Bolstered by success onscreen, actor Keanu Reeves is determined to find joy.
‘‘I Don’t Want To Flee From Life’’ By Dotson Rader - Published: June 11, 2006
“I think, after loss, life requires an act of reclaiming,” Keanu Reeves said. “You have to reject being overwhelmed. Life has to go on.”
In the past, Keanu Reeves’ response to loss has been to wall off his feelings to outside scrutiny and conceal himself within a protective solitude. But that is changing.
“I’m at a turning point,” he said. “I don’t want to flee from life. I know the beauty of it.”
Reeves also knows its heartache. He learned it first as a toddler, when his father abandoned the family. Keanu, now 41, characterized their relationship as “full of pain.” He has seen people he loves die young, among them actor River Phoenix, from a drug overdose at age 23. He lost his baby girl—stillborn at 8 months—and her mother, the woman he most loved. Now his sister, Kim, 39, with whom he is unusually close, is fighting leukemia.
Through it all, Reeves has kept much to himself, working hard. He moves about town on his motorcycle, without an entourage or other trappings of celebrity. Yet, in the last 22 years, he has played in more than 40 very different movies, becoming one of the world’s top box-office draws. His three Matrix action pictures alone grossed more than $2 billion. His new film, The Lake House, co-starring Sandra Bullock, opens next weekend.
I met with Reeves in Los Angeles, where he now resides. Tall, handsome and unpretentious, he displays an engaging intelligence and is charming company. I asked why he has lived alone and been so restless.
“I’ve had a vagabond life,” he said. “There is a bit of the gypsy in me, and living that way seemed to make sense. I couldn’t settle down. I liked going to new places—renting apartments, staying in hotels.
“Then I turned 40,” Reeves continued. “That birthday is hard, perhaps because you know you’re grown-up. So now it’s a makeover for me. I have bought my first house. I wanted a home.”
Reeves’ first home was in Beirut, Lebanon, where he was born in 1964. His mother, Patricia, now 68, is English. His father, Samuel, 67, is of Chinese-Hawaiian descent. “Keanu” means “cool breeze over the mountains” in the native Hawaiian language.
When Keanu was 2, the family moved to Australia, where his sister was born. His parents then separated, and he, Kim and their mother moved to New York City. His mom married a stage director, then divorced him a year later. The family moved again—to Toronto, Canada—when Keanu was 6. His mother has since married twice more.
“When Mother was young,” Reeves said, “she ran away to Paris and worked in the couture houses, picking up pins, and ended up making and designing clothes. So, as a kid, I was around aesthetics and style. I earned my allowance picking up pins in her workshop in Toronto.
“Even for a runaway English girl, my mother gave us a proper upbringing. We learned manners, respect for our elders, formal table settings. I also learned a nonprejudicial, nonjudgmental acceptance of other people.”
When Keanu was 15, he discovered acting. “We were reading Romeo and Juliet aloud in class,” he recalled, “and somehow through Shakespeare I found a way to express myself. It was a natural fit for me. Because I was a good boy... I am a good boy,” he insisted with a wink, “I went to my mother afterward and asked, ‘Is it OK if I be an actor?’ She said, ‘Do whatever you like to do.’”
Reeves soon dropped out of high school and moved to L.A., where he won critical notice for his role in 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons and My Own Private Idaho in 1991 with River Phoenix, his best friend. By age 30 Reeves was a major movie star, thanks to his leading role in the blockbuster Speed. Five years later, the first film in the Matrix trilogy brought him worldwide recognition as Neo, “The One” chosen to save humanity from the tyranny of evil machines. I asked how he handled his fame.
“Fame?” he said. “Fama? Latin. It’s strangers recognizing me and saying, ‘Hi,’ and it is surreal oftentimes, although those I meet are usually very nice.” He laughed. “Note that Keanu knocks on wood as he says that. My approach to getting through is to try to keep a level head and not let it influence me. I’m not going to put on a hood or try to hide. I’m trying to live my life as I would if I wasn’t recognized.”
That life has included playing bass in alternative rock bands like Dogstar and Becky. Reeves also likes to surf, and he rides horses and motorcycles—sometimes recklessly. He has suffered a broken ankle and ribs, as well as a ruptured spleen.
His personal life also has been painful. Though Reeves dated over the years, it wasn’t until 1998, when he met Jennifer Syme at a party promoting his band, that he fell in love. Within a year, Syme was pregnant. Eight months later, their child was born dead, and Syme, distraught, suffered deep postpartum depression. The romance cooled, but she and Reeves remained best friends. Then, in April 2001 in L.A., Syme crashed her car, dying instantly. Reeves was devastated. Life, he said, has never been the same.
“Grief changes shape, but it never ends,” he told me. “People have a misconception that you can deal with it and say, ‘It’s gone, and I’m better.’ They’re wrong.
“When the people you love are gone, you’re alone,” he added quietly. “I miss being a part of their lives and them being part of mine. I wonder what the present would be like if they were here—what we might have done together. I miss all the great things that will never be.
“Damn it! It’s not fair! It’s absurd,” he said angrily. “All you can do is hope that grief will be transformed and, instead of feeling pain and confusion, you will be together again in memory, that there will be solace and pleasure there, not just loss.”
I asked if loss had changed him.
“Much of my appreciation of life has come through loss,” he said. “Life is precious. It’s worthwhile.”
Reeves paused for several long minutes. Then he said, “I’m trying not to be alone so much. And, man, it’s a struggle. I want to get married. I want to have kids. That’s at the top of the mountain. I’ve got to climb the mountain first. I’ll do it. Just give me some time.”
(x-posted to my journal)