9 MPH / The Tao of Keanu Reeves

With Author and Journalist Alex Pappademas

Director Jan de Bont, producer Mark Gordon and the executives of 20th Century Fox have held hands and agreed on their Jack Traven: budding movie star Keanu Reeves. The 29-year-old walks onto the film under a cloud of doubt — self-doubt, studio doubt, maybe some public doubt. Can the guy who has skimmed the perceivably shallow waters of goofball charisma in the Bill & Ted and heartthrob appeal in Point Break really be a viable action hero?

Time will tell, but now that we’ve landed our star, it’s time to put him into a broader context. What kind of a feature film career was Reeves fostering at the time, seven or eight years into that progression? What sort of stage would Speed set for him? Beyond that, how would it propel him to global stardom and how would the experience prepare him for what’s to come?

Keanu Reeves: Most Triumphant - The Movies & Meaning of an Irrepressible Icon
Keanu Reeves: Most Triumphant – The Movies & Meaning of an Irrepressible Icon by Alex Pappademas

Enter author and journalist Alex Pappademas, who comes to the table with excellent credentials in this regard. His 2022 book Keanu Reeves: Most Triumphant — The Movies & Meaning of an Irrepressible Icon put the actor on the couch like no other with an intense, critical, empathetic and loving rendering of its subject.

“It’s a wild, close reading of everything that Keanu has ever put on screen, everything that’s ever been written about him, things that he’s said, but it’s not a biography” Pappademas says of his book. “It’s about the interplay between the screen persona and the very private public persona of Keanu.”

Pappademas joins 50 MPH for a bout of AP Keanu Reeves as we discuss Reeves in both the micro and the macro, particularly the build into and out of Speed.

“I think everybody knows that this guy is going to be something, partly just because he’s so God damn good-looking, and that goes a long way at that moment, and people are trying to find a slot for him in all of these things,” Pappademas says the actor walking into Fox’s bomb-on-a-bus movie. “We know that he’s got star quality. What is he going to do with it? There’s a moment he does an interview with Dazed & Confused, the British magazine, where he’s talking about what he’s going to do next. It could not be more stark in terms of representation of this. He’s like, ‘I’m either going to do this movie that my friend wrote where I’m going to play Apollo, Dionysus and Bacchus’ — or he’s going to play a SWAT team guy in a movie.”

Naturally, we drill down into Speed, how it came to represent a new action movie and, through prodding from Reeves and a drastic retooling by screenwriter Joss Whedon, a new breed of action hero.

“By the end, he’s sort of had to tap into an empathy and how to connect with human beings, because they’re all in this together and the bus becomes this microcosm of a community where he has to participate in that,” Pappademas says of the character of Jack Traven. “You can see movies exploring what the future of screen masculinity is going to be through the way that Keanu is used in this movie. What kind of behavior is of value and what is valorized in this film is being a certain way and kind of treating people with respect and empathy and kindness and all of that. It’s such a Zen action movie.”

Keanu Reeves as Hamlet
Keanu Reeves starred in the Manitoba Theatre Centre’s production of Hamlet in the immediate wake of Speed.

From there, Reeves would take his newfound clout and cachet and keep audiences guessing. From a stint as Hamlet on stage in Canada through a variety of late-90s star plays that culminates with The Matrix in 1999, through another decade-plus of exploring ideas and characters that Pappademas delights in interpreting and analyzing — Reeves would eventually turn the corner into perhaps his most celebrated and popular character to date.

“I find John Wick really interesting because they’re so glorious as action movies, but I feel like they’re also, on some level, about having to keep making action movies,” Pappademas says. “Because what is the sort of the arc of John Wick? John Wick wants to stop being John Wick and everybody’s like, ‘No, no, no. We need you to keep being John Wick. And if you want to survive now, you have to keep being John Wick and you have to go deeper, even though you’re losing your soul each time you do it.’ And I think there’s something like that about Keanu, too.”

Settle in for this one. It’s a healthy dose of Keanuology. All of that and more, this week on 50 MPH!


Kris Tapley Your Host:

Kris has covered the entertainment industry for nearly two decades, with bylines at Variety, The New York Times, Empire and Vanity Fair. He now works as a writer and consultant in Los Angeles, where he lives with his loving wife, lively son and lazy cat. He likes Speed.