wesley morris

Alex Pappademas, you’ve written a book.

alex pappademas

Yeah, how about that?

wesley morris

It’s called “Keanu Reeves: Most Triumphant: The Movies and Meaning of an Irrepressible Icon.”

But I have a question for you. Is it possible to even get near the bottom of Keanu Reeves?

alex pappademas

I think he might be an unknowable icon. I sit before you as someone who’s thought about him for a whole year, and I don’t know if I know him any better than you do. But let’s find out.

wesley morris

Here we go.

[MUSIC]

I’m Wesley Morris, and I’m a culture writer at The New York Times, and this is “Still Processing.” Today on the show, we’re going to talk about the one, the only, Keanu Reeves, and we’re going to try and figure out why we get so much out of a movie star who appears to give us so little.

Alex, I think I have what is probably a pretty common Keanu Reeves experience, which is that I kind of took him for granted. He’s always been in my life, and I just never really felt like there was much to figure out. But who is this person, and what have I been misunderstanding if I’m thinking of him as an empty vessel?

alex pappademas

Maybe he’s an empty vessel, and that’s a possibility that we have to entertain as part of it, I think. And I think part of your feeling that you can’t look right at him, and that he doesn’t — it’s almost like your interest glances off of him, I think it’s a valid Keanu experience.

And I think that a lot of that gets dramatized in the work. He is always that guy who comes into the story and needs to be filled up. And what’s the most obvious metaphorical version of that?

archived recording (morpheus)

The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us.

alex pappademas

He has to get a plug put in the back of his head, and he gets filled up with kung fu just right in the back of the head.

archived recording (keanu reeves as neo)

I know kung fu.

archived recording (morpheus)

Show me.

alex pappademas

And I feel like that’s part of the thing that you are watching with Keanu, is somebody who comes into a story with nothing and has to get filled up with ideas. And I think what I’m chasing after in this book is those moments when the movie gets so thin that you can basically see right through it, and you just see Keanu — and the movie is revealed as an artifice that Keanu is doing something real within it.

archived recording (morpheus)

What is real? How do you define real?

wesley morris

Well, I want to go back to 1991, which is about eight years before “The Matrix” comes out. It was the year of “Point Break,” the year of “My Own Private Idaho” — two very, very different movies that use him in not dissimilar ways, right?

alex pappademas

Yeah, because there’s three movies in ‘91. It’s the best movie year an actor has ever had, because there’s also “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.”

archived recording (bill and ted)

How’s it going, Bill and Ted?

archived recording (ted)

We came to help you guys in your most unfortunate situation.

archived recording (bill)

Yeah.

alex pappademas

Each of them — “Bogus Journey,” “Point Break,” “My Own Private Idaho,” each one like a platonic love story between two guys.

archived recording (patrick swayze as bodhi)

You still haven’t figured out what riding waves is all about, have you? It’s a state of mind.

wesley morris

And for anybody who doesn’t know, “Point Break” is, of course, the “surfers rob a bank” movie starring Keanu Reeves as an F.B.I. agent —

archived recording (ben harp)

Special Agent Utah, are you receiving my signal?

archived recording (keanu reeves as johnny utah)

Zero distortion, sir.

wesley morris

— and Patrick Swayze as the head of the bank robbing crew.

archived recording (bodhi)

You want the ultimate, you got to be willing to pay the ultimate price.

wesley morris

So what’s going on with Keanu in this movie as far as you can see? Because I have to tell you something, Alex. I still haven’t seen it.

alex pappademas

For starters, “Point Break” is one of those movies where Keanu enters into a situation, and for the purposes of the plot, he has to be reprogrammed.

wesley morris

Yes.

alex pappademas

And the programming is him learning how to be a cool guy in order to take down this gang of surfing bank robbers. And he is a blank slate who gets programmed for undercover purposes and then rejects the programming.

archived recording (keanu reeves as johnny utah)

Bodhi, this is your [EXPLETIVE] wake-up call, man! I am an F.B.I. agent!

archived recording (bodhi)

I know, man. Ain’t it wild?

alex pappademas

But it’s about somebody with a conditional identity who realizes that he has no actual identity of his own.

wesley morris

Right, yes.

alex pappademas

And that is something that you discover through the Zen state of surfing, through the Zen state of skydiving, through the Zen state of bank robbery. But it’s a movie like “The Matrix” and like many other iconic Keanu Reeves movies.

wesley morris

The best ones, this is the throughline.

alex pappademas

Yeah, it’s one of the throughlines, I think, for sure. That he’s got — that somebody needs to put information into his brain.

wesley morris

Right, yes.

alex pappademas

That’s what I love about the ‘91 movies, is that they do have this symmetry. He’s put in this same situation in both “Point Break” and “Private Idaho.” The world gets in the way of whatever love Keanu and his co-star have for one another.

wesley morris

Yes.

alex pappademas

And in “My Own Private Idaho” there’s all of these situations. They’re in this Portland demimonde world of the hustlers, but it’s also a movie about Keanu deciding whether or not he’s going to love River Phoenix the way that River Phoenix thinks that he’s in love with Keanu.

archived recording (mike)

What do I mean to you?

archived recording (keanu reeves as scott)

What do you mean to me? Mike, you’re my best friend.

wesley morris

Well, I will say, this is my first true Keanu Reeves movie. So my first true Keanu Reeves experience was Keanu Reeves as an object, right? I’m not going to say that Gus Van Sant intended for him to be objectified. But I think as a young gay person in 1991 who was trying to figure out my own stuff, there’s something about River Phoenix’s evident longing for this other very beautiful person who is very receptive to the affection — I can remember watching that film and just being like, I think I love Keanu Reeves too.

archived recording (mikey)

I could love someone even if I wasn’t paid for it. I love you, and you don’t pay me.

archived recording (keanu reeves as scott)

Mike.

archived recording (mikey)

I really want to kiss you, man.

archived recording (keanu reeves as scott)

All right come here, Mike. Just sleep.

wesley morris

I mean, I am every person who has ever loved a probably straight guy, who is curious enough about the attention to reciprocate up to a point.

alex pappademas

It’s like a series of fantasies about Keanu Reeves that Keanu is participating in. He’s not sure how he feels about being looked at.

archived recording (keanu reeves as scott)

I only have sex with a guy for money.

archived recording (mikey)

Yeah, I know.

archived recording (keanu reeves as scott)

And two guys can’t love each other.

archived recording (mikey)

Yeah.

wesley morris

And when Keanu pushes River Phoenix away, it just made me feel — [GROANING] two guys can love each other! Anyway, I just have a question for you, because we’re talking about Keanu in the 1990s. And he’s doing different things, and he becomes these different people to the extent that he can become a different person, right? These different environments for Keanu’s Keanu-ness to flourish is maybe the better way to put it.

And so let’s just go through the ‘90s movies. Let me get my little list here — Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”

archived recording (keanu reeves as jonathan harker)

Bloody wolves chasing me through some blue inferno.

wesley morris

He’s Don John in “Much Ado About Nothing,” that Kenneth Branagh movie with Denzel and Emma Thompson.

archived recording (keanu reeves as don john)

If I had my mouth, I would bite.

wesley morris

I’m going to skip some of these. He plays Buddha.

archived recording (keanu reeves as siddhartha)

I must see the world, Yasodhara!

wesley morris

In 1994, his biggest hit up to that point: “Speed.”

archived recording (keanu reeves as jack traven)

50, stay above 50!

wesley morris

“Johnny Mnemonic,” “A Walk in the Clouds — ”

archived recording (keanu reeves as paul sutton)

Can’t imagine how I want you.

wesley morris

“Chain Reaction,” “Feeling Minnesota,” “Devil’s Advocate — ”

archived recording (keanu reeves as paul sutton)

This isn’t a popularity contest, it’s a murder trial.

wesley morris

And ‘99 comes “The Matrix.”

archived recording (morpheus)

After this, there is no turning back.

wesley morris

So, he had one of the best ‘90s of anybody who was a movie star in the 1990s. Maybe Will Smith and Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise did better than he did. But what is the thing that’s happening to him during this period, and what is it that he’s doing for us during the ‘90s, if you can even square those two things?

alex pappademas

I think it’s important that “My Own Private Idaho” comes out a week after “Nevermind” by Nirvana, a dark day for traditional masculinity because all of those things are about to become up for grabs thanks to ‘90s figures like Kurt Cobain and Keanu Reeves, who are going to show us a different way of being a man. Kurt was a different kind of rock star.

And Keanu is a different kind of rock star too. And he has a lot of big hits. He has “Speed,” which confirms him. “Point Break” is like, oh, this guy could be an action star. And then “Speed” comes out, and it’s like, oh, this guy is an action star.

And then he runs in the other direction. It is a very Gen X thing to do when confronted with the opportunity to be super famous. And he does Hamlet in Canada. And he’s clearly unsatisfied doing things like “Speed.” As he’s doing “Speed,” he’s walking around on closed down freeway overpasses reciting all of the dialogue from Hamlet because he spent three years learning to do Hamlet.

So by the end of the decade, this movie comes along that squares the circle, which is “The Matrix,” a giant hit, but it also satisfies whatever that philosophical art film thing is within him, because he’s ultimately a bookish guy from Toronto.

wesley morris

Right, Keanu is such an externally oriented person, where all the forces seem to be coming from outside the house, so to speak.

[KNOCKING]

archived recording (keanu reeves as neo)

Who is it?

wesley morris

A lot of it means that he is, in some ways, an object for the camera.

archived recording (morpheus)

It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

wesley morris

And depending on who he’s working with, he can sometimes seem stuck.

archived recording (keanu reeves as neo)

You ever have that feeling where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming?

wesley morris

And he seems like a man without a style, so to speak.

archived recording (oracle)

Do you think you are the one?

archived recording (keanu reeves as neo)

Honestly, I don’t know.

alex pappademas

I think Keanu is operating almost solely on the level of vibes. And I think that makes some people uncomfortable, because I often have felt this — I’m not the first person to say it, but Best Actor, Best Actress is often most acting.

Either you know that they are doing something physically difficult, or a transformation that’s like, oh my god, Glenn Close doesn’t look like Glenn Close at all in this. It’s amazing. Where did she go, whoever it is? Keanu does not give you, where did he go?

wesley morris

No, no, he’s always there. And he’s so present. And it’s so easy to take his presentness for granted and just assume that when he is being present in that way, that he’s not doing anything. But he’s definitely doing something. You’ve convinced me. So we’re going to take a break, and when we come back, Keanu plays Keanu.

[MUSIC]

So Alex, we’re in the 2000s. Who is Keanu Reeves at this point?

alex pappademas

So in 2014, Keanu appears in this movie, “John Wick,” where he’s a man who has lost his wife and has been given a puppy as her last gift to him.

archived recording (helen wick)

John, I’m sorry I can’t be there for you, but you still need something, someone, to love.

archived recording

[DOG BARKING]

alex pappademas

And then he gets into a beef with some guys, and they do a terrible thing.

archived recording (iosef tarasov)

Oh, I love dogs.

alex pappademas

They murder his puppy.

archived recording

[DOG WHIMPERING]

alex pappademas

And that’s when it turns out he is not a regular guy in any way. He is John Wick. He has killed more people than you or I have had fast food meals in our lives. And he proceeds to slay his way through, I think it’s the Russian mob underworld in this.

wesley morris

Yes.

alex pappademas

He’s lost his wife and his puppy, and he’s going to beat up henchmen about it until he feels better. And of course, he’s not going to feel better, which is why there is “John Wick 2” and “John Wick Chapter 3.”

archived recording

[GUNSHOT]

wesley morris

To me, it’s like when the dog dies, a part of John Wick is dead too. And the part of him, the puppy that we associate — the cuddly internet creature that we associate Keanu Reeves with, if you’re so inclined to think of Keanu Reeves as a cute object — the thing that’s thrilling about John Wick is he is leaving the puppy. Y’all killed him. He’s dead. And now I have to kill all you people for killing that part of me.

alex pappademas

Yeah, I think that that’s why “John Wick” works, because there’s a sense of him, Keanu, as a tragic figure. But you know him as someone who has grown up without his father in the picture. He loses River Phoenix shortly after “Private Idaho,” dies of a drug overdose. He loses a child, and then the woman he was going to have the child with is killed in an accident.

wesley morris

Yes.

alex pappademas

And “John Wick” makes use of all these things that have been attached to his star text.

wesley morris

But it also makes him meme-able in some way too, right? We just make these presumptions about who he is and how he’s feeling based on what little of him we see off-screen.

alex pappademas

Yeah, the meme that really connects and turns him into this internet iconic figure is a picture of him sitting on a park bench looking sad. And they put him in all these situations, and it’s like, he’s sitting next to Kanye, or he’s sitting next to a dolphin, or whatever it is.

But everyone assumes that that’s a picture of him thinking about his whole entire life and thinking about every bad thing that’s ever happened to him. So what happens is that everyone falls back in love with him as someone who has been stoically enduring sadness and continues to be pure of heart, despite all of this evidence that the world is a bleak and terrible place.

wesley morris

I just feel like of all the movie stars we have had, he’s the only one I can think of who inspires this kind of wish fulfillment. He is not willing to put himself in the machine, and so as a result, in our own somewhat violently benign way, think that it’s our job to give him a star narrative. And I wonder if it cost him something. And to the degree that it did, I wonder what the cost is.

alex pappademas

Yeah, but it’s interesting to think about it, if it’s cost him something. Because we create all these memes about him as a culture, and that allows him to live in the Twitter world, and in the Instagram world, and in those things without him having to do anything. It’s perfect.

wesley morris

Anything, yes, yes, yes.

alex pappademas

He doesn’t have to do it.

wesley morris

He was always telling us he was not going to be the famous person that people wanted him to be. When you bring up Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, this idea of selling out is a real thing, right? And there’s all these opportunities for him to give a piece of his soul to the fame industrial complex, but he’s not doing that. He basically said he was never going to do it essentially. The work is saying, I will not be doing this.

alex pappademas

Yeah, because of his year of birth, he’s technically a Boomer, but he’s on the very far end of that.

wesley morris

Real Gen X vibes, baby.

alex pappademas

Real Gen X vibes.

wesley morris

Real Gen X vibes.

archived recording (sasha tran)

Oh, there he is.

alex pappademas

But at this point, around the same time as he’s having this “John Wick” resurgence, he shows up in “Always Be My Maybe.”

It’s these two people. Randall Park and Ali Wong are childhood friends who reunite later in life. And then they meet again, and they try to navigate friendship turning into romance.

wesley morris

Yes.

alex pappademas

They need an Asian-American love interest for Ali Wong, a rival for Randall Park. It is important to the filmmakers that that guy not be just some hot white guy, that it not be Chris Pine or whatever, but who is also Asian-American.

Keanu, part-Chinese, fits that bill, has never really been cast that way, but this is the first time. And Ali Wong has talked about it, that she always just saw him that way. That was the way in her family it was spoken about, that Keanu Reeves is this very successful Asian-American actor. And so he goes along with it, and he’s cast as Keanu Reeves.

archived recording (sasha tran)

Now I know what it feels like to be completely starstruck.

archived recording (keanu reeves)

The only stars that matter are the ones you look at when you dream.

alex pappademas

But he’s playing a version of Keanu Reeves that is maybe Keanu Reeves’s idea of what the egotistical actor version of Keanu Reeves would be like.

archived recording (keanu reeves)

A pleasure to meet you, Marcus.

archived recording (marcus kim)

Likewise, Keanu. I love your outfit.

archived recording (keanu reeves)

Oh thanks, man. Tom Ford made a custom for me.

archived recording (sasha tran)

Wow.

archived recording (marcus kim)

I didn’t know you wore glasses.

archived recording (keanu reeves)

I don’t, my eyes are perfect.

alex pappademas

And there’s this amazing scene where he walks into the most pretentious restaurant on Earth and is absolutely in his element. They’re pointing at everybody. It’s like he comes here every night, and they just know, and they serve him all this like very bizarre nouvelle cuisine.

archived recording (keanu reeves)

May I ask, do you have any dishes that play with time, the concept of time?

archived recording (waiter)

Ah, yes, we have a meat —

alex pappademas

His entrance into that restaurant itself becomes a meme. So now the meme Keanu cycle is feeding on itself. It’s feeding into his movie roles, and he’s being cast in that way. And he’s game for it. He’s going along with it, but that version of himself does not, I don’t think, contain a grain of truth. It’s just an idea about Keanu.

wesley morris

This is an example of him receiving the projection though, right? He is performing the thing that he thinks he’s been avoiding all this time that we have been trying to put on him for two decades.

alex pappademas

Yeah, he’ll be your mirror, right? If you’re like — it’s like, oh, you think of me as an Asian-American actor? OK, I’m an Asian-American actor then. It’s never occurred to me before, but you’re right. I’m honored to be here in that cast, in that group of people. You think of me as the internet’s boyfriend? Oh, I will do that thing for you. I will be that.

He is always reflecting our own desires back to us. It’s like there’s something about his unknowability that makes that relationship very personal, because we are seeing ourselves every time we look at him. Our fandom for Keanu is participatory in a way that loving, say, Brad Pitt, is not.

wesley morris

OK, I want to take you back to a “Matrix” moment.

alex pappademas

Yeah.

wesley morris

Because I feel like many a Keanu movie has a Keanu metaphor in it. And the first thing you see in the first scene of Neo/Thomas Anderson in his life at all in that apartment is a computer screen. And it’s blinking, and the first word that you see is the word “searching” on a computer screen. And it just really struck me that we are looking for something in him.

archived recording (morpheus)

I’ve been looking for you, Neo.

wesley morris

People in that movie in “The Matrix” are looking for him.

archived recording (agent smith)

As you can see, we’ve had our eye on you for some time now, Mr. Anderson.

wesley morris

He is plucked from a kind of obscurity and made to believe that he is a messianic figure.

archived recording (keanu reeves as neo)

What are you trying to tell me, that I can dodge bullets?

archived recording (morpheus)

No, Neo, I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.

wesley morris

And he resists it.

archived recording (keanu reeves as neo)

I’m not the one.

wesley morris

He doesn’t really believe this is true, but if you all want to believe it, OK, I’ll do it.

archived recording (morpheus)

We’re going in. We’re taking Neo to see her.

archived recording (keanu reeves as neo)

See who?

archived recording (crewmate)

The Oracle.

wesley morris

And I can’t think of another person in any art form where so much of his value and his meaning comes down to us and our interpretation of it.

alex pappademas

And I think it says a lot that in the fourth “Matrix,” basically, the moment comes when somebody shows up and is like, Neo, you’ve got to come with us. We need you to go back into the Matrix and be Neo again. He’s like, OK. He’s just like, OK, man. He’s literally like, OK.

I love that moment so much, because I think that the way that he is in that movie versus the way that he is in the first “Matrix” movie says something about how he’s evolved in the interim, because he’s made a peace with the idea of Keanu. And so when destiny calls, and they’re like, come back to the Matrix, we need you, he’s just right there. He goes along with it. What was your question?

wesley morris

There was no question. I just made a statement. And in some ways, I’m just listening to you talk. And I’m reminded of the thing that I think I have found appealing.

But if I were an actor, Alex, I think Keanu Reeves is how I would be caught acting. I wouldn’t be comfortable with the camera stuff. I wouldn’t be comfortable having to pretend to be a different person. I’d go along with a lot of it, but I wouldn’t really enjoy it.

And the real truth of his presence on-screen is such an indictment of watching, of looking at people perform anything. It is getting at a fundamental awkwardness in the spectator-spectated relationship.

alex pappademas

He’s looking at us as much as we’re looking at him, I think. There’s a self-consciousness, but there is also an audience consciousness. He knows that we’re there, and he wonders if we’ve figured out that it’s just Keanu Reeves once again playing a character, that we have not forgotten that it’s him. Is that good acting?

wesley morris

If nothing else, Alex, it is definitely, definitely great Keanu-ing.

alex pappademas

There might be no other comparisons.

wesley morris

No, that’s it. There’s only one Keanu.

alex pappademas

One of one.

[MUSIC]

wesley morris

Alex Pappademas, I love you. Thanks for coming on the show.

alex pappademas

I love you too, man, and any time you want to talk for 17 hours about Keanu, you know where to find me.

wesley morris

I do. I actually do.

That’s our show. Alex Pappademas’s book, “Keanu Reeves: Most Triumphant: The Movies and Meaning of an Irrepressible Icon” is out. Now run to the bookstore.

He’s also host of the excellent podcast, “The Big Hit Show.” “Still Processing” is produced by Elyssa Dudley and Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Sara Sarasohn and Sasha Weiss. The show is mixed by Marion Lozano and recorded by Maddy Masiello, digital production by Mahima Chablani and Des Ibekwe. Our theme music is by Kindness. It’s called “World Restart” from the album, “Otherness.” And we will be back next week. Thanks for listening.

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