“I am more vulnerable than I thought, but much stronger than I ever imagined.”
The talk show host Stephen Colbert has a habit of asking his guests deep questions, one of them being: “What do you think happens when we die?”
With many of his guests, the question could easily turn into a philosophical debate about the afterlife or God’s existence. But one guest gave a short and unexpected answer.
Actor Keanu Reeves responded, “I know that the ones who love us will miss us.”
You might know Reeves best from the Matrix and John Wick movies. The latter, especially, holds a special place in his filmography.
The John Wick movies tell the story of a former assassin who has lost his wife to an illness. Before she died, she sent him a pet dog as a parting gift, to help him cope with his grief. Tragically, Wick loses this only outlet of grief in a robbery, along with his car. As he journeys through his revenge and its unintended consequences, he is forced to reconcile with the demons of his past life, and in turn, find his true self.
The character John Wick might just be the most personal role Reeves has ever had to act, as loss is a part of life that he has known too well.
Growing up, Reeves had to deal with the absence of his father, who abandoned his family and was eventually sentenced to prison for possession of cocaine and heroin. During an early point of his acting career, Reeves lost his best friend, River Phoenix to a drug overdose. Later on, he and his partner, Jennifer Syme dealt with the loss of their stillborn daughter. Just two years later, Reeves lost Syme in a car accident.
John Wick is the arguably the pinnacle of Reeve’s acting, as he delivers a visceral portrayal of the character. It is a rare and hard-earned performance in which an artist turns his pain into beauty.
The audience is gifted with an endearing experience, as they could empathize with the character’s voyage through the five stages of grief, as well as relate with their own personal losses. It is like watching real life unfold on the screen.
Reeves achieved this by reaching deep into his own private emotions and channeling them into his acting. He said in an interview, “With any character, the way I think about it is, you have the role on the page, you have the vision of the director and you have your life experience.”
Elaborating on the important role that his personal experiences played in the John Wick movies, he said, “I thought it was one of the foundations of the role for John Wick…for the character and in life, it’s about the love of the person you’re grieving for, and any time you can keep company with that fire, it is warm. I absolutely relate to that, and I don’t think you ever work through it. Grief and loss, those are things that don’t ever go away. They stay with you.”
As an artist, the greatest mark that you can have on your audience is an emotional one. By inspiring sadness, fear, anger or joy in their hearts, you could propel them towards reevaluating their own lives and the world around them, as well as taking the initiative to create a change.
Just as Reeves has done in his acting, we could use our pain to our advantage. By channeling our pain into our art, we are tapping into our shared humanity — and in a non-verbal way, we are communicating to our audience that they are not alone in their pain — that we too, have felt the same way.
Train yourself to be at peace with your pain. Don’t fight it, but acknowledge it. Integrate it into your art, and make something beautiful out of it.
I’m always reminded of a parable about an egg, a carrot, and tea leaves when they’re placed into hot water. The egg hardens itself. The carrot turns into mush. But the tea leaves turn the hot water into a pleasant beverage, and even gives out a comforting aroma to the people who are nearby.
When you find yourself in hot water, what are you going to do?