Keanu Reeves and What We Consider ‘Good Acting’

Film Crit Hulk asks, is Keanu Reeves really a bad actor? Or do we just not understand what good acting is?

Keanu Reeves in The Matrix Reloaded.
Keanu Reeves in The Matrix Reloaded. Allstar/Warner Bros.

We’re really bad at talking about acting.

Audiences. Critics. Pretty much everyone. But it makes sensewe don’t understand much about acting because the process is completely invisible to us. We simply walk into a theater and see the end result on screen. We then judge what we like and don’t like about a performance from a gut feeling. In fact, “seeing” the acting is something that often puts us off. Instead, we want to fall into the movie and its reality, which just means we tend to stay at a distance from the process of such things. But we still know the craft is something that is unmistakably real. All you have to do is put a non-actor in a scene and you’ll instantly respect how amazing actors truly are. Heck, take any acting class and you’ll see how hard it is yourself (attention wannabe directors, please do this, it will be incredibly useful). But even with all this mind, we just aren’t good at talking about acting.

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I bring this up because it was Keanu Reeves’s 54th (!!!) birthday the other day and I got thinking not just about his career, but our cultural understanding of him. Specifically, I thought of a line from the TV show Community where Abed is trying to figure out the enigma of Nicolas Cage and asks, “Is he a good bad actor like Keanu Reeves? Or a bad good actor like Johnny Depp?”

It’s not just a funny quote, it’s something that has stuck with me forever because it so readily contextualizes the backwards way that the public sees “good” and “bad” performances. Which means it provides not just an excellent chance to talk about the careers of all three actors mentioned above, but how their abilities reveal the prism through which we view acting and consider a performance “good.”

1. Our Dorian Gray

I’m going to make it clear up front: Keanu Reeves is not a bad actor. In fact, I think he’s a great actor and I am not alone in this. The case has not just been made before, but made beautifully in an incredible piece from Angelica Jade Bastien. But the reason Keanu is such a focal point of people’s misunderstanding is because he taps into the problem of what we consider “good acting” to be. For example, if we were to imagine the perfect ideal of an actor, we’d think of someone like Daniel Day-Lewis. Someone who works tirelessly to “become someone else.” To disappear into the role so deeply that we don’t even see the actor, but just this other person before us. They’ll use “the method” to stay in character at all times. They may even use tricks to achieve some manner of transformation, hiding behind prosthetics or makeup.

But these are mere tools that depend on the skill of the craftsman using them, and it’s often posture and cadence that really do the heavy lifting. So what we are really talking about here is not so much a question of good or bad, but the concept of “range.” It prompts questions like: How many different kinds of people can the actor be? Can they do comedy? Can they do drama? Do they have the ability to truly become someone else? To be anyone and make it convincing?

Keanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Keanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Allstar/20th Century Fox

Truth be told, I don’t care about range all that much because it turns the evaluation of acting into a meta-game where we go, “Look how much that actor is not like how they are in real life!” Or, “Look how much acting they had to do!” These things are certainly impressive, and we also do them because they are simple way of “measuring” the acting. But, ultimately, they have very little to do with the actual affectation of what’s happening on screen. And certainly nothing to do with how much we actually care about it. In the end, it doesn’t matter how much range the actor has; there are better questions we can ask. Such as: Does the character convincingly bring the moment itself to life? Does the moment of drama work in the film? Are you moved by it?

If we’re being honest, Keanu Reeves has not always been successful at this. A lot of it goes back to his ‘90s heyday where he blasted into public consciousness as the sweet-hearted and achingly-dumb Theodore Logan from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But as an emerging teen heartthrob, he soon found his way into a number of British period films like Dangerous Liasons, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Much Ado About Nothing where he couldn’t help but seem…out of place. It’s important to note he wasn’t so much “out of character” as he was just very convincing at playing the young heartthrobs and lunks he’d been cast as prior. It came down to his unmistakable, ‘80s brand Hawaii-California cadence. As my friend Damon put it, “His biggest ‘failing’ is that he is too modern for period pieces.” No matter what he brings to the emotion of the role, it just couldn’t convincingly work. And it was this juxtaposition, along with the idea that he was mostly playing dumb teen characters, that largely informed the idea that he was a “bad” actor.

With those porcelain good looks, that long hair and that inescapable stoner way of talking we could only think of him as that one type. But, within that perfect sweet spot, he had a lot more range than people gave him credit for. You find the core of it in his early films like Parenthood and River’s Edge, but particularly his work with Gus Van Sant in My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. In these, he was definitely that young impressionable teen, but there was something else underneath it. A raw vulnerability. A genuine substance. You always felt like his characters were doing their best under certain limitations, as Keanu was in turn. And there was something genuinely empathetic in that.

Ione Skye and Keanu Reeves in River's Edge.
Ione Skye and Keanu Reeves in River’s Edge. Allstar/Hemdale

People also forget that when Reeves got rebranded into an action star it was not a super easy thing for the public to buy. We were still coming out of the over-muscled, high-body-count era of Schwarzenegger and Stallone. And suddenly here was this sensitive, skinny, cool guy who could convincingly play some football, but also listen to poetry with open heart. And with Point Break and Speed, he didn’t just appeal to the masculine fantasy, but his star power became incredibly popular with women as well (hence being then picked for romantic comedies like A Walk In The Clouds). But as his star power grew, his personal inclinations kept skewing toward the sci-fi genre he loved. He had a couple of non-starters in Johnny Mnemonic and Chain Reaction, but then…The Matrix.

It was both a surprise mega hit and cultural revolution. And he was really perfect for the role of Neo, too. At once a quiet zen master and simple everyman, he could channel the broad archetype and sell you on the entire conceit with one very well-timed “whoa.” More importantly, he genuinely took the time to get really, really, really good at Kung Fu. Which people forget was not something that showed up a lot in American action films before then (now it’s in every movie). But Reeves was the first, and two Matrix sequels later, he was one of the most convincing action stars on the planet. I don’t use that word “convincing” by accident. It’s the single most important word when it comes to acting. And with the action, you were utterly convinced that Reeves was the real deal at martial arts. He could kick your ass and take names. This is something that he would later take to another level with the John Wick films. Really, watch his behind-the-scenes firearms training here:

So many people watched this and shouted, “He really is John Wick!” But that gets at a whole interesting dynamic. With movie star personalities, we always think actors are who they are on screen. We think about the detached cool of Humphrey Bogart or the charming wiles of Audrey Hepburn and we think that’s who they really are. We imagine acting must be easy for them. That they were just going about their day and someone with a camera just happened to catch it all. But, of course, it’s not like that at all. The ability to put yourself in some completely unnatural environment, with cameras and crews standing around, and then say the lines you’re supposed to memorize, and THEN be natural, is one of the most difficult things to do on the planet. So to be “yourself” or “have a personality” on screen is something that takes a colossal effort. And with that understanding, I’ll happily argue that what Reeves does is pretty singular and remarkable.

It goes far beyond convincing fight scenes. Reeves is one of the few actors who can do effortless cool and yet be genuinely earnest at the exact same time. His personality is solid, almost as if he’s built from the earth. He’s not some motor-mouthed charmer, but you still buy him in romantic comedies because you believe that inherent decency. You buy his kindness, but you also buy the ways he’s withdrawn. Maybe even a little haunted. He doesn’t lash out at you with those feelings, he always lets you in. Which makes him one of the most internal yet giving actors around, and also makes the occasions he plays someone scary feel genuinely unnerving.

We get so caught up in the meta-game of judging acting that we completely miss the solid dependability of what Reeves brings, as well as the emotional range within his singular persona. It reminds me of a brilliant thing Pauline Kael said about acting, and I’m paraphrasing, but the important thing is that “when he talks, I believe him.” And when I look at Keanu Reeves, our seemingly ageless Dorian Gray of modern cinema, I watch the way he kicks butt, the way he stands tall, the way he carries his sadness and guilt and the way he cracks that charming as hell smile…

Boy, do I believe him.

2. A Pile of Scarves

I have no intention of talking about Johnny Depp without talking about the abuse allegations. I don’t like living in society where saying something as simple as “I believe Amber Heard” is regarded as some kind of stance. It should be basic human decency. But I also don’t want this discussion to be a small thing to casually mention at the start of an essay. Because this issue is everything we are trying to unbind ourselves from when it comes to the societal abuse of power. And to that, I trust in the people who can write about why we have to untangle these webs to do so with far more insight than I can offer. So please know, I don’t come here to separate art from the artist. Nor do I come to get lost in a side conversation on articles about his erratic behavior. Nor do I come to mourn Johnny Depp’s career. Instead, I come to bury it. And in doing so, disavow us from the false notions of what he was really doing the entire time.

Depp rose to fame much like Reeves did. He was a young heartthrob who found his way into great independent films directed by Jim Jarmusch and John Waters, before striking gold with a creative partnership with Tim Burton. But even with similar boyish good looks, Depp was antithesis of Reeves from the very start. For Depp clearly fashioned himself in the vein of “range” actors like Daniel Day-Lewis. He was always disappearing into characters. He’d have a new voice. A new cadence. A new look. A new behavior. There’s was always some new surface level affectation that he would put first. And almost all his characters were weirdos. But key to the success of these weirdos was a clear nugget of personality within them. He always seemed to be the boy in the corner, off in his own world, and you could only stare and wonder at how he came to be.

Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands.
Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands. Allstar/20th Century Fox

At times, this was aligned to great purpose. Depp’s solipsism works beautifully for the delusion of characters like Ed Wood, but even more traditionally for the sheepishness of Edward Scissorhands—a movie that not only plays like a grand fable, but directly plays into the trope of why women should fall for the sweet, misunderstood boy. This was his essential allure. And it was part of why so many young people fell in love with him. But, when considering Depp the actor, you have to remember this is essentially one big game of playing coy. And as he got further away from heartthrob status and his career was slipping a bit in the late ‘90s, he couldn’t seem to find the thing that let him back into the public’s hearts. That was until Captain Jack Sparrow and Pirates of the Caribbean.

You have to remember that Disney executives were deeply confused by his performance. They wondered why he was acting foppish, with Michael Eisner apparently shouting “What is that thing? Is it drunk? Is it gay?” But the effect on audiences was much more endearing. Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow was funny, cowardly, selfish and most importantly, completely out-of-place in a summer blockbuster. So of course we liked it. But like all good things that make people too much money, Depp and Disney would proceed to run both the character and the franchise into the damn ground. And Depp, who perhaps felt emboldened by his new popular success, started pushing his performances into more and more outlandish territory (also to diminishing returns). His ensuing versions of Willy Wonka, the Mad Hatter, Barnabas Collins and Tonto aren’t just bizarre, they’re almost impenetrable. And his performances where he disappeared into nothing more than a series odd choices reached an apex with this specific cameo in Kevin Smith’s Tusk.

It was around this time that Community made the “bad good actor” comment, and it was completely fitting. No matter how well-regarded his acting may be by some, no matter how “much” acting he does, it’s actually bad. Mostly because it doesn’t help the storytelling. It’s just a series of convincing affectations that never really add up to anything meaningful. He’s only crafting something “true” to his own intimacy, but never really seeming present and exchanging with other characters on screen. Which is the most damning criticism of all: he’ll not only displace the reality of your movie, but he is completely ungenerous to actors he’s sharing a scene with. He acts at them, not with them. Which just makes him an endless facade with complete unknowability. My friend Jamie once summed up his disintegration perfectly when she texted, “apparently Johnny Depp is at [location] if you want to make fun of a pile of scarves.”

A pile of scarves. It’s precisely what makes him the opposite of Keanu Reeves in every damn sense. Sure, you can be impressed by the range, but it’s all surfaces, all eccentric details, all meaningless and all to the disastrous effect of pushing the audience and costars away from the moment of drama. Which bring us to the honest, brutal truth about the actor we once thought was the bashful boy in the corner…

He was always acting for himself.

3. The Wild Card

You know those charts they use to compare the flavors and intensity of different kinds of scotch? They have two perpendicular lines at an X and Y axis. One axis measures smoky vs. delicate and the other light vs. rich. This chart means you can classify all scotches into four quadrants. There’s smoky and light, smoky and rich, delicate and light and delicate and rich. It’s simple, but it’s a really good way of classifying, comparing and measuring scotches against each other. You can always find their “place” on the chart. And I mention this because whenever I think about Nicolas Cage, I think about the scotch chart.

Because no actor’s career has been more all over the place. On one axis, we know he can do complete “seriousness,” as he won an Oscar for his internal, soulful portrait of alcoholism in Leaving Las Vegas. He can work great as the smart, charismatic dude in blockbuster fare like National Treasure and The Rock. Even his Charlie Kaufman impression/performance in Adaptation rings true. And on another arm of that axis, he can be completely off the wall. He’s had faces, moments and even entire performances go on to become memes, like in The Wickerman, Bangkok Dangerous and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But the “success” of all of these is on another axis. Because some of those gonzo performances are also incredible—and I’m not just talking about obvious examples like Face/Off, I’ll go to bat for his weird paternal Adam West impression in Kick Ass any day of the week. And on the flip-side, sometimes his serious performances work horribly (the Italian accent in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin…oh nooo). The point being, he’s all over his own scotch chart.

The only question is, why?

The why is largely about the meeting point of intent and context. On screen, performances are about the marriage of what an actor brings and how it’s adopted into the actual movie by the filmmakers. You could imagine Nicolas Cage coming in and being a total force of nature. Maybe he’s bringing something serious and understated. Maybe he’s bringing something completely gonzo. But it immediately becomes dependent on the director to know whether or not the choices fit the story and tone, along with recognizing the moments that play right and working with the moments that play wrong.

Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona.
Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona. Allstar/20th Century Fox

And when it works, it works. Apparently the Coen brothers had to reign Cage in on Raising Arizona, but in the end I honestly consider H.I. McDunnough to be one of the best performances of all time. Actor Noah Segan recently joked on Twitter (in reference to a story about Nicolas Cage, no less) that, “The greatest direction a filmmaker can give to an actor is, ‘stop doing that voice.’” Which brings us to a surprisingly simple point.

We talk about good and bad, but in the end, good acting is just about being believed on screen. Which takes a careful alignment of purpose, and understanding the context of what things fit and which ones don’t. And the partnership between actors and storytellers gets at the very heart of the collaboration of filmmaking. The job, and the only job, is to make the moments in the film work like gangbusters. To make the audience laugh, gasp, cry and tense up, exactly as intended. So we can talk all we want about the craft and range, but in the end there is only that essential goal.

There is only doing your job.

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Update: This story has been updated to include a very necessary and embarrassingly overlooked link to Angelica Jade Bastien’s The Grace of Keanu Reeves.

Keanu Reeves and What We Consider ‘Good Acting’