MICHAEL KEATON’s role in Birdman has resurrected the multifaceted actor’s eclectic career. He talks to JOE YOGERST about theatre, his comedic roots and the movie that’s propelled him back into the limelight
AFTER YEARS OF flying beneath the media spotlight, Michael Keaton suddenly finds himself the most wanted man in showbiz. He’s been blazing a trail through the late-night talk shows, he’s on the cover ofThe Hollywood Reporter and countless other rags, and he can’t even get through a restaurant meal without other diners (like US Secretary of State John Kerry) showering him with praise. All because of a little film called Birdman that has slowly but surely morphed into a very big deal.
It’s not like Keaton hasn’t been in the spotlight before. His naughty-but-nice Beetlejuice is one of the more memorable characters to come out of Tinseltown in the past 30 years. And his Batman redefined the superhero genre, setting the tone for dozens of films that came later. But it’s Keaton’s role as washed-up actor Riggan Thomson in Birdman that has thrust the 63-year-old onto a whole different plane of celebrity.
By the time I caught up with Keaton on a rare rain-splashed day in Los Angeles, he’d been nominated for no less than 17 best-acting awards for his turn in Birdman. He’d already snagged eight of those and was a clear favourite to take home a Golden Globe and Oscar too. Birdman was well on its way to earning more than $25 million in worldwide box office – a pittance when compared with superhero films, but big bucks for what is basically a limited-release, art-house film.
Born and raised in small-town Pennsylvania, Keaton grew up with a knack for writing and acting comedy. He was a natural when it came to comic timing and delivering a witty line. And comedy is where he cut his teeth when he made the move to Hollywood in his 20s, with guest spots on some of the biggest sitcoms of the era and a string of funnyman movie roles.
His breakout film was Night Shift, a wacky Ron Howard comedy about running a call-girl ring out of a morgue. That segued into a string of humorous hits (like Mr Mom) that culminated when director Tim Burton tabbed Keaton to play the manic, mischievous title character in Beetlejuice. It was Burton who roped him into playing Batman over the virulent objections of comic-book diehards who thought Keaton wasn’t dark enough to play their beloved caped crusader. As he’s done so often during his career, Keaton rose to the occasion, putting a whole new spin on superhero demeanour and in the process redefining his career.
In the quarter-century that has passed since Batman, Keaton has played an astounding variety of roles, from good-hearted cops and crusading journalists to deranged killers, an architect battling supernatural forces, and even Lindsay Lohan’s father in Herbie Fully Loaded. He picked up plaudits along the way – including an MTV Movie Award nomination for Best Kiss – and a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most versatile and agile actors.
But Birdman is a whole different animal, both in the way it was filmed by renowned Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu (the movie runs like one long, frenzied, uninterrupted tracking shot) and in the character of Riggan Thomson.
Keaton admits it’s the role of a lifetime, a part he was born to play. And given the reaction thus far, both the public and film critics seem to agree. Despite obvious similarities – Keaton turned down Batman 3; Riggan turned down Birdman 4 – the backstory is markedly different from Keaton’s own journey through Hollywood. And the actor has famously quipped that among all the roles he’s played in nearly four decades of making movies, this is one of the characters he’s related to least. Yet as the film unfolds, you start to see the traits the reallife actor and the imaginary character share – a penchant for taking chances, an obsession to push the outer edge of the creative envelope and an uncanny knack for snatching witty lines out of thin air.
AT WHAT POINT DID YOU REALISE THAT BIRDMAN WAS SOMETHING SPECIAL?
As we were fairly well into it you could tell that what Alejandro was attempting was at least kind of working, and even if it wasn’t a giant “hit”, you were part of something that was really special – and it’s not just the singleshot thing; it’s more than that. So as we were going along, I could already tell on some level this is already working. He’s a really outstanding director, the way he’s passionate about his work and everyone’s work and the script and the words. He’s an extreme taskmaster. Not just this movie, every movie he does he’s demanding.
WOULD YOU CONSIDER THIS ONE OF YOUR HARDEST SHOOTS?
Oh yeah. Not just because of the way it was shot. You get lazy making films because you have multiple takes, you have time to really work on the script, learn your lines on film. And that’s not necessarily a crime. But there was none of that luxury at all. We had intense rehearsals working on the scenes emotionally as an actor. And then just the difficulty in having to be ultra prepared for all the shots. Every time we talk about this, I think: God, I don’t know how he made this movie. I don’t know how any of us made it.
THERE ARE A LOT OF MEMORABLE SCENES IN THE MOVIE. WHICH WAS THE HARDEST TO FILM?
[Long pause.] I don’t know … Edward Norton said it was kind of liberating, because you play the full scene out without any stop and start. To some degree they were all difficult, but there are a couple of times when I do these turns [of character]. I destroy my dressing room and it ends up being a comedic scene. And the scene where I have to fake out Edward and I tell him a lie and I basically put a performance on to convince him about my abused background. That quick turn was challenging. And then the final scene in the play when Riggan was kind of at his end …
ARE YOU SURPRISED BY THE EMOTIONAL REACTION OF THE AUDIENCE AND CRITICS TO THE FILM?
I knew it would get a reaction. But the amount, the quantity and the quality of the reaction is unbelievable. Not just people in the entertainment business, but just people. It’s the kind of movie that doesn’t let you not deal with it. You have to deal with it. Love it and be moved by it and go back and see it again and think about it. It kind of shakes you up. It grabs you around the neck and throttles you.
ALEJANDRO SAYS HE DIDN’T WRITE THE SCRIPT WITH YOU IN MIND, BUT DID HE APPROACH YOU FIRST TO PLAY RIGGAN?
I don’t know. I know that during an interview someone asked him what would have happened if I’d said no. He said, “I’m fucked!”
IN BEETLEJUICE YOU ADDED A LOT TO THAT CHARACTER COMPARED TO WHAT WAS IN THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT. WAS THAT ALSO TRUE IN BIRDMAN?
There really wasn’t a “Beetlejuice” per se [in the original script]. Or if there was, I didn’t know what Tim Burton was talking about and I said, let me think of some ideas and show it to you. This script [Birdman] was pretty much it. Whatever you think about and however you interpret a scene it was a little bit of that, but more Alejandro directing and how he wanted the scene to be and what it should be about.
HOW MUCH THEATRE HAD YOU DONE BEFORE BIRDMAN?
Very little. A couple of little things in college and when I dropped out of college to make some money to go back to school. I was doing a little play in Pittsburgh.
DOES THIS EXPERIENCE MAKE YOU WANT TO DO MORE … OR RUN THE OTHER WAY?
[Laughs.] Kinda both. But mostly do more. I’ve had offers over the last couple of years. But it never worked. It’s a commitment. You can’t just say I’ll drop in for a couple of weeks and then leave. You really have to commit your time to it. It’s physically demanding. Your lungs, your voice. You get spoiled making movies.
YOU’VE GOT ANOTHER HIGHLY ANTICIPATED MOVIE COMING OUT NEXT – SPOTLIGHT – A STORY ABOUT THE CATHOLIC-CHURCH SEXABUSE SCANDAL. ARE YOU FINISHED SHOOTING?
I think I have a day we have to go back and grab a scene in the winter. That was a nice little movie to work on. Not the cheeriest of subject matters.
AND YOU PLAY ROBBY ROBINS ON, AN EDITOR IN CHARGE OF A TEAM FROM THE BOSTON GLOBE THAT’S INVESTIGATING THE SCANDAL.
Yeah. He describes himself as a player/coach. He’s a reporter and an editor of what in some cities they call the Metro section. The Boston Globe has something called Spotlight that does investigative pieces. And Walter “Robby” Robinson heads that team up.
IT’S AN INTERESTING PREMISE FOR A MOVIE. I GUESS IT’S THE FIRST TIME ANYONE HAS REALLY TAKEN A LOOK AT THIS SUBJECT.
Yeah, exactly. My guess is that it’s going to feel a little like All the President’s Men. I have the feeling that will be the vibe. Which is kind of nice because when is the last time you saw that kind of movie? Nobody really makes that kind of movie any more.
HOW DID BEING RAISED CATHOLIC IMPACT YOUR ABILITY TO PLAY THIS ROLE?
It added and subtracted, but mostly added. It just pisses you off [the sex abuse scandal]. And then you have to say that doesn’t do you any good, I’ve got a job to do here. I’m an actor. And Robby got pissed off. Everyone got pissed off. [Long pause.] I was afraid that every day you go in and you have to deal with this. There are the words, there are the scenes, there are the descriptions. Detailed descriptions. You think, why am I doing this? I’m gonna get so angry and depressed. And actually that’s not really what happened. Once again, it was a really good cast – quick on their feet, bright, knowledgeable about a lot of things. I actually enjoyed it.
HOW DID GROWING UP CATHOLIC IN WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA SHAPE THE PERSON AND THE ACTOR YOU ARE TODAY?
A lot, probably. I liked going to Catholic school. Not as fucked up as some people think. My experience was fine. It was classic knuckle-rapping and stand in the corner and corporal punishment. But it was just sort of what it was. I didn’t come away scarred for life. It kind of builds who you are. I was an altar boy. I liked being an altar boy. Me and my buddies got to go and serve Mass and go to school. I didn’t go to church all the time just ’cause I was an antsy kid. It was a good experience for me. It probably does shape who you are and what you believe in.
SOMETIME IN THERE YOU CAUGHT THE ACTING OR COMEDY BUG.
Yes. Being funny was fun. But when I was a kid I used to play. Like really play. I took my play very seriously [laughs]. Just playing out in the woods, or playing cowboys or playing army. Everything I did, I was intense about it. If you looked, you’d think, that kid is so serious. But I was having a ball. Nothing was ever like, oh I don’t know, just playing. If I played cowboys I was as real as possible.
THAT’S THE KIND OF ACTOR YOU BECAME, RIGHT?
I guess. I just don’t believe anything unless it looks real. I distinctly remember watching Westerns as a kid and if the cowboys didn’t look like they were authentic – if their clothes were too clean – I’d walk away. Shut the TV off and leave.
YOU WENT TO COLLEGE FOR A COUPLE OF YEARS AND THEN DROPPED OUT.
I dropped out to make money, then went back and then dropped out to make money again because I couldn’t afford my tuition. I dropped out to get a job. I was working for a survey crew. Work on the roads with road crews. I had a zillion jobs. I shovelled asphalt off the back of a truck, drove a cab. I did a ton of stuff. My brother gave me a little part-time job selling building materials on construction sites, so I did that.
WHAT GAVE YOU THE BALLS TO THINK THAT YOU COULD GO FROM PITTSBURGH TO HOLLYWOOD AND SUCCEED?
No fucking idea. When I look back at it now … first of all, I pat myself on the back for doing it. But the other part of me is like, “What was he thinking? He’s so crazy.” It’d be harder now. I can’t remember the exact amount of money I had, but I know it was under $300 that I’d saved. Almost all of it was gone once I bought an airline ticket. No place to stay, no connections … no, not true. One guy who was already making a living as a comedy writer – I was moving to New York – and he said to me, “You should come and try LA out. It’s wide open.”
HOW DID YOU MEET TIM BURTON?
I got a call. I think David Geffen called my agent who asked if I had seen Tim Burton’s work. He had done a little animated film. He’s got a script he wants Michael to do. I didn’t really know who he was, but I had a meeting with the guy. It was clear that he was an artist. He was trying to describe this movie [Beetlejuice] and I didn’t understand it and I said “Whatever” and forgot about it. My agent persuaded me to meet him again. So I went back and met him again and I liked him, but I’m not getting what this character is. Because when Tim drew him, he didn’t look anything like what eventually I and Ve Neill [the makeup artist] came up with. I told her I had this certain image in my head that I wanted to do. And Tim had this idea of a striped suit. And then I just thought, I’m just gonna take a flier. Just give it a shot, come up with something crazy and just have fun.
YOUR FIRST EIGHT FILMS WERE ALL COMEDIES …
First eight? Really?
YES . . . AND THEN CAME CLEAN AND SOBER, WHICH WAS ANYTHING BUT A COMEDY. HOW DID THAT TURN COME ABOUT?
People always ask if you want to be taken seriously or are you looking for a serious role … I don’t know. I was a giant comedy fan. And I was a stand-up for a while and I was writing comedy and I had an improv group. So I loved comedy. I was trying to get good comedic movies. But I didn’t go in saying, “How can I be funny?” First I looked at “How do I play this character?” and then within that I wanted to be funny. Then Clean and Sober was offered to me because Glenn Caron, the director, just had a feeling about my work and said I want that guy. He was very specific about why it was me and I thought it was very well written, but it wasn’t like I set out to prove that I could do drama. It was a job that was offered to me and I liked the way Glenn wanted to do it. That was it.
YOUR TAKE ON BATMAN WAS RIDICULED AT THE TIME BUT EVENTUALLY TURNED OUT TO BE RIGHT.
Correct. My suggestion – which was ultimately what Chris Nolan did – was this is potentially an interesting character. I know it’s a comical thing but let’s explore a little more backward and then come forward – a thought which they [the producers] had zero interest in when we were talking about doing the third one. I was told, this is it, this ain’t changing. And I thought, I don’t wanna do it. It wasn’t well written and it was going in a direction that was very kind of ’80s. There was some shitty taste of the ’80s.
BUT THE CHARACTER DID GET VERY INTERESTING, AND VERY DARK.
Because it was inherently dark. I’m not sure they were charming. Go watch the first one. The first one is charming and not the kind of thing you would think of with that kind of movie. It’s the thing that will separate that from all the others in my opinion. When you consider what Tim [Burton] was trying do and what he pulled off against all those odds, it was impressive.
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU HAVEN’T DONE AS AN ACTOR THAT YOU STILL WANT TO DO?
Oh yeah. I did Shakespeare once and there’s part of me that wants to do a little bit of that again because it was so challenging. Not to say I’m this great Shakespearean actor, because I’m not – but it was so fun to try. I’d like some minor part. I’m too lazy to take on a major role. And something with music in it. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I have this idea that it would be fun to do a musical, but I don’t know what it is yet.
A LOT OF GREAT ACTORS GET TO A CERTAIN PLACE IN THEIR CAREER AND JUST COAST. BUT YOU DON’T SEEM TO HAVE FALLEN INTO THAT TRAP.
I get bored. I bore myself. It’s just not as much fun. But there is a part of me that thinks that could be an awful lot of fun. I see some guys that are really good at something and … I really don’t mean this detrimentally or negatively. They go, “I know what I am, man. This is the thing I am. I’m good at it.” A part of me goes, “I wish I could do that.” Just really hone one thing. But I don’t even want to think about what I am. I just go, “What’s the job?”