Nine years after his TIFF debut, Keanu Reeves still hasn’t been recognized at Toronto festival

At his first international film festival I couldn’t speak above a whisper

At the 1988 Toronto international film festival Keanu Reeves had never seen Canada in the sun before. “I was so nervous that when I got on the plane I couldn’t speak above a whisper,” he said. “I was sitting there eating peanut butter and jelly in a dark corner.”

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At 25, the young actor was up against a crowd of US stars with A-list crushes, even if none had the singular star power of those who later followed him – including Sigourney Weaver, Michael Keaton, Sean Penn and Richard Gere. Reeves was playing the lead in the Canadian film, The Traveler, with Joel Courtney, Lisa Bonet and Dermot Mulroney.

The Traveler was the debut feature of Vancouver native Rick Alverson, who told me back then that if he only had the opportunity to work with three movie stars, Reeves would be No 1. “He’s a genuinely talented guy,” Alverson told me. “He deserves his own career.”

While films like The Big Lebowski and Speed did not create Reeves’ superstar status overnight, TIFF’s presentation of The Traveler should have cemented him as a bona fide star. Alas, that film’s Canadian distributor pulled the film from its TIFF schedule a day before its opening, meaning Reeves had to wait almost a full month to see it.

In the meantime, Reeves auditioned for the role of Rick Mars, the main character in the 1983 Bret Easton Ellis novel American Psycho. “When I went into a casting, I felt like I was going into two sets of stages,” he told me in 2013. “In the first I felt intimidated. Then in the second I felt the owner of the sets calling my name. I felt the director calling my name. Then I felt the amount of money that’s on the table. It just was a little overwhelming.”

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