acting

Why We Can’t Stop Watching Keanu Reeves, 30 Years On

Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho. Photo: Fine Line Features

In his 14 minutes of screentime in Always Be My Maybe, Netflix’s latest rom-com phenomenon, 54-year-old Keanu Reeves — now 30 years into his stardom — skewers and subverts the personas we’ve come to attach to him.

Reeves, playing an outsized version of himself, cuts an imposing figure in his introduction. Time slows to a crawl. All eyes gravitate toward the velvet-jacketed figure with striking beauty and prickly charisma. After his entrance — a show for everyone in the farcical restaurant Maximal — he slides toward Ali Wong’s celebrity chef Sasha, offering spiritual platitudes in the face of her unfettered lust. “I missed your thumbs,” she breathily exhales. “I missed your soul” is his reply.

It’s a maniacally delightful performance that both reminds audiences of Reeves’s place in Asian-American Hollywood history and allows him to flex improvisational skills as he cycles through the various masks we have grafted onto him. There’s the impossibly otherworldly Keanu, who says with utmost sincerity, “The only stars that matter are the ones that you see when you dream.” There’s action-star Keanu, who smashes a vase against his own head in a game of Icebreaker and easily puts the jealous protagonist, Marcus (Randall Park), in a headlock — fully committed, physically graceful, and beautifully dangerous. The Keanu of internet memes and viral threads is here, too, in the very fact that he’s playing himself.

Reeves is having a dynamite year with the success of Always Be My Maybe, the outrageously violent John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, and Toy Story 4, in which he plays Canada’s greatest stunt driver, Duke Caboom. (Another sly nod perhaps? While born in Beirut, Reeves — who is of Chinese-Hawaiian and British ancestry — was raised in Toronto.) The actor’s more recent evolution into a meme may flatten his complexities, but it does signal why he has endured all this time, despite the persistent claim that he’s a bad actor, or just a limited one. As I’ve contended in the past, this is a gross misreading of a great actor. In her tremendous 2007 masterwork The Star Machine, film professor and historian Jeanine Basinger praises Reeves amongst his generational contemporaries: “Reeves is a neo-star fighting the concept of stardom itself, working steadily against persona to the point where no one has a clear idea of who Reeves is onscreen anymore. This has hurt him, but it has also allowed him to maintain versatility that means more to him than fame. […] His career would have been limited, and thus short lived. Instead, he has used his freedom to move on and slowly force audiences to accept him as a real actor.”

Just take a look at the arc of his career — as a teenager going through an existential crisis in the blackhearted wonder River’s Edge (1986); the affably dimwitted Theodore “Ted” Logan from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and its sequel; the bodaciously supple and yearning FBI agent and surfer Johnny Utah in Point Break (1991); a bruisingly courteous SWAT officer in Speed (1994); the beatific savior Neo in The Matrix (1999);  the violent redneck in The Gift (2000); an occult detective radiating self-loathing and suicidal yearnings in Constantine (2005); and of course, the titular tenderhearted and violently dangerous assassin of the John Wick franchise. In looking at all of his performances, I am reminded of what the great Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the Bill & Ted sequel back in the early ‘90s: “I have seen Keanu Reeves in vastly different roles (the FBI man in the current Point Break, for example), and am a little astonished by the range of these performances.”

Throughout his career, Reeves has eschewed obvious transformation in favor of something trickier and more subtle. What has allowed him to remain a star, 30 years later, is a blend of virility, vulnerability, and an aura of mystery, hearkening to a bygone era of stardom that contradicts the current moment, which requires stars to seem endlessly accessible; his sheer joy for the medium that makes him a cinematic sensualist; his racial dimensions as a star; and his gimlet-eyed understanding of the female gaze. These qualities are unique in the current market of stardom in Hollywood, allowing him to straddle various cinematic contexts with ease — mainstream romantic comedies, somber indie flicks, gloriously decadent action flicks.

They come through in one of his earliest films, My Own Private Idaho, a meditative character study about two young hustlers — Mike Waters (River Phoenix), a shy narcoleptic in search of a sense of home, and the strikingly beautiful Scott Favor (Reeves), a trust-fund kid slumming it until his inheritance kicks in at 21. Reeves and his late co-star imbue their characters with a particular mix of virility, vulnerability, and mystery. I’d argue that all the greatest leading men in the annals of Hollywood stardom have existed at this intersection to varying degrees — something I feel has been lacking from modern male stars, partially because they are being formed in franchises that lack interest in the visceral aspects of humanity. (It helps that Reeves has declined offers to join Marvel, even though they’ve been trying to woo him to their stable for years.) Humphrey Bogart’s cool is consistently undercut by his own anger and self-loathing. William Holden held something dark behind his megawatt smile and gleaming blond locks. Paul Newman always felt a touch remote, like he was hiding bruised aspects of himself from the audience. Marlon Brando, of course, epitomizes these qualities. Reeves is brimming with similar contradictions. He reflects this tradition by being at once beatifically still and emotionally expressive, defined by loneliness and a yearning to be saved from it.

In My Own Private Idaho, Reeves is the object of desire not only for Mike but the camera itself. Deep into the film, Mike timidly reveals his love to Scott while they camp out in the desert, a fire crackling before them. Phoenix plays Mike as wild with energy he has no real outlet for, leading to an awkward physicality. Reeves grants his character a languid brio. He takes up space, laying close to the fire, his head dipped back to study Mike as he timidly expresses his feelings. He’s outstretched, willowy, and aware of Mike’s gaze; he examines the weight of it. The scene reveals one of Reeves’s greatest skills as an actor: being an active listener. As he studies Mike, he invites and toys with his feelings. “I only have sex with a guy for money,” he notes offhandedly as if it were a random truth, not a response to a declaration of love. But just as the prickliness of his character comes into view (foreshadowing later betrayals), Reeves displays a burnishing sincerity. Arms outstretched, he says, “Let’s go to sleep,” and proceeds to cradle Mike.

The full-bodied listening Reeves exhibits in My Own Private Idaho is a hallmark of his work opposite women as well. Reeves is a great example of what Roswell New Mexico writer Alanna Bennett deemed The Look: “The number one thing a man in a romcom needs, TV or movie, is the ability to look at their love interest REALLY WELL. The man barely even needs to speak if he just knows how LOOK at a person.” Reeves has given that look in multiple contexts — his face is bright with awe when he looks at Carrie-Anne Moss’s Trinity in the Matrix films; it has a touch of admiration when he gazes at Sandra Bullock in Speed; and it is filled with unmitigated desire for Diane Keaton’s Erica Barry in Something’s Gotta Give.

Nancy Meyer’s 2003 ode to beachside property and an older woman’s sensual awakening stars Keaton as a successful playwright who finds herself falling for two very different men — Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson), who briefly dated her daughter (how this didn’t disqualify him immediately continues to baffle me) and has to go through a damn heart attack before he can see what’s attractive in a woman around his own age; and Julian Mercer (Reeves), a sweet doctor with a penchant for black turtlenecks who is immediately smitten when they meet.

In the film, Reeves is attuned to the female gaze in its most literal incarnation — an understanding of how women see the world, what they want from it, and how they make sense of desire. During a dinner scene with Julian, Erica’s face and neck are flush. She’s skittish and nervous in the face of his undeniable — but never disrespectful — sexual and romantic interest. Reeves’s face shows the depth and breadth of The Look, as he glides from teasing lust to a spark of genuine intellectual attraction. At one point, when their conversations turns to women his own age, he says, “I’ve never met one I’ve reacted to” — stumbling for a moment, as if shocked by the depth of his own feeling — “… quite like this. When something happens to you that hasn’t happened before, don’t you have to at least find out what it is?” He’s a man overcome and humbled by his own desire. Is there anything sexier? Then he leans in, his face going soft, gently kissing the groove where her neck meets her shoulder. “I knew you’d smell good,” he whispers. Only Reeves could pull off a line like that.

Many actors of Reeves’s caliber are too invested in being in the spotlight of a scene to play a romantic lead like this. After the fall of the studio system in the 1960s, Hollywood no longer looked at women as a viable market, and while romantic comedies continued to get made, going forward, there was a notable shift in whose desire was centered — and how little male actors seemed interested in exploring romance and desire. Reeves’s willingness brought another layer of intimacy to his relationship with his audience, offering a more flexible, vulnerable portrait of masculinity that sets him apart from other name stars.

That intimacy is key to Reeves’s longevity. It’s what makes him such a great cinematic sensualist. In 2009, Matt Zoller Seitz argued that directors Michael Mann, Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Wong Kar-wai, and Hou Hsiao-hsien were the “the decade’s best sensualists filmmakers.” He wrote, “They share a defining trait: a lyrical gift for showing life in the moment, for capturing experience as it happens and as we remember it. The sensualists are bored with dramatic housekeeping. They’re interested in sensations and emotions, occurrences and memories of occurrences.” I’d argue that being a cinematic sensualist is a distinction that can apply to acting as well. For actors, it is about bringing texture and complication to a film, existing wholly in the moment, and a keen interest in the human body.

When we watch films, the body keeps score as much as the mind does. Reeves demonstrates an understanding of this. This is apparent in the delicate neck kiss in Something’s Gotta Give; the careful way his hand skitters across broken glass before deciding on which shard to slit his wrists with in Constantine; the calm he engenders with merely the sound of his voice in Thumbsucker. But it’s most impactful in his career as an action star. In many ways, the John Wick franchise is the perfect marriage of director and star. The third film is a tactile feast. Consider a scene early in John Wick 3, in which Reeves methodically takes apart and reassembles a gun for a single shot. This scene is, of course, a testament to the character’s skill as an assassin. But it also acts as a reminder of how out of step John is with the world around him, betraying a desire for the quieter moments in life — despite the brutal milieu he finds himself in — and a strange empathy for the world around him, whether it be object or animal. This allows a humanity to glitter throughout his performances that often feels absent from many action franchises that sacrifice character on the altar of plot.

There’s another part of Reeves’s star image I suspect has played into our abiding fascination with him. Until Always Be My Maybe, the most under-discussed part of Reeves’s persona was his race. Late in his slim but potent book-length essay Mixed-Race Superman: Keanu, Obama, and Multicultural Experience, Will Harris astutely writes about a particular aspect of the 2005 film A Scanner Darkly that, metatextually, speaks to Reeves’s whole career:

“To be mixed-race is to exist in a state of paradox. Race is an illusion that depends on purity and singleness. […] In A Scanner Darkly, set in a paranoid surveillance state in the near-future, Keanu plays a government agent called Bob Arctor, who because he works undercover, has to wear a ‘scramble suit’ in the office. The suit projecting 1.5 million constantly shifting representations of different people — male and female, black, white, Latinx — keeps his identity cloaked. Even the people he works with have no idea who he is.”

Like his persona, Reeves’s face itself is considered unplaceable. Growing up, he never read as white to me, but he has read that way to Hollywood, which allowed his career to be mutable in ways that very few people of color ever experience. But for much of the moviegoing audience, seeing his face has always been a point of connection. It’s the undercurrent of why his turn in Always Be My Maybe felt like such a significant moment in his career. It was as though something had been revealed about him for the first time, even though it had been present all along. That it was such a joyful, brazenly comedic role added yet another twist on his image. There was a sense that, even after 30 years in the spotlight, Reeves can still surprise us.