Keanu's Second Coming
This article was first published in The Big issue Australia in September 2020.
Keanu Reeves is more than a most excellent movie star – he's become the poster-boy for kindness and decency. As he revisits Bill & Ted, the film that made him a household name, Laura Kelly explores the making of one totally nice dude.
“WHOOOOAA…” In 1989, with one throaty exclamation, was born a new pop culture icon. Dishevelled head on one side, arms held at a bemused distance from his baggy t-shirted body and hands ever-ready to whip out his trusty air guitar, Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan was the role it took to boost Keanu Reeves into the stratosphere.
Propelled by Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and its bodacious sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Keanu became a household name. (“It means cool breeze over the mountains,” sighed legions of girls.) The character was the launchpad for a career that’s had its fair share of highs and lows… but as we prepare for Bill & Ted to finally Face the Music in this summer’s most surprising sequel, Keanu has never been more beloved.
Jump in my phonebox, and let’s take a trip back to the beginning – to the world as it existed in the late 80s / early 90s when we first met Bill & Ted. It’s the era before the internet. A time when new ticks of language didn’t travel at broadband speeds. Where fashion existed under thousands of regional rocks, yet to be Instagram-exposed, wriggling, to the light.
Through the power of the silver screen, Bill & Ted’s look, and sound, spread like wildfire. Their patois – a most atypical invented cocktail of laidback California slang, and thesaurus-happy poeticism – was instantly recognisable, and inevitably imitated.
Or it certainly seemed inevitable to me.
In my first big-screen memory, I’m sitting on the velvet-covered flip-down chair of my local cinema in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It’s 1992, and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey is blowing my nine-year-old mind. Under my breath, I’m parroting Ted and trying to absorb everything about this brand-new species of floppy-limbed hero.
Like Paul on the road to Damascus, I have seen a bright light and been given words of divine advice: “Be excellent to each other… and party on, dudes.”
Within the month, I’ve delivered a 15-minute lecture to my primary school class on ‘How to Speak Like Bill and Ted’. Shortly after, I talk the (rightly horrified) hairdresser into cutting my hair to match a photo of Ted [oh good lord see Instagram photo below]. I am, at the time, a bespectacled Northern Irish preteen girl who resolutely has neither the hair nor the cheekbones to pull this look off. I respond to the indignity by badgering mum to buy me a jacket just like ‘dead Ted’ from Bogus Journey.
The haircut will finally grow out – though, Christ, sometimes it seemed like it never would – but I will never grow out of my love for Keanu. Twenty-seven years later, when Glasgow’s CCA hosts the world’s first festival devoted to him, there I am, wearing my Wyld Stallyns t-shirt and losing the feeling in my buttcheeks as I revel in two full days of back-to-back Keanu action.
Of course, the fact that a major arts venue would host a festival dedicated to an actor once dismissed as talentless (my fingers can barely type the blasphemy) shows I’m now far from alone in my devotion.
“I don’t think anyone has even been mad at Keanu,” says Megan Mitchell, producer of independent cult film exhibitor Matchbox Cineclub and co-founder of KeanuCon. “He’s an actor that has got an innate likability about him. There’s a connection there.
“KeanuCon grew from our desire to bring audiences together around good things. And it just so happens that Keanu is an excellent thing.”
Garnering international attention, KeanuCon was the cherry on top of a late-career Keanuaissance that has seen the world join my cult. A sample of recent headlines: “Keanu Reeves is too good for this world” (New Yorker); “Keanu Reeves is the best internet boyfriend” (Time); “13 times Keanu Reeves was the greatest person ever” (Insider).
When we left Bill & Ted at the end of Bogus Journey, they’d discovered that it was their destiny to become secular deities to a pastel-coloured futuristic world, in which everyone would be reminded “do not do your homework without wearing headphones”. For one of them at least (and with apologies to the talented Alex Winter), that prediction has come true. Keanu is much more than just an actor – he’s an article of faith.
Which is a bit strange when you think about it. Despite working constantly, and leading some of the biggest films of the last 30 years – Point Break, Speed, The Matrix, John Wick – there has been that lingering allegation (even by those who love him) that he’s (whisper it) actually not that good. YouTube features plenty of compilations of Keanu “acting badly”.
You will be unsurprised to hear I have little time for this misapprehension. It’s a trap, I’d argue, set by a combination of extreme beauty and the mistaken belief that Keanu actually is the cheerfully daft Ted.
In reality, he is a flexible star, with the ability to harness great comic timing (Bill & Ted, Always Be My Maybe); a zen-like, messianic otherworldliness (The Matrix); awesome action chops (Point Break, Speed); and, on occasion, an understated but affecting pathos. It was this last quality that raised John Wick – a movie about a man taking revenge for the murder of his dog – to become the best action series of the last decade.
A risk-taking attitude hasn’t always paid off – 47 Ronin is one of the all-time box office bombs – but it’s also given us so much more than you might expect from a 90s pin-up. My Own Private Idaho is a landmark piece of queer cinema. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is Francis Ford Coppola’s take on giallo horror, by way of Hammer. Constantine is a visually spectacular supernatural noir-thriller, that was, when it came out in 2005, the best DC adaptation since Tim Burton vacated the Batman director’s seat.
For Melbourne-based film critic Stephen A Russell, it was Keanu’s performance as drag-racing Tod in “Ron Howard's sublime ode to the messiness of life”, 1989’s Parenthood, that solidified his love.
“Opening up a rich and still rare vein of wounded masculinity, sure, he was still the ‘dude’ in shining silver race car ‘armour’. But his believer in father figures you can choose stuck with me,” he says. “I saw later the heart and soul reflected in reports of his charitable spirit behind-the-scenes. Those eyes, they held great depths we’re still diving into.”
Though, as Russell says, we have seen glimpses of Keanu’s off-screen character, he is remarkably private. Unlike his movie star contemporaries (Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio), Keanu’s life has never been a soap opera.
Remarkably untouched by the decades he’s spent in the Hollywood machine, this is not a man you’ll find on a private yacht, dripping with hot younger women as he sips champagne on the way to his private island (*cough* Leo *cough*).
The enigmatic Mr Reeves has revealed only breadcrumbs of information. We do know he was born in Beirut to an English mother, and a Hawaiian-Chinese father who left when he was three. After a period of globe-trotting – including a spell in Sydney – the family spent most of his childhood in Toronto. He always loved acting, and dropped out of high school before graduating to follow his dream.
He’s into motorbikes, dogs and ice hockey. And he really loves his mum, costume designer Patricia Taylor. One of the advantages of having money, he says, was being able to buy her a house. He even walked the red carpet with her at the 2020 Oscars.
We also know that he has faced terrible tragedy. His good friend and My Own Private Idaho co-star River Phoenix died from an overdose in 1995. In 1999 he and his girlfriend, Jennifer Syme, lost their child, when their daughter Ava was stillborn. The couple broke up shortly after. Two years later, Syme died in a car accident.
The sense that Keanu has faced grief with grace and stoicism is certainly part of his appeal. On The Late Show, Stephen Colbert asked him what he thought happens after we die. Keanu’s thoughtful reply? “I know that the ones who love us will miss us.”
When, in 2010 a paparazzo photographed him sitting on a Central Park bench looking a bit down, the Sad Keanu meme was born. But instead of ripping him to shreds (like, say, Ben Affleck) the internet rushed to declare June 15 ‘Cheer Up Keanu Day’.
In the end, though, it’s neither sympathy nor admiration that is the biggest driver for the Keanuaissance. In an age all too replete with nastiness, pussy-grabbers and jerks… it’s simply his honest-to-god decency.
There was the time he was filmed giving up his seat on the underground for a woman carrying a big bag. The time his flight to LA had to make an emergency landing and instead of throwing a Hollywood wobbly, he rented a van to drive his fellow passengers to their destination – entertaining them with local facts and country music from his iPhone on the way. The time he bought motorbikes for all the special effects crew on the Matrix. The time he was snapped sitting down on the street in LA to talk to a homeless man.
The anecdotes go on and on. Wherever you turn, it seems people are queueing up to tell you nice things about Keanu.
The only person who isn’t is the man himself. Following his sister Kim’s battle with leukaemia back in the 90s, Keanu set up a foundation that has given millions to children’s hospitals and cancer research. But he doesn’t even slap his name on the charity.
This year’s San Diego Comic-Con – traditionally the launching pad for a slew of big-budget geek movie releases – was a strange one, with the panels of movie stars having to move onto video call, just like all our family quizzes.
But Comic-Con@Home, as it became, was rescued by one wholesome presence. A beaming Keanu bounced from enthusing about Constantine on its 15th anniversary to gushing about the new Bill & Ted.
In the midst of these troubled times, the continuing friendship between Keanu and Alex (the real-life Bill) was particularly heart-warming. “I can’t feel or laugh or do anything [that make me feel] like the way that working on Bill & Ted does, and working with Alex,” said Keanu. “That doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world for me.”
Thirty years ago, when Bill & Ted told us that they could save the world with rock’n’roll, I believed them. A part of me still does. When I sit down to Face the Music, it will be with hope in my heart.
Right now, we’re all being forced to think of our interconnectedness like never before. We make sacrifices for each other – cover our faces to help those more vulnerable than ourselves, or stay at home to protect our community. We could all do a lot worse than channelling Keanu’s kindness, and listening to Bill & Ted’s unforgettable commandment: “Be excellent to each other… and party on, dudes.”