The tragic real-life story of Keanu Reeves

There's no denying that when it comes to movie stars, Keanu Reeves is as big as they get. Sure, you might always think of him first and foremost as Ted from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, or as Neo from The Matrix, but no one can deny he's proven he's much more than that.

And still, Keanu Reeves has managed to hold onto his reputation as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood. Even interviewers and journalists say that — before noting how hard it is to get him to talk about anything personal. When Esquire tried to get him to open up about some things, they noted that, "He is a master of speaking without saying much of anything at all." And that's... frustrating, at least, it is for people who are hungry to know everything they can find out about their favorite — but notoriously private — star.

And that seems to be, in part, because of what information has gotten out about him. While it might seem like Keanu Reeves lives something of a charmed life, that's not the case at all. There's more than his fair share of tragedy in his background, and while he doesn't like to talk about it much, there are some things we do know.

Keanu Reeves' complicated relationship with his father

Keanu Reeves (pictured, with his sister Karina Miller) has been estranged from his father for a long, long time. Samuel Nowlin Reeves was, People notes, the son of a wealthy family vacationing in Lebanon who he met and married a local showgirl named Patricia. The union resulted in Keanu and a sister, Kim, but not much else — The Guardian says that Keanu was just three when his father split and left the family. He kept in touch until Keanu was 13, and his thoughts on it are nothing short of inspiring. "For sure, I think it's definitely traumatizing. But it's hard to know how [it affected me] because I don't know what that other life would have been, you know what I mean?"

Keanu's mother took her son and daughter and moved to New York City, where she eventually married director Paul Aaron. The new family then hopped up to Toronto, the couple split the following year, and Keanu, his sister, and his mother moved again and again... and again.

Keanu Reeves says his estranged father did attempt to reach out to him at least once: "Yeah, in the mid-90s, but I didn't reach back out." Why? He doesn't say. The attempt at connecting came on the heels of his father's conviction for selling heroin, but "[...] that wasn't why I didn't get in touch! I just didn't."

He got kicked out of school.... a lot

When People spoke to Paula Warder, Keanu Reeves' primary school teacher from the Jesse Ketchum Public School in Toronto, she remembered: "I don't think he ever got to a class on time. And when he did arrive, he wasn't quite, well... with it. He always left his books at home or forgot his homework. But he'd just smile and go back home and get them. And somehow he did pass his classes."

When The Mail on Sunday sat down with Keanu Reeves, he revealed a few insights into his younger years: including his obsession with sci-fi. "I used to escape into another world as a kid. [...] It was that whole idea of getting out of my own circumstances, a fascination with distant planets, unknown mysteries, going wherever the imagination could go. I loved Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Blade Runner."

He says that while he excelled at ice hockey, was good at English and writing, and he was on the chess team, his difficulties were, in hindsight, all on him. "[...] I guess I didn't fit in. I had conflicts and run-ins with the staff. The principal and I didn't see eye to eye. I was one of those 'Why?' kids — I asked too many questions about everything. I couldn't stop, even if it got me into trouble. I wanted my autonomy, and if you wanted to impose something on me, then you and I would have a problem." Perhaps unsurprisingly, Keanu Reeves' school career came to an abrupt end when he was expelled at 16 — which he says was "very upsetting."

He lost his good friend to drugs

Hollywood is a tough place to navigate, and always has been — especially for child and teen stars. Some of their stories are downright tragic, and in the 1990s, Keanu Reeves saw first-hand just how tragic it could be.

River Phoenix had his first massive hit in 1986 with Stand By Me; just a few years later — in 1991 — he was starring with Reeves in My Own Private Idaho. According to The Guardian, Phoenix's past was almost unthinkably complicated, and by the time the early 90s rolled around, he had slipped into the world of heroin, crack, and coke. On October 30,1993, he collapsed outside a club and was pronounced dead on the scene, after overdosing on heroin and cocaine. 

According to The Telegraph, Phoenix's addiction started during the filming of My Own Private Idaho, a movie Reeves had convinced him to do. They'd met on the set of I Love You To Death, and when Reeves read the script for My Own Private Idaho, he hopped on his motorcycle and rode from Toronto to Florida just to take Phoenix a copy. Just a few years later, one of Hollywood's most promising young actors was gone. Later, People would quote an anonymous friend of Reeves as saying, "It's something he thinks about all the time, something he never really talks about. Friends know not to go there with him."

Keanu Reeves' sister battled leukemia for years

Keanu Reeves' dedication to keeping his private life private extends to his family, too. According to Little Things, his sister Kim was diagnosed with leukemia sometime around 1991. For the next decade, she continued to fight the disease before finally going into remission. Reeves was at her side for much of it: People quoted an anonymous friend as saying, "When she was in the hospital he was there with her all the time, sitting at her bedside, holding her hand."

Unsurprisingly, it's had a lasting impact on Reeves, and while he's gone above and beyond to try to help other families going through similar things, he's super private about that, too. In 2009, he revealed to Ladies Home Journal (via Snopes): "I have a private foundation that's been running for five or six years, and it helps aid a couple of children's hospitals and cancer research. I don't like to attach my name to it, I just let the foundation do what it does."

Keanu Reeves lost his daughter and his girlfriend in tragic succession

In 1998, Keanu Reeves met the love of his young life at a party. Her name was Jennifer Syme, and they immediately started dating. Unfortunately, the relationship had a tragic trajectory. Syme became pregnant, and in 1999, she gave birth to a stillborn baby girl they named Ava. According to Paper, Syme suffered from severe postnatal depression, and she and Reeves broke up only a few weeks later.

Fast forward a bit: Syme was working as David Lynch's assistant when she met Marilyn Manson. She put the two in touch and it led to their collaboration on Lost Highway, and she went on to become good friends with Manson. In April 2001, he invited her to a party. At some point, he got a designated driver to take her home, but it seems as though she later wanted to return. She got in her car, collided with three parked cars, was thrown from her vehicle, and was pronounced dead at the scene. 

Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Syme had remained close even after breaking up: People says they had been spotted having brunch the day before she died. They quoted a friend as saying Reeves was "finding it very, very difficult to cope with her death."

That time Keanu Reeves' career took a trip to movie jail

Take a glance at Keanu Reeves' credits, and you'll see he's been working pretty consistently for decades. But that's a bit deceiving, and Reeves told GQ that he paid dearly for a choice he made a long time ago: turning down Speed 2.

First, he had his reasons, saying (via Den of Geek): "I loved working with Jan de Bont and Sandra [Bullock], of course. It was just a situation in life where I got the script and I read the script and I was like, 'Ugggghhhh'. It was about a cruise ship and I was thinking, 'A bus, a cruise ship... Speed, bus, but then a cruise ship is even slower than a bus and I was like, 'I love you guys but I just can't do it.'" 

Regardless of whether or not reviews suggested he'd made the right choice, Reeves says he was blackballed by Fox for more than a decade after he turned down the not-so-speedy Speed 2. He calls it "movie jail," and GQ also notes that he hasn't done too many studio movies that turn into a big deal. In fact, when he talked to Esquire, he referred once again to being sent to "Studio Movie Jail" after the less-than-stellar performance of The Day The Earth Stood Still, a movie he calls "The Day my Career Stood Still."

Keanu Reeves was forced to do a movie thanks to a forged signature

One of Keanu Reeves' oddest roles has to be the serial killer from The Watcher, a movie with a sad, sad 10 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. According to Reeves, he never wanted to do it — and he was forced into it.

He told the Calgary Sun (via The Guardian): "I never found the script interesting, but a friend of mine forged my signature on the agreement. I could not prove he did, and I didn't want to get sued for not honoring my contract, so I had no other choice but to do the film."

Reeves was held to a year-long silence about the film, but rumors started circulating early that suggested he was upset right from the start — particular about the size of his role, which had started out small and become the center of the film. He couldn't talk about it until 12 months after the release, though, and he didn't — when it premiered, Reeves refused to do any promotion for it and according to reviews, maybe they should have just let him out of the contract as he was almost universally condemned as being completely wrong for playing a serial killer.

He's relentlessly mocked over his intelligence

The world first met Keanu Reeves as the less-than-quick witted Ted "Theodore" Logan... and the world also hasn't let him forget about it. When he went on Zach Galifianakis' Between Two Ferns: The Movie, he was asked questions like, "On a scale of 1 to 100, how many words do you know?" and, "Is it frustrating when people think of you as a complete bozo? When the truth is, you're just a man with below-average intelligence?"

That's... supposed to be funny, but it's also pretty harsh, too. GQ says the image wasn't helped by Keanu Reeves' early interactions with the press, where he was clearly uncomfortable with being on the receiving end of question after question. When GQ asked him if he was at peace with Ted's enduring influence? "Yeah. I mean — for me, it's like — that's easy. But, um. Yeah." And he told Rolling Stone: "That's frustrating. That's very frustrating. [...] I get no respect."

What do coworkers have to say about Keanu Reeves' intelligence? Richard Linklater, who directed him in A Scanner Darkly, told Esquire, "It would be one of the biggest misreadings you could ever do to say, 'that's not a super-intelligent person.'" The Matrix's Laurence Fishburne agreed, saying, "[...] he's also incredibly curious and intelligent. It takes intelligence to be funny. His comic timing is excellent. He's survived because he's managed to evolve with the business we're in. That's down to curiosity and intelligence." So... cut him some slack.

Keanu Reeves has been in a ton of motorcycle accidents

Keanu Reeves' love of motorcycles is nothing short of legendary, but it turns out that he's paid quite a high price for it. What's "it?" Reeves told Esquire: "It's the physical sensation of riding, the wind, the smell, the sights, the connection to the machine, the living-in-nature."

For him, it's also been a lot of injuries going all the way back to 1988, when he took a hairpin corner too fast. He dumped the bike, and says he laid there for around half an hour, convinced that he was going to die. He nearly did — he still has the scars, and he's missing his spleen thanks to the accident.

Since then, there's been more surgeries, more scars, and more broken bones — including one bone that Reeves saw, after taking a car bumper off with his right leg. Some of his teeth are fake, also thanks to accidents. So which one was the worst? "You know, it's weird. After the accidents the adrenaline kicks in, so it's not really painful. Maybe the broken ribs part. That was pretty uncomfortable."

His attempt at music wasn't well-received

Keanu Reeves might be almost insanely good at a lot of things, but one thing he's apparently not good at is playing in a band.

In the mid-90s, Reeves was already a pretty big star when he decided to start a band with a guy he met in the grocery store. They called it Dogstar, and they weren't terrible... they were, according to GQ, "serviceable." Reeves says otherwise, remembering that time they decided to play a Grateful Dead cover song at Milwaukee Metal Fest (in between groups like Murphy's Law, Cannibal Corpse, and Deicide). "We were like, 'They hate us. What are we doing here? What can we do? Let's do the Grateful Dead cover. They were just like, 'F**k you, you suck.' I had the biggest grin on my face, man." He added that the worst part wasn't his public roasting, but what happened to the other guys — honest musicians who were just trying to make a go of it. But, "I guess it would have helped if our band was better." 

But there's good news: Vice talked to Dogstar's Rob Mailhouse, and even though he says they absolutely weren't ready to start performing when they did, they did have Weezer open for them, and Bon Jovi asked them to go on tour with them. That's not too shabby.

Keanu Reeves has been the target of some weird lawsuits

Being in the public eye can come with getting some strange attention, and Keanu Reeves has definitely had that.

In 2008, a lawsuit against him went to trial. At the heart of the issue was a photographer named Alison Silva, who claimed he had been trying to get photos of Reeves when the actor hit him with his car, breaking his wrist. Reeves had a different story: he was visiting a relative in a hospital, Silva had followed him, and then tripped over himself and fell. With the help of an emergency room doctor who said it was an old injury and a video of not-so-injured Silva climbing a fence to get a peek at Britney Spears, the Los Angeles Times says it took just an hour for the jury to clear Reeves. 

Then, 2010 took an even weirder turn when Keanu Reeves was sued by Karen Sala. Sala claimed that he was the father of her four adult children, and that she was entitled to $3 million a month for her support, and another $150,000 a month in child support — retroactive. In spite of Reeves saying he had never met the woman and a DNA test proving he wasn't their father, it still went to court. Sala claimed that the DNA evidence was tampered with, Reeves had used hypnosis to... do something, and that he had, at one point, disguised himself as her ex-husband. Fortunately for Reeves, it was immediately dismissed, says The Star.

Keanu Reeves just wants his private life to stay private

Everyone's heard the stories about how great a guy Keanu Reeves is, about how he'll stop to help someone who's broken down on the side of the road, or how he'll go out of his way to sign an autograph for a fan too shy to ask. But according to what he told The Guardian, he absolutely hates it when people talk about him behind his back... and share stories about how awesome he is.

In fact, Reeves got downright bristly when asked about some of the stories, saying: "I'm pretty private, so when that stuff doesn't stay private it is not that great." Why? Is there a worry that it'll somehow seem less sincere if it gets out? "No," he told them. "Because it's private."

And that makes sense. In an interview in The Jakarta Post, Reeves was asked about his home in West Hollywood, and whether or not he could walk around and still be left in peace. "Sometimes you feel like an animal in a cage. But in Los Angeles, no one cares. There're definitely paparazzi chasing after you, but I don't go out much, I don't really do anything. I'm pretty boring."