Winnipeg: “I didn’t work with [Fox] again until The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
He is not in jail now, as far as he knows. But he hasn’t done a studio movie since 47 Ronin, another pricey bomb. Sometimes the fan base that remains so grateful for his continued existence does not remember to vote with its dollars. Reeves’s name can still help secure financing for action movies of a certain size, and sometimes those turn into a John Wick. He’s not unhappy playing John, says he’ll make more of these things if the demand is there. “As far as my legs can take me,” he says. “As far as the audience wants to go.”
When he was 22, he did not picture himself still doing these physically demanding parts at 54. Running and jumping and shooting guys from horseback. He did not picture this because he had no image of what his acting career would be like when he was 54.
“I haven’t really thought about my career future, or what was going to happen, until really recently,” he says. But by “really recently,” he says, he means “probably my mid-40s.”
When asked what brought that bout of future-thinking on, he cheerfully says, “Death.”
He does not say who died. He’s lost people close to him, but when he was younger than 40, mostly.
Abruptly he begins telling a beautiful story about Anthony Quinn.
One morning they were standing together in a vineyard, Keanu and Anthony Quinn. They were shooting Alfonso Arau’s A Walk in the Clouds. Reeves plays a traumatized World War II vet who falls for a pregnant woman. Quinn plays the patriarch of her rich, uptight Mexican-American family.
The day before, Reeves sat for lunch with Quinn. Anthony Quinn would turn 80 the year A Walk in the Clouds came out. He would live only six more years after that. But in 1995, what struck Keanu Reeves about him was that he was always on the phone. Checking in with the Anthony Quinn team. Seeing if he’d booked this or that.
“Still hustling,” says Reeves, still marveling. “I was like, Whoa.”
(Yes, Keanu Reeves said, “Whoa.” Yes, it was weird.)
So the next morning comes, and they’re in the vineyard.
“It was early in the morning and there was mist over the vineyard,” Reeves says. “We had to do this long shot. It’s just he and I, walking down the vineyard.”
(Said Keanu Reeves.)
(Said Anthony Quinn.)
“Is it always going to be like this?”
“Yes,” said Anthony Quinn.
“There’s this idea that, like, at some point you’re going to be set,” Reeves says. “And then maybe there won’t be so much working on working. It just struck me that this gentleman, this legend, at 80…”
Still out there selling it. Trying to get parts.
“Yeah,” Reeves says. “Anthony Quinn.”
You get the sense that for years, good fortune and happenstance conspired to shield Reeves from certain realities. The idea that an acting career, for most mortals, requires vigilance and forethought and hassle on the phone—this truth has maybe been an ongoing slow-dawning bummer for him, and now he’s being asked to speak about it, about working on working as the spine of his life.
This is how he talks about how he and River Phoenix decided to do My Own Private Idaho, in the early ’90s, and whether they were apprehensive about the career-impacting potential of the subject matter:
“It was more like standing a hundred feet in the air, and there’s this beautiful pool of water, and you’re looking at each other like, ‘You want to jump? Yeah, let’s jump!’ ”
This has always been the best thing about him—the internal compass that leads him to risk, and the conviction that there’s beautiful blue water down there somewhere. The same instinct that led him to Kathryn Bigelow and Gus Van Sant and even the Wachowskis early in his career has lately led him to work with directors like Nicolas Winding Refn and Ana Lily Amirpour, often in roles designed to mess with long-standing preconceptions about what a Keanu Reeves character is like. It’s what makes all that working on working seem worth it.
It’s a business of vicissitudes, acting. It’s unfair and absurd and strange. You have to hold on to the fulfilling parts of the experience and forget the rest. Peter Stormare, the Swedish-born actor, knows this. Once, Stormare went to China and made a movie about saving sea turtles, and then, before the film was supposed to open, the Chinese government decided there was some issue with Stormare’s work visa and confiscated the turtle movie. It has never been released. But Stormare will always remember carrying a hundred-pound sea turtle down the beach, putting it in the water, and watching it swim away.
“I’m gonna remember that moment my entire life,” Stormare tells me on the phone one day. “That beautiful creature, finding its way into the ocean with the help of two humans.”
We are supposed to be talking about Stormare’s private-eye comedy series, Swedish Dicks, on which Keanu Reeves sometimes plays a stuntman turned hit man named Tex. Something about Keanu Reeves being a regular guest star on a TV show never stops being weird. It’s like when Bob Dylan was on Dharma & Greg. It’s like a unicorn having a recurring role on Bosch. It happened because they’re friends, Peter Stormare and Keanu Reeves. They were in Constantine together and hit it off. They go to the same gym.
“We’re kind of similar in our personalities, in that we’re both hermits,” Stormare says. “He’s a loner. I’m a loner. I don’t like the red carpet. Keanu—they think he’s putting on some kind of a fake face, when he’s stuttering, giving interviews on the red carpet, and he looks away and looks uncomfortable. But he really is.”
Swedish Dicks is a joint U.S.-Scandinavian production with a minuscule budget. Reeves takes a regular guest star’s wage, rides to set on his bike, doesn’t have a trailer. They’ve done two seasons; when he runs into Stormare at the gym, Reeves asks when season three is starting.
“He’s quite a funny guy, and that’s not [the roles] he gets in movies and stuff. He’s a really great comedian. He reminds me of Timothy Hutton sometimes, and Dylan McDermott,” Stormare says.
“I only have good things to say about him. Once a year, we’ll have a beer together and talk about life and things. He’s very private. He leads his life the way he wants to lead it. And I guess it can be lonely sometimes. But I think he’s just like me. There’s a comfort in being alone sometimes, especially when you’re working on something.”
They talk about the paranormal, Stormare says. Parallel universes. What’s out there. Mostly, the Reeves you find out about when you call his friends on the phone seems remarkably normal—but a little lonely, a little haunted.
“I’m sure he talked to you about it, but we both had fairly, y’know, chaotic childhoods,” says Alex Winter, who starred with Reeves in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and its 1992 sequel, and will do so again in 2020’s Bill & Ted Face the Music.
Reeves did not, in fact, talk about his childhood, at all. In brief, as widely reported: Dad peaced out early. They don’t speak. Mom and some stepdads raised Reeves in various countries. He ended up Canadian. Told writer Dennis Cooper in an interview once, regarding his youth: “I mean, we did sling chestnuts at teachers’ heads, and in grade eight hash started to come around, and LSD kinda. But Toronto’s become like a shopping center now.”
He moves down to Hollywood, does made-for-TV movies and supporting roles and begins to break through in ’86, with River’s Edge. He’s the inchoate conscience of a gang of alienated ’80s teens. They’re huffing the last fumes of the counterculture in a small town without pity. It’s supposed to be California but feels like a preview of the Pacific Northwestern anomie of grunge and Twin Peaks. Reeves sports just a hint of ‘stache, like a baby Chris Cornell. Reeves explains, to an also-heartbreakingly-young Ione Skye, why he would not like being dead: “You couldn’t get stoned anymore.”
A lot of the time he just hangs back, watching other actors, like Crispin Glover and Dennis Hopper, action-paint in various shades of bonkers. Hopper had just come off Blue Velvet. Reeves remembers him talking about how Lynch let him off the leash in the nitrous scenes: “ ‘Man, he just let me go! You’re gonna scream!’ ”
Sometimes in River’s Edge the camera just lingers on Reeves’s face—thinking, windblown, occasionally sucking on a roach. There’s so much more to him as an actor than his hopelessness with an accent. Even his inarticulation tells a truth.
“That daze is one of the things I really love about what you do,” Dennis Cooper tells Reeves in that same interview. “You’re always kind of talking around what you actually want to say.… Most actors just manufacture emotion and expect audiences to match it. With your characters, it’s their inability to produce that’s the key. They’re often, if not perpetually, distressed, spooked, weirded out by the world. They’re always fighting with their contexts.”
Winter met Reeves before River’s Edge came out. They were in a waiting room at Interscope Pictures. All the young dudes in Hollywood had come to audition for Bill & Ted, in which two ding-dongs from San Dimas cram for a history test by traveling through time, collecting actual historical figures.
“We bonded over motorcycles, bass guitar, and Harold Pinter,” Winter says. “Reeves had a really good book collection.”
Their intellectual chemistry helped get them the job of playing idiots. Theatrically released in 1989, Bill & Ted became a surprise hit. It’s the sweetness of Bill and Ted, their golden-retrieverishness, that makes it work. You can show it to a third grader.
The movie lit a fuse for Reeves. It also created the enduring misperception that he’s as dumb as his dumbest character—that what Cooper called his daze reflects a genuine lack of brain activity. A lot of his early press clips define “confirmation bias.” Reporters show up like they’re interviewing a talking dog.
Being underestimated was probably the best thing that could have happened to him, of course. He ran from Ted in interesting directions—to the antithetical but oddly symmetrical male love stories Point Break and My Own Private Idaho in 1991, to Bertolucci and Shakespeare and Nancy Meyers and a weird, ambitious, borderline-incomprehensible script by two more-or-less unknown directors from Chicago whose characters moved in and out of a malevolent computer simulation, switching genders as they went. (Later drafts toned down the metaphor.)
Maybe that early misapprehension made him skittish in interviews, prone to fighting with this context. Or maybe he just hates the sound of his own voice saying what he believes to be dumb things. That was his explanation, in 1991, after he briefly excused himself from a Four Seasons sit-down with the Los Angeles Times for a bout of “inner-directed” self-flagellation: “Now he is out on the tiny balcony of his 10th-floor suite, waving his arms agitatedly and vocalizing loud, frustrated profanities over the presumably curious heads of whatever Beverly Hillsians might be lingering below.” If he’s gotten better at this process, it’s been by bringing less of himself to tables like this.
Here is one way in which he is perceptibly very smart: When you ask him a question on the record, he’s already thinking about how his answer will read. He can see the celebrity profile he’s being interviewed for, like it’s streaming past him as a wall of green code. He knows the secret of these types of rooms: You’re sunk if you try to impress, but you can get away if you’re willing to say nothing definitive.
Was it strange to see that Ted persona come back at you in the mirror of the press?
“No. I think they still use, like, ‘Keanu’s Excellent Adventure.’ Or ‘dude.’ That’s still around.”
Are you kind of at peace with that now? Is that okay?
“Yeah. I mean—for me, it’s like—that’s easy. But, um, yeah.”
Was there ever any comfort in having your intelligence underestimated in that way? Did it feel like you could then surprise people?
Reeves smiles, coy as the Mona Lisa. “I don’t know how much intelligence I have.”
The artist Robert Longo directed Reeves in 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic. Longo and William Gibson, who adapted the script from his short story, had imagined it as a cyberpunk Alphaville. The production was snakebit from the start; then the studio—realizing it was sitting on the new movie by an actor who’d just become the mega-star of Speed—shredded the film in editing, trying to engineer a blockbuster. The original, anime-influenced ’90s sci-fi movie with Reeves playing a black-suited hero with a data port in his brain died fast at the box office. Longo went straight back to art and never made another Hollywood movie.
Of course the film gets nothing right about the future except for all-consuming evil corporations and the mainstreaming of the touchless faucet. But it’s way more fun than it’s gotten credit for, a B movie as cocktail party to which inexplicable but welcome guests keep on arriving: Ice-T, Henry Rollins, “Beat” Takeshi, Udo Kier, a dolphin. It’s found its audience, years down the road—once, in Berlin, some black-hat hackers came up to Longo, started reciting dialogue, told him they love it. “They said, ‘If you ever need us to hack anything, just let us know,’ ” Longo says. “So I have friends in the Dark Net, which is really great, courtesy of Johnny Mnemonic.”
He also has a friend in Keanu Reeves, to this day. Sometimes when he’s in New York, Reeves comes over to Longo’s studio with a six-pack just to hang out and watch him work, and people in Longo’s building ask him afterward why he was riding the elevator with a bum who looked a little like Keanu Reeves. On more than one occasion, Reeves has gone out to Bay Ridge to watch Longo’s son play Catholic-league basketball, obliged the resulting swarm of autograph seekers, then gently suggested everybody sit down so the kids could play the game.
“Keanu came to see me,” Longo says, “to show me The Matrix before it was out. He had, like, a VHS tape, and they hadn’t finished all the special effects. You could still see the strings and stuff like that. I thought it was very sweet, that he came to show me that. Because The Matrix, in a weird way, was like trying to get Johnny Mnemonic right, y’know?”
You have to go to people other than Keanu to hear about this version of Keanu. The version of Keanu who shows up for interviews keeps a tight grip on the personal. He negotiated the terms of his relationship with celebrity culture a long time ago and isn’t interested in re-opening the conversation.
So you go to the Chateau, and if you want, you can see his bike shop—ARCH Motorcycle Company, out in Hawthorne, California. He started it in 2011 with a motorcycle designer named Gard Hollinger.
The original ARCH motorcycle is the KRGT-1, which will run you $85,000. There’s a fancier model that goes for $120,000. They’re in the process of designing a new one called the Method.
“That one,” Reeves says, “is just gonna be ridiculously expensive.”
He talks about the motorcycles in technical, motorcycle-y words that I forget even as he’s saying them. They’re beautiful bikes, cut from blocks of solid aluminum, all mirror and negative space. We walk the factory floor, checking out Keanu Reeves’s milling machines. At one point he brushes against something, and for the rest of the afternoon, tiny metal shavings cling to his pant leg like flakes of bright snow. The best part of the tour is the end, when Reeves turns the key on an ARCH bike and says, “And they sound like this.” The sound of the engine almost lifts the ceiling off the room.
Reeves goes outside to smoke, positions his body so it blocks the sun from his visitor’s eyes. We talk about the moment, in the mid-’90s, when his fame was at its pre-Matrix peak and he decided to play bass in a grunge band called Dogstar with a drummer he’d met at the supermarket.
He got roasted as a dilettante, of course. He says he felt bad for the other guys in the band, regular musicians who had to face the skepticism society reserves for moonlighting actors, but adds, “I guess it would have helped if our band was better.”
The truth is, they weren’t bad, just serviceable, in a KROQ commercial-alt kind of way. Sort of like a noisier Live, if the bass player was really into the way Peter Hook’s bass carried the melody in Joy Division, and was also Keanu Reeves.
“We played Milwaukee Metal Fest. Got killed. I think we played close to [belligerent New York hardcore-punk legends] Murphy’s Law. Imagine. So we played a Grateful Dead cover, at Milwaukee Metal Fest.”
(It was actually weirder than that. They played after Murphy’s Law, Agnostic Front, and the Mentors—hardcore, thrash-punk, punk-metal—and before Cannibal Corpse, Obituary, Deicide, and a band that was just called Cancer. Today Reeves doesn’t recall which Dead song they played, although Dogstar set-list research suggests it was probably “New Minglewood Blues.”)
“We were like, ‘They hate us. What are we doing here? What can we do? Let’s do the Grateful Dead cover,’ ” Reeves says, laughing at the memory. “They were just like, Fuck you, you suck. I had the biggest grin on my face, man.”
He’s the world’s most famous aging indie-rock guy. He is probably the only billion-dollar-grossing movie star to have once listed Steve Albini’s confrontational ’80s noise-terror band, Big Black, as a current fave. When he’s reminded of this, he lets out a quiet nonverbal dinosaur howl—raaaaaahhhh—and does a little Ted Logan air guitar.
Just a little, though.
He doesn’t listen to as much new music as he used to. Hasn’t gotten heavy into a new band since he discovered Metz, an abrasive Toronto punk group whose songs have titles like “Escalator Teeth” and “Mess of Wires.” He’s worried about this out-of-touchness, a little.
“But once in a while, I have the moments, where you drink the whiskey and you get the records out and you start doing the DJ thing until four in the morning.”
He’s better in this zone. He’s engaged, asking questions. When I bring up 1981’s Valis, one of the later, weirder novels by Scanner Darkly author Philip K. Dick, he admits that he hasn’t read it, then makes me explain the whole backstory of the book, purportedly Dick’s attempt to process through fiction a series of quasi-religious experiences in which an extraterrestrial intelligence blasted his brain with a pink laser beam made of pure information. It’s what the Sonic Youth song “Schizophrenia” is about; Reeves knows that one, starts singing it. He takes down the titles of the relevant Dick books to check out later.
Before shooting My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant says, “I think I gave both River and Keanu John Rechy’s book City of Night as a reference. River read a few pages and called it quits. Keanu read all of City of Night and as many other John Rechy books as he could find. He was always very thorough.”
This is more or less what it’s like to know him. “There’ve been times I’ve mentioned something,” Longo says, “and he all of a sudden takes this stupid thing out of his back pocket and writes down notes, like some book I read or something like that. And I know that the motherfucker is actually reading that! He’s going to find that book and read it, I know it.”
It is impossible not to want to bounce your Keanu theories off Keanu. Impossible and fruitless. He won’t go there, won’t see the through lines in the work.
In 2012 the director Christopher Kenneally made an earnest, evenhanded documentary about what cinema might gain and lose as digital moviemaking technology eclipses film. Reeves acts as narrator (“The film is covered with an emulsion.… The crystals change into silver metal when they are developed”) and interlocutor (David Lynch, asked by Reeves if he’s done with celluloid: “Don’t hold me to it, Kee-ann-oh.”)
It’s not a Keanu Reeves movie, exactly—it’s an exploration of how technological innovation shapes aesthetics, to which Reeves is lending his clout. But it feels unavoidably like an autobiographical gesture on the part of its narrator—an attempt by Reeves to understand the mechanism by which his image has been constructed. There is a clip of a small child asking Reeves, “How did you go into the computer?” Then Kenneally cuts to Reeves as Neo with liquid information dripping down his arm.
In a lot of Reeves’s recent work, he tends to play bad guys, and specifically bad guys who help feed the young and vulnerable into what another great Canadian once called the “star-maker machinery.” In The Bad Batch, he’s a post-apocalyptic cult leader who knocks up his acolytes. In The Neon Demon, he shows up in ingenue Elle Fanning’s nightmares to violate her with a knife. In the wild martial-arts potboiler Man of Tai Chi, his 2013 directorial debut, he’s the underground fight-club proprietor who wants to turn the honorable hero Tiger Chen into a killer so he’ll be a bigger draw.
Toward the end of that first afternoon at the Chateau Marmont, Reeves finds another secluded area, shielded from the rest of the patio by a rain tent, where he can smoke.
He’s asked if he’s trying, in some of these projects, to examine the way his medium and his industry have conspired to construct a notion of Keanu Reeves. A false self with its own life.
Is this something you’re consciously trying to do?
“I think you could do that in, uh, a cinema class,” Reeves says. Then he laughs. “I guess I shouldn’t make that sound so pejorative.”
At the moment he said it, he was sitting on a Chateau chair. The chair was positioned right at the edge of the patio, where the stone gives way to dirt. One of the chair legs hung in empty air, its chair-foot resting on nothing. Someone else in this position, having a smoke, might have leaned back too far and tipped over. Keanu just floated, perfectly balanced, somehow sitting in the chair while also not being there at all.
Alex Pappademas is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2019 issue with the title “Immortal.”
Photographs by Daniel Jackson
Styled by George Cortina
Hair by Nina Paskowitz
Grooming by Geri Oppenheim
Set design by Gille Mills at the Magnet Agency
Production by Prodn at Art + Commerce