Quick! Can you think of an actor who has centered and launched three successful franchises in three different decades?
If you’re like most people, the answer that likely immediately comes to your mind is Harrison Ford. He’s the only one who fits, right? Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and Jack Ryan. Maybe Sylvester Stallone with Rocky, Rambo and The Expendables? Has to be one of them, right?
Except neither of them quite fit the bill. Remember, I said “and launched” a franchise. Since Ford made the Jack Ryan franchise his own with Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, he’s the actor most people associate with the franchise. But it was actually Alec Baldwin who played Jack Ryan first in 1990 with The Hunt for Red October; Harrison wasn’t cast in the role until two years later. As for Stallone, he doesn’t truly center The Expendables, which is an ensemble cast.
No, the answer you’re looking for is Keanu Reeves. Over his career he’s launched three successful franchises in three different decades: The Bill & Ted franchise in 1989, The Matrix in 1999, and John Wick in 2014.
Sure, these days, Reeves is a cultural icon, his newfound Internet Jesus status thanks in large part to social media. We all know the jokes about him being immortal, the Sad Keanu meme, his tragic backstory, his famously charitable and giving nature.
His Career Has Been Impressive – Real Impressive
But we should also take him seriously as an actor, not just as a viral phenomenon. There’s no one in Hollywood who has ever had the kind of career Reeves has had – really. No one else has had the precise mix of anchoring huge, zeitgeist-influencing franchises while also being in the number of cult movies he has. Beyond the tentpole franchises, just think about the movies that Reeves has starred in that were one-off hits in their own right or have gone on to become cult classics: Parenthood, Constantine, Point Break, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Speed, The Replacements, A Scanner Darkly. Any actor would give anything to have either a franchise career like that or one built on cult hits; Reeves is the rarest of actors who has had both.
Consider this: Toy Story 4, in which Reeves voiced the character of Duke Caboom, was the 15th film of Reeves’ career to earn at least $100 million at the box office. According to The Numbers, the movies in which Reeves has been the lead have grossed $3.8 billion at the global box office. Movies where he’s been in a supporting role, another $1.4 billion. In total, his movies have grossed an eye-popping $5.81 billion worldwide. That’s more than the entire Blumhouse filmography combined and a quarter of what the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe has made.
While that is incredibly impressive, Reeves’ career has also been wildly different from most for one other crucial reason.
He’s An Actor Who Fits Whatever Moment He’s In
Much has been made of Reeves’ acting over the years, and, let’s be honest, most of it bad. Even today, fans seem to embrace him ironically, and his work over the years has been derided as wooden, monotone – you name the unflattering adjective, it’s probably been used in conjunction with him.
When we think of “serious” acting, we think of it as Acting – capital “A,” puffed-up chest, self-important tone. Most A-list actors have a very distinct style that takes over the screen; it’s always an assertive and active exercise. It’s a style that we very definitely do not associate with Keanu Reeves, who rarely takes over a screen in the way that we associate with “good” acting.
Reeves, however, is actually kind of magical when you start to really pay attention to what he does on screen. He has a quality that actors rarely have, being able to form himself to the scene and the moment. It’s his passive ability to react to whatever is happening around him and to other actors sharing a scene with him that makes him so good. He is like water, always flowing to wherever he needs to be. We often marvel at actors who allow themselves to be put in bad wigs, gain 50 lbs for a role, aren’t afraid to ugly themselves up or have a breakdown on screen. Yet even then, they very much mean for you to pay attention to what they’re doing, to know that they are not acting, but Acting. It’s precisely those kinds of roles, the ones that have forced Keanu into a specific box that have given him a rep as a bad actor. Like water, however, Reeves is at his best when he’s allowed to flow.
Reeves is an actor truly without ego. Even when he’s the star, he’s largely unconcerned about making himself the center of the moment, instead becoming the quiet core of stillness that supports a scene. Where other actors would drop a line, he’s content to emote. Where another actor might be lauded for a magnificent delivery of a monologue, Reeves tells entire stories and sells entire scenes with his body language and physicality, which is striking. The loping gait, the slightly hunched shoulders, the emotion revealed entirely through movement. People criticize Reeves’ line delivery and don’t even realize they’re being pulled entirely into the story because of the deep connection he fosters through the vulnerability of his nonverbal acting.
Because of this, there is perhaps no other actor who is as generous when sharing a scene as Reeves. He, perhaps more than any other actor, understands that acting is a collaborative process and he metaphorically steps back to allow others to step forward. It often creates the misconception that others who share scenes with him are outacting Reeves. They aren’t. The reality is that they wouldn’t shine so brightly in the first place if he weren’t so giving of his space or so disinterested in making himself the center of the scene.
This water-like quality is important because it leads to the second reason he’s been so successful.
He’s Been Smart With His Choices
There are few actors who have been as smart with their career choices as Reeves. That’s not to say he hasn’t had some flops and misfires, but rather, he’s always been careful not to pigeonhole himself into a specific type of role. Because of his aforementioned acting style, it would have been easy for Reeves, early in his career, to be typecast as a dumb sidekick or a pretty face who never rose higher than B-list doing mediocre movies.
But Reeves wisely resisted being typecast, instead becoming a chameleon. He may be one of the most widely-known action stars on the planet now, but he’s done everything from dumb stonerism to rom-coms to thrillers to semi-wuxia to British period dramas to countercultural sci-fi. He’s done TV and voice work and tentpoles and indies. A career that might have been doomed by an industry not fully able to get on board with his laid-back acting style instead became one that has spanned 36 years and been wildly successful. And it is precisely his ability to go with the flow that has enabled him to reinvent himself again and again in different genres and different roles, always unmistakably Keanu but allowing himself to become whatever he needs to be to make a movie work.
He is not the paint, but the canvas, not the diamond necklace but the black velvet and the artful lights that allow it to sparkle. It may not be glamorous, but it’s exactly why he has been able to resurrect like a Phoenix every single decade to create a career that is, much like we suspect of the man himself, immortal.