Michael Keaton on Getting 'Spooked' by Oscar Buzz After Nearly 40-Year Career
"I don't know how many movies I've made, but I don't see them. I like making them. But this one, I love watching the movie so much"
A former staple of hit 1980s comedies, from Mr. Mom to Beetlejuice and (one-time) controversial star of Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns, Michael Keaton is on the cusp of a career rejuvenation after his turn as the lead in Fox Searchlight's buzzy Oscar contender Birdman, which opens on Oct. 17.
The outlandishly bizarre dramedy — about a veteran superhero-franchise actor looking to reboot his career by producing and starring in a Broadway play — is directed by Oscar nominee Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams, Babel) and is set to close the New York Film Festival on Oct. 11.
On the eve of the film's Big Apple debut, Keaton sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss why this is the first film of his he's ever really watched (numerous times it turns out -- even once at a private screening he hosted for pals like Jimmy Kimmel and Jack Nicholson), how he's survived a business "that's based on fear" and how it feels, at 62, to be getting Oscar buzz for the first time after years of showing up to "just do the f—ing job."
What reservations if any did you have in taking on the role of Riggan Thompson?
No reservations. None. Zero. I'm a big believer in good fortune — especially when this crazy Mexican director comes around and asks. (Laughs.)
Many will assume you have a personal connection to the plot of the film. Is that why you said yes? If not, why open yourself up to this kind of speculation?
I believe there is a willful thing that a person can do where he starts to lock in on something he wants. Focus gets really, really, really intense, and you have to have enormous faith and just believe in yourself. You say, "These are things I want, these are things I want." You stumble along, do something stupid, then something smart, and something stupid again, and something foolish. Then a crazy Mexican comes along, who happens to be insanely talented. I was doing a movie at the time and [my agent] Toni Howard said, "It's gonna be hard, but do you think you'll want to fly back and meet him?" And I said, "Oh man, I have to focus on this movie." But I didn't have that big of a role, so I thought, "OK. For this guy you fly home." So I flew home for 48 hours, had dinner, and it took me about 11 seconds to go, "This could go south, but I'm gonna do it anyway." Honestly, if you look at his movies, who wouldn't say yes? By the way, Alejandro keeps calling Birdman a comedy, and it kind of is, but it's really sick, too.
You've said you've actually never related to a character less than Riggan. Why?
I'll bet a lot of actors might understand what I'm talking about. I never wanted to be subject to people's whim. I figured, "This career is going to be really hard, but it's what I've chosen to do for a living." Actually, I don't know if I thought about it consciously. I just learned very quickly it was hard! But the one thing I was always clear on was: I never wanted the determining thing to be, "Am I good? Am I not?" You hear someone say how much you sucked in something, and you think "Oh boy, that hurt." But I'll give myself a little credit for working hard to not be subject to that. Therefore I really don't know Riggan. I worked hard to work out of [that] fear, and this is an industry based on fear. That said, every year I love acting even more, and it took me a long time. I would assume deciding to be an actor is a little bit like when one has to come out of the closet. Where I come from, the minute I said I wanted to be an actor, somebody would just punch me right in the face. (Laughs.) As I get older, I'm extraordinarily proud of it. But I never had a "I hope you love me" thing, like this character has, so he felt really unsure to me. If I ever think like that, I'm dead. Once you swallow that pill, there ain't no comin' back.
The scene where Riggan is bombarded with questions from journalists about his Birdman movies must have resonated a little considering your stint playing Batman.
I looked at that and did feel, "Oh no, that is me." I remember when I was shooting Batman, I was flying back and forth from London, where we were shooting. At the time, the Concord still existed. I barely had any money, but my kid was little and I wanted to try and be home. So I was on the plane once and I have no idea why, but I had the Wall Street Journal in my hand — that wasn't a thing I really read. And you know how they do those drawings of people? I looked down and go, "Wait that's me! Why am I in the Wall—" and I read this thing that people were jumping off bridges because I'd been cast as Batman. I really didn't understand why people cared one way or another. I went, "Really?"
Do you know to what degree Alejandro had you in mind when he wrote Birdman?
I didn't know that he did until I read that he did! I don't remember having a conversation [with him about that], and I remember thinking, honestly, probably 11 seconds [after sitting down with him at dinner], going, "This could be really dumb." And then I thought, "Wait a minute, are you kidding? There's no way you don't work with this guy." I love this movie so much. I enjoy this movie so much. I don't know how many movies I've made, but I don't see them. I like making them. But this one, I love watching the movie so much. I've seen it three times, which is a lot for me. And I'm watching it — "Man I really like this movie!" — and then I go, "Wait a minute, I'm in this movie!"
So much of the film consists of long, fluid shots, filmed mostly inside the St. James Theatre in Manhattan's theater district. How did you rehearse for them?
I can't tell you how hard it was. I like hard; it keeps me interested. But this was really, really hard. The movie wasn't shot in sequence, which made it even harder. Here's what we had to do: Because we didn't have access to the theaters to rehearse, the movie is basically one long shot — even though we know it's not just one shot — but there's no editing. As an actor you don't have the luxury of going, "Oh boy, that's not really a good take." You get no break. When we finally got access to the theaters, Emmanuel [Lubezki], our genius, DP — another crazy Mexican — and his [team] measured everything. They measured the length of the dressing rooms — everything. They started the process of walking through every shot and timed it by the foot. So you have to be spot-on with the dialogue, and then the prop guy's gonna come out, and the stage manager is gonna be here. It was unbelievably accurate because by the time we got to New York to run through it, there weren't many surprises. But we were all living in fear [during rehearsals]. You're like, "Man, I really don't want to be the guy who screws this up today." It was definitely the hardest thing I'll probably ever have to do. Part of that makes me sad, because man, when am I going to get a chance to do something this challenging again?
Speaking of, how did you pull off the scene where you're in your underwear walking through Times Square? Were those all extras? At one point it seemed like there were real tourists walking through the shot and taking iPhone photos of you in your tighty-whities.
(Laughs.) Yes, but there were a lot of extras, too. It's funny, you read the script and go, "OK, his robe gets caught in the door, that's gonna be pretty funny." And then you're shooting it and, "Wait a minute, I can't do this! I'm in my underwear. Why did I not think that I actually had to do this?" And then once I did it, it wasn't a big deal.
One of the more touching scenes in the film is between Riggan and his ex-wife, played by Amy Ryan, wherein he admits he was neither a good father nor husband. How difficult were those moments, which compared to the rest of the film required so much restraint?
Those got to me the most. They were hard, but easy in a sense too, because I could actually relate to them. Everyone has those things in their life. And I loved acting with Amy. With her, it's totally effortless.
How does it feel to be getting serious Oscar buzz for the first time after nearly 40 years in the business?
I get a little spooked. I was talking to my friend the other day — I'm a big baseball fan and my friend is too — and he says, "You know this movie is a no-hitter right?" I'm stupidly transparent. I just do the f---ing job. Keep my head down, go to work and deal with the other part later. So I guess we're going to deal with the other part now! But I'm not dumb. I hear those things and go, "OK, it'd be awesome, it'd be great, it'd be tremendous!" And if it doesn't happen I'll go, "OK, whatever." And I'll just keep doing what I do, which is sometimes kind of good, sometimes not very good, sometimes stupid, and sometimes really pretty good.