The Matrix franchise has made him one of the richest men in Hollywood. Now Keanu Reeves ponders life outside the grid.

By Scott Brown
November 07, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
  • Movie

Keanu Reeves is 39 years old and through making apologies. In younger days, he told interviewers he was a ”meathead,” sensing their dim opinions of him and meeting them head-on with bodacious self-effacement. (Call it the Ted Offensive.) But as he chain-smokes his way through our conversation on the Warner Bros. studio lot, little of that old self-consciousness is in evidence. The tics are still there, of course. He fidgets constantly, crossing and recrossing his legs, Gumbying his obscenely thick hair from side to side. Any query that comes across as even vaguely invasive is deflected with polite monosyllables, but one mention of Hamlet elicits an entire soliloquy (”If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now.”) and a bardolater’s joke about his all-black outfit. (”My inky cloak,” he cracks.)

Reeves is famous for quoting Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, but you can see why Hamlet agrees with him: a regal yet mercurial soul, confounding our often low expectations. And confound Reeves has, every step of the way. With this week’s ”The Matrix Revolutions,” he concludes a sci-fi trilogy that entranced audiences in 1999 and befuddled them in 2003, grossing nearly $1.2 billion worldwide along the way. Whether it will lure back those whose heads are still spinning from ”Reloaded” is today’s multimillion-dollar question; Reeves himself admits the second movie was ”dense” and says that it ”benefits from a second viewing.”

But just when you were getting used to Keanu in that sleek-if-impractical black cassock (”superhero evening attire,” he calls it), you’ll have to readjust to him in ”Something’s Gotta Give,” a romantic comedy that positions Reeves — a doctor in this one — opposite Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson (opening Dec. 12). Next he’ll be seen as a New Age orthodontist in ”Thumbsucker.” And after that…well, you can follow him into hell, or at least halfway. That’s where his next big role — hard-boiled ethereal middleman John Constantine, of the ”Hellblazer” comic — will strand him. Sensing a pattern here? Don’t worry. Neither is anyone else.

Reeves’ identity has always been a bit of a blur. He’s your average bass-playing, beer-drinking motorcycle enthusiast who’s only now getting comfortable with moonlighting as a tremendous celebrity. One thing is clear: He’s no longer the guy who once said, ”I make excellent good short copy because I use words like excellent.”

”Ah,” he sighs, smiling. ”That’s an early ’90s quote, isn’t it? Early ’90s Reeves?”

He smiles beatifically and offers no further insights. No doubt about it, the guy is downright mysterious. Of course, there is a competing theory.

”He’s just sullen!” laughs Alex Winter, the Bill to Reeves’ Ted and a longtime friend. ”If someone thinks he’s a mystery, it just probably means he doesn’t like them very much.”

The mystery — or lack thereof, depending on whose theory you’re buying — began on Sept. 2, 1964, in, of all places, Beirut, Lebanon, where Reeves was born to itinerant hippie parents who soon divorced. He ended up in Toronto, studying hockey and drama, which eventually intersected in ”Youngblood,” a 1986 Rob Lowe hockey flick where Reeves won a supporting role. Not long after, he packed his bags, drove to Hollywood, and began attracting attention with nuanced turns in small dramas like ”River’s Edge” and ”Permanent Record.” But it was a comedy that established his reputation. With ”Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” in 1989, he and Winter made the suburban slacker duo an enduring movie trope.