Saving the world pays well these days. For his role as Neo, a computer hacker who frees mankind from the tyranny of sentient machines in the wildly popular Matrix trilogy, Keanu Reeves took home an estimated US$220 million, propelling him to the ranks of Canada's wealthiest. Whoa.
But unlike Neo's formidable fighting skills in The Matrix, Reeves' film success wasn't downloaded overnight. In the mid-'80s, the hockey-loving Torontonian moved to Los Angeles to pursue every actor's dream. His first big break was a lead role in a comedy about two spaced-out California teenagers who travel back in time. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure was a box office hit. But Reeves' portrayal of the incredibly dense Ted Logan was so spot on–for one reason or another–that he would later have trouble landing mainstream roles.
A production exec named Larry Gordon finally gambled on the lanky actor and let him play FBI Special Agent Johnny Utah in the 1991 cops-and-surfing-robbers movie Point Break, which pulled in US$84 million. Soon after, a script for a fast-paced thriller fell into Reeves' hands. The actor and his manager, Erwin Stoff, reportedly spent an entire 12-hour flight between Los Angeles and France debating the merits of the story. During that discussion, Reeves reasoned, “So what, it's a bomb on a bus. Who cares?” But Stoff prevailed and the lucky actor signed on to play SWAT cop Jack Traven in Speed. The movie was a runaway hit, raking in more than US$350 million.
To no surprise, sequel-obsessed Hollywood wanted Speed 2 and offered Reeves US$11 million to do it. But the actor declined and instead took a pay cut to go up against Al Pacino in the supernatural courtroom drama The Devil's Advocate. That move stunned many in the industry who were convinced Speed 2: Cruise Control would be a blockbuster. It wasn't. Although Reeves dodged that bullet, he didn't escape two bombs of his own: the action disasters Johnny Mnemonic and Chain Reaction.
Despite those flops, Larry and Andy Wachowski invited Reeves to try out for The Matrix, the brothers' science-fiction epic at Warner Bros. studios. They pitched the flick as an anime-inspired exploration of reality, featuring mind-blowing special effects, Hong Kong-style action and plenty of “wire-fu” fight sequences the actors would do themselves. Reeves was game, but so were other A-list actors. Luckily, the Canadian had an edge: Warner Bros. produced The Devil's Advocate and was impressed with his performance.
In the end, the Wachowskis chose Reeves to be “the One.” As Larry put it, “We knew it would take a maniacal commitment from someone, and Keanu was our maniac.” Whoa, indeed.