The Enduring Appeal of Keanu Reeves
By Ky Henderson,2023-03-15
He battles evildoers in 'John Wick 4' and builds two-wheel pieces of art, but Keanu Reeves swears he's just a normal guy. And he’s got the scars to prove it.
It’s easy to look cool when you’re riding a motorcycle , but it’s hard to look cooler than Keanu Reeves on a brisk, sunny afternoon in Los Angeles. He rests his left hand on his thigh and steers with his right, which gooses the throttle as he weaves around slow drivers. He wears a form-fitting black canvas motorcycle jacket that accentuates how trim he is—even more fit than he appears on-screen—and a beat-up Shoei helmet. He leaves the visor up, choosing instead to shield his eyes with sunglasses the Terminator might wear to a Hamptons garden party. Reeves looks at home and at ease on a motorcycle. He looks cool.
At a gas station stop, he suggests switching bikes. We’re each riding cruisers made by Arch , the motorcycle company Reeves co-founded with designer Gard Hollinger in 2011. The company produces high-end, highly personalized production bikes; I’m on a 1s , the company’s new $100,000+ sport cruiser. Reeves is on an older model, KRGT-1, but it’s his personal Arch, a true one-of-a-kind. It's the only Arch ever painted YK Blue, a color Reeves and Hollinger commissioned based on the ultramarine pigment famously mixed by mid-century French artist Yves Klein. Reeves says all that’s left of the paint is in a tiny can stored somewhere at Arch in case the bike’s paint ever needs touch-ups.
Which it most certainly would if, let’s say, some idiot were to put the bike down in front of a horrified Reeves while riding down the Pacific Coast Highway. Thankfully, there’ll be no lowsides today. Although the bike is beefy, with a 2,032cc V-twin powerplant, it’s easy to maneuver and comfy as a BarcaLounger.
Reeves eventually leads us back to Arch’s factory building, which is nondescript from the outside but artfully decorated inside using shipping containers to separate working areas. Metal fabrication is done behind one; customer bikes are lined up in another with technicians hard at work. After Reeves dips outside for a cigarette—the 58-year-old both looks like a much younger man and smokes with the frequent abandon of one—he leads us to a small conference room.
“I like meeting people, but I’m a little reserved,” he warns as he settles into an office chair, looking far less comfortable than he did on a motorcycle. “How much of my private life do I want to talk about? I don’t know. Otherwise, let’s hang out.”
When Reeves was growing up in the Yorkville neighborhood of Toronto, he was consumed with existential thoughts. He discussed death a lot more than the average 11-year-old, for instance—but not because he wanted to die. He just wanted answers to big questions. Perhaps not entirely unrelated to his interest in mortality, he was also obsessed with the biker gangs that periodically motored into the neighborhood. It wasn't pods of dentists letting loose on weekends. It was leathers, patches, menace—the whole deal. And Reeves loved it.
“They looked exotic,” Reeves says. "They looked to me like they were free. Plus the bikes were cool and sounded great.”
Despite his childhood fascination, Reeves was in his early 20s before he first rode a motorcycle. It happened at a movie studio in Berlin—where else?—when he saw a woman on an off-road enduro bike in a parking lot. He approached her and asked if she’d teach him to ride, which she agreed to on the spot. (If you’re wondering why a woman would do that for a total stranger, search “Keanu Reeves in the 80s” in Google Images.)
Not long after he got back to Los Angeles, he bought a 1973 Mk2a Norton Commando, having long admired the classic brand. That bike currently sits in the Arch shop, which is notable for two reasons: One, few longtime riders are lucky enough to be able to hold onto their first bike. Two, over the years Reeves has…suffered some mishaps.
“Yeah, I’ve fallen off a few times,” he admits of the accidents he’s had on a variety of bikes. He takes a swig of water, then corrects himself. “Not ‘fallen off.’ Crashed. I’ve got a couple of hit-by-cars. A couple of going-too-fast. I’ve laid a couple of bikes down but I was riding in the winter, so that’s not really ‘crashing.’ That’s about it. The usual stuff.”
He’s broken ribs, knocked out teeth, sliced his leg open so deep that bone was visible. His most spectacular accident occurred in 1988, only a couple years after that day in Berlin. Reeves was riding alone at night in Malibu’s Topanga Canyon when he took one of the twisties too fast. By the time he came to a stop, he was lying on the pavement wondering if he was about to die. As you know, he didn’t—but he did fuck himself up pretty bad.
“I ruptured my spleen,” he says matter-of-factly. The widely reported version of the story goes that he needed the organ removed, but Reeves says it’s still intact. “They sutured it up and put a Band-Aid on.” He has a gnarly scar running vertically from his sternum down to his belly button, but in the right light it just ends up accentuating his abs because, well, he’s Keanu.
Reeves first met Hollinger through a mutual acquaintance about two decades after that crash, when Reeves wanted a custom sissy bar—basically, a backrest for a passenger—added to his 2005 Harley Davidson Dyna. Hollinger, who at that point was a relatively well-known, well-respected customizer with his own small LA shop, wasn’t interested.
“I knew I could build him the world’s most expensive sissy bar,” Hollinger says, “but I also knew it wouldn’t be satisfying for either of us.”
Instead, Hollinger spent the next five years completely reimagining the bike. He’d work in spurts, changing or adding something, then handing the bike back over to Reeves for months. By the time the bike was finished, Hollinger says, about the only parts of the original Dyna still remaining were the engine and the serial number on the chassis. Today that bike—a chromed-out ride fit for Mad Max—is displayed in the shop, the inspiration for what eventually became Arch.
Eventually being the key word. When, during the long process of modding the bike, Reeves first suggested to Hollinger that the two team up to start a motorcycle company, Hollinger didn’t have to think about his answer.
“I knew what a tough business it is, what a challenge it would be—and that it would not be a great investment,” Hollinger, now 63, says with a laugh. “It was a wonderful motorcycle I built and it was wonderful getting to know Keanu, but starting a motorcycle company sounded like a horrible idea.”
Reeves didn’t relent. As the pair became better friends—and as the motorcycle continued to take shape—they’d have long conversations about the realities of starting the company. Hollinger would show up to their discussions with pages of questions written on a legal pad, but what gradually eroded his hesitation was the thoughtfulness with which Reeves described the experience of riding a motorcycle.
Finally, nearly convinced, Hollinger asked Reeves to boil everything down to one reason why they should do something as seemingly crazy as starting a motorcycle company. The actor came up with it on the spot—a reason Hollinger immediately understood, which allowed him to envision the company and its worth as an opportunity to do something meaningful and long-lasting.
“Because,” Reeves told him, channeling the mortality-obsessed 11-year-old kid gawking at dudes on motorcycles, “we’re going to die.”
There have been many jokes made over the years about Reeves being a dummy, but after spending about 8 seconds with the guy it’s obvious he’s keenly intelligent. I mention that I read lots of sci-fi and fantasy books as a kid, which prompts him to ask whether I have opinions on several titles, followed by recommendations to read several others.
Thing is, his idiosyncratic public persona—which is sort of like Ted (not Bill) if Ted were a little more shy and a much better dresser—isn’t an act. Reeves isn’t trying to fool his critics or fans. And he isn’t really putting on an act in an attempt to prevent people from knowing who he is. He’s just this very singular, introspective, likable person who happened to become a pop culture icon.
All of that said? He can be pretty goofy. His physical mannerisms are sometimes at odds with what he’s saying, like he’s being controlled by feuding puppeteers. He speaks haltingly, stopping and starting and stopping again, often all in the same sentence, as he considers what exactly he wants to say or, just as likely, what he doesn’t want to say. More than once over the course of an afternoon he giggles—yes, giggles —at something he says or thinks, placing his cupped hand over his mouth like a theatrical school child hiding laughter; the gesture is as strange as it is endearing. He's somehow both laconic and verbose, calm and keyed up.
Although Reeves has long been known as “The internet’s boyfriend,” he’s currently dating—sorry, internet—acclaimed visual artist Alexandra Grant. The pair first collaborated on the 2011 book Ode to Happiness after having known each other previously; in the following years they collaborated on other projects and co-founded the small book imprint X Artists’ Books . Their romantic relationship began about five years ago but only became public knowledge two years in, when they arrived at a red carpet event together.
When asked about Grant, Reeves leans back in his chair as though trying to put both metaphorical and literal distance between himself and the idea of discussing his personal life.
So, uh, maybe it’s best to make it about bikes: What’s Grant’s opinion of Reeves’ (occasionally injurious) motorcycle fixation?
“She used to have a motorcycle, so she’s fine with it,” Reeves says. Then he pauses, as he so often does, seemingly considering whether to say anything more. “She hasn’t ridden in a while.”
Despite his lifelong love of bikes, Reeves hasn’t ridden them much in his movies. There’s a brief scene in the landmark 1991 indie film My Own Private Idaho. There’s some riding in 1996’s Chain Reaction, including one scene in which he manages to outrun an exploding hydrogen reactor . He’s technically on a bike in John Wick 3 while battling bad guys, but that was all done while stationary in front of a green screen. He has no interest in shoehorning Arches into his movies, though a couple of Arches are featured in the futuristic 2020 video game Cyberpunk 2077, in which he also played a major role.
Reeves says there’s a brief motorcycle scene in the upcoming John Wick 4, a movie whose eventual existence might have been laughed at when the original film debuted . Despite the series’ current status as an unstoppable franchise juggernaut, it originally wasn’t even planned as a franchise—and it certainly didn’t appear destined to be one after John Wick received a somewhat tepid theatrical reception in 2014.
“It had some success in the theater, but it really became more popular in second viewings,” Reeves says. “So the studio asked if we wanted to do another one.”
Reeves does more than just kick unbelievable amounts of ass in the movies; he’s also had a hand in plotting out the sequels. The genesis of the third and fourth installments, he says, took place while he and director Chad Stahelski were on the road promoting the second and third movies, respectively.
“Generally, Chad and I cook ’em up while we’re doing press tours,” Reeves says. “We talk about what we’d do next if the current film does well. I’m like, ‘I want to ride a horse and do a horse chase!’ And Chad says, ‘Yeah, we can do it in Central Park!’”
Reeves says he doesn’t know what comes next for him, but John Wick 5 will almost certainly be an option—if he wants to do it. He’s currently developing a TV series, and maybe he’ll make the motorcycle road movie he’s long thought about making. He’ll also no doubt continue riding bikes and growing Arch because he loves doing both.
He says he may continue BRZRKR , the comic series he co-writes. He won’t stop helping others via his philanthropy (he declines to discuss other than to say it’s “in health and the arts”). And he’ll burnish his already-glowing reputation as, in his words, “a pretty respectful and considerate person,” because that’s how he likes to treat people.
“I’m just,” Reeves says as his mouth curls into a smirk and his arms shoot out in front of him as though he’s pleading to be believed, “a normal guy.”