'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Michael Keaton ('The Founder')

Michael Keaton attends the 87th Annual Academy Awards - Getty-H 2016
Christopher Polk/Getty Images

"It's a sneaky kind of movie," says the actor Michael Keaton of his latest, the Ray Kroc biopic The Founder, as we sit down at his office in Santa Monica to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "You think you're just gonna see a biopic, and then you realize there are layers to this movie." Indeed, Kroc, as played by the 65-year-old veteran, becomes, unlike most movie protagonists, less and less sympathetic and likable as the Weinstein Co. release goes along. This is particularly jarring for audiences because, for decades, they have known and loved Keaton — in blockbusters like Beetlejuice and Batman (both made in collaboration with Tim Burton) and in art house darlings like Birdman and Spotlight (the last two best picture Oscar winners). But, once they acclimate to The Founder, they may just conclude that the film contains his best performance yet.

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Keaton, who was born Michael Douglas (he later adopted a different professional name, for obvious reasons), was the youngest of seven kids who grew up "fighting for attention" from their blue-collar parents in a community near Pittsburgh. He ultimately went off to Ohio's Kent State University to pursue a career in journalism, but he began dabbling in the performing arts while there and continued to pursue them even after he dropped out. He returned to Pittsburgh and went to work at the local PBS station (one of his jobs involved working for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood), first behind the scenes and later on camera, too. He later left for an extended stay at a Navajo reservation but at the end of it recommitted himself to the arts, and flew out to Los Angeles with $270 to his name. Among his many odd jobs was stand-up comedy, and at one gig he landed an agent who helped him to break into television, as well. Despite scoring time on several major series, his dream was to be on the big screen, and that opportunity came about for the first time, in a significant way, when a writer of one TV series on which Keaton appeared, Working Stiffs, recommended him to Ron Howard, the director of a film that was being made from another of that writer's scripts, Night Shift. Keaton's scene-stealing work in that 1982 film put him on the map to stay.

Keaton established his leading man bona fides with 1983's Mr. Mom, a comedy written by John Hughes, and, after a bit of a dry spell, surprised many by showing that he could do drama every bit as effectively as comedy in 1988's Clean and Sober. That same year, he embarked on a collaboration with Tim Burton, whom he came to regard as "an artist and a visionary," that resulted in 1988's Beetlejuice, a crazy comedy that he initially turned down and in which he appears for just 19 minutes but steals the show, as well as 1989's Batman and 1992's Batman Returns, which spawned a massive wave of dark comic book adaptations but that was far from a sure bet at the time ("If it went down, we were going down in a big way"). Despite the success of those two films, Keaton declined to return for a third installment, namely 1995's Batman Forever, after Burton stepped aside and was replaced by Joel Schumacher, who wanted to take the franchise in a very different direction. "It sucked," Keaton says of the script he was shown. "I knew it was in trouble when he [Schumacher] said, 'Why does everything have to be so dark?' "

Keaton's star faded somewhat over the ensuing years, during which he took on some acting challenges that interested him — such as doing Shakespeare in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing (1993), playing clones in Harold Ramis's Multiplicity (1996) and playing the same character in multiple movies for different directors in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997) and Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight (1998). But he generally worked less (he recalls "getting tired of hearing my own voice, feeling like I was kinda pulling out tricks, probably being lazy, probably being not particularly interested") and spent more time away from Los Angeles (often at his ranch in Montana). "I had a life," he says, noting that he wanted to be present for his son's childhood. "And also not a whole lot of folks knocking on my door," he says, insisting "I never really took it personally" before adding, "Maybe sometimes my feelings were hurt." (One part that he was offered, but declined, was a variation of the one eventually played by Matthew Fox in J.J. Abrams' 2004-10 TV series Lost — originally, he says, the character was to be shockingly killed off in the pilot, but then the offer changed, and he wasn't interested in committing to an open-ended run.)

Shortly before he landed a hilarious cameo in the Adam McKay comedy The Other Guys (2010), Keaton says, "Things weren't looking great." He recounts meeting with one of his reps and guaranteeing that he was about to turn things around. "I started getting really, really locked in and narrowing the focus and narrowing the energy and narrowing the vision and honing it and really thinking about what I wanted to do," he says. Not long after, rather out of the blue, he received an overture from the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro G. Inarritu, who pitched him on a script about a former star of superhero movies whose career had faded but who was mounting a comeback to prove that he still had it. "The safe bet would've been, 'Don't go near this thing,' " Keaton acknowledges, since many would assume that he was sending up his own story. But Inarritu insisted that the actor would be portraying the filmmaker's alter-ego, and so Keaton gave it a shot. Filmed in challengingly long takes to fuel the perception that the whole film was one continuous shot, Birdman wound up bagging Keaton a best actor Oscar nom and winning best picture, among other awards. Remarkably, so, too, did Keaton's next film, Spotlight, in which he plays a Boston Globe investigative reporter who helps to unveil the sex crimes of the Boston Catholic Church. Keaton was born and raised Catholic — an altar boy, in fact — and his mother remains devout to this day, but he says none of that deterred him from signing on to Tom McCarthy's film. "The subject matter not only didn't scare me," he says, "it attracted me." He was robbed of a best supporting actor Oscar nom but was delighted — even more so than with Birdman — when the film won best picture.

This season, The Founder — which was directed by The Blind Side's John Lee Hancock, and which Keaton describes as "the quintessential movie about the free-enterprise system and capitalism and America and American culture and the changes in American culture" — has slipped under the radar of most awards voters. But it arrived late to the party, with a Dec. 16 release in only a handful of L.A. and New York theaters, and and as audiences and awards voters catch up with it, that could change. Keaton says he loves receiving recognition for his work, but after having spent years out in the cold, he's not getting greedy. "I'm really enjoying it now," he says of being an actor. "I just wanna be good."