How Keanu Reeves Became the Internet's Favorite Celebrity

In this excerpt from her book 'A Field Guide to Internet Boyfriends,' our writer explains the phenomenon of loving Keanu Reeves.

keanu reeves
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Thrillist senior writer Esther Zuckerman's A Field Guide to Internet Boyfriends is a collection of and guide to everybody's favorite celebrity crushes, and what makes them so swoon- and meme-worthy. Buy the book here.

Is an Internet Boyfriend born or made? There's no better case study than Keanu Reeves. Keanu has always been hot; Keanu has not always been an Internet Boyfriend.

What are your earliest memories of Keanu Reeves? Do you see a floppy-haired boy with a goofy smile splashed across his face in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure? Or a rain-soaked Johnny Utah giving a thumbs-up in Point Break with, yes, a goofy smile splashed across his face? When you think of baby Keanu, you probably think of something joyful and a little silly. That's because the role that made him a star, time-traveling stoner Ted "Theodore" Logan, also tainted him. For years it was hard to get the notion of Keanu as doof-bro out of your head. No matter what part he played, the insidious idea that he was just a brainless dude who could only say "whoa" followed him. It maybe has something to do with his seemingly eternally youthful beauty at that time. Or perhaps the fact that he was so good at playing the archetypal neophyte that his character in The Matrix was literally named "Neo." (In that movie he also said "whoa." Whoa.) He's always had devoted fans, but only recently did loving Keanu become a movement.

The truth is: Keanu has hidden depths. His career is insanely varied. A silly comedy in which he kidnaps Napoleon may have been his calling card, but he did independent films like My Own Private Idaho, Internet and period pieces like Much Ado About Nothing before Speed and The Matrix made him an action star. He has long elicited effusive praise from his colleagues, who were eager to paint a picture of him as more layered than his reputation would suggest. Sandra Bullock once called him the "Little Keester" in an Entertainment Weekly interview while talking about how good of a listener he was; director Gus Van Sant remarked on how smart Keanu really is, while at the same time noting how good he was at acting dumb.

So when did Keanu start winning everyone over whole-heartedly? I'd pinpoint the moment as when some punks killed the puppy his dead wife gave him. Now, of course, no one actually killed Keanu's puppy. (Though, admittedly, his real life has been studded with tragedy.) Instead the pooch in question belonged to John Wick of the eponymous action franchise. But John Wick and Keanu share the same essence. John Wick is the full evolution of the "Sad Keanu" meme, which endeared him to the internet as a dude who was okay with just sitting on a bench and being in his feelings.

keanu reeves illustration
Louisa Cannell/Running Press

A quick detour for "Sad Keanu." One day, sometime around 2010, Keanu decided to sit on a park bench and eat a sandwich. That's just the kind of celebrity he is. No need for seclusion or a gourmet meal: just an outdoor space and grub that appears to be from a bodega. His countenance looked a little downcast, but that's possibly just how we all look when we're focusing on our food. Anyway, people loved it partially because of the puzzlingly existential look on his face and partially because it just seemed so aggressively normal for a very famous person. More photos kept cropping up in this vein: Keanu, outside, in his feelings. "Sad Keanu" set us down the path that landed us where we are today. "Sad Keanu" set the stage for John Wick.

Before John Wick, Keanu hadn't had a critical hit in a while. But Wick turned him into a phenomenon once again, fully introducing audiences to a new era of awesomeness. In the series of movies, he plays the world's most feared assassin who had given up his life of death for his one great love. But when she succumbs to disease and some jerks steal his car and murder his little beagle, he gets his stash of guns and goes on a rampage, seeking vengeance for his lost pooch. As John Wick, Keanu has lost his boyish charm. He never flashes that wide-eyed grin. His face is peppered with stubble. His long hair falls in front of his eyes.

Although the plots of the John Wicks are simple, there's something soulful about the idea of John Wick the character thanks to Keanu. John Wick has a strong moral code... just like we imagine Keanu Reeves does. John Wick would protect you... just like we imagine Keanu Reeves would. John Wick is incredibly devoted... just like we imagine Keanu Reeves is.

It helps that Keanu lives his life in such a way that allows us to believe he's just as wonderful as we think he is. He gives up his seat for women on the subway, which he takes in lieu of private cars. He helps an entire plane of people get to their destination when an emergency landing leaves them stranded. He runs an imprint for avant-garde books with supercool visual artist Alexandra Grant, who is also his longtime girlfriend. When Stephen Colbert asks him what happens when we die, he says: "I know the ones who love us will miss us." That's Keanu for you: Thinking of others before himself even when considering life's biggest questions.

Yes, it's Keanu's slightly-but-not-too-grizzled looks that make him zaddy, as well as the fact that he wears a suit better than maybe anyone else in the world while displaying martial arts skills that would put Olympic athletes to shame. But it's also the fact that Keanu just seems like the type of guy who would go out of his way to lend a hand. He would stop whatever he was doing for you, but it would be no big deal. Keanu goes where the wind takes him, and the wind takes him to altruism.

Imagine: One day you'll need a lift and suddenly a man will ride up on a motorcycle. His voice will be low and his mane shaggy. He'll say, "Need a ride?" You’ll reply, "Yes." Suddenly the helmet comes off and there is Keanu. Whoa.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. This excerpt appears in her first book, A Field Guide to Internet Boyfriends, which you can buy here.