Does ‘John Wick’ and ‘The Matrix’ Star Keanu Reeves Owe His Career to Will Smith?

Keanu Reeves is one of the most recognizable actors in the world today. He’s also become an unlikely action star. Few who saw him star in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in the early 90s could have predicted that fate for Reeves, but it happened.

Reeves is the star of two of the great action franchises of all time: the John Wick series and The Matrix films. But did you know that a few very famous actors could have been Neo instead, changing the shape of Reeves’ career? 

What Keanu Reeves is known for to today’s audiences

Reeves has had a long, fruitful career in Hollywood. Movies he’s been the lead in have grossed a whopping $3.8 billion worldwide, according to TheNumbers.com.

He’s still on top of his game today. Since 2014, he’s starred in three films in the John Wick series. In those movies, he plays a recently retired assassin who’s driven to return to his old life.

The films are strikingly simple in their plots but intricate in their fight choreography. They’re breathtaking achievements in the action realm. 

At the center of it all is Reeves, who’s monotone, almost robotic depiction of the character is note-perfect. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, and Reeves has been wildly successful.

While his career was going fine before the Wick movies, it definitely helped elevate his career yet again. But this is far from the first time Reeves has found himself as the first-billed person in a movie or even a franchise. 

How the Matrix skyrocketed Keanu Reeves to superstardom

Keanu Reeves at a 'John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum' screening
Keanu Reeves | ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

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In the late 90s, Reeves was definitely a star. He’d headlined several films and appeared in many more. His most notable role to that point was the action blockbuster Speed, where he played a cop trying to stop a bus loaded with a bomb that couldn’t drop below 50 miles per hour.

Earlier in the decade, Reeves had already starred in Point Break, an action drama in which he co-headlined with Patrick Swayze. 

Reeves wasn’t a nobody at this point, but he also wasn’t a household name. To move him to the top of the A-List, to the point where he’d be beyond reproach, he’d need to star in a blockbuster so big no one could doubt him afterward. The Matrix was that property.

The Wachowskis cast Reeves as Neo. After the first film was a smashing success at the box office, they made two subsequent sequels. While the sequels didn’t live up to the same critical reputation as the first, they were a hit with audiences.

Starring as Neo, Reeves had become iconic. It’s the role that shaped his career going forward. It enabled him to get even more lead parts. But it came dangerously close to going to another actor. 

Does Keanu Reeves owe his career to Will Smith?

It’s not hard to imagine Reeves being successful without playing Neo. It’s hard to imagine him being this successful without the Matrix movies, however. That’s why Reeves is lucky that Will Smith passed on the role. Brad Pitt was also offered the role and turned it down. 

Make no mistake: Smith is a bona fide movie star and also a great actor. Most would probably argue that he’s likely even a better actor than Reeves. But that doesn’t mean he would have been better as Neo.

Something about Reeves’ acting style seemed to lend itself to Neo’s character. As good as Smith is, he’s got a distinctive look and personality that bleeds into all of his roles. While seeing his take on Neo would have been very interesting, it doesn’t seem like he could’ve topped Reeves’ take. 

Reeves ought to send Smith a fruit basket for turning down the role of Neo. It’s the move that truly changed the landscape of both men’s careers.