Movie Feature

Michael Keaton goes from Batman to Birdman

By Scott FoundasMovies - 12 January 2015 12:00 AM | Updated 16 January 2015

Michael Keaton goes from Batman to Birdman

Like most actors, Michael Keaton claims he doesn’t enjoy watching himself in his own movies. But when it comes to his buzz-worthy starring role in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 'Birdman', he can’t stop watching himself — as if in disbelief that it’s really him up there onscreen.

“I like this movie so much, I just can’t get enough of it,” he said over a recent lunch at Santa Monica’s Miramar Hotel, the day after he had seen 'Birdman' for the third time, at an Academy screening attended by his old 'Batman' sparring partner, Jack Nicholson.

“I’m watching this movie and I’m thinking, God, I love this movie. And then I realised, wait a minute, I’m in this movie!” Keaton said.

Coming from most people, a statement like that would sound like false modesty at best and willful self-delusion at worst, but when he says it, it has a tinge of sincerity – or, at least, of a very seductive hustle. 

That may be why Keaton, who has played superheroes and journalists, political speechwriters and recovering addicts, has rarely been better than as a particular breed of fast-talking dreamer-schemer: characters like the morgue attendant-pimp-inventor Bill Blazejowski in 'Night Shift' (1982); the Pennsylvania auto factory foreman walking the tightrope of American-Japanese cultural diplomacy in 'Gung Ho' (1986); and the hyped-up “bio-exorcist”, the self-proclaimed “ghost with the most”, in Tim Burton’s 'Beetlejuice' (1988).

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton (right) in 'Birdman' | Photo: 20th Century Fox

To that quixotic rogues gallery, one can now add 'Birdman’s' Riggan Thomson, a washed-up Hollywood star best known for starring in a trilogy of big-budget superhero movies, now trying to make a comeback on Broadway in his own adaptation of the Raymond Carver story 'What We Talk about When We Talk about Love'.

It is almost surely the richest and most demanding role Keaton has ever played – technically demanding, in terms of how the film was shot (in continuous, 10-minute-long tracking shots that allowed no margin for error), and emotionally demanding in terms of the psychological rollercoaster the character travels within the space of any given scene.

“You would have to go from funny to disturbing to deeply sad back to darkly funny,” Keaton said. 

“And because of the nature of how it was shot, you didn’t have the luxury of edits, where you can do 15 takes of that one line from that angle. You had to get it all in one, and be word-perfect, and in the right place physically to accommodate the camera.”

When 'Birdman', made for less than US$20 million (S$26 million), premiered on the opening night of the Venice Film Festival, Keaton’s performance instantly became the subject of intense Oscar talk from the awards-prognosticating crowd, many of whom judged his character to be a thinly veiled version of Keaton himself.

It makes for a tidy art-imitates-life narrative, but Keaton – a news junkie who once flirted with the idea of journalism school – isn’t buying it.

Michael Keaton (centre) with director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (right) | Photo: 20th Century Fox

The actor claims he has never related less to a character than he does to Riggan, who craves public and critical adoration to such an extent that he sacrifices the most meaningful relationships of his life in that pursuit.

“I’ve played a killer on death row, so maybe I didn’t relate to him very much either,” he said when pressed further on the subject, referencing his role in the 1998 thriller 'Desperate Measures', a movie made just as Keaton’s A-list status was beginning to wane.

In the case of 'Birdman', it was Riggan’s desperate yearning for validation that the actor found so alien.

“I choose not to be at the whim of others,” he said. “I want to be at my own whim. I figured early on – maybe I was lucky or it’s just the way I’m built – that this is a fear-based industry, and you’re pretty **** if you buy into it.”

And indeed, in conversation, Keaton exuded both a healthy self-confidence and a zen sense of order in his life, qualities the actor’s friends and collaborators frequently cite when discussing him.


“His life is much bigger than his career,” said Edward Norton, who co-stars in 'Birdman' as a Method-y prima donna actor who joins Riggan’s play as an eleventh-hour replacement.

“He’s a really grounded guy. He’s quite the opposite of an insecure actor. You can tell (acting) is only a piece of his life, and he’s very happy and content with the balance of the things he’s worked on.”

Inarritu said that only an actor free of Riggan Thomson’s hangups could have embraced the role so fully.

“Michael is the most confident person I have known in my life,” said the director. “It’s the only way you can play this character like he did. The braveness and boldness that he has come from that incredible self-assurance.”

Spend a few hours chatting with Keaton, and you’re likely to hear as much about the following as you will about his own work: His love of the American West (he lives most of the year in Montana, and once spent a summer teaching drama on a Navajo reservation), fly fishing (he contributed an essay to 'Astream', a recent literary anthology on the subject), and the recent African safari he took with his 31-year-old son, Sean.

“I really like to hear actors talk about acting, but I don’t really like hearing myself talk,” he confided at one point.

Still, between the actor and his latest screen avatar, there is at least one undeniable similarity: It’s been just about as long since either of them saw his name writ large atop the marquee.

Micheal Keaton plays a has-been actor in 'Birdman' | Photo: 20th Century Fox

If you happened to come of age in the 1980s, Keaton was nothing short of iconic.

“He had a quality that was hard to put your finger on; at that age it just seemed cool,” said Norton, who remembered poring over the HBO broadcast schedule with school friends, circa 1982, noting each and every airing of 'Night Shift'. “He had this kind of tossed-off insouciance that made it seem like he was floating a few feet above everybody else.” 

For director Ron Howard, who directed Keaton in 'Gung Ho' and 'The Paper', the essence of Keaton’s inimitable screen presence is that “whatever tone he’s operating in, whatever genre, there’s a kind of emotional logic at play, which is why it’s been so easy for him to shift over into tragedy or seriocomic roles. Whatever gear you need, it always comes from a place of character, and it’s never exactly what you’d expect.” 

For Tim Burton, the secret is in Keaton’s eyes. “That’s the thing I thought made him perfect for Batman,” Burton said, who hopes to reteam with Keaton soon on a long-planned 'Beetlejuice' sequel.

“They’re piercing, they’re penetrating, they’re crazy. He’s got a lot of things going on in his eyes at one time,” Burton added.

For at least a decade, Keaton has seemed to be in retreat – partly by circumstance, partly by design.

At 63, he’s aged out of most Hollywood leading-man roles, finding alternative opportunities in television, like the 2002 HBO movie 'Live from Baghdad' and the 2007 TNT miniseries 'The Company', which earned him Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations, respectively.

In the low-budget indie world, he earned strong reviews for directing and starring in the 2008 hitman drama 'The Merry Gentleman'.

Even before he went grey, though, Keaton had amassed a reputation for turning down lucrative offers, starting with a reported US$15 million payday to return as the Caped Crusader in 1995’s 'Batman Forever' (Val Kilmer got the gig instead).

“I used to say no to almost everything, because I thought, I’ve got enough dough, I know what I want to do, and I know what I’m capable of,” Keaton said.

Onscreen, Keaton is – like cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s roving Steadicam – an object in constant, exhilarating motion. 

In the current film, in addition to playing Riggan himself, there are the two characters Riggan plays onstage. Then there is Birdman, the superhero alter-ego Riggan abandoned two decades ago, but who never quite abandoned him.

For Keaton, a key challenge to unlocking the character was figuring out just how good an actor Riggan actually was. “Actors don’t get to be well-known if they’re horrible,” he said.

Micheal Keaton and Emma Stone (right) in 'Birdman' |  Photo: 20th Century Fox

Keaton isn’t the only ’80s-era star who has been standing at the plate waiting for a 'Birdman'-like pitch.

At last month’s Toronto Film Festival, you could find Keaton contemporaries Kevin Costner and Richard Gere shopping independently made, hoped-for comeback vehicles ('Black and White' and 'Time out of Mind', respectively), while Al Pacino came to town towing a self-reflexive, backstage Broadway movie, 'The Humbling', whose uncanny parallels to 'Birdman' were noted by more than one critic.

But it’s Keaton who has emerged at the head of the pack. 

Where this all leads is anyone’s guess. When John Travolta returned from a decade-long career deep-freeze with the adrenaline shot of Quentin Tarantino’s 'Pulp Fiction', it catapulted the actor back to the top of the Hollywood A-list. 

But Travolta, who has since fallen off that list, was only 40 then, whereas Keaton is closer in age to Burt Reynolds at the time of 'Boogie Nights' or Mickey Rourke at the time of 'The Wrestler' — two much-ballyhooed, Oscar-nominated performances that ultimately did little to reverse those stars’ sagging fortunes.

What is clear is that this is another subject Keaton himself is happy to let the media debate while he’s back home in Montana, calmly casting his line.

“I just go on to the next thing,” said the actor, who next will play Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Walter Robinson in director Tom McCarthy’s 'Spotlight', a fact-based drama about the Boston Globe’s expose of sex abuse in the Massachusetts Catholic Church, also starring Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci and Liev Schreiber.

“The only thing I would say is that in the last two years, I’ve started to really enjoy acting again,” Keaton added.

“Not that I ever hated it; it wasn’t as dramatic as that. But I had raised a kid, I’d been through a lot of stuff like everybody. Then things started to level off, and I thought, ‘Okay, you know what? I’m feeling like I want to (focus) more. It’s no accident that I happen to be in a really, really special project right now.”

That said, making 'Birdman' was exhausting work, Keaton stressed.

“But this is how you want to be exhausted. Leaving a lot of movie sets, I’ve gone home and said, ‘How come my hands are clean?’ I should finish something and go home with dirt in my fingernails, because then you really feel that you’ve done something. This was one where I went, ‘Whoa man, I worked.’ ”

'Birdman' opens 15 January 2015

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