Keanu Reeves is one of the most likeable movie stars to ever exist.
His roles in beloved blockbuster movies, relaxed demeanor, and genuine earnestness have made him both an A-list actor and a prince of internet memes.
But despite a high-profile career spanning over three decades, Reeves has remained a very private person. There’s a lot you probably don’t know about him, from his early life as a young actor to his behind-the-scenes exploits and work outside of movies.
He Was Born in Lebanon
Keanu Reeves is known as a quintessentially American actor, thanks to characters like Ted “Theodore” Logan and Johnny Utah, who, outside of a cartoon cowboy, are two of the most American human beings to ever exist. So it might surprise you to learn that Reeves isn’t actually American.
Reeves was born in Lebanon to an English mother and an American father. He moved to Ontario when he was a kid after his parents got divorced and his mother remarried a stage and film director. Reeves remains a Canadian citizen, with an American green card through his stepfather.
He Auditioned to be Bill, Not Ted
According to a long-standing urban legend that has never been fully confirmed, Reeves actually auditioned for the part of Bill S. Preston, Esq. in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure before ultimately landing the role of Ted. Meanwhile (according to the rumor), Alex Winter tried out for Ted, only to be cast as Bill.
Again, the rumor has never been confirmed, and Alex Winter can’t even recall if it’s true, although he has a theory about it. He thinks it might come from the fact that the two characters are so similar, he and Reeves lose track over who played who.
And it is admittedly fun to imagine some Hollywood producer looking at the two actors, suddenly being struck with a bolt of epiphany, then slowly removing Bill’s trademark baseball cap from Reeves’ head and placing it on Winter’s and shouting, “Now we’ve got a movie!”
He Filmed the Club Scene in John Wick With a High Fever
Reeves has a reputation for being pretty hands-on in terms of the stunt work in his films. This is especially true for the John Wick series, in which Reeves performs the vast majority of the driving, fighting, and gunplay himself. But one sequence In the original John Wick was more grueling than you realize.
During the extended night club sequence, in which John Wick fight-shoots his way through one or two dozen of Theon Greyjoy’s henchmen, Reeves was actually incredibly sick. According to the director’s commentary track on the John Wick blu-ray, the actor had a fever of around 103° while filming that scene, which involved a lot of demanding physical activity and complicated choreography. What can we say? Keanu is a pro.
His Name Means “Cool Breeze Over The Mountain”
Keanu’s unique name is a Hawaiian word meaning “cool breeze over the mountain.” Not only does his name make him stand out in a cast list, but it also seems to describe him perfectly, as if he visited his parents from the future and told them what name he should be given.
Reeves traces his Hawaiian ancestry through his father, who was of Hawaiian and Chinese descent. The name “Keanu” is derived from Keaweaheulu, the name of a famous Hawaiian high chief from the 18th century. In addition, Keanu was the middle name of Reeves’ uncle.
Keanu Had a Difficult Time in High School
Reeves attended four different high schools as a teenager. He was actually expelled from one of them, an event the actor essentially attributes to “being a teenager.” Reeves said he was “just a little too rambunctious and shot my mouth off once too often… I was not generally the most well-oiled machine in the school.”
Reeves eventually dropped out of school entirely to pursue acting. He actually got one of his first film roles while still living in Canada, playing a hockey player alongside Rob Lowe in Youngbloods. Reeves ended up driving to Los Angeles in a crummy old car to meet with an agent after his stepfather, director Paul Aaron, contacted him. The agent, Erwin Stoff, represents him to this day.
He Shares a Weird Orbit with Val Kilmer
Throughout his acting career, Reeves has continuously found himself sharing a strange orbit with Val Kilmer. The two actors have never appeared in a film together, but have still managed to cross each other’s paths many times, beginning with Reeves’ audition to play Jim Morrison in director Oliver Stone’s The Doors.
“I auditioned a few times, but I don’t think I was ever seriously in the running,” Reeves said. “I just read some of Jim Morrison’s poetry and listened to some of his music and did what I could.” Reeves would go on to replace Kilmer in the lead role in Johnny Mnemonic when Kilmer dropped out. A year later, Reeves was set to play Chris in the film Heat alongside Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, but had to back out and was replaced by Kilmer.
He Was a Skilled Hockey Player
Reeves had trouble academically in school, but he excelled at theater and sports. He was especially good at hockey, and was apparently so formidable as a goalie that he earned the nickname “The Wall” while playing on the team at De La Salle College.
Reeves apparently considered trying to go pro as “The Wall,” which meant he might have conceivably used a successful sports career to segue into acting like Dwayne Johnson. We could’ve seen a whole decade of movies starring Keanu “The Wall” Reeves. But Reeves decided acting was his true calling and we got Bill & Ted instead, which is a fair trade.
One of His First Roles was a Coke Commercial
Reeves had several bit parts when he was first getting his start like most actors do. One of his first roles was as a racing cyclist in a Coke commercial, which aired in the early 1980s. In the commercial, which is readily available on YouTube, Reeves is up against a villainous Russian cyclist, because everything America did in the 1980s was about making Russians look bad.
On an episode of The Late Show with James Corden, host James Corden actually had Reeves watch the old commercial and talk about his memories of filming it. “I had so many Coca-Colas,” Reeves said, sharing that the commercial took three days to film and that he shaved his legs to look more believable as a cyclist.
He’s Apparently Ambidextrous
In something of an Easter egg for eagle-eyed Keanu fans, Reeves appears to be ambidextrous. If you watch his films closely, you’ll notice that he generally writes with his left hand and does more complicated actions with his right.
This is especially noticeable in John Wick. For example, when the courier arrives to deliver John Wick’s new puppy, he signs the delivery receipt with his left hand. During the film’s extensive action sequences, you can see that he fires all of his weapons right-handed.
He Surprisingly Turned Down Speed 2
Speed was one of Keanu Reeves’ breakout hits, coming shortly after Point Break and proving that he could be a bonafide action star as well as a guy with short hair. (Director Jan de Bont famously asked Reeves to trim his trademark long hair, to which Reeves responded by shaving his head entirely.)
Speed was one of the biggest films of 1994, so when 20th Century Fox decided to produce a sequel, they were prepared to offer Reeves a tidy salary of $11 million. However, Reeves turned them down, opting instead to take some time off from film, tour with his band and do some theater.
While Reeves probably doesn’t regret his decision (Speed 2: Cruise Control is a notoriously bad film that routinely shows up on “Worst Sequel” lists), he has stated in later interviews that had he been asked even a few minutes later, he might’ve agreed to do the movie. That said, he claims to remember telling de Bont, “You know, boats aren’t that fast.”
His Cameo in Keanu Was a Last-Minute Addition
The 2016 comedy Keanu was written and produced by the sketch comedy duo of Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key. The movie, about a kitten named Keanu who winds up in the middle of a gang war, is essentially a parody of John Wick, so Peele and Key wanted Reeves to be involved.
However, Reeves’ management turned down the offer, apparently without consulting the actor. When Reeves saw the first trailer for Keanu, he immediately contacted Key and Peele himself and asked if he could be in it. So he was added at the last minute as the voice of the kitten Keanu during a dream sequence.
He Supports Several Cancer Charities
Reeves has been quoted as saying, “Money is the last thing I think about. I could live on what I have already made for the next few centuries.” Regardless of whether that quote is 100% accurate, it seems to convey how he actually feels – Reeves has generously supported medical research programs like Stand Up to Cancer and the SickKids Foundation, which is one of the largest pediatric research centers in the world.
In addition, Reeves established his own cancer charity, but declined to have his name attached to it, presumably so his involvement wouldn’t overshadow the charity’s work. There’s a personal reason for all of this – Reeves confirmed in an interview that his sister, Kim, had been battling leukemia for many years.
He’s a Shakespearean Actor
Keanu Reeves is many wonderful things, but “Shakespearean actor” is not one that immediately comes to mind. He’s generally seen as an action star, a romantic lead, or a comic buffoon, so it might be surprising to learn that he’s actually starred in several Shakespearean productions.
One of Reeves’ first experiences acting was in a production of The Tempest when he was a teenager. He also played the villainous Don John in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, generally regarded as the best film version of the famous play. Reeves also tackled one of the most difficult Shakespeare roles when he played Hamlet for the Manitoba Theater Centre in 1995, a part he turned down Speed 2: Cruise Control to do.
John Wick Isn’t the First Assassin He’s Played
John Wick might be the most famous assassin in movie history, outside of that GIF of Antonio Banderas in Assassins. He’s another one of the iconic characters Reeves has brought to life, alongside Neo and Ted, but he’s not the first assassin Reeves has played.
In the 1990 comedy I Love You To Death, Reeves plays a bumbling hitman named Marlon, who is hired alongside his equally-dimwitted cousin Harlan (William Hurt) to kill philandering husband Joey (Kevin Kline) by Joey’s wife Rosalie (Tracy Ullman). In sharp contrast to John Wick, Marlon is a soft-hearted guy who can’t actually bring himself to hurt anyone.
He’s an Avid Motorcyclist
Reeves has a well-known affinity for motorcycles. He learned to ride while filming at a studio in Germany and immediately bought one for himself when he got back to the States. He’s owned many different kinds of bikes and driven thousands of miles on his favorite, a 1973 Norton Commando. Reeves even co-founded Arch Motorcycle Company, a custom motorcycle dealer.
Reeves has admitted he doesn’t ride as fast as he used to, partially because of the number of accidents he’s been in while on a motorcycle. In addition to losing teeth, breaking his ankle, suffering road rash, and actually having a tooth go through his lip, Reeves ruptured his spleen when he crashed into the side of a mountain while riding his bike at night. One of the paramedics attending to him accidentally dropped one end of his stretcher, which Reeves actually thought was funny, all things considered.
He Was Nervous About Doing Stunts in Speed
Reeves is known to do most of his own stunts, from the extended wire sequences in The Matrix to the complicated driving and choreography of John Wick. But he wasn’t always as gung-ho about taking bumps in front of the camera.
When he was cast in Jan de Bont’s Speed, a movie filled with tons of dangerous stunts involving cars and explosions, Reeves was initially very nervous. But he eventually warmed up to the idea and convinced de Bont to let him do a particularly dangerous stunt wherein Reeves’ character jumps from a speeding Jaguar into a municipal bus as both vehicles rocket down the freeway.
He Was Partially Paralyzed During The Matrix
The unique visual style of the gravity-defying fight scenes in The Matrix required the actors to do extensive wire work. Trying to do martial arts while dangling from wires can be dangerous, however, and several of Reeves’ costars wound up with injuries, including Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving.
Unfortunately, Reeves was already suffering from a spinal injury during filming – two discs in his back had begun to fuse together. It was so bad that he was beginning to experience paralysis in his legs, and if you notice, Reeves doesn’t throw many kicks in the first Matrix film. He had to get neck surgery to correct the problem.
He Had a Side Career as a Bass Player
In addition to acting, playing hockey, riding motorcycles, and possibly courting immortality, one of Reeves’ other interests is music. He’s actually a professional musician, having played bass in two different touring bands over the years. Reeves formed his first band, Dogstar, with his friend Robert Mailhouse, whom he met at a supermarket.
Dogstar released two albums in the 1990s, and opened for artists like David Bowie and Bon Jovi. The now-legendary nerd rock band Weezer actually played their first professional show opening for Dogstar, so in a way, Reeves deserves credit for all of Weezer’s success.
His Directors Wanted to Challenge Him With John Wick
Reeves learned multiple martial arts for the Matrix trilogy, working alongside stunt performers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. When he recruited the duo to choreograph and direct John Wick, he was expecting them to bring the same level of awesomeness.
Stahelski and Leitch undeniably accomplished awesomeness with the John Wick series, and it was partially due to the fact that they decided to challenge Reeves with the choreography. Rather than reuse any of the skills Reeves had developed filming The Matrix, Stahelski wanted Reeves to learn martial arts that the actor had never done before. This included jiujitsu and the extensive “gun fu” techniques that have become the staple of the John Wick movies.
He Voiced Ted in a Cartoon Series
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was a surprise success, spawning a ton of tie-in merchandise including licensed cereal, which Reeves has described as, “surreal… surreal cereal.” The film was also adapted into an animated series called Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures, and Reeves actually voiced his character Ted.
Reeves wasn’t the only member of the film’s cast to reprise their role for the cartoon. Alex Winter and George Carlin also voiced their respective characters Bill and Rufus. However, the magic didn’t last, and they were all replaced for the show’s second and final season.
He’s Written Books of Poetry
If you’ve spent any time on the internet, you probably remember the Sad Keanu meme. The meme got so big it made its way back to Reeves himself, and he responded in the best way possible – by writing a book of ridiculously sad poetry.
Ode to Happiness includes such (intentionally) melodramatic lines as “I draw a hot sorrow bath” and “I wash my hair with regret shampoo,” each accompanied by stylized blotted ink illustrations by artist Alexandra Grant. The pictures look like something you’d find in a seriously morose children’s book, and it all comes together as being extremely funny, which was Reeves’ intent.
His Agent Worried His Name Was Too Complicated
When he first started working in film, Reeves’ management worried that his name was too exotic and would be difficult for audiences to pronounce. So he tried out other stage names, including “K.C. Reeves,” “Norman Kreeves,” “Chuck Spadina,” and, bizarrely, “Page Templeton III.”
According to Reeves, he eventually stopped using these truly bad pseudonyms because he would give his real name when he actually showed up to auditions anyway. That said, you can still see him credited as “K.C. Reeves” in some of his earlier roles, including an episode of The Magical World of Disney.
He Thinks Turning Down Speed 2 Got Him Blacklisted
You would think that turning down Speed 2: Cruise Control didn’t weigh heavily on Reeves’ mind considering how monumentally bad that film turned out to be. However, the actor believes that rejecting the part angered producers at 20th Century Fox so much that they refused to work with him for many years afterward.
Reeves referred to his Fox blacklisting as being put in “movie jail.” It doesn’t seem to have been that far from the truth – the actor didn’t star in another Fox production until The Day The Earth Stood Still, which was released nearly 15 years after Speed.
He Was Tricked Into Doing One of His Worst Movies
When you have a career as long and storied as Keanu Reeves, you’re going to make a few stinkers. One of Reeves’ stinkiest is the 2000 thriller The Watcher. In the film, Reeves plays a serial killer who taunts the detective tasked with bringing him down. But Reeves didn’t actually want to be in the film.
According to Reeves, he had verbally agreed to do The Watcher several years before it entered production, but when it finally came time to film it, his role had changed so much that he was no longer interested in it. However, he alleges that his assistant forged his signature on a contract against his wishes. Reeves figured the forgery would be difficult to prove, and he didn’t want to get sued for breach of contract in the meantime, so he just did the movie anyway.
He’s Currently Starring in a TV Show You’ve Never Heard of
It’s not unusual nowadays for major movie stars to take parts in television shows, because TV is experiencing a huge renaissance thanks to studios like Netflix and HBO. But we’re willing to bet you didn’t know that Keanu Reeves currently has a role in a comedy detective show.
Reeves co-stars in a series called Swedish Dicks alongside Peter Stormare, who plays an inept private detective in Los Angeles. Reeves plays the ghost of Stormare’s dead stuntman friend, who occasionally appears to give him advice. It currently airs on the Pop network in the U.S.
He Frequently Takes Pay Cuts to Improve His Films
Keanu Reeves can command an A-list salary, but he’s been known to take dramatic pay cuts in order to help the film. He agreed to slash his own paycheck while filming the 2000 comedy The Replacements in order to work with Gene Hackman. He did the same for the 1997 thriller The Devil’s Advocate to allow the producers to cast Al Pacino as the demonic John Milton.
Reeves was contractually entitled to a huge percentage of the movie’s gross while filming The Matrix Revolutions, but he turned that money down so that it could be added to the budget for the extensive special effects sequences. It’s clear he’s not worried about cutting into his own earnings to help make a better movie.
He May Have Accidentally Married Winona Ryder
Keanu Reeves was part of the huge ensemble cast in director Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In the film, he plays Jonathan Harker, a lawyer who travels to Count Dracula’s castle to help him settle some real estate problems. Dracula (Gary Oldman) becomes obsessed with Harker’s wife Mina, played by Winona Ryder. Technically (and that word is admittedly doing a lot of work here), Reeves and Ryder might actually have gotten married during the production.
Coppola used a real priest to perform actual marriage rites between Jonathan and Mina for a scene in the film. While the “marriage” would in no way be legally binding, it is funny to think that the two actors were technically married while filming a vampire movie.
His Mother Was a Costume Designer
Reeves’ mother Patricia Taylor was a performer and costume designer working in Beirut when she met his father. In addition to designing outfits for the stars, she would also construct elaborate Halloween costumes for young Keanu, including Dracula and Batman. Ironically, Reeves would grow up to star in a blockbuster Dracula adaptation, and was in consideration to star as the villainous Scarecrow in an unmade Batman film.
Reeves remembers that his mother would frequently have clients come to their house, including theatrical shock rocker Alice Cooper. In an interview with Us magazine, Reeves said that Cooper “would bring fake vomit and dog poo to terrorize the housekeeper.”
A Candid Photograph Of Reeves Became an Internet Sensation
If you’re well-versed in internet lore, you likely recognize the words “Sad Keanu.” A candid photo of Reeves sitting alone on a park bench, eating a sandwich and looking pensive, caught fire as a meme in the 2000s. The meme got so popular that fans eventually organized a Cheer Up Keanu Day in 2010, and Keanu himself is more than aware of it.
Reeves has said of the meme “It’s good clean fun,” but that he wished he hadn’t gotten his picture taken that particular day while he was just eating his lunch and lost in thought. He’s also said, “People started to do funny things with that Sad Keanu,” and assured fans in a 2017 interview, “I am not Sad Keanu anymore.”
The Matrix Indirectly Led to John Wick
The Matrix is undoubtedly one of the most important films of Reeves’ career. It was a worldwide box office hit and a cultural phenomenon, cementing the already A-list Reeves as a mega star. The Matrix would also wind up shaping a career resurgence for Reeves in an unexpected way.
Reeves’ stunt doubles on The Matrix, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, are the co-directors and stunt coordinators of the John Wick franchise. As Reeves was helping develop the script of John Wick with screenwriter Derek Kolstad, he reached out to Stahelski and Leitch to see if they would be interested in working on the stunts, but secretly hoped they would agree to direct. Reeves’ unbridled enthusiasm convinced the duo to join the film.
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