Money, fame, success do not define happiness. But being adored by millions of admirers, showered with praises and surrounded by friends are not the ultimate happiness either as Hollywood actor Keanu Reeves has learned it throughout his life.
Despite his net worth of $350 million, the 51-year-old star of blockbusters like The Matrix Trilogy, Speed, Point Break, The Devil’s Advocate is known more as the saddest and most generous actor in Hollywood.
If life is the most difficult exam, his paper must be about learning to accept the impermanence of things through the losses of loved ones and to find an inner strength to be alone. We could say that his scores were quite good.
Born as Keanu Charles Reeves on 2 September 1964, Reeves learned the pain of loss from an early age when his Chinese-Hawaiian father left him and his mother at 3. His mother got married for another three times. Each time he and his sister, Kim, had to move to a new place.
To many kids, having a birthplace in Beirut, Lebanon and spending their childhood in Australia, Canada, and New York was just cool. But a rootless life surely was not a good way to start a life for a child abandoned by his own father. Reeves later admitted that his childhood very much defined who he is today and the emotional pain remains until now. It could also partially explain his dyslexia and strong introversion.
While Reeves has overcome the dyslexia problem and is now an avid reader, he has remained an introvert all his life. In high school, he was not into academics much but more interested in ice hockey and drama.
Reeves became best friends with his movie co-star and Hollywood heartthrob River Phoenix in 1990 during the filming of I Love You to Death. They became best friends. Three years later Phoenix died from drug overdose, Reeves, then 23, was devastated.
On the career front, his graph was up and down and full of experiments. Although he was shot to stardom from the action movie Speed in 1994, his Hollywood A-list status was secured after The Matrix launch in 1999. It is also the role that made him well known even among young teens.
In the movie, Reeves played Neo—the Chosen One—to awaken the mankind from a simulated reality called “The Matrix” created by machines to subdue the human population whose body heat and electricity activity are used as their energy source. Reeves recalled immediate excitement after reading the script, saying apart from the kungfu scene, he was drawn to the character’s search for the truth. Freedom is the movie’s theme and has always been what Reeves himself seeks. A lot of roles he chose in the past reflected that, so does his passion for motorbikes that is now his business.
But life often knocks you down unguarded. The movie’s huge success came around the same time Reeves was facing his third tragedy. He and his girlfriend, Jennifer Syme, lost a baby girl at birth in December 1999. The grief caused so much tension they broke up. Eighteen months later, Syme was killed in a car crash. Throughout the service, Reeves was seen repeatedly dabbing his eyes. All those tough times, Reeves still tried his best to keep his sanity and continued working to avoid interrupting the shooting schedule, according to the film crew.
The next test came when his sister, Kim, was diagnosed with leukemia which took ten years to recover. Reeves took care of all the medical bills. The pain and suffering of losses has clearly taught him to realize the fragility of life, inspiring him to donate to hospitals and cancer research institutes. He has recently set up his own charity while also supporting PETA, Stand Up to Cancer and SickKids Foundation.
But the generosity is already there. The actor is well known for his willingness to take a pay cut so that the director could hire other big stars or invest in other high-spending work to stay within the budget. During his negotiations on his profit-sharing deal for The Matrix two sequels, Reeves gave some of his points to the special effects and costume design teams. It was over $75 million that he could have earned.
For over 30 years, the superstar still commutes by train without a bodyguard, waits in a queue, wears simple clothes and greets everyone by their first names. The guy dubbed the most reclusive actor in Hollywood has opened up and reached out to people more. “I don’t want to flee from life,” Reeves said.
“Grief changes shape but it never ends. 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… All you can do is hope that grief will be transformed and, instead of feeling pain and confusion, you will be together again in memory, that there will be solace and pleasure there, not just loss,” Reeves reflected on his life during an interview with Parade magazine in 2006.
But he admitted that those turbulences had changed him for the better. “Much of my appreciation of life has come through loss,” he said. “Life is precious. It’s worthwhile.”
An acceptance of life’s wounds, the determination to find a healing, and the wisdom to turn the pain into opportunities to give have slowly swept the dark clouds from his heart and brought in the cool breeze—like what he is always supposed to be—the cool mountain breeze—which is what “Keanu” means in Hawaiian.