Keanu Reeves Battled a Tragic Personal Life Before Living the Hollywood Dream
Keanu Reeves is one of the most celebrated actors of the 21st century — and for good reason. The fan-favorite actor has starred in countless flicks, such as Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and The Matrix, that have evoked a sense of wonder, whimsy and fascination from audiences worldwide.
However, Reeves's immense commercial success hasn’t protected him from personal tragedy, causing his life to lack some of the typical Hollywood glow. In fact, behind the scenes, a stunning number of Reeves' personal experiences have been wrought with tragedy, grief and chaos.
Keanu's Tumultuous Early Years
Keanu Reeves' hardships began before the actor could even form a sentence. Born in 1964 in Lebanon to an English costume designer, Patricia Taylor, and a Chinese-Hawaiian geologist, Samuel Nowlin Reeves, Keanu's early adolescence showed no hint of his future in Hollywood.
A Fractured Relationship with His Father
When Keanu was still a toddler and his sister, Kim, was just an infant, Samuel officially divorced Patricia. Shortly after, he returned to Hawaii alone. As the years passed, Keanu struggled to maintain a steady relationship with his father. Despite previously abandoning his family, Samuel made multiple attempts to engage with Keanu and Kim in their early teenage years.
Keanu's Final Days with His Dad
After years of troubled behavior, Samuel took 13-year-old Keanu on one last trip. According to Reeves, he and his father spent a final, quiet night together watching the dark skies in Hawaii. The next day, Samuel dropped Keanu and Kim off at the airport and cut off contact with them.
Coping with His Mother's Romances
At the age of 13, Keanu was a young man in New York City. During that time, Patricia Taylor struggled to figure out life after Samuel's disappearance as much as Keanu did. She frequently dove into short-lived relationships and marriages with a variety of men from different social and economic classes.
Adapting Through His Unpredictable Teen Years
When Keanu got to Canada, he tried his best to adapt to his new life by investing time in hobbies and activities he enjoyed. As he entered his middle-teen years, he started to play ice hockey with his peers and developed a certain talent for the sport.
The Reeves' Shifting Family Structure
After Patricia's short marriage to Paul Aaron ended, she started a new relationship with Robert Miller, a Rock music promoter. When Miller came into the picture, Patricia became pregnant with her third child, Karina Miller. Keanu and Kim were relatively close to Karina as she grew up, although the wide age gap sometimes made bonding difficult.
The Actor's Chaotic School Career
Keanu and Kim were shuffled through a variety of schools during their years spent traveling with their mother. Keanu ended up attending four schools throughout the course of his high school career. Despite all the tumultuous changes, Keanu's acting career was blossoming.
His Abrupt Expulsion from High School
Keanu's decision to drop out was set in stone after he was expelled. "I had conflicts and run-ins with the staff," he told the Daily Mail in 2008. "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."
Finding His Footing in Hollywood
Outside of a rigid school environment, Keanu slowly but surely found his footing in the world of acting. He landed a plethora of roles in film and television in Canadian productions, adding to the commercial success he experienced while in high school.
The Hopeful Start of a Devastating Journey
Keanu scored some early breaks in standout films like the stellar Gen-X film River's Edge (1986) and the death-centric flick Permanent Record (1988). Before long, he had his first run-in with total stardom in the cult-classic, screwball comedy Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989).
Forming a Fiery Friendship
When Keanu met River Phoenix on the set of I Love You to Death (1990), the two immediately hit it off. Phoenix grew up in severe poverty, and he learned to perform as a young child as a means of making money on the street. At a remarkably young age, he landed complex and fascinating roles that earned him widespread praise.
A Bond Like Brothers (On a Tragic Course)
Keanu's connection with River was natural. "Until that point, I had practically no friends in the film scene because I hadn't met anyone that I wanted to hang out with privately. It's easier for me to separate my private life from my business. River Phoenix's childhood was even more curious than mine. He was also interested in acting for its sake. For him, it wasn't about a career; it was about his work," Keanu told Penthouse.
Phoenix's Heartbreaking Praise
Phoenix told City Limits in 1992, "I met Keanu through my ex-girlfriend...Then I met up with him on I Love You to Death. And I liked the guy. I wanted to work with him. He’s like my older brother." When Phoenix was asked to define the term "best friend," he replied, "Someone you can tell all your secrets to. For me, it's a guy you enjoy being with, a guy you love and a guy you care about. Keanu is my buddy, dude."
The Film That Spurred Their Downward Spiral
As they worked on I Love You to Death, Keanu and Phoenix goofed off, practiced silly accents and laughed over one another's jokes until their bellies hurt. Onscreen, they had the electric dynamic actors usually only achieve after working together all their lives. When filming for the movie ended, Keanu was extremely eager for the chance to work with Phoenix on another film.
Missing the Signs of Self-Destruction
Behind the scenes, Phoenix was battling immense internal turmoil and self-destructive tendencies. Looking back, Phoenix's mother believes he was struggling with the weight of his Hollywood reputation and was experiencing a violent degree of personal loneliness.
The Brutal Loss of His Best Friend
On October 31, 1993, at the age of 23, River Phoenix collapsed just outside The Viper Room, a night club on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. He had a toxic mixture of illegal drugs, including morphine and cocaine, in his system. At the time of Phoenix's death, Keanu was filming Speed (1994) with Sandra Bullock.
Keanu's Monumental Grief: “I Was Very Sad — and Something Beyond Sad”
Despite his outward composure, Keanu struggled to keep his head above water after the loss of his closest friend. "All I can say is that I have never felt a thing like that before in my life," he shared with Empire in 1994. "I was very sad — and something beyond sad. I don't know what it is, just you sob for hours."
Outrunning His Unsettling Past
Phoenix was one of the only people that Keanu had ever fully shared his heart with and trusted. It's not surprising that a 29-year-old Keanu became apprehensive about who he allowed in his life in the future.
Diving into a Dazzling, Doomed Relationship
Keanu's mid-90’s, post-Phoenix films were highly varied in theme and content, often featuring new, dynamic displays of Keanu's acting, perhaps fueled by new emotions and grief related to the death of his friend. Besides existing relationships with his family, Keanu seemed apprehensive about fostering any new personal relationships.
Falling Head-Over-Heels for Syme
Even if you had told Keanu his romance would end in a tragedy equal to Phoenix's death, he probably would have stuck with Jennifer Syme anyway. She was a novice actress and assistant to filmmaker David Lynch when their paths crossed.
When Hope Turns to Heartache
Keanu and Syme started dating shortly after meeting. The couple, who could barely stand to be apart, quickly moved into a shared home. A mere year after telling the public they were dating, Keanu and Syme announced they were expecting a beautiful baby girl.
The Young Couple's Immeasurable Grief
On Christmas Eve in 1999, one month before Syme was due to deliver baby Ava Archer Syme-Reeves, Syme went into premature labor and gave birth to their child. Sadly, little Ava was stillborn. The loss was a huge blow for Keanu, who had already lost so much in his young life.
Keanu's Career: His Mirage of Wellness
After Ava died, Syme and Keanu found themselves struggling to relate to each other, and they decided to end their relationship. Keanu's year of euphoria and connection drew to a painful close, but when it came to his career, no one who worked with him ever sensed how badly he was suffering. The Matrix came out in March 1999, the same year Ava was born.
Witnessing the Love of His Life Erode
While Keanu's career flourished, both he and Syme continued to suffer in their own ways. He consistently attempted to find healthy ways to cope, but Syme did not. She turned to heavy drinking and excessive partying to distract herself from the sad reality of what happened to her child and to her relationship.
More Grief Than One Man Can Handle
In April 2001, Syme attended a party at Marilyn Manson's house. Seeing she was intoxicated, Manson cut her off and sent her home with one of his personal drivers. At some point after arriving at home, Syme got behind the wheel of her Jeep Cherokee and attempted to return to Manson's house. She lost control of the vehicle, crashed into three parked cars and died on impact.
Trying to Recover from His Trauma
Although Syme and Keanu were no longer romantically involved, Keanu still felt she was the true love of his life. A source close to the actor told People magazine that Keanu found it "very, very difficult to cope with her death." Losing his love after losing their child and his closest friend seemed like an unfathomable series of events for someone to recover from in one lifetime.
Reflections On Loss: “Grief Changes Shape, But It Never Ends”
In 2006, Keanu told Parade magazine, "Grief changes shape, but it never ends. People have a misconception that you can deal with it and say, ‘It’s gone, and I’m better’. They’re wrong. When the people you love are gone, you’re alone. I miss being a part of their lives and them being part of mine. I wonder what the present would be like if they were here — what we might have done together. I miss all the great things that will never be."
Supporting His Sister Through Leukemia
In 1991, Keanu's sister, Kim Reeves, was diagnosed with leukemia. Her battle with cancer lasted until 1999, when she joyfully announced she was in remission. A decade of battling the illness took a toll on her physical and emotional health, and Keanu was there to support her every step of the way.
The Marvel of Keanu's Selfless Soul
Despite experiencing a plethora of devastating events throughout his short life, Keanu has refused to allow his personal trauma to harden him. From giving away millions to charity — without taking any credit — to demanding his own salary be cut to provide better pay to non-actors on his films, Keanu puts his best foot forward to ease the potential suffering of others.
The Hopeful Future of the Suffering Star
Reflecting on a number of Keanu's heartbreaking life experiences, it's incredible that he has survived as much as he has and still thrives. From coping with an absent father to losing his best friend, his only child and his first love, he continues to amaze fans with his resilience and optimism.