The Esquire Interview: Keanu Reeves

Bill & Ted. Point Break. Speed. The Matrix. John Wick. For 25 years, Keanu Reeves has been one of the movie industry's most bankable stars. And he stays on top without ever losing his outsider cool

Keanu Reeves rides motorcycle every day. “It’s my preferred mode of transportation,” he explains. Often it is merely the easiest means of getting from one appointment to another. But when his mood and his schedule allow, he’ll head up the coast on Highway One or into the San Gabriel Mountains and the Angeles National Forest where the riding is good, or take Sunset down to the Pacific Ocean. Or just head up to the Santa Monica Mountains and kick around for a while.

“It’s the physical sensation of riding, the wind, the smell, the sights, the connection to the machine, the living-in-nature,” he says. “It demands a kind of attention and presentness. It’s also good to go out and think a little bit, so you can get lost in the now. Or you can also kind of reflect. You’re moving on the surface of the planet.”

As a hobby it is not without its risks. In 1988, he took a hairpin bend too fast and lay on the pavement for half an hour thinking he was going to die. The accident left a thick scar up his abdomen and necessitated the removal of his spleen. Since then there have been other surgeries, fake teeth, veneers. Some broken ribs. For a while he’d joke he worked to pay his motor insurance. He hoists up the right leg of his battered jeans and shows me thick, knotted tissue running from his ankle to his thigh. “This one took a car bumper off,” he says. “It was, like, ‘ooof’. You could see the bone.”

Which one hurt the most?

“You know, it’s weird. After the accidents the adrenalin kicks in, so it’s not really painful. Maybe the broken ribs part,” he reflects. “That was pretty uncomfortable.”

We are talking at the Arch Motorcyle Company, the custom superbike builders Reeves co-founded with his friend Gard Hollinger, a well-known designer in the bike world, in Hawthorne, an industrial suburb south of Los Angeles. Reeves had already logged tens of thousands of miles on Nortons, Suzukis, a 1974 BMW 750, a 1984 Harley Shovelhead and a Moto Guzzi racer, all from his personal collection, before he approached Hollinger to make a modification to his Harley-Davidson. (He wanted to add a sissy bar, or passenger backrest. Hollinger told him that wasn’t really his thing.) The two got talking and Reeves suggested they might go into business. Again Hollinger wasn’t keen.

“He said, ‘No!'” Reeves recalls. “He’d been around motorcycles for years and he knew what it would take [to set up a new business]. He was, like, ‘Why do you want to do this?’ Then we got to know each other and over the course of it it was just like, ‘Come on, man’. Anyway, he said yes.”

Reeves shows me around. For a working garage, the place is as clean as a museum. There’s his current bike, a custom Arch KRGT-1 with 10,000 miles on the clock, in for repairs after the transmission blew. There’s the Goodwood ExperiMental, an eccentrically-built racer they bought to the UK for last year’s Festival of Speed in Sussex. And there are various clients’ bikes lined up along the far wall. Elsewhere, lathes turn and machine presses press. Occasionally an employee wanders past.

Is this fun, running your own company?

“Oh, yeah,” Reeves beams.

Until recently, Keanu Reeves’s last blockbuster was the The Day the Earth Stood Still, a sci-fi remake released in 2008. It was not a critical success. “Sometimes I call that The Day my Career Stood Still,” he says. “I kind of went to Studio Movie Jail.” Odd as it may seem, even for an actor as famous and as enduring as Reeves — 2016 marked his 30th year in film, and his big successes have been really big — he’s apparently still only as bankable as his last movie. “For me that is true,” he says. “Yeah.”

Although disappointments haven’t hindered Reeves in pursuing weirder, wilder and more interesting independent releases like A Scanner Darkly and Thumbsucker — a duality that’s been a feature of Reeves’ career ever since his 1986 breakthrough River’s Edge — you get the feeling the last decade hasn’t always been plain sailing. “You’re always fighting for a career,” Reeves says. “I mean, there’s a few people who [don’t have to worry]…” Then he changes his mind. “No: you’re always fighting for a career.”

Then in 2014 he made John Wick. A gloriously unhinged B-movie action romp perched on the edge of pastiche but played with unblinking conviction. Its first-time director was Chad Stahelski who had been Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix trilogy. This may not have been a coincidence. Once again, Reeves was required to say little, do lots of shooting and kung-fu and wear a tailored black suit, which is how he looks best. Even his character’s name appeared to come straight out of a graphic novel (“Don’t Set Him Off” advised the posters). In other words, it was the perfect Keanu Reeves film for Keanu Reeves. (This is not faint praise: there are any number of, say, Nicolas Cage films correctly casting Nicolas Cage that belong in any right-thinking film fan’s Top 100. Dangerous Liaisons, featuring Reeves as the 18th century French courtier Le Chevalier Raphael Danceny, is an example of casting that was perhaps less successful.)