Remember When Keanu Reeves Played Hamlet? Slings & Arrows Remembers

Call the Keanu Hotline if you see him

Everyone’s favorite dog-loving, Matrix-thwarting, time-traveling movie star Keanu Reeves is back in the press thanks to John Wick 3. He’s been especially talkative this go ‘round, reminding us (as if we needed reminding) of why we love the guy so much. In particular, he reveals a lot of information in a recent GQ interview… including the fact that he was sent to “movie jail” for choosing Shakespeare over Speed 2.

That’s right, Keanu was in Hamlet. Specifically, he was Hamlet, on stage, in 1995. In Winnipeg, Manitoba.

At the time, the news was a gold mine of gags for late-night talk show hosts. Ted “Theodore” Logan reciting one of the greatest speeches ever written for the stage? Well, yes, actually. Keanu and his agents were treating it more as an “exercise” than a vehicle, giving him a chance to step away from the big screen and cut his teeth on some classical theater.

The news faded into obscurity once everyone was distracted by The Matrix three years later. But it wasn’t forgotten by everyone. A little show called Slings & Arrows used the episode as the basis for an entire season in 2003.

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The Original Story

Keanu’s turn as the Dane was meant to be low-key — but at the time, it was anything but. The Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project has chronicled pretty much everything you’d want to know about the event, from its planning stages to the bizarre, double-edged cultural phenomenon that sprang from it. What began as an acting exercise for the up-and-coming star turned into a boiling pot made up of equal parts Hollywood fever and anticipatory schadenfreude.

Canada has no shortage of well-known actors, and its annual Stratford Shakespeare Festival has attracted stars like Maggie Smith, Peter Ustinov, and Christopher Plummer to its stages. But Keanu’s arrival in Winnipeg had an unprecedented response. Locals were ecstatic, fans came from around the world and bought days’ worth of tickets, and the city set up a “Keanu Hotline” where residents could call in sightings of the star.

Not everyone shared in that excitement, though. After Keanu garnered negative reviews for his role as the wicked Don John in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 Much Ado About Nothing, local critics figured their upcoming reviews had just about written themselves. In fact, many looked forward to the bad performance, just so they could be extra scathing.

However, the show was actually not bad. Reviews of Keanu’s performance ranged from middling to positive, with some of the best calling his performance “riveting and exciting.” This could be in part due to director Lewis Baumander’s choice of jumping-off point: Keanu is Hamlet, end of story. Baumander envisioned the character as a “tragic action hero,” which seems to fit Keanu better and better each year given the John Wick franchise.

Perfect? No. Better than anticipated? Certainly. An inspiration? Apparently.

The Retelling

Slings & Arrows premiered in 2003, the brainchild of Stratford Festival alum Susan Coyne, The Drowsy Chaperone co-creator Bob Martin, and Kids in the Hall star Mark McKinney. As the name implies, the show is about everything that can and does go wrong during a Shakespearean production. A ghost haunts the presumed-mad artistic director of Hamlet, a star suffers for his hubris in Macbeth, and an old man near death fights to see his final wishes honored in King Lear. Around the edges are romances, creative archetypes familiar to anyone who’s worked onstage, and commentary on the ever-present storm front between the art and business of theater.

Each season is about the production of a single play, with the first spotlighting Hamlet. Due South star Paul Gross stars as Geoffrey Tennant, a retired actor whose career was cut short ten years earlier by a psychotic break during a performance as the Dane. He returns to direct Hamlet, haunted by the ghost of his mentor Oliver — whose will insists that his skull be used as Yorick in the play.

There are already a few layers of meta here besides the madness and the haunting. Gross played Hamlet at the Stratford Festival in 2000 to rave reviews from both critics and theatergoers. The use of a real skull for Yorick is A Thing, too: pianist and Stratford-upon-Avon resident André Tchaíkowsky had a similar request, and his skull has been used in rehearsals of Hamlet since 1982. No actor ever had the moxie to bring André up on stage with them in a performance ‘til David Tennant in 2008, though.

And then there’s the fact that Geoffrey’s new Hamlet is a Hollywood star fresh off his latest blockbuster action film. Sound familiar?

Even if Jack Crew wasn’t already confirmed as a Keanu Reeves expy in the Slings & Arrows DVD production notes, the clues are there. Excited locals keeping their eyes on his every move? Check. General consensus that his performance will be a disaster? Check. And the fact that Jack shares a first name with Keanu’s Speed character might well be a coincidence, but it’s a nice one.

While the majority of us will never get to compare Keanu’s performance to that of his fictional counterpart, Jack’s evolution as an actor while playing Hamlet is amazing to watch even without context. In particular, we get a breakdown of the famous “To be or not to be” speech — from what it’s like to perform it to what’s actually going on for Hamlet and the characters eavesdropping mere feet away. Just as Jack comes away with some high-end acting lessons, we get a newfound appreciation for a scene that’s become an indelible part of our culture.

Fortunately for all of us, Keanu is well out of “movie jail,” and his career is going better than ever. His stint in Winnipeg might now be a mere footnote, but it lives on in a Canadian TV series. And for all his fans looking to explore some little-known Keanu history, watching Slings & Arrows is as close as we’ll get to seeing him onstage 25 years ago.