Michael Keaton on Reviving Batman and the Power of Saying No to Hollywood
From his ranch in Montana, the irrepressible actor talks new projects 'The Protege,' 'Worth' and 'Dopesick,' and the brazen choices that have propelled his marathon career: "I’d blow my brains out if I had to play the same thing all the time."
A pair of fishing waders are hanging on the deck and some cowboy boots are lined up neatly in the mudroom, but today Michael Keaton is wearing his flip-flops and leaning back in a rocking chair on the porch, watching the Oregon wildfire smoke that had cloaked the mountains around his Montana ranch finally start to blow out, leaving behind a few plum-colored clouds. Despite air-quality warnings on the local news, Keaton had gone for a run. “I couldn’t take it anymore,” he says. “My eyes were burning and my throat was hurting, and I thought, ‘This is really stupid,’ but I was getting so antsy, I had to get out and do something.”
Keaton bought this land more than 30 years ago, and at one point in the prime of his career, it seemed he would rather be here, fly-fishing and riding his quarter horses, than working as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after leading men. Looking around, who could blame him? The 1,000-acre parcel, down a dirt road along a sparkling river lined by aspens and evergreens, feels like living inside a John Denver song. All that’s missing is the cowboy hat — he’s not that guy. But this place, and the serenity Keaton finds here, provides an antidote to the intensity he can’t help but bring to his work.
“Probably because I’m too frightened, I’m incapable of phoning anything in,” says Keaton, 69, of his acting method. “I would love to phone something in. Trust me. I would like to just go, ‘Hey, I don’t know what the fuck we’re doing. Let’s just go have some laughs.’ But I take what I do for a living seriously.”
That energy has driven Keaton to one of Hollywood’s most varied careers, from the culture-shifting popcorn movies of his early years, like Mr. Mom and Batman, to the prestigious dramas of his late-career work, like Spotlight and Birdman, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. Heading into his fifth decade in show business, he’s continuing to genre hop, with upcoming roles in the Lionsgate action thriller The Protege, the Netflix 9/11 drama Worth and a Hulu series about the opioid epidemic, Dopesick. And, in a move that has comic book movie fans breathless, he just finished shooting the Warner/DC movie The Flash, in which he reprises the role of Batman he originated in the 1989 Tim Burton film, helping to ignite a generation of superhero obsession.
Even in relaxed Montana mode, Keaton idles at a high rate. Asked about a tape measure left discarded in the middle of the yard, he explains he had been trying to envision some construction work underway at his L.A. house. “I’m a little obsessive about things,” he says, gesturing at the abandoned tool. As his yellow lab, Amos, trots onto the porch every 10 minutes or so, proudly delivering him a succession of sticks, Keaton tells discursive stories. One thing reminds him of another, which reminds him of another. His Spotlight director, Tom McCarthy, calls Keaton “a great barstool storyteller,” and Spotlight and Worth producer Michael Sugar says, “Conversations with Michael are like M.C. Escher paintings, where everything’s going in a million directions, but it all comes back to a cohesive image.”
Keaton explains his conversational style culturally. “I’m more than half Irish, and we talk way too fucking much. How does it feel to know this entire hour could have been pared down to three sentences?” (It was actually two hours.) He’s also a listener, interested in what other people have to say. After watching the public debate over Jeff Bezos’ and Richard Branson’s recent space flights, he wants to know, “Well, what do you think about that?” Personally, he’s not sure. “If I had that, would I do something like that?” Keaton says. “I admire big thinkers. I admire people who, not just for ego, they think big. Bezos claims that there’s a bigger story here than him saying, ‘I’m so rich, I can go to space.’ So who am I to say he’s lying?”
As much as Keaton is at home here, after so many years, he also stands out. In a town where Trump 2020 signs are still ubiquitous eight months after the election, and someone has painted “Stop the Steal” on a nearby bridge, the actor has a bumper sticker for a Democratic Montana politician on one of his cars. Keaton, who changed his birth name of Michael Douglas for the Screen Actors Guild, grew up outside Pittsburgh, the youngest of seven children and an altar boy. His mother, a devoted Catholic, kept her kids home from school to watch Kennedy’s inauguration, and his father, a civil engineer, was involved in local Democratic politics. When Barack Obama was a senator running for president, Keaton introduced him at a Montana event, and he campaigned for Joe Biden last year in Pennsylvania. He tries to be judicious about how and when he wades into politics. “I learned a long time ago, you do more damage because you’re famous,” Keaton says. “I’ve told people, you don’t want me there. They’ll go, ‘Well of course he brought his Hollywood friend.’ You know what people forget? We all were just some person somewhere in Cincinnati or fucking Ottawa or fucking Cleveland.”
In Worth, which Netflix will release Sept. 3, Keaton plays attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who took on the agonizing task of dispersing the $7 billion Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund. The movie depicts a moment in America less than 20 years ago, but it feels like ancient history in its portrayal of bipartisan cooperation amid a tragedy. “I just talked to Ken Feinberg yesterday, and we both said, sadly, this could probably never happen now,” Keaton says. “Nobody had time to stop even to think about [political party]. It was a crisis.” Keaton produced the film, which was written by Max Borenstein, directed by Sara Colangelo, and co-stars Amy Ryan as one of his fellow attorneys and Stanley Tucci as a recipient of the victims’ fund. “Without sounding really pretentious … I have a job that might actually change something, or at least make people think about something, or feel something,” he says. “So, when I saw it, I thought, ‘This is a good thing. This one, for sure. We all, if you have a pulse, were impacted by 9/11.’ ” Among the film’s other noteworthy producers are the Obamas, whose production company, Higher Ground, acquired the film in partnership with Netflix in February. Despite Keaton’s history campaigning for the former president, the connection didn’t come through the actor but rather through Netflix, and the movie dovetails with other public issues-oriented projects the Obamas have backed, like the documentaries Crip Camp and American Factory. “Someone screened this for them, and they said, ‘That fits us and we like it and can we get involved?’ ” Keaton says. “And we said, ‘Hell yeah.’ ”
Keaton tends to ruminate over scripts, and as an actor, he wants to make sure every emotion is earned. Burton, who directed him in Beetlejuice, two Batman movies and Dumbo, describes Keaton as “like a fighter, dancing around in the ring,” when he’s trying to land a character. Sometimes the actor thinks he takes this too far, as when he sought some input on his character’s motivation in The Other Guys, a 2010 spoof of macho cop movies starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg; Keaton plays a police captain who moonlights at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Keaton went to director Adam McKay’s apartment in New York to ask him and co-writer Chris Henchy about the role. “I said, ‘Hey, man, can I just spend an hour with you guys? Can we talk about my character?’ I’m sure they thought, ‘Oh, no. Is he crazy?’ [McKay] is like, ‘Look at the role. Don’t sweat it.’ But I thought, ‘I don’t care if I’m playing an amoeba, I have to know something, just give me anything. I promise you, after we spend 15 minutes, it’s all I need.’ “
Once he’s gotten his head wrapped around a character, however, Keaton relaxes, and on set, he’s efficient and expects others to be as well. “Michael doesn’t suffer fools,” says Sugar. “He wants an organized set. He doesn’t like sitting around in his trailer all day. If there needs to be tweaks or notes from the director, he just gets it. There’s not a lot of takes with him.” The most consistent thing Keaton’s colleagues bring up about him is his energy. “Michael moves at a very quiet 100 miles per hour,” says Ryan, who played Keaton’s ex-wife in Birdman and plays his business partner in Worth. “He’s excited, and it’s not manic. He’s got this wry smile, things are good. And it’s infectious. You start waking up around him.”
While Worth touched Keaton for its worldview, he was drawn to Dopesick for more personal reasons. His nephew, Michael, died from fentanyl and heroin use a few years ago in his 30s. “I thought, ‘Well, if this is even remotely good, I have to do this,’ ” Keaton says. “It happens to be real good.” In the series, Keaton plays a well-intentioned doctor in Appalachia who is prescribing OxyContin to his patients. The show explores the aggressive marketing techniques Purdue Pharma used to recruit OxyContin users and doctors. “I go, ‘Well, we can’t be too on-the-head about this,’ ” Keaton says. “And then you start really reading, and you go, ‘Holy shit, this makes the tobacco industry look like shoe salesmen.’ They were priming everybody. Compare that to some kid selling some weed after he gets off of work at McDonald’s. How much harm is that fucking kid doing? This is just some sort of insidious greed.”
Some of Keaton’s career choices are guided by principle, some by gall. “I have this thing like, ‘I wonder if I can pull that off? How much longer can I fool people?’ ” he says. In Protege, a thriller out Aug. 20, he plays a shadowy figure who has a complicated relationship with an assassin played by Maggie Q, falls into the gall category. In the film directed by Martin Campbell (Casino Royale), Keaton, who has rarely held a gun in a movie, appears in tightly choreographed fight scenes and Mr. and Mrs. Smith-esque moments of sexual tension. “I haven’t done that specifically, so I went, ‘Oh man, I don’t know. Go do it,’ ” Keaton says. “I’d blow my brains out if I had to play the same thing all the time. I don’t think I’d be doing this anymore. First of all, people would have been so fucking bored with me that it would have been over a long time ago. I also lose interest pretty quickly, which is not necessarily an admirable quality. It’s a combination of being curious, not to a fault, but almost obsessively. Also, the challenge. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work. But I will give myself a little bit of credit for hanging on this long and still doing that, and then that, and then that.”
Early in his career, Keaton became known for turning down high-profile roles, including Tom Hanks’ part in Splash and the third Batman movie. “I was offered a couple of roles that I didn’t do that to most people didn’t make sense, but if you ask me, if you’re not betting on yourself, that would be worrisome,” Keaton says. “Back then, if I did have a strategy, I wanted to provide myself the opportunity where I could have some choices. I want to see how wide I can make this [career].” Barry Levinson, who directs Keaton in Dopesick, sees him as someone who puts his craft above his public persona. “Look, he had a franchise character in Batman, but he stepped away from it because he wanted to pursue other characters, as big as that was,” Levinson says. “He has a yearning to try things as opposed to worrying about, ‘What is my identity in the film world?’ ” Keaton started as a stand-up comic but never had a shtick, says Levinson, who used to watch him perform at The Comedy Store during the late 1970s and early ’80s. “Some of these comics have a comic personality about them,” Levinson says. “And he was just up there, talking. He had an ease, a natural quality.”
Keaton is less likely to walk away from big parts now, but he still needs to be talked into roles, which is usually the job of his agent since 2014, ICM’s Toni Howard, one of the industry’s better cajolers. In the beginning of his career, Keaton wanted to be seen as more than a comedic actor; in the latter part of his career, which has been mostly defined by his dramatic roles, he wants to inject some fun. “If I’m reading this [interview], I’m going, ‘Hey, Mike, can you just lighten the fuck up for a minute?’ ” Keaton says. “Honest to God, I know I would be thinking that.”
When Burton first wanted to cast Keaton as Batman in 1988, it was a controversial choice among producers and executives at Warner Bros., the director says. “I had met lots of the square-jaw type of actors, but it’s like, well, why does somebody need to dress up like a bat?” Burton says. “They don’t look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, they’re not a big action hero. They’re somebody who’s intelligent and kind of screwed up. And Michael has such an intensity that it’s like, ‘Yeah, I could see that guy wanting to dress up as a bat.’ It’s all rooted in psychology, Jekyll and Hyde and two sides of a personality, light and dark, and he understood that.”
Even though he has appeared in films for both DC and Marvel, in which he plays the villain Vulture in the Spider-Man series, Keaton was never a comic book fan, and he has been stunned by the genre’s growth. He credits Burton with the industry’s realization that superhero films can be not just lucrative but also artistically ambitious. “What Tim did changed everything,” Keaton says. “Everything you see now started with him. If you really think about what happened between 1989 and now, on a cultural, corporate, economic level, it’s unbelievable.” While Keaton is awed by the phenomenon, he confesses he doesn’t totally get it. “After the first Batman, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an entire [comic book] movie,” Keaton says. “I just never got around to it. So you’re talking to a guy who wasn’t in the zeitgeist of that whole world. When I went down to do the Marvel things in Atlanta … It’s an entire city dedicated to Marvel … They’ll be doing Marvel movies forever. I’ll be dead, and they’ll still be doing Marvel movies.”
The Flash, directed by Andy Muschietti (It), will feature Ezra Miller’s lightning-fast protagonist breaking the rules of physics to crash into various parallel universes, where he’ll encounter different versions of DC heroes, including Keaton’s Batman, as well as Ben Affleck’s.
Keaton was impressed by the script by Birds of Prey writer Christina Hodson, and by Muschietti’s vision, and he was intrigued by the possibility of returning to the character he had helped shape in the public imagination. “Frankly, in the back of my head, I always thought, ‘I bet I could go back and nail that motherfucker,’ ” Keaton says of Batman, a role he walked away from when he didn’t like the script for the 1995 Joel Schumacher movie Batman Forever, which ultimately starred Val Kilmer. “And so I thought, ‘Well, now that they’re asking me, let me see if I can pull that off.’ ” It took him some time to wrap his head around the parallel-universe concept, however. “I had to read it more than three times to go, ‘Wait, how does this work?’ ” Keaton says. “They had to explain that to me several times. By the way, I’m not being arrogant, I hope, about this. I don’t say it like, ‘I’m too groovy.’ I’m stupid. There’s a lot of things I don’t know about. And so, I don’t know, I just kind of figured it out, but this was different. What’s really interesting is how much more I got [Batman] when I went back and did him. I get this on a whole other level now. I totally respect it. I respect what people are trying to make. I never looked at it like, ‘Oh, this is just a silly thing.’ It was not a silly thing when I did Batman. But it has become a giant thing, culturally. It’s iconic. So I have even more respect for it because what do I know? This is a big deal in the world to people. You’ve got to honor that and be respectful of that. Even I go, ‘Jesus, this is huge.’ “
Keaton has directed one film, the 2008 drama The Merry Gentleman, stepping in for the original director, Ron Lazzeretti, who had to leave the project for health reasons, and he has looked for opportunities to direct another, though not with his usual intensity. “That’s where I’ve been really lazy,” Keaton says. “I have a lazy side. That is sinful because I liked directing so much. I’ve had more than a few opportunities, but either I couldn’t do them because I had to go take another job or … there are 50 people who can do this better than I can do it. But I should have been more ambitious about that.” He has optioned an article from The New York Times about billionaires preparing for the apocalypse and is developing a satire about it with McKay, in which he may play a role.
Despite his politics and Hollywood pedigree, Keaton is well liked in his town of fewer than 2,000 people that he prefers not to name. At a bar near his house, a local tells of the time Keaton bought winter coats for the high school football team after attending a game and seeing that only some of the kids had them. “He didn’t want us to say who paid for them,” says Scott Fraser, owner of Frontier Live Sale, a company that videos cattle for internet auctions. “He’s a good man.” In a place where many people’s families have owned their ranch land for generations, Keaton is a newcomer with a 1,000-acre yard. But he’s a newcomer the locals brag about, not one who makes them roll their eyes.
Keaton’s offscreen life is full. He has one child, Sean Douglas, 38, with his ex-wife, actress Caroline McWilliams, and is a grandfather of two. “I gave up more than a few movies when my kid was young because I always wanted to be a dad,” Keaton says. “I just didn’t want to do what I’m supposed to do. I always knew I was equally as interested or curious about living things, people, life and places and stuff, as I was about what I do for a living.” One payoff of the well-rounded life has been watching Douglas thrive in a career quite separate from his father’s, as a top songwriter who has written hits for such artists as Thomas Rhett, Lizzo and Demi Lovato. “I remember we were walking to school one day, probably first grade,” Keaton says. “It’s the first day, and I’m feeling him out, and I go, ‘How do you want to do this?’ … He goes, ‘I just want to go by myself from here.’ It was a case of, ‘No, I’m me.’ And I was totally down with that, man.”
Keaton has traveled a lot in the past few months, shooting Dopesick in Virginia in the spring and The Flash in the U.K. in early summer. “I’ve been gone for a long time, which is one of my least favorite things,” he says. “I’m like an old lady. I am. I like my little house, I like my bed, I like my dogs.”
Wary of shooting during COVID, he began production of Dopesick just as the vaccines were becoming available to people in his age group. “I was desperate,” he says of wanting to get vaccinated as soon as he could. “I was literally driving around, looking for a place, thinking I might luck out and somebody would go, ‘Sure, Mike, come on in. We have some.’ I literally went into some drugstore, saying, ‘Is there any plan here that I can sign up for?’ Because I just believed in it. I didn’t want to get sick, but also, I didn’t want to get people sick.” (He eventually was vaccinated while in Virginia.)
One of the strongest lures from acting for Keaton was the equestrian sport of cutting, in which horse and rider work together to demonstrate the horse’s athleticism and ability to handle cattle. “That’s the thing that took me away,” Keaton says. “There have always been these things I did where I drifted off, and then I thought, ‘I’ve got to go back and make some money.’ And that was one of them. And that’s a dangerous one. That’ll take all your money and you can’t win anything. You can’t win enough to keep going. But it’s so addicting. It’s a great combination of being totally focused on what you have to do … and at the same time, let it go. Let her cut. It’s that great thing of trying to do it really gracefully on a 1,000-pound animal that is like a little fucking rocket ship, and it’s really exciting. Just talking about it now, I think, ‘Man, I’d like to go do that again and lose all my money.’ “
Asked whether there are parallels between cutting, with its moments of intense focus and flow, and acting, Keaton says, “A hundred percent, and I’m glad you said it, not me, so I don’t have to sound pretentious. … That’s why you keep doing it [acting],” he says. “But you only get moments of it. You go, ‘Oh yeah, I got that one,’ a scene or a moment or something. Sometimes you just go, boom!”
This story first appeared in the Aug. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.