New York Film Fest: 'Birdman' Cast on Superheroes, Theater and How "Being a Celebrity Is Shit"

Alison Rosa

Said Michael Keaton, "I've also had the same dream of seeing Naomi [Watts] onstage naked — it's not a nightmare"

Hours before the New York Film Festival's closing-night premiere, director Alejandro G. Inarritu and the cast of Birdman posed for photos and answered questions after a Saturday afternoon press screening held at New York City's AMC Lincoln Square — to the dismay of some of the actors.

"Being a celebrity is shit — it's dumb and I'm not interested in it," said Zach Galifianakis, noting that he's not a fan of all the "picture-taking" and that the cast generally feels the same way. "I like to be an actor, and that's it. The blurred lines are, I think, manmade. I think celebrity is a manmade thing; it's not innate in us, we have people telling us, 'We should pay attention to these people,' for all the wrong reasons, their personal lives and whatnot. … I'd rather just do my work and go home and watch Lifetime."

Michael Keaton echoed, "Anyone can be a celebrity now, this is not a big deal anymore," and Edward Norton (who at one point asked a photographer in the front row to stop his camera's loud snaps during the Q&A) added of YouTube, "The dog running into the wall is a bigger celebrity than any of us!"

Birdman, with the subtitle "Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance," follows Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a has-been former star of superhero blockbusters who is about to unveil a Broadway play that he wrote, directed and stars in, with hopes that the risk will bring him renewed acclaim and respectability.

"It came from this struggling battle that we all have with our ego, and in this case, a personal battle that I have. I just turned 50 last year, and basically, it's just that when you realize and you make a revision of the priorities you have given to your life: Some things are missing, some things are great and some things are not so great," said the writer-director. "In my case, in the creative process, my ego has always been a huge tyrant. … It's very rude and very misleading because sometimes when I'm doing something, it says, 'Aw, this is great, it's fantastic,' and 20 minutes later, I feel like a dead jellyfish, and it says, 'You are a stupid asshole, making some shit no one will care about.' It's a constant bipolar relationship. … I thought that would be a cool thing to portray in a film." Inarritu added that he and the cast laughed at themselves plenty through the therapeutic shoot.

Keaton and Norton, both former superheroes on the big screen, enjoyed poking fun at the genre's tropes in the film. Norton noted that the two were at New York Comic Con on Friday evening for a panel, "and in the dark, right before, I looked over at Michael and said, 'Do you think this is the ultimate bait-and-switch that has ever been pulled on a Comic Con audience? Can you imagine going to do this and actually thinking it's a superhero movie?'" said Norton, while Keaton recalled attending a screening of John Huston's The Dead with "these guys, they totally thought it was a horror movie," and left after less than two minutes, "saying, 'F— this!' "

Inarritu noted that he and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had to make all decisions on blocking and lighting months in advance, leaving very little room for improvisation. "Sometimes it was 360 degrees in tiny corridors, with guys with microphones who … were hiding and going under the legs of somebody to the other side. It was like kids playing in a theatric play, with a camera going around with a 17 mm lens, which is wide shot. Every beat, every line, every joke, every open door has to be performed exactly the same because we were a band playing live, without the possibility to go to the studio and edit," he explained of the "electric" takes. Still, "I always was terrified that this would become a distraction [to the actors]. We always were conscious that [the film] would never be taken over by the technique itself."

Naomi Watts said the shoot had her recalling her early days doing student theater, "A lot of my nightmares revolve around being onstage and forgetting my lines and having the wrong clothes on, or no clothes at all," she said (with Keaton joking, "I've also had the same dream of seeing Naomi onstage naked. It's not a nightmare."). Still, she and Amy Ryan said the high-pressure demands of operating as one single unit had the cast channeling the stage while on set.

Norton added that his early career in theater was "as an usher, just down the street at Second Stage Theater. … Can you tell this is a semi-serious film made by deeply unserious people?" He explained that his absurd method-actor character was based entirely on Inarritu, as he wears his scarf and jacket in the film and says lines that the writer-director has either said himself or wishes he could say. " My entire performance consisted of dropping the Mexican accent, and that's it," said Norton.

A formidable character named Tabitha, a New York Times critic played by Lindsay Duncan, represents the theater community. Keaton said he used to read all the reviews of his work, and generally thinks he's been "treated fairly" by them, while Andrea Riseborough reflected, "The reverence that I feel in response to the critics is more like fear. … It makes me just want to shit myself." Norton noted that the real-life Tabitha is "Manohla," in reference to film critic Manohla Dargis, and Galifianakis joked, "I've never had a bad review, so I'm not quite sure what you're talking about. It sounds familiar, but I've heard people talk about it."

Emma Stone, who will soon make her Broadway debut in Cabaret opposite Alan Cumming, found this film helpful to make beforehand, and still noted, "Yes, I'm nervous as hell! I'm shitting myself!"

Inarritu explained more about choosing Raymond Carver's short story (written when he was 50 years old), What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, as the source text of the film's play onscreen. "This is not only one of my favorite writers, [who] has the capacity of really going to the human heart and the flaws and limitations of human beings and love — even when Carver's characters can be pathetic, they are lovable and adorable and human. … They are looking for love. … That is what we human beings are looking for, no matter who you are, and I think that's what Riggan Thomson is looking for — validation, love and affection." When asked if the superhero's bird status is a reference to the Icarus story, the writer-director noted that it was unintentional, but that "ego wants to make us fly, and that's when it really turns dangerous because, no matter what, you're gonna get burned."

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