‘He’s the People’s Prince who has suffered royal pains,’ writes Trey Taylor
- TextTrey Taylor
“How do I fit in? I guess I’m just doing what I’m doing, trying at least […] Trying to survive and hopefully not be fucked up the ass by irony and the Gods,” 23-year-old actor Keanu Reeves said in a 1987 interview.
These were the words of a hopeful, doe-eyed dufus who had just turned heads in River's Edge, primed to pop thermometers in films like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Point Break. A cocktail of ethnicities with beady dark eyes, the Beirut-born actor didn’t look like any ham hock duplicate. He likened getting his first role in 1985 to winning “something in a game show,” followed by a coy guffaw. He was cute and naive. Hollywood fell into his lap. Success was in his grasp. But perhaps nothing could prepare Reeves for the Grand Guignol sequence of life events that would stalk him throughout his life.
The misfortune that has befallen Reeves rivals the plot of any Greek tragedy. First his father left him at age three. Then his best friend, River Phoenix, died. His girlfriend, Jennifer Syme, got pregnant and they had a stillborn. They broke up. She was later killed in a car accident after attending a party at Marilyn Manson’s house. Next his sister, Kim, was diagnosed with cancer. He suspended filming the two Matrix sequels to be by her side and take care of her. Though she is a survivor, there seems to be no limit to how many punches Reeves is able to take before getting winded. Bowing out. Riding into the sunset on his Norton Commando. He is a real life Neo, standing tall while the universe’s Agent Smiths tent their fingers together.
Rather than be angry, the actor has only grown kinder, more generous. He once gave the entire stunt team behind the Matrix sequels Harley Davidsons so they, too, could enjoy what he calls a “demon ride.” There is an entire subreddit dedicated to /r/keanubeingawesome. Instead of prosecuting trespassers in the 90s, for example, he cracked a beer with them. He secretly funds children’s hospitals. He crashes weddings and stops to chat to airline employees. He’s the People’s Prince who has suffered royal pains.
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With his father, the loss was straightforward. Reeves Sr. was arrested in 1994 for possession of cocaine and heroin. The last time Reeves saw his father was at the age of 13. Reading about their last encounter is enough to flood the tear ducts. “On our last day we sat on the veranda and stared at the dark sky,” he explained in a 2002 interview. “He hardly said anything that evening. The next day he brought us to the airport. Then we didn’t hear anything from him for ten years. No calls, no letters, nothing.”
River Phoenix got away from all of us. In the small hours of Halloween night in 1993, Phoenix crumpled on the sidewalk outside of The Viper Room in Los Angeles, dead of an overdose. He was Reeves’ closest friend. Phoenix said Reeves was “like my older brother. But shorter.” And Reeves echoed that, telling him to his face, “I’ve always loved you, River. River is my best friend and I don’t have many of them.”
They were inseparable, making a pact to act together in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. “We were driving in a car on Santa Monica Boulevard, probably on the way to a club, and were talking really fast about the whole idea. We were excited,” he told Interview in 1991. “It could have been like a bad dream – a dream that never follows through because no one commits, but we just forced ourselves into it. We said ‘OK, I’ll do it if you do it. I won’t do it if you don’t.’ We shook hands. That was it.”
When Phoenix died, Reeves was 23, in the midst of filming the blockbuster Speed with Sandra Bullock. “I think that he has gone through a lot even though he doesn’t let on about it,” a young Sandra Bullock told Télé 7 Jours in 1994. “I think he hides a great pain.”
Asked about Phoenix’s death for US magazine, Reeves replied, “How was I affected? How was I affected? Uh, what do I say? I was terribly, terribly, terribly sad. Incredibly sad. And, um, I miss him very much.” In that same interview, he muses about his own destruction, likely hitting his own personal nadir, launching into what the writer described as a “lengthy and slightly bewildering monologue about a type of meditation in which he imagines his own death.”
When Reeves met Jennifer Syme in 1998 at a promotional party thrown for his alt-rock band Dogstar, he thought he had found the love of his life. He and Syme began dating, got pregnant, and on Christmas Eve 1999, gave birth to a girl, Ava Archer Syme-Reeves. She was stillborn. Syme suffered postpartum depression. The couple were torn apart by grief.
In April 2001, Syme attended a party hosted by Marilyn Manson. Though she was offered a ride home, she allegedly drove her Jeep back to the party while drunk and ran into a row of parked cars. She was ejected from the front seat, dying instantly aged 28. David Lynch dedicated the film Mulholland Drive to her memory. Reeves blamed himself. Jennifer was buried next to their daughter, Ava.
“Grief changes shape, but it never ends,” Reeves mused in a 2006 interview with Parade. “People have a misconception that you can deal with it and say, ‘It’s gone, and I’m better.’ They’re wrong […] When the people you love are gone, you’re alone.”
You’d be forgiven for any emotional conjecture based on the “sad Keanu” photo taken by Splash News photographer Ron Asadorian (who refused to speak for this article). Reeves appears dishevelled and poker-faced on a park bench, which became a meme in the aftermath of its publishing online in 2010. There is an unwritten story scrawled across his once bright face – one that has been etched with the scars of trauma. But then, he’s survived.
In one of his more recent jobs, the Netflix series To The Bone – a problematic meditation on the effects of anorexia – Reeves plays a physician named Dr Beckham. A hopelessly gaunt Lily Collins asks him for advice on how to keep on living. And though it’s impossible to wrest the clip free of its context – sandwiched in an eyeroll of a TV show – watching it back, it’s hard to believe it’s not dialogue lifted straight out of Reeves’ diary. His delivery of this hard truth sounds like a lived experience, because it is.
“Stop waiting for life to be easy,” he deadpans, “Stop hoping for somebody to save you. You don’t need another person lying to you. Things don’t all add up. But you’re resilient. Face some hard facts and you could have an incredible life.”
“That's your pearl of wisdom? Grow a pair?” she asks, incredulous.
“That’s a more concise way of putting it. Yeah.”
Keanu Reeves has been fucked up the ass by irony and the Gods, and grown a pair in the process. All he has now are home-movie memories of a lost father, friend, child and lover. He has resisted the ineffable suck of depression’s vacuum, fought off the twisted sickness of a lost will. He continues to act and ride his motorcycle, likely looking nowhere but ahead. His life has been unusually sad. But sometimes awful things have their own kind of beauty.