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One fateful day in March 2019, Keanu Reeves boarded a flight from San Francisco to Burbank, a city in Los Angeles County and the home to three major movie studios. The flight had to be rerouted to Bakersfield due to a mechanical issue. Once on the ground, Reeves and a small group of his fellow passengers resolved to be driven by van to their final destination rather than wait for another flight.
The ensuing road trip was captured in a series of now-viral videos. Reeves is seen with his travel companions, his tall frame crammed into the back of a nondescript van, his attitude at once cheerful and calming. He reads them facts about Bakersfield – did you know its population is around 380,000, making it the ninth most populous city in California? He plays some Bakersfield sound, a subgenre of country music, on his phone. He makes small talk. By the end of the trip, the van’s passengers seem to have genuinely bonded with one another. There are effusive goodbyes, friendly handshakes.
This happy outcome is interesting in and of itself – it’s not every day that a group of strangers will display congenial behaviour in the face of tedious air travel complications – but Reeve’s presence makes the video downright mystifying. Here is the internationally famous star of the Matrix, John Wick, and Bill & Ted franchises, stuck at Meadows Field Airport against his own will. Not only does he put on a brave face, but his ability to connect with his companions in misery is entirely at odds with the concept of a sheltered Hollywood star.
The airport video is one small example of a growing reservoir of internet content documenting Reeves’s friendliness. Look up “Keanu Reeves nice guy” and you will find no shortage of listicles highlighting his good deeds over the years. There are tales of Reeves going out of his way to sign autographs for fans. There’s the famous clip – watched 38 million times on YouTube – of Reeves giving up his subway seat for a passenger carrying a large bag. There was the time the internet deemed Reeves a “respectful king” after noticing a series of photos in which the actor, posing with women on various red carpets, let his hands hover above their waists and arms instead of touching them.
Reeves’s generosity goes beyond small gestures: in 2009, the actor told the Ladies Home Journal he has a private foundation that “helps aid a couple of children’s hospitals and cancer research” – but, unlike many wealthy philanthropists, he doesn’t want to publicly attach his name to it. In the nineties, he closely supported his sister Kim after she was diagnosed with cancer. “Keanu helped me so much through my illness,” she told the Australian magazine Woman’s Day in 1999. “When the pain got really bad, he would sit with me and hold my hand, and keep the ‘bad man’ from making me dance. He was supporting me and comforting me all the time, even when he was away.”
Such stories are why, when a now-deleted news report recently claimed that Reeves had donated 70 per cent of his earnings from the original Matrix movie to cancer research, the internet didn’t question it. But the actor’s publicist debunked the rumor, telling Newsweek: “The story is not true, Keanu Reeves did not donate 70 per cent of his salary to charity”. Reeves’s publicist also confirmed to The Independent that the claim was untrue, even as it continued to spread online.
It says something about Reeves’s special standing in the public’s heart that people were so ready to believe the claim was true. Donating a large part of one’s paycheck seemed such a Keanu thing to do.
The rumour took flight shortly after the release of The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth instalment in the Matrix film series, on 22 December – and a new instalment in the Keanu Reeves renaissance we’ve experienced over the past few years. Reeves’s good behaviour has been known for a while, but it became especially noteworthy after the #MeToo movement found mainstream momentum in October 2017. At a time when it seemed like each day brought new reports of dreadful male behaviour in Hollywood, Reeves’s thoughtfulness stood out.
Perhaps it was all the more fascinating considering that little was – and remains – known about Reeves’s personal life. The bits we do know suggest unimaginable loss, the kind that would durably shape someone’s experience of life. In September 1999, Reeves and his then-partner Jennifer Syme’s child was stillborn; in April 2001, Syme died in a car crash. Reeve’s childhood doesn’t appear to have been entirely smooth-sailing: his father was imprisoned for drug offences, and the family moved frequently.
In 2010, 11 years after Reeves’s Matrix debut, a photo of the actor sitting on a public bench, pensively eating a sandwich, went viral. “Sad Keanu”, as it became known, remains one of the most recognisable memes on social media. The image was a convenient receptacle for anyone looking to project their own sorrow. Reeves himself recently demystified the photo somewhat, telling Stephen Colbert he was simply “eating a sandwich” when it was taken. “I was thinking,” he said. “I had some stuff going on. I was hungry.”
Still, if Sad Keanu proved anything, it’s that Reeves is the kind of celebrity whose apparent sorrow people immediately empathised with. Behind the popularity of Sad Keanu as a meme appeared to be a widely shared desire to wrap the actor in a comforting hug.
May 2019 cemented Reeves’s status as the internet’s soul mate (as a Time magazine piece put it around that time). That month, the third John Wick movie came out, with Reeves reprising the title role. May 2019 also marked the release of Always Be My Maybe, a Netflix film starring comedian Ali Wong and Reeves as an over-the-top version of himself. Reeves’s performance was an unexpected treat, self-aware in a hilarious way. The renewed wave of affection for Reeves prompted The New Yorker to declare in June of that year that Reeves “is too good for this world”, an assessment that still holds true to this day.
There can be something icky about our tendency to rave about celebrities performing the smallest acts of kindness, or exhibiting the barest hints of decency. But there is undeniable sincerity behind every anecdote documenting Reeves’s kindness. Yes, we pay extra attention because he’s famous, but the type of kindness and generosity he apparently exhibits would be admirable in anyone, regardless of their level of fame. It seems likely that we’d all want to be more like Keanu Reeves, even if Keanu Reeves wasn’t, well, Keanu Reeves. He seems like a great guy, not just by Hollywood standards, but also by general human standards.
Google Keanu Reeves’s good deeds and you’ll find a long list of wholesome anecdotes, as well as the occasional story that’s so stunningly irresistible it sounds like it came out of a fan fiction, as opposed to real life. Take this, from a November 2021 Esquire profile: “a year or so” after the 1994 release of Speed, we are told, Reeves was hanging out with his co-star Sandra Bullock. The subject of Champagne and truffles “came up”, with Bullock telling Reeves she’d never had them.
“A few days later”, according to Esquire, which cited Bullock herself, Reeves showed up at her apartment “with flowers, Champagne, and truffles”. “He said, ‘I just thought you might want to try Champagne and truffles, to see what it’s like,’” Esquire reported. “He sat on the couch. Bullock poured some Champagne, and they opened the truffles. Keanu put his hands out, without a word, and Bullock painted his nails black, same as hers.” Reeves and Bullock never dated but have remained longtime friends.”The longer time goes on, the more in awe I am of the human being,” Bullock told the magazine. “Would I have been able to say that if he had dumped me and made me angry? Probably not.”
It helps, of course, that Reeves himself has a history of reacting with nothing but embarrassment any time an interviewer brings up his reputation as Tinseltown’s best human. When asked to share bits of wisdom, he’s generally reluctant, as though he’s unsure he has anything of worth to contribute, though he generally tries to oblige – and when he does, he sticks the landing, bringing depth even to late-night TV interviews.
“How does Keanu Reeves deal with anxiety?” Stephen Colbert asked him in December 2021. Reeves took a few seconds to think, as if measuring the enormity of the question, then let out a long breath. “Breathe,” he said. “Try to figure out why you’re afraid, what that means. Try to just be, and let not what you’re afraid of define the present that you hope to be in when you go do what you’re afraid of.” The audience clapped, but Reeves, seemingly self-conscious, hid his face behind his hands, adding: “Or not. Just be afraid and hang on!”
It was gospel only the internet’s soul mate could have spread, and it is perhaps the words we most needed to hear heading into 2022. Perhaps this is how we’ll save the year ahead and the ones after that. Perhaps the world would fare a lot better if we all tried to be more like Keanu Reeves.
Not that Reeves himself would welcome this assertion with anything other than a humble shrug and an embarrassed stare. In 2017, during the promotion of John Wick 2, a journalist asked him whether he had a set of rules to live his life by. “No,” he replied. “I don’t have the, like, ‘Here it is.’ I have the basic stuff, you know? Try not to lie, try to be kind and all of those good things. I’m OK at it. I’m not great.”
That’s Reeves’s versions. On that latter point, the internet still begs to differ.