clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Courtesy of Vero Navarro for Matchbox Cineclub

Filed under:

Keanu Reeves, explained

Keanu Reeves is a celebrity for all times.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

It started in the pub, as all the best research does: Media studies professors Renee Middlemost (University of Wollongong) and Sarah Thomas (University of Liverpool) found themselves wondering where all the stars had gone. In an age of fractured media landscapes and niche celebrities everywhere, does anyone in Hollywood have truly universal name recognition and appeal? Does there still exist a public figure whose persona can unite and speak to fragmented audiences without excluding or alienating anyone?

Tom Hanks, they asked? Nah, too rooted in nostalgia. Leonardo DiCaprio? Or Denzel Washington? Maybe, but can you see either of them playing to a crowd of people steeped in video games or YouTube culture? Will Smith or Samuel L. Jackson? While their careers span decades, neither of them seems to have the current cultural staying power they once did.

But what about Keanu?

Keanu Reeves in Toronto on September 13, 1988.
Erin Combs/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Ding ding ding.

Keanu Reeves has long been an icon, but over the last several years, he has reached a career peak — a period of activity that became known as “the Keanaissance.” Pop culture has exploded with a new respect for him at the precise moment that his career has been on an upswing. Beginning with the John Wick franchise, which kicked off in 2014 and is now on John Wick 4, released in March 2023, Keanu has reemerged in a huge way. The past years have seen him starring in a string of hits ranging from films like Always Be My Maybe and The Matrix: Resurrections to popular game Cyberpunk 2077. The Keanu resurgence has generated one think piece after another, each suggesting a culture enamored of his versatility and enduring career — but even more in love with his very human likability and relatability.

Keanu is a martial arts master, a romantic fantasy, a gaming hero, a relatable geek — one who’s reportedly in perpetual demand for superhero franchises — but he’s also still a fun-loving bro who sticks close to his bass-playing stoner roots. He’s even something of a Jesus figure, his renewed visibility reimagining him as a nigh-mythical force that has transcended any specific archetype. Through the Keannaissance, Keanu has become a true everyman: an actor, and a meme, for all seasons.

But what makes Keanu so different, so likable? And why did it take so long for cultural recognition of his talents to shift toward profound respect? Why is it that Keanu’s moment is happening right now, and in full force?

Middlemost and Thomas embarked on a quest to find out. In 2019, they issued a call for papers to their academic journal, Celebrity Studies, for a special edition focused entirely on Keanu Reeves. At a glance, there’s plenty in his filmography to discuss; there may be no one else at Reeves’s level who’s appeared in such diverse, culturally dominant films over such a sustained period of time. Reeves has made his mark in every film genre — and most of that work has made him progressively more endearing as a talented, relatable, fun, even wholesome celebrity.

What’s notable about the list of themes and sample topics in Celebrity Studies’ call for papers, though, is how many of them have nothing to do with Keanu’s tremendous film output and everything to do with “Keanu” himself. There are requests for pieces on “tragic Keanu” and Keanu-as-meme; Keanu as “reluctant celebrity”; Keanu’s relationship to queer and Asian American identities; and one topic that just says “authenticity and ordinariness.”

Keanu Reeves gives some money to a homeless woman while filming in Paris in 2003.
Pascal Le Floch/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

All of this tells us it’s not just Keanu’s roles that have made him into the modern era’s wholesome star: It’s also his offscreen persona. On Twitter, for example, 210,000 follow the account Keanu Doing Things, while on Reddit, 350,000 people are devoted to celebrating his general awesomeness. There, you can find recent stories like Keanu helping a lost stranger find her way, Keanu leaping out of a car to sign a fan’s banner and then pose for family photos, Keanu secretly donating millions to charity, and Keanu being as humble now as he was nearly 30 years ago, before he’d had any huge hits to his name.

Clearly, we’re waking to the discovery that the hero we needed has been among us all along — and what we learn about Keanu’s tremendous career revival can tell us a lot about the larger moment we’re in.

The seeds of Keanu’s current image were in his career all along

The Keanu we know today was with us from the very beginning — like the moment he drawled, “My daaaaad!” while beaming wholesomely at us in a 1983 Coke commercial, when he was just 18 years old. Here was an all-American boy who loved sports, loved his family, and, of course, loved Coca-Cola.

Born in Lebanon in 1964 to an English mom and a Chinese-Hawaiian dad, Keanu eventually settled in Canada with his family and began acting at the ripe old age of 9. He made his (hilarious) screen debut at 16 as an extra in a Canadian sitcom and wound up riding horses and juggling as a teen reporter for the CBC, among other things. Here he is getting attacked by a teddy bear.

Nearly three decades later, it wouldn’t seem out of character for Keanu Reeves to get attacked by a teddy bear today. That’s what’s striking about all these early roles — just how Keanu they all are. The Keanu Reeves on display in these early segments is the Keanu Reeves we know and love today, someone characterized in large part by his goofy, self-effacing demeanor, uber-chill attitude, and slow drawl joined with weirdly perfect enunciation. Keanu rarely appears to be acting in these early segments and roles; he’s just being himself.

Keanu continued to offer an air of unique authenticity during his breakout role in 1988’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure — the movie that gave us an indelible image of Reeves as a blissed-out stoner within whom resides the ineffable wisdom of a philosopher. In retrospect, it’s clear to us that persona came both from the scripted role of Ted and from Keanu himself. Take an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, where he exuded the same Zen energy by taking a question intended to lampoon his Unlikely Mystic persona and turned it on its head by answering it seriously.

And in a way, that tiny moment — when the audience sets out to laugh at Keanu and winds up appreciating him even more — is a microcosm of Reeves’s second life as a public figure.

The Matrix made us start taking Keanu seriously. And we never stopped.

Keanu’s role as unlikely purveyor of Zen wisdom got its ultimate boost from The Matrix. If 1994’s Speed, in which he starred as an imperturbable bomb squad cop, embodied the optimism and humanism of the ’90s, then 1999’s Matrix, along with other iconic films from that year like Fight Club and The Blair Witch Project, marked a turn toward new-millennium unease. It also made Keanu Reeves even more relatable: There he was, stuck in the Matrix right alongside us, navigating a new era of technology and a host of looming existential questions.

The Matrix created a permanent link between Reeves and geek culture. His character, Neo, was the ultimate geek fantasy: an obscure office drone who morphs into a badass, leather-clad, kung-fu-fighting messiah. Because the Keanu we saw onscreen as Neo was so much like the reticent but philosophical geek we saw offscreen, it was easy, if you were a Matrix fan, to view Keanu as synonymous with his character — someone who was just like you but who had learned to manipulate and transcend the whole system, in his case by becoming the biggest action star there was while still retaining humility and grace.

While The Matrix inadvertently went on to become a tool for the most toxic internet communities, Keanu escaped all the contemporary negative associations we have with the film. Neo’s status as a Messianic figure, with all his innate spiritual wisdom, became associated with Keanu himself — and just as with Bill and Ted, it was impossible to know whether the role or the actor came first.

The increased focus on Keanu Reeves as a person superseded any discussion of whether he was a “good” or a “bad” actor. During the 1990s, when Keanu was still largely dismissed by the Hollywood establishment, he was in a string of flops and garnered three of his six Razzie nominations for Worst Actor and Supporting Actor. But by the aughts, it was becoming clear to all of us that Keanu Reeves doesn’t do “bad acting” or “good acting” but rather bends every part into the mystifying shape of Keanu. Is it intentional? Is it oblivious? It doesn’t matter; Keanu himself transcends the question of acting quality.

In 2005, Time observed of the Matrix star:

His voice has a certain forced, hollow depth, like a 12-year-old trying to sound grownup. His talent is hard to pin down, which is one reason a lot of critics think he doesn’t have any. But they’re wrong. ... Something about that mysterious reserve, the total earnestness, the unwinking way he commits to the most absurd scenarios, makes free falls from planes and wire-fighting cyberninjastics feel like a philosophy lesson.

Thomas agrees that the biggest shift in Keanu’s cultural reception after the ’90s was in how seriously audiences now take his image. “The Zen-action guy image has absolutely been around for years,” she said in an email. “But running throughout public responses to Keanu during those younger years was also a sense of not really taking him seriously. It’s the idea of the ‘whoa’ persona, or in those debates about ‘how good an actor is he really,’ et cetera — that there was something dumb and silly about him and his characters. But that image has also slowly been interpreted as genuine, vulnerable, and authentic too.”

In other words, the Keanu Reeves of 1983, 2003, and 2023 are all, more or less, the same Keanu Reeves. He hasn’t changed; instead, 40 years after his career took off, the culture has finally caught up to the idea that the actor who embodies some of our most rigidly masculine cinematic tropes — the badass action hero, the unstoppable cop, the martial arts master, the guy who levels up to save the world and get the girl — can also be a gentle, soft-spoken, wholesome dude who eschews those tropes in his own life.

Keanu Reeves at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles on January 30, 2005.
Chris Pizzello/AP

The audience’s awareness of Reeves’s authenticity grew throughout the aughts — in 2008, the Guardian labeled him a “Teflon thespian,” implying that he was incapable of losing the public’s love despite a wide-ranging number of roles. “A long, long time ago, those of us who love Keanu Reeves decided that no matter how many dismal movies like Johnny Mnemonic he made, and no matter how inept his acting in A Walk in the Clouds, and no matter how inappropriate his casting in Much Ado About Nothing and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, we would never stop being thrilled when news of an exciting new Keanu project was announced,” declared writer Joe Queenan. “There was something about Keanu Reeves that we liked, and nothing could ever change that.”

We saw that phenomenon play out in early 2019, when Reeves actually had the worst box office opening of his career to date — for Replicas, a movie no one’s heard of, even though it opened on more than 1,000 screens that January.

The box office failure didn’t seem to deter Reeves, though; his fandom seems to be completely divorced from his box office receipts at this point. That’s because of Keanu’s longest-lasting role, which began to take off in the earliest days of social media: Keanu as meme.

Like all his roles, the meme version of Keanu and IRL Keanu fuel each other

Reeves’s saintliness was perhaps the earliest Keanu meme. Tales of his enormous generosity, alongside reports of him taking pay cuts and funding production budgets, became a self-perpetuating viral myth in the post-Matrix era. Like all Keanu’s real-life actions, these wound up fueling his meme persona; see this meme from 2008:

Keanu Reeves signing an autograph at an outdoor cafe for a young fan. On the table is a wine bottle containing water and a wine glass containing wine.
The “Keanu is Jesus” meme dates from 2009. (And yes, we know he hasn’t aged.)
Banana Scoop

Keanu’s relatability, however, was what really put him on the meme map. Most famously came the Sad Keanu meme, which consists of a photograph, taken in 2010, showing Reeves eating a sandwich alone on a park bench. Not all of this was entirely invented by the internet; In 2011, Reeves coincidentally published Ode to Happiness, an illustrated book celebrating small ways of dealing with depression and melancholy. (The belief that Keanu is painfully lonely is sourced from a lie, but profiles implying that he does have issues with loneliness and depression have been with us for years.)

The Sad Keanu meme resonated because of its sincerity and, again, relatability: Keanu Reeves was just like us, eating a sandwich, lost in thought, having a bad day. The meme became so well-loved that it prompted the creation of Cheer Up, Keanu Day that same year. And it seemed to work: In 2011, Keanu was happy! Just like us!

Perhaps in conjunction with this positive counterpoint to the Sad Keanu meme, the 2010s began to proffer numerous stories of Reeves’s kindness, along with recirculating all the earlier stories of his on-set goodness and charity work. In 2011, he was spotted not only riding the subway like mere mortals but giving up his seat. Simultaneously, memes suggesting that Keanu was just like us in other ways began to circulate: Keanu is a geek, just like us; Keanu is humble, just like us; Keanu is perpetually respectful to women, as many of us would like to be. (He’s also immortal. Yeah, we can’t explain it either.)

“Publicly at least,” Thomas noted, “he’s not enamored by the trappings of fame — e.g., traveling on the subway, taking pay cuts, [being] bemused by his cultural resonance, etc.” Thomas sees this as a contrast to other examples of stardom that are “all about directly courting attention, fame, and materiality.” In other words, he’s wholesome. In a sea of wholesome memes, in fact, Keanu has somehow managed to transcend them all to become “the most wholesome person alive.”

The memetic amplification of Reeves’s good-guy real-life behavior has reached critical mass, in conjunction with his tremendous career revival — though for his part, he seems unaware of much of the buzz. He once told People he had no idea he’d been dubbed “the internet’s boyfriend” and described the honor as “wacky,” before adding that “the positivity’s great.” In 2023, he went a step further, gently breaking the news to us that he’s not perfect.

The moment is a handy encapsulation of the way his offscreen image has evolved through memes: He’s become someone who’s kind and generous but also someone who’s withdrawn, painfully human, self-aware about it, and still proactively seeking ways to be happy.

“In this contemporary media realm of very heightened performativity, construction, and commodification of the ‘authentic’, those stories and images all appear to convey a lack of performance, construction, and a genuine sense of selfhood,” Thomas said. “I think that to many people, he can come to embody one of the closest examples of the authentic self and star image around.”

Thomas also notes that Reeves has a unique ability to embody two very different ends of the star spectrum — the affable nice guy and the aloof cool guy.

“Coolness and aloofness doesn’t always come with this sense of ‘niceness’, vulnerability, and approachability,” she wrote. “Someone like Steve McQueen was always ‘too cool’ to really be vulnerable and approachable; Will Smith is almost too approachable to really sell the idea of deadliness and hardness; Hugh Jackman can do both, but does not convey that shyness and has very much swung away from steeliness as he gets older; Paul Newman played around with the ordinariness/extraordinariness to extremes as well, but always conveyed confidence with both, which Keanu doesn’t.”

This paradoxical, memefied version of Keanu’s authenticity, mixed with his strange reserve, set the stage for the role Keanu has most recently embodied: the ever-cool, ever-tragic John Wick.

In the era of John Wick, all the Keanus have converged into one transcendent Every-Keanu

2014’s John Wick was an unlikely hit because of its mid-tier production budget, lack of a star ensemble, and absence of huge marketing campaign, but critics hailed it as a major triumph both for Keanu as the title character and anyone who liked sleek, pure, slickly choreographed action cinema. (The Razzies even offered him the Redeemer award for actors who’d turned around their Razzie-filled careers with a great performance.) More importantly, John Wick shared traits Keanu had become known for in his post-Matrix life: his dry humor and his slick, cool persona mingled with a real, relatable sense of personal loss and sadness — all these things were there, plus dogs!

“The ‘hardness and deadliness’ of Keanu has come with age,” Thomas told me. “It isn’t there before [John Wick] in the same ‘authentic’ way, and both screen roles and what we know of his personal life (the tragic aspects of it) combine to give a sense of this as a believable trait.”

Keanu Reeves poses promoting John Wick Chapter 2 in Berlin on February 6, 2017.
Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

These elements helped fuel the cult love of John Wick, and arguably boosted Reeves into the public’s consciousness yet again. The film’s following spread rapidly, and when John Wick: Chapter 2 appeared in 2017, the audience for it was there; critics raved about it, and the box office take doubled that of the first movie. “The film’s status as a ‘little one that could’, taking on bigger-budgeted and bigger-hyped films, really linked into the star’s identity of the underdog ‘good guy,’” Thomas argued. By now, as she notes, “questions of, ‘Is he a bad actor?’ have greatly diminished in favor of, ‘look at how he’s really [doing] all those stunts and choreography in the John Wick films, especially at his age!’”

But while age hasn’t slowed Reeves down, it’s lent an obvious nostalgic element to many of his roles, past and present. 2018’s Destination Wedding reunited Reeves with Winona Ryder, whom he first co-starred with in 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and got tongues wagging. Then there’s Bill & Ted Face the Music, the third sequel to Bill and Ted. What’s significant about these roles is that they’re actively nostalgic: Keanu is not a thing of the past, but rather an ongoing evolution. “He’s been around so long that he’s taken on a more symbolic meaning for audiences — connecting older ones with their own youths and reflecting on their own journeys through life and identity,” Thomas said.

Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves at the Independent Spirit Awards in Los Angeles on March 25, 1989.
Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

In other words, the Keanu of the past is the Keanu of the present, and the Keanu of the present is also the Keanu of the real world as well as the Keanu of the screen. As GQ writer Alex Pappademas put it in his April 2019 profile of Reeves, “Every generation gets its own Keanu Reeves, except every generation’s Keanu Reeves is this Keanu Reeves.”

The Keanaissance, then, is arguably the convergence of all these different Keanus grabbing the spotlight before our eyes. First came John Wick, which reminded us that Keanu could still be the ultimate everyman: badass, soulful, worldly, and wise. Reeves’s subsequent cameo in Always Be My Maybe set the internet atwitter over his boyfriend potential. His 2019 appearance at gaming expo E3, when he arrived like a god descending to earth, was a geek culture bombshell. All of these things, combined with a series of offscreen viral moments and the revival of the “Keanu is awesome” meme, gave Reeves a renewed cultural omnipresence.

In addition to all of this, Keanu’s Asian American identity, subsumed through his longstanding branding as an essentially “white” actor, took center stage with his casting in Always Be My Maybe, a film with a predominantly Asian cast. This reclamation of his racial identity, combined with his ongoing status as a queer icon, thanks to his early role in the cult classic My Own Private Idaho as well as queer and trans readings of several of his other films, has also made him a vital part of the recent conversation around Hollywood diversity.

Keanu is emblematic of our new interest in reevaluating and reassessing what we value most in our most beloved actors. As we embrace and encourage diversity onscreen and off, celebrate nostalgic cultural touchstones, and scrutinize everyone’s public and private lives, Keanu is directly at the center of the Venn diagram of what makes a truly likable celebrity.

“It’s been amazing to be a small part in this international explosion of Keanu fandom,” Sean Welsh told me. Welsh organized the world’s first film festival devoted to Keanu, Glasgow’s KeanuCon, in 2019. “We had people travel from all over the UK and Europe to KeanuCon, and fans from across the world got in touch either begging for tickets or asking us to bring the festival to them next.”

Welsh speculated that the current wave of love for Keanu is due in large part to the public’s collective sense of camaraderie with him. “[He has] this communion with the audience that extends beyond [his] film roles.”

In other words, after a career full of one cultural ascension after another, from stoner mystic to mythical Jesus figure to badass action hero who just wants to be left alone to play with his dog, Keanu has now ascended to his final form by becoming an unlikely mythical Jesus figure himself. He simultaneously illuminates and evolves the very DNA of pop culture tropes while also bringing light to all who seek him — reminding us all that it’s still possible to be rich, powerful, and a self-aware good guy. Who also knows kung fu.

“Perhaps it was really only a matter of time before he ascended to internet godhood,” Welsh told me. “We probably only have a couple of years before he sheds his corporeal form to travel the cosmos as a boundless and benevolent emissary of humanity.”

Go forth, Keanu. Go forth.

Keanu Reeves announces “Cyberpunk 2077” at a Microsoft Xbox event in Los Angeles on June 9, 2019.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Update, March 24, 2023: This story, originally published on August 16, 2019, has been updated with the latest John Wick movie information.


The revolutionary spirit of Soul Train


Shane Gillis’s SNL hosting gig is an unearned rehabilitation


The chaotic, irreplaceable Wendy Williams

View all stories in Culture

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.