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Alexander Betts

James N Reddoch



Keanu Reeves Successful Career as a Generation X Actor

Generation X has many characteristics that are reflected in films produced from the 1980’s to the present. Generation X audiences relate to these movies and have made them successful. The actors of this time have been called contemporary actors because they brought a new style that was different from the classic and baby boomer actors before them. Not all actors have had successful careers as contemporary actors. Keanu Reeves has had a long and successful career by adapting Generation X characteristics to his acting style and roles, by not allowing himself to be typecast into his style and by not allowing the personal defects of Generation X characteristics to ruin his life.

Keanu Reeves is a classic example of Generation X. Generation X can technically be defined as the generation following the Baby Boomers. They were born in the mid 1960’s. This generation has been stereotyped as slackers as a result of being called the MTV Generation.

In a 1997 article for University of Nevada Reno's Outpost, Jennifer Jochim shows the negative side of common stereotypes about this group: "Generation X is made up of cynical, hopeless, frustrated and unmotivated slackers who wear grunge clothing, listen to alternative music and still live at home because they cannot get real jobs. It is a label that has stuck" (Jochim). Gen Xers have also been classified as individuals who accept diversity, are practical, reject rules and mistrust institutions. The productive side of Gen X’ers was well outlined in an article by Sally Kane on the website In the write up, Sally notes that many Gen X’ers are independent, resourceful and self sufficient (Kane). These characteristics are the result of being latch-key kids and having to take care of themselves. They also have a casual disdain for authority, they like freedom in their work and are responsible. Generation X is ambitious and eager to learn new skills but want to accomplish things on their own terms.

Keanu Reeves, whose first name means "cool breeze over the mountains" in Hawaiian, is a classic child of the laid back Generation X (Anonymous). He barely knew his father. His mother was a costume designer and they moved around a lot. He was a latch-key kid. His mobile life with his mother resulted in him becoming a high school dropout to pursue his acting career. Reeves grew up participating in many aspects of his generation. He played bass guitar in the grunge band Dogstar. His early years of acting were targeted to his generation and included many teenage audiences. Reeves quickly developed a laid back, defiant and mellow acting style with many Generation X traits. His acting style was accepted by his peers because it was a representation of the generation that he was a part of.

Keanu Reeves adaptation of his Generation X characteristics is seen in his movies. Keanu Reeves has been called a minimalistic actor. From the website ‘whoa is (not) me ‘, Keanu Reeves is quoted, “It’s about having strong feeling and very minimalistic, direct behavior to express them. It’s a real economy of acting, when you move it’s like a Japanese samurai, this is my intention and it’s what I do, it’s straight and not flamboyant, and it’s clean acting.”-Keanu on his work on The Matrix (Reeves).

He has progressed as he has gotten older, but maintained his minimalistic style. Reeves first role demonstrating his minimalistic acting style was "Ted Logan" in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (Bill and Ted). This is one of his first successful films. He developed Ted into a slacker that almost seemed like a pot head. Ted was part of a grudge band, another stereotype of Generation X. He developed his character to reflect realistic views of teenage Gen X’ers. He was successful in the Bill and Ted series because he was relating to the comedy side of growing up in the 1980’s. His trademark phrase “excellent” from the movie was an example of the Gen X teenage attitude towards life. His role in this movie connected well with Generation X audiences. He was almost stereotyped in the series, but chose other roles after to demonstrate his versatility.

In The Devil’s Advocate, Keanu Reeves plays a totally different genre of movie. It was a successful movie after Bill and Ted. In the 10 years since Bill and Ted, Reeves took a role completely different. He plays an ambitious lawyer as Kevin Lomax. He still used his mellow minimalistic style and his monotone voice in this movie. He now played a Gen X character that was in his 30’s. His role was much different than playing the teen Ted Logan. He showed more emotion in this film. It was a supernatural thriller, but his character was believable as a common lawyer of his age group He talks of his baby boomer mother and her working the same job for ever. He does what he must even if it is wrong in defending his clients. He demonstrates the Gen X characteristic of rejecting rules and mistrusting institutions (The Devil’s Advocate). The director of the film was Taylor Hackford. Says Hackford, "Keanu has a different, perhaps stronger, presence in this film than the one we're used to seeing from him. Here he appears as a young man who has never had doubts about what he wanted, who's succeeded in life by trying hard and not wondering what else may have contributed to his success. I think Keanu has done a terrific job of bringing that kind of competitive, non-reflective, all-American guy to the screen" (Hackford). The film was reviewed in a write up called “Morality According to Lucifer” by Little Gotti. In the review Gotti states, “This is a story about a man that has always been a winner and was rewarded for it with the kind of things that winning brings - wealth and power. At the end he realizes that winning may not always be the best thing, but then it is too late. The characters in this film are both complex and real, partly because of the good writing, partly because of some wonderful performances by every actor. This is probably Reeves' best performance. He manages to create a believable character - a kind of example, a role model for the American way of life“(Gotti).

Reeves next successful and most identifying movie was The Matrix. In the Matrix, Keanu Reeves plays Neo. Neo lives two lives that are both a representation of Generation X. In the naturalistic part of his role, he is a part of the computer generation as a programmer by day. He is also a computer hacker by night, something that is part of the generation X culture. Reeves’ un-naturalistic character in the film is “The One”, a chosen one selected to save the world. His character applies the Generation X characteristics to be not burdened by what is happening. He does and does not trust what people are telling him. He learns to not trust the government that makes up the matrix. He still has a minimalistic acting style that keeps his character monotone and mellow about his actions. His acting made you believe in him. Even in this series of movies he was once again in danger of being typecast as Neo for his acting future (The Matrix).

In order to not be typecast after The Matrix, Reeves took a 9 million dollar pay cut because he wanted to change his image. The major pay cut was to star in a low budget film called The Gift. He took this movie to keep his career going without being labeled as Neo. In the movie he had a supporting role as a wife-beater. In this film, Reeves once again kept his acting style low key and minimalistic along with other stars including Cate Blanchett and Katie Holmes. Although the movie was not a huge success, it did show Reeve’s acting style could be versatile in different roles. A side note to this action is that he demonstrated a personal Generation X characteristic of quitting a job (or taking a less desirable one) to keep his identity as an actor in focus.

Keanu Reeves’ more current successful film was Constantine . In this film he plays John Constantine. He has a un-naturalistic role of fighting Generation X problems in a mellow, yet exciting way as well. He is in a supernatural role again, is dying and actually gives the finger to the devil. He is portraying the Gen X characteristic of not accepting authority. The audience can relate to this even in his darkest hour (Constantine). The reviews for Reeves in Constantine once again show his minimal but effective acting style. Ella Taylor of L.A. Weekly wrote, “Keanu Reeves has no peer when it comes to playing these sort of messianic roles—he infuses them with a Zen blankness and serenity that somehow gets him through even the unlikeliest scenes with a quiet, unassuming dignity" (Taylor).

Keanu Reeves has been successful in many other films such as Speed, A Scanner Darkly, and even Something’s Gotta Give. He is believable in these roles by staying close to his Generation X characteristics. He remains a believable character in these films by remaining a typical American guy with different tasks at hand. Reeves has had many more movies up until now including the Lake House. He actually played in a film called Generation Um. Keanu Reeves is still going strong as an actor.

Keanu Reeves is very different from other actors of his generation. In researching some of the actors, it is clear that he had a different path then many of them. His career has been long lasting without long lapses between films. Many Generation X actors were quickly typecast and had limited careers. In his book Movie Acting, Geoffrey M. Horn states “When making a movie, directors often like to cast certain types. “ He further states, “Typecasting can be a serious problem when it stems from narrow ideas about particular groups”(Geoffrey 8). Some actors like Rob Lowe, John Cusack and Matt Dillon who were born in the same year as Reeves, were typecast into what is called the Brat Pack. These actors had a simplistic acting style portraying troubled kids in their early movies. Their movies were called coming-of-age films. They did not have much depth in their acting. Their movies were successful because of the plot and the interest for the audience of the time more than the quality of the acting. One of the Brat Pack’s movies was The Breakfast Club. In watching The Breakfast Club it is clear that the actors are simply acting the youth of the time. The Wikipedia definition of the Brat Pack states: The films themselves have been described as representative of "the socially apathetic, cynical, money-possessed and ideologically barren eighties generation" (Wikipedia). The movies were popular at the first, and the actors became overnight successes. Unfortunately, the fame was short lived and many never had successful movies after that (The Breakfast Club).

Many Gen X actors had limited careers because they allowed negative Gen X characteristics to control their personal lives. Robert Downey Jr. was addicted to drugs and alcohol until it almost took his life. Rob Lowe was marked by a sex tape scandal. Some of the Brat Pack actors had famous roles later, but only after they were able to shed their typecasts and overcome the personal problems that face many Generation X people. Keanu Reeves has not allowed the negative effects of being part of Generation X to control his life. He has kept out of the tabloids for problems that have ruined or delayed many other actors of his generation.

Keanu Reeves has been able to stay a successful actor by using the positive characteristics of Generation X. He has not fallen into typecasting to limit his roles as other Gen X actors have done. He has kept his minimalist acting style while adapting it to different roles. He has used the Generation X characteristics personally and in acting to keep having successful movies without breaks.

Works Cited

Anonymous. “Keanu Reeves Biography.” n.p. n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Dir.  Stephen Herek. Perf. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter.

MGM, 1989. DVD.

Breakfast Club. Dir.  John Hughes. Perf. Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald.

Universal Pictures, 1985. DVD.

Constantine. Dir. Francis Lawrence. Perf.  Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz and Djimon Hounsou.

Warner Brothers, 2005. DVD.

Gotti, Little. “Morality According to Lucifer.” Reviews and ratings.

28 April 2003. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.

Hackford, Taylor. “The Devil's Advocate - Production Notes.” n.p. 1997 Web.

17 Nov. 2013.

Horn, Geoffrey M. “Movie Acting”. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2007.

Print. 8.

Jochim, Jennifer. “Generation X defies definition.” n.p. 1 June 1997. Web.

7 Nov. 2013. < >

Kane, Sally. “Generation .” n.p. n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2013.

Reeves, Keanu. “On Keanu's Minimalist Acting Style.” n.p. 2013. Web.

17 Nov. 2013.

Taylor, Ella. “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” Keanu Reeves in Constantine. 17 Feb. 2005. Web. 29 Nov. 2013. <>

The Devils Advocate. Dir. Taylor Hackford. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino and Charlize Theron. Warner Brothers , 1997. DVD. 

The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski. Perf.  Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne. Warner Brothers, 1999. DVD. 

Wikipedia. “Brat Pack (Actors).” Legacy. n.p. n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2013.


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