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When Did Everyone Agree Keanu Reeves Was Actually Good at Acting?

Sure, he’s an Internet Boyfriend now, but back in the 1990s many assumed he’d never escape his ‘Whoa-’ful Ted Logan persona. Did the world change or did he?

All this week, join us for a delightfully unwell celebration of our Internet Boyfriends. They’re sweet, beautiful men we’ve never met, and we can’t wait to share the fully formed relationships we have with each of them.

Everybody loves Keanu Reeves. The John Wick films have been an exciting down-and-dirty action franchise in an age overrun by bloated blockbusters, and even offscreen the 57-year-old actor has been something of a hero, proving to be a sensitive straight man in the #MeToo era. (He even has an age-appropriate girlfriend, which shouldn’t be noteworthy, but sadly is.) He’s a thoughtful talk-show guest, and with last year’s The Matrix Resurrections, he reminded moviegoers how iconic he was as Neo in that groundbreaking series. (He catered to another aging fan base with 2020’s Bill & Ted Face the Music, returning as the lovably dense Theodore Logan.) Where so many stars are culturally clueless and self-absorbed, Reeves seems plugged-in and self-aware, his gentle modesty and Zen-calm mindfulness undeniably appealing. 

But for anyone who’s been following Reeves’ career over the last several decades, this modern love affair with the actor is a bit of a surprise — and a startling reversal from how he’d previously been perceived. Yes, he’s starred in plenty of hits, but oftentimes those felt like anomalies — or viewed as successes despite his presence in them. Not that long ago, Keanu Reeves was something of a joke — a lightweight with a dopey demeanor not worth taking seriously. Impossible as it might be to believe, people used to think he wasn’t a good actor.

Much of this negative assessment came from a single-syllable utterance that seemed to encapsulate his lack of depth as a thespian. Critics and casual moviegoers had a hard time not thinking of him as anything more than the guy who said “Whoa!” a lot.

Reeves had been working in film for a few years before his breakthrough in 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, including a part in the Oscar-winning period drama Dangerous Liaisons. In those early days, he had a slightly spacey quality — that beatific smile suggesting he was operating on a different wavelength than the rest of us — but his “Whoa!”-heavy portrayal of Ted, alongside Alex Winter as Bill, created an impression of Reeves as little more than an adorable nitwit. Never mind that there was actually a lot of thought put into such casual dudeness. “We both came up in theater, and we both built characters from the inside out, having been trained in theater,” Winter told me a couple years ago. “We both came into that audition playing them totally straight — not like attitudinal teenagers, not like stoners, but very innocent, joyful, kind of childlike teenagers. That’s, to this day, how we view those guys, and they’re really fun to play because they’re sincerely innocent — it isn’t meta at all or self-reflective.” 

But because Winter and Reeves didn’t have deep résumés before Excellent Adventure, it was easy to assume they just were Bill and Ted, a presumption that wasn’t so much of a problem when Reeves was in, say, Parenthood playing the moron boyfriend who, it turns out, is actually a pretty nice guy. But when Reeves tried to branch out as a leading man in the early 1990s, the straitjacket of his “Whoa”-ness often held him back.

Take, for instance, 1991’s Point Break: As beloved as that movie is now, that was not the consensus at the time. Reviews were mixed, and the movie made less money that summer than everything from The Rocketeer to Thelma & Louise. In his negative review, Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Reeves, always an appealing actor, is too placid to play a driven young federal agent.” This wasn’t a controversial position: As the former star quarterback turned FBI agent Johnny Utah, Reeves came across as kinda goofy, like a Valley kid trying to act like a tough grownup. That he was great in another movie from that year, the indie drama My Own Private Idaho, weirdly enough, only seemed to further cement the idea that Reeves didn’t have dramatic chops: Most everyone agreed that his costar, actor’s actor River Phoenix (who overdosed a few years later), was the real talent in that duo. 

Reeves’ subsequent roles did nothing to change the conversation around his acting. Certain performances have been reappraised over time, but to this day no one rushes to defend him in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where he played the ineffectual fiancé to Winona Ryder’s Mina. Widely mocked for his awful English accent and generally unpoised portrayal, Reeves seemed hopelessly in over his head — and apparently his director, Francis Ford Coppola, thought so, too. “We knew that it was tough for him to affect an English accent,” Coppola said many years later. “He tried so hard. That was the problem, actually — he wanted to do it perfectly and in trying to do it perfectly it came off as stilted. I tried to get him to just relax with it and not do it so fastidiously. So maybe I wasn’t as critical of him, but that’s because I like him personally so much. To this day he’s a prince in my eyes.” 

There’s no way to sugarcoat how bad Reeves is in Dracula, but if it’s of any consolation, he made a lasting impression on Ryder, whose friendship with him began on that film, bolstered by that fact that Reeves refused to follow Coppola’s direction and say insulting things to her during a scene where she was supposed to cry but couldn’t. Maybe Reeves didn’t always knock out of the park, but he was already establishing a reputation of being a good guy. 

Still, Reeves’ run of stilted performances continued, proving to be a stiff in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing and inert as Siddhartha in Little Buddha. The majority of his 1990s movies, like Johnny Mnemonic, A Walk in the Clouds, Chain Reaction and Feeling Minnesota, ranged from abysmal to laughable to merely forgettable. Writing about Feeling Minnesota, a Tarantino-esque crime caper, New York Times critic Janet Maslin lamented that “Reeves remains a distant, intriguing actor far too passive and malleable for loose-knit roles like this.” The San Francisco Examiner’s Barbara Shulgasser was far less kind, summarily dismissing Reeves and costar Cameron Diaz: “Two people who can’t act try to persuade themselves and then us that they know what passion looks like. I know that they are supposed to be young and beautiful, but I find neither of them so. I know I’m supposed to want to watch them have simulated sex, but I’d rather stick needles in my eyes.” 

There were box-office triumphs along the way, including 1994’s Speed, one of the decade’s jolliest action flicks, in which he plays a cop who has to work with Sandra Bullock to make sure the bus they’re on doesn’t slow down — or else it’ll explode. But even when he was part of blockbusters, there was sort of a shocked surprise from the public: Wow, he was actually good in this! That form of backhanded compliment was made explicit in Maslin’s rave review:

“This role, for Mr. Reeves, is less an acting challenge than a rite of passage. It’s a means of proving that he’s ready to play the tough guy in suitably grim, purposeful style. Better known for comic nonchalance than for killer machismo, the newly bulked-up Mr. Reeves still furrows his brow manfully and winds up doing a terrific job. Blank as he sometimes seems, he has still become an actor of real charisma.”

But to my mind, it was 1999’s The Matrix that showed what he was capable of as a movie star. Ironically, he let out a trademark “Whoa!” in that one as well, but the Wachowskis tapped into what was so appealing about his otherworldliness — namely, his ability to drift above the movie, yet remain so attuned to its dreamy, heady essence. He hadn’t been the first choice — bigger names like Will Smith, Brad Pitt and Nicolas Cage had all been discussed — but his warped-wavelength sensibility proved crucial for the role of Neo, the unlikely savior of the human race. To understand why Reeves was the ideal choice, I recommend a clip of the actor reminiscing about his reasons for wanting to be part of that movie. This was from 2008, about a decade before the Keanaissance kicked into high gear. Listen to just how geeky and giddy he sounds discussing The Matrix.

That sweetness — that seeming lack of cool — was always what confused people about him. Reeves’ ascension to action hero occurred long after Hollywood had moved from Arnold Schwarzenegger-like muscle men to wisecracking Bruce Willis types. But Reeves didn’t fit either mode — he was earnest, maybe even a little try-hard-y. His characters in Point Break, Speed and The Matrix projected sensitivity, not the typical meathead aggression. Where other stars were hunks, he was beautiful. And, as pointed out by Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastién, who’s written as passionately and authoritatively about Reeves’ enduring appeal as anyone, his uniqueness among action heroes may also be because of his mixed race: “While born in Beirut, Reeves — who is of Chinese-Hawaiian and British ancestry — was raised in Toronto. … Like his persona, Reeves’s face itself is considered unplaceable.” 

Add to that the persistent rumors in the 1990s that he was gay — and secretly married to David Geffen — and you begin to get a sense of some of the societal factors working against Reeves. He didn’t look like other movie stars, he didn’t behave on screen like other movie stars and the persistent gossip that he was gay was indicative of an era where being homosexual was considered potentially career-destroying. 

“It’s just an ugly, mean-spirited rumor meant to hurt him because he’s a movie star,” Geffen told Vanity Fair in 1995 in a profile of Reeves, who separately told the magazine, “I’ve never met [Geffen]. … It’s so ridiculous, I find it funny. … I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being gay, so to deny it is to make a judgment. And why make a big deal of it? If someone doesn’t want to hire me because they think I’m gay, well, then I have to deal with it, I guess. Or if people were picketing a theater. But otherwise, it’s just gossip, isn’t it?” This is worth underlining: Not everyone in Hollywood in the 1990s was so laid-back or thoughtful. Even back then, he was nuanced about bigotry, refusing to slight an entire community in order to reassert his own heterosexuality. 

Not to say that Reeves didn’t deliver some subpar performances during that time. But when he stumbled in something like Johnny Mnemonic, it wasn’t simply that the movie didn’t work — the public perception was that he was wrong, out of his depth, clueless about how to project the kind of magnetism required of a star. But The Matrix turned that impression around, positioning Reeves as the ideal avatar for that film’s future-shock anxiety. In a world where machines had taken over and humanity had been enslaved, his serene demeanor felt like the only reasonable response to a world teetering on the edge of collapse. After years of being dismissed as a dopey surfer dude or a vapid Valley guy, Reeves was finally cool.

Even so, this century he still struggled with a perception that he didn’t quite fit. For every good performance (A Scanner Darkly), there was a bad one (the woeful remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still). Reeves tried crime thrillers (Street Kings) and romantic dramas (The Lake House), which were failures. I’d argue that the bad films are still bad, but starting with 2014’s John Wick, the public began to develop a greater appreciation for precisely what he could do. In the first film, playing an assassin who gave up the life for love, only to lose his wife (and, later, his loyal dog), Reeves suddenly seemed more ferocious and grounded than ever before. His swagger was sexy, and his fight scenes so precise that, like in The Matrix, he didn’t seem odd but, rather, a rarefied form of human being — no ordinary person could kill that impressively. 

But, really, the shift had begun a few years earlier. In 2010, the infamous “Sad Keanu” meme started floating around, an existential expression of the day-to-day despair we all feel, even if (like Keanu in all the images he was photoshopped into) we were surrounded by such happiness. Endearingly, the actor wasn’t aware of the fuss, saying at the time, “Well, it sounds like harmless, good clean fun.” Interestingly, though, the comment was made at the same event where he received a career-achievement award, prompting an interviewer to mention, “Your acting has always been divisive. People love you or hate you.” Here’s what Reeves had to say about that: “I totally understand there are people who really understand my work. And I get that there are other people who are perplexed and confounded and whatever else. Which is fine. You just hope people like your work and the films you’re a part of.”

Ironically, the public’s turnaround on Keanu Reeves in recent years is not unlike the career reappraisal currently happening for Nicolas Cage — even though they couldn’t be more different in their approach. Cage is the master maximalist — there’s no top he can’t go over — while Reeves’ work is so internal, which used to be read as passive or uncompelling. Where his performances were once dismissed as being ineffectual, Reeves now feels admirably anti-macho for an age that rails against toxic masculinity. In the John Wick movies, he’s the best of both worlds — an asskicker who’s sensitive and hurting — and in The Matrix Resurrections, all the spectacle centers on a melancholy love story. His gentleness now feels almost radical — a rejection of the hyper-machismo that for so long defined the action genre. 

Reeves has been waiting a long time for the rest of the world to catch up. It appears that the wait is over. In 2019, you couldn’t escape glowing articles about the man, each one extolling his virtues and zeitgeist-y relevance. In 2020, when the film critics for The New York Times ranked the best actors of this century, one of the biggest shocks was Reeves’ placement at No. 4, ahead of such luminaries as Tilda Swinton and Oscar Issac. Perhaps anticipating some pushback, the Times’ A.O. Scott opened his appreciation by writing, “Maybe you’re surprised to find Keanu Reeves so high on this list.” It certainly was for anyone who came of age with Reeves, watching him be derided for his frequent “Whoa!” utterances and occasionally wrongheaded performances. All of a sudden, he’s become an actor worth taking seriously.

I’m fond of quoting Roger Ebert’s old line that “Movies do not change, but their viewers do,” and while I think some of the reappraisals of Reeves have been overblown — he’s been in his fair share of duds — the modern willingness to meet him halfway, to stop being confounded by his acting choices and instead try to understand them, has been a necessary correction to some of the vitriol (and homophobia and xenophobia) that came his way earlier in his career. In a society growing more diverse and culturally sensitive, Keanu Reeves is a worthy Internet Boyfriend for our times — a kind, sweet, introspective man who’s a model for how to be one’s authentic self in public. Viewers have watched Reeves for a long time — only recently have they seemed to be really seeing him.