Woah! The Totally Excellent and Sometimes Tragic Story of Keanu Reeves
Keanu Reeves is one of the most enigmatic people in Hollywood. In interviews, he invariably talks without saying anything, reveals little about himself and occasionally throws in a “Woah” or an air guitar riff. But what we do know about Reeves is fascinating — a kid born in Beirut, Lebanon to a troubled home life, who somehow made his way across the world to Hollywood and ended becoming one of the richest stars in Hollywood.
But his path through it all wasn’t easy, or always that excellent. Although the 54-year-old “John Wick” star did learn how to be excellent to his fellow man and become one of the nicest guys in Hollywood.
His Fascinating Childhood
Keanu Reeves was born in Beirut on September 2, 1964, to Patricia Taylor, an English woman from Essex, and Samuel Reeves, an American from Hawaii. The name Keanu means “cool breeze over the mountains” in Hawaiian. Kim, Reeves’ younger sister of two years, was also born to Patricia and Samuel.
Their parents had met in a Beirut casino, where Patricia was working as a showgirl. Or they met at the University of Lebanon, where they both studied. Reports vary. Patricia eventually worked as a costume designer (she designed the Playboy bunny costume Dolly Parton wore on a 1978 cover of Playboy; Reeves later wore the costume for Halloween as a teenager).
Samuel’s job is a bit trickier to decipher. On a few occasions, he’s been described as a geologist. But he was more interested in slinging rocks than studying them.
The family traveled around for a little while, until they moved from Australia to New York City. There, Samuel and Patricia divorced, and he moved to Hawaii. Patricia and Reeves moved to Toronto when Reeves was three or five years old. Sometimes Alice Cooper babysat him.
Samuel stayed in Reeves’s life until he disappeared when Reeves was 13 or 15 (Reeves says 13, Samuel says 15).
“On our last day we sat on the veranda and stared at the dark sky. He hardly said anything that evening. The next day he brought us to the airport. Then we didn't hear anything from him for 10 years. No calls, no letters, nothing,” Reeves told Penthouse Germany.
Lacking a Father Figure
Fast forward to 1994 and Samuel was arrested for selling heroin and cocaine at an airport. He was sentenced to 10 years but paroled after two; there is no record of him and Reeves ever mending fences or meeting again. In one of the few times he talked to the press, Samuel admitted to still using heroin.
“I never stopped for very long. Drugs for me is about having fun. I still love heroin. I use it daily. I’m an addict,” Samuel said. It was 2003; he was 60 years old.
Samuel died in January, 2018, at the age of 75.
Reeves Was Expelled From School
Rewind back to the 1970s and early ‘80s. Reeves attended four different high schools over five years. He was a decent enough student and on the chess team, but rambunctious and rebellious. He had a knack for acting and enrolled at the Etobicoke School of Arts, a public arts high school in Toronto. He was expelled at age 16.
“It was a very small school and I guess I didn’t fit in. I had conflicts and run-ins with the staff. The principal and I didn’t see eye to eye. I was one of those ‘Why?’ kids,” Reeves told the Daily Mail. “I asked too many questions about everything. I couldn’t stop even if it got me into trouble.”
It’s unclear if Reeves went back to another school and dropped out again, but ultimately he never received a high school diploma. Instead, he went straight into acting.
His First Gigs
It’s unclear how much time Reeves spent in Canada before he headed off to Los Angeles, but his first gigs were in Canada. His first on-screen appearance was on the teen sitcom “Hangin’ In” in 1984. “I wore stupid clothes and had no idea of what I was doing,” he recalled in a 1988 interview.
Another gig included being a CBC youth correspondent (Thirty-four years before charging a horse through Brooklyn for “John Wick 3,” here he is reporting on horses, and unsuccessfully trying to ride one).
Eventually, in his early 20s, Reeves headed to Los Angeles with $3,000 in his pocket, an old Volvo and something much more valuable: an industry connection. One of Reeves’ step fathers (there were several) was Paul Aaron, a relatively obscure director who would prove pivotal for the young actor.
But for a few years he was “effectively homeless,” as the Daily Mail put it, and mainly lived at the Chateau Marmont hotel when he wasn’t on the road.
Once in Hollywood, Reeves embarked on his big-screen journey. His first “Woah” was in the 1986 made-for-TV movie “Babes in Toyland,” where he starred alongside Drew Barrymore (check out a history of “Woah” here). His breakout role was in the indie film and 1986 cult classic “River’s Edge,” where he received praise for his performance. But the 1988 hockey film “Youngblood,” where he played a goalie (something he was good at in high school), stunk.
Neither of those movies, or the few others he had during this time, were enough to make him a star.
But then something excellent happened.
Reeves managed to beat out 200-300 of other actors (including Pauly Shore) for the role of Ted in the hit stoner comedy, “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Despite being generally panned by critics (The New York Times said it was “a painfully inept comedy), the movie was wildly popular. It spawned a video game, cartoon show, playing cards, action figures and even a cinnamon-flavored, music-shaped breakfast cereal — it was made by Purina, the company that makes dog food.
At the box office, the film made over $40 million on a $10 million budget. Its sequel, “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” made $38 million on a $20 million budget. By the time the first movie was a hit, Reeves was 25 years old.
But Not Yet Bodacious
Now known as an idiot stoner (which couldn’t be further from the truth), Reeves was typecast for similar airhead roles, like his part in “Parenthood.” And when he wasn’t typecast, he was sometimes blasted for his roles in films like the 1993 Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Little Buddha.”
However, there were some exceptions. He starred alongside Patrick Swayze in 1991’s “Point Break,” a buddy cop action movie that earned $84.5 million worldwide on a $24 million budget. Then there was “My Own Private Idaho,” an indie movie co-starring River Phoenix that received a tremendous amount of critical acclaim, if not box office dollars.
Things started changing in 1993, and 1994. Mostly for the better. Mostly.
The Death of River Phoenix
Reeves and River Phoenix met on the set of “Parenthood” through his ex-girlfriend Martha Plimpton, and then they worked together on “I Love You to Death.” The two quickly became best friends. In one oft-told story, Reeves took his motorcycle 1,300 miles to see Phoenix in Florida, where he showed him the script to “My Private Idaho” and convinced him to join the cast. It was a risqué movie about male prostitute street hustlers with Shakespearean themes.
In 1993, Phoenix died of a drug overdose outside a club in Los Angeles called the Viper Room. Reeves was working on “Speed” at the time. According to “Speed” co-star Sandra Bullock, who was also friends with Phoenix, production of the movie almost ground to a halt. And she saw similarities in Reeves with her late friend.
“[River] was incredibly honest — one minute I'd want to club him because he was driving me crazy, and then he'd say something that was out there… On set he'd throw himself on you and say, 'I like you so much,' and you never meet people like that. But when I met Reeves, I was like, 'Oh my God. This is exactly like River,’" Bullock said in an interview.
Phoenix’s death is likely the first time Reeves loss someone he loved. It wouldn’t be the last time.
To Stardom at 50 MPH
If Phoenix’s death affected the production of “Speed,” it was indiscernible. Audiences flocked to the movie and it became a smash hit, earning a stunning $350 million worldwide ($603 million today) off of a $30 million budget. Overnight, Reeves became an action movie star. Sort of.
And Then to the Blacklist
Reeves didn’t follow the standard movie star casting calls. He turned down “Speed 2” and a payday worth $5.5 to $12 million, and in doing so, was blacklisted from Fox movies for almost 15 years.
"They said, 'You've got to do this'," he told Esquire. "And I said, 'I read the script and I can't. It's called ‘Speed’ and it's on a cruise ship.’”
He also turned down a starring role in “Heat,” which Val Kilmer picked up for a rumored $6 million. Reeves abandoned Hollywood entirely for a while, opting to head north and play Hamlet with the Manitoba Theater Company. He was paid less than $2,000 a week.
He had several roles from 1994 until 1999, with the most notable being in “The Devil’s Advocate,” where he starred as a cutthroat lawyer for Satan himself, who was played by Al Pacino. Reeves took a pay cut of several million dollars so the studio would be able to afford Pacino.
More Zeros and Ones
“The Matrix” was Reeves’ true turning point in his career, which propelled him into a world-renowned movie star. The Wachowskis had a mega-hit on their hands; the movie made $463.5 million ($711 million today) on a $63 million budget. For his starring role as Neo, Reeves picked up a $10 million paycheck upfront and then earned another $35 million from backend deals. And then there were the two blockbuster sequels.
The “Matrix” trilogy earned a combined $1.63 billion at the box office, and Reeves made a rumored $250 million total from all three.
A Tragic Love Life
Despite the success of “The Matrix,” 1999 wasn’t an entirely joyous time. Reeves’ girlfriend, Jennifer Syme, was pregnant. But just one month before she was due, the baby died in stillbirth. The fallout and depression from the ordeal caused the two to break up. Then in 2001, Syme was out partying, got behind the wheel, and crashed. She was pronounced dead at the scene. She was 29.
Since then, Reeves has kept a tight lid on who he is or has been dating. He never married or had children.
Nice Guy Reeves
Whether it’s because Reeves has dealt with so much personal tragedy or because he’s just a really nice guy (or both) Reeves has etched out a reputation for being one of the most charitable people in Hollywood. For “The Matrix Reloaded,” he bought each of his stuntmen a Harley-Davidson as a gift for their hard work during a scene where Neo fights an army of Agent Smith clones.
“I worked with these stuntmen every day. That fight was 17 shooting days. We trained every day for seven hours for three weeks going through all the motions….So, obviously I was getting paid well. And so, you know, just as a thank you to those guys,” he told Esquire.
He did not, however, give away $100 million of his “Matrix” earnings to the special effects crew. However, he did allocate some of his money from his backend deal into the special effects and costume crew’s budget for the sequels, so the movies would be able to keep running (and presumably, not lose their special effects shine).
He Likes to Help People
There are several stories about Reeves helping people (and an entire Reddit sub dedicated to his awesomeness). When a plane needed to make an emergency landing in Bakersfield, California, he helped passengers with their luggage and then joined them in a van to Los Angeles, where he played music from his phone and chatted them up. In another Reeves encounter that recently went viral on Twitter, a fan revealed Reeves bought ice cream from him just so he could give him the autograph that Reeves knew he wanted.
He Has a Secret Charity Foundation
Another bittersweet tidbit about Reeves’s life: His sister, Kim, has been battling leukemia since the early ‘90s. And Reeves runs a private foundation, which he has been running since around 2004 or 2005. He has said he doesn’t want his name attached to it, and the foundation donates to children’s hospitals and cancer research centers.
He Loves Motorcycles
Reeves has loved motorcycles since he was in his early 20s, and doesn’t just have the scars to prove it. He owns Arch Motorcycle located in Hawthorne, California. The high-end bikes range from $78,000 on the low end to around $120,000.
He’s a Voracious Reader
For someone who has declared himself a “meathead,” Reeves reads more than the average jock. The 54-year-old star often carries around a small notebook to make notes on potential books, whether they come from friends or interviewers. He read the entire book “City of Night” for reference before filming “My Private Idaho,” and took notes from his GQ interviewer about what Phillip K. Dick book to read later.
After a trilogy as successful as the “Matrix” series, you might expect Reeves to take the Hollywood route to star in any action movie possible to engorge his bank account (kind of like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Not so for Reeves. For several years, he slipped in and out of bit roles and big roles, but hadn’t had a real blockbuster hit since “The Matrix.” The 2008 big-budget remake, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” earned a decent amount overseas, but it wasn’t considered much of a hit. “47 Ronin,” which he made in 2013, was one of the biggest box office flops of all time.
But then came John Wick.
In 2014, Reeves took a role as the eponymous assassin in “John Wick,” an action-packed flick directed by Chad Stahelski, Reeves’ former stuntman from “The Matrix.” It wasn’t a big movie, with only a $20 million budget, but it did phenomenal at the box office, and racked up $88.7 million worldwide. 2017’s “John Wick: Chapter 2” pulled in $171.5 million at the worldwide box office, and with a $34 million opening weekend, was the best opening for a Reeves film in nine years.
“John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” was even more successful, with a $56.8 opening weekend take.
More Excellence is on the Way
Reeves isn’t done making blockbusters. Another “Bill and Ted” sequel is slated, with both Reeves and Alex Winter reprising their roles. “Bill and Ted Face the Music” is about Bill and Ted struggling to write the perfect song to stave off the apocalypse.