Or, to put it less clickbaitily, these are 8 little things which came out of my 8-month immersion in the life and career of Keanu Reeves that I couldn’t quite fit – or persuade my editors to let me fit – in the final draft of Mixed-Race Superman. Each quotation from an interview or moment in a film has stayed with me in some way or other and I hope you’ll find them as weirdly reassuring as I do.
1. In the early-90s, Just Seventeen made a keyring with his face on it to give away to readers and, on being told about it, he said, “What’s a keyring?” I’ve thought about this a lot. Is it possible he didn’t know what a keyring was? Did he carry his keys individually? Or in a pouch? Did he not use them at all? For years he apparently stayed in friends’ places or in rented apartments and hotels where door-cards may have been standard. Perhaps he was trying to throw the interviewer of, shutting down the “keyring” question, in order to open up other, more important questions—like what are “keys” and “doors” anyway? If the experience of beauty can leave us dumbstruck, maybe dumbness—feigned or not—can enable us to see beauty anew.
2. My Own Private Idaho (1991) begins with a close-up on the dictionary definition of “narcolepsy”. Johnny Mnemonic (1995), set in the year 2021, begins with Keanu’s character receiving a “wake-up call”. The first time we meet Neo in The Matrix (1999) he’s asleep in front of his computer. Street Kings (2008) begins with Keanu hiding under the duvet as his alarm goes off. In Little Buddha (1993), Siddharta (played by Keanu) rides out of the palace on a white horse, a monk saying: “his dream was ending and his long waking was begun.”
3. “Time goes much slower when you’re moving at around 200kms. I’ve gotten many tickets for speeding or for driving at night with the headlight turned of. A few years ago I had a serious accident and still have a scar on my abdomen from it. I ran into a mountain.” (1995)
4. In Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Bill and Ted travel back to Ancient Greece, “a time when much of the world looked like the cover of the Led Zeppelin album Houses of the Holy”, where they come across Socrates, holding forth to his followers. Hearing his name (which they pronounce “So-crates”), they scan their history book. “The only wisdom,” Bill reads, “consists in knowing that you know nothing.” “That’s us, dude!” But when they approach him they come up against the language barrier. Bill tells Ted (Keanu) to philosophize and he quotes the prog-rock band Kansas: “all we are is dust in the wind, dude.” Bill picks up some dust and throws it in the air to illustrate, then points at each of them.
5. [Keanu played Hamlet in a production in Winnipeg in 1995; in an interview with US Magazine in March ’95, Margy Rochlin said: Tell us about Hamlet—what do you think it’s about?] “One of his soliloquies begins, “To be or not to be…”, which, um, some people ask themselves. And about the choices that we make and the way that we make them. [Sigh] I guess I could put it succinctly and say that it contains elements of the human condition. [Laughs] But then, what doesn’t?”
6. I think of a deep blue ocean. More specifically, the ocean beneath Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze in the skydiving scene in Point Break. By this point in the film, Swayze’s character Bodhi knows that Johnny Utah (Keanu) is an undercover FBI agent. As they plummet earthwards, gripping each other like lovers, neither wants to be the first to release their parachute. Johnny thinks his might have been tampered with. Does he risk pulling the cord and dying alone, or hold out and ensure they’ll both die together? In the end, Bodhi yanks the release for him and Johnny floats impotently into the ocean, enclosed in orange silk. Earlier in the film, learning to surf, Bodhi says to him: “You still haven’t figured out what riding waves is all about? It’s a state of mind. It’s that place where you lose yourself and find yourself.”
7. The only film Keanu has so far directed—which is brilliant, and one of the few in which Keanu plays an explicitly mixed-race or Asian character (a shady businessman called Donaka Mark)—is Man of Tai Chi (2013). Much of the film grapples with the purpose of chi. Tiger Chen wants to use it to fight, which horrifies his master Yang. “You are not controlling your chi,” says Yang, “your chi is controlling you… You must guide your chi and gain control.” “I have control,” says Tiger. “No, you have power, not control.” “Power is control.” “That is an illusion.” The worst kind of illusion is that we can control our self-image. Once lost, no kind of power can wrest it back.
8. In The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), Keanu plays an alien called Klaatu (which sounds a lot like Keanu). Klaatu has come to earth to warn of impending ecological catastrophe. A few days after hatching from a suit of gross lard, still new to his body, he stares at his hands in semi-stoned awe: “This body will take some getting used to… It feels unreal to me. Alien.” Keanu’s characters seem to remain – by choice? – fixed at the mirror-stage, enraptured by their own alienness, their obviousness. The Buddha once asked his son Rahula what a mirror was for. “A mirror is for refection, sir.” And the more you look in the mirror, the more the boundaries between Self and Other start to blur. You become a clear vacancy. A centreless point. A keyring.