Keanu Reeves: The Man Who Isn't There

Keanu Reeves is very good at playing loners. Maybe that's because he's Hollywood's ultimate introvert

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MARKUS SCHREIBER / AP

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That's a standard-issue celebrity excuse for keeping mum in interviews, but if you look at Reeves' life, you have to wonder whether he has more personal reasons for keeping people at a distance. His parents split when he was a toddler. His younger sister Kim, to whom he's devoted, is currently battling leukemia. In 1999 Reeves' girlfriend Jennifer Syme became pregnant, but their daughter arrived stillborn. The couple separated, and in 2001 Syme died in a car crash after leaving a party at Marilyn Manson's house. That kind of baggage is no fun to unpack.

A sense of that buried pain comes through onscreen in Constantine: Reeves' flatness has its own kind of depth. He plays a private eye who keeps order in a Los Angeles infested with demons, angels, wizards and less easily definable supernatural entities. He's also dying of cancer and looking for a way to redeem his checkered past before the clock runs out. The genius of the movie, which is based on the long-running comic book Hellblazer, lies in the way it melds its metaphysical mumbo jumbo with a hard-boiled film-noir vibe: Constantine is like a seedy, cynical Harry Potter, 20 years older and cooler and worse for wear. It's the kind of movie in which Reeves' famous reserve and the anguish it almost — but not quite — hides work for him.

Although Reeves, who turned 40 last September, warns against overdoing the Keanu-grows-up theme, things are changing for him. He finally gave up his much mocked side career as a rock bassist. He bought a house in the Hollywood Hills, something he resisted doing for years. He also has a very grownup pile of money: the Matrix movies brought Reeves $15 million up front for each of the sequels, plus 15% of the gross, which comes to upwards of $150 million total. And he's reading Proust — he's up to Volume IV, which, to anyone who has ever read Volume I, is an achievement that demands respect.

Because he keeps his inner life so heavily guarded, Reeves is at his most self-revealing when he's talking about other people. While discussing his new indie flick Thumbsucker, about a teenager with a very infantile addiction, he goes off on a tangent about a line spoken by Tilda Swinton in the film. "She says, 'You know, you expect that when you have a family, that you will never feel alone.' And she does. I think that's a lovely piece of writing, and insight — if I can only have a family, these relationships, I'll be all right. And oftentimes you're not." Then, sensing that maybe he's said too much, he flips to a hyperironic voice: "But at least they're around to help ya. As opposed to really bein' alone!"

As it happens, Swinton is also in Constantine — she has a devastating cross-gender star turn as a cruel, foulmouthed angel Gabriel — and Reeves, who has become a fan of the British actress, would like to put on record, in TIME, that he is available to play Macbeth to Swinton's Lady Macbeth anytime, anywhere. He figures that he's now just about old enough to play the Scottish general, and he may be right. His Constantine is more Morpheus than Neo: he's not the befuddled innocent anymore — he's the guy who knows how the world really works, who pulls back the veil so that others can see the truth.

Reeves is finally pulling back some veils of his own. Want to know how a hundred-millionaire international icon celebrates his 40th birthday? "I went out to dinner with some friends. The year before I was alone," he admits, "so maybe I am moving up. This year I have a quiet, intimate happy birthday. Maybe next year I can do some carousing."

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