In his electrifying new film, ''Birdman'', the 63-year-old actor plays the former star of a superhero franchise, now begging for a comeback. It's a role that seems custom-crafted for the guy who used to be Batman, and the kind of mesmerizing meta-performance that milks Oscar votes. But Keaton isn't buying (or selling) that story. In fact, whatever you expect him to be, he probably isn't. An exclusive interview.
In Birdman, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a veteran film actor who is desperate to change the public’s perception of who he is and what he can do. Like Keaton, Riggan is best remembered for playing a superhero 25 years ago. And like Keaton, he has, ever since, been patiently fielding questions about why he left that role — Riggan walked away from Birdman 4, Keaton didn’t want to do, or be, Batman Forever. Riggan, like Keaton, lives in a contemporary cultural universe that’s all too easy to recognize, in which the caffeinated chirping of celebrity-news shows about ”Robert Downey Jr.’s billion-dollar Iron Man franchise!” is constant is constant background noise, and in which anxious stars measure their own waxing and waning fame by their retweet stats and YouTube hits. And like Riggan, Keaton finds it all a bit alien.
Birdman, which is subtitled The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, was thunderously received when it played the Venice and Telluride film festivals in August. The movie opens Oct. 17, and the closer you look, the longer, deeper, and darker its hall of mirrors becomes. It’s a chance to see a director who has never gone near the superhero genre tell a story about what it can do to an actor by assembling a cast that’s been there and lived to tell the tale. Edward Norton — veteran of The Incredible Hulk! — plays Mike Shiner, the deranged costar of the Broadway play on which Riggan is trying to rebuild his reputation; he’s the guy they get because Woody Harrelson, Michael Fassbender, and Jeremy Renner are all embroiled in their own billion-dollar franchises and unavailable. Emma Stone — veteran of The Amazing Spider-Man! — plays Riggan’s petulant daughter, who threatens to demolish his fragile stability by sneering, ”You had a career, Dad, before the third time you put on that costume.” And while Batman himself does not make an appearance in the movie, we do see Birdman — an ebony-feathered crusader with a deep Gotham growl and a mask that covers the top half of his face — as he haunts Riggan with words of either egomaniacal encouragement or ego-shattering contempt. Sometimes the shadowy superhero stands right over the actor’s shoulder, a taunting doppelgänger who symbolizes both the apex of Riggan’s career and its ruin. We are watching a movie star’s soul laid bare. But which movie star?
Keaton and Birdman are already very much a part of this year’s awards conversation (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, its director and co-writer, has been there before, for Babel; Keaton has not). And the noise is only going to get louder once the film, which closes the New York Film Festival this week, reaches theaters. Aside from its strong reviews, Birdman hits Hollywood where it lives (and sometimes wishes it doesn’t); its references — and, more to the point, Riggan’s dilemma — feel timely and acute. It’s a remarkable moment for an actor who is now well into his fourth decade before the cameras. ”Riggan is the part I’ve been waiting my whole life to play,” says Keaton. ”The second I read the script, I thought, I am this man. I have lived this life. I can fill this role with every bit of pain and insecurity I have ever felt as an actor. Finally, I thought. This is my chance for redemption.” And —
Michael Keaton did not say any of those things. He does not actually feel any of those things. He is not filled with pain. He does not believe himself to be in need of redeeming. What he actually said — and he said it right in Birdman‘s press notes, so you know he really wants to be understood on this point — is the following:
”In terms of the parallels, I’ve never related less to a character than Riggan.”
And he means it. The sweaty, demon-driven, down-on-his-luck movie star he plays, who looks like he wants to throw up when someone encouragingly tells him ”60 is the new 30,” is not the clear-eyed, even-keeled actor sitting here in a Santa Monica café, who is completely credible when he explains that he goes from job to job for all kinds of reasons and hasn’t given much thought to his most famous role since the last time he took off the cowl in 1992. Holy Ruined Oscar Narrative!
”I know there are a lot of interviews coming up, and maybe I should just get lazy and do that, say, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly it!”’ Keaton says, laughing. He understands that his refusal to play out that story line ”is gonna sound like ‘Thou doth protest too much.’ But the truth is that I was playing a person,” he continues, ”just a person, and I was both as connected to Riggan and as disconnected from him as you can possibly be. And I have to tell the truth about that. When we were making the movie and I’d say to Alejandro that something was going to be hard, he’d say, ‘Good, cabrón! It’s only going to be good if it’s hard!’ So that’s what I’ll stick with.”
Iñárritu had plenty of opportunities to offer that reminder to his star. Although Birdman takes place over a couple of weeks, as Riggan tries to turn his career around while rehearsing the play-within-the-movie, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story ”What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” it was the director’s conceit that the film appear to be shot in one continuous take. And while Iñárritu and his cinematographer, Emmanuel ”Chivo” Lubezki (The Tree of Life, Gravity), came up with some ingenious ways to create unnoticeable breaks in between takes, their approach meant that Keaton, Stone, Norton, and the rest of the cast — including Zach Galifianakis and Naomi Watts — spent most of the monthlong shoot in New York City last year doing (and redoing, and re-redoing) technically and emotionally complex unbroken shots of seven, eight, nine, or 10 minutes. In movies, that’s an eternity without hearing the word ”Cut!”
”You’d go home, and have dinner, and then you’d start to think about the next day’s work,” says Keaton. ”And that’s when the panic would set in. These were all really good, accomplished actors. And everybody showed up every morning frightened. The crew too. I think we were all thinking, I don’t want to be the guy who lets everybody down.”
Michael Keaton is 63 years old, and he still looks remarkably like the guy who burst through a morgue door 32 years ago in Ron Howard’s Night Shift, Walkman earphones on his head, bobbing and flapping to ”Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” a movie star from pretty much his first moment on screen. He has considerably less hair than he did then — a trimmed whitish-gray landing strip down the top of his head — and some crinkliness, the kind you get not from decades of dissolution but from years of riding and fishing on the Montana ranch where he spends half his time. But he doesn’t appear to have gained a pound since the Wayne Manor era, or lost any speed off his fastball delivery. On the morning I meet him, in this coffee shop near the Pacific where he likes to start his days when he’s in California, he’s even got some Night Shift-style headphones on — big ones. Whatever he’s listening to, it’s with an expression of singular concentration.
He takes them off and puts them on top of a neatly folded New York Times, another morning ritual. ”I still really like newspapers,” he says. ”I’m gonna feel really sad when they go. Or not — maybe I’ll be dead.” He’s about to head to Massachusetts to play a Boston Globe reporter in Spotlight, director Thomas McCarthy’s drama about a pedophile-priest scandal; the headphones are for work he’s doing on his character’s accent. ”For years I’d go to the movies and see guys doing Boston accents and think, Oh please God, I hope I never have to do that,” he says. ”I always thought I could dodge this, but apparently I can’t.”
Not that he’d want to. Throughout his career, Keaton has consistently sought to jump away from the familiar and into the unknown. ”I always bet on me,” he says with a palms-up gesture. ”What I may lack in talent from time to time, I think I make up for in balls. I’ve never seen the virtue in not being courageous in acting. It’s not like coal-miner bravery or Doctors-Without-Borders-going-into-Ebola-stricken-villages bravery. I mean, what’s gonna happen? People are going to laugh at you and make fun of you? Okay, fine. If that happens, I’ll go on to the next thing.”
Keaton has made more than 40 movies since Night Shift, and surprisingly few of them fit either of the two pigeonholes in which Hollywood wanted to put him after he arrived on the scene — the anarchic crazy guy (think Beetlejuice) or the quick-talking, harried young Everyman whose internal engine was always slightly overcranked (think Mr. Mom). As his career took off, Keaton’s competition for the first kind of role was Robin Williams; for the second, it was Tom Hanks. He solved the problem by working both sides of that fence throughout the ’80s, only to end the decade taking on Batman and having what in some ways was his least characteristic role become his most defining.
Since then he’s played villains, psychos, Shakespearean clowns, dying dads, reporters, speechwriters, cops, CEOs, and cars (in Cars). He has an almost morbid fear of repeating himself. He turned down Groundhog Day (which he regrets) because ”I didn’t get it — I thought, This guy sounds like the kind of wry, sardonic, glib young man I’ve played — and it ended up being so great. But you can’t do that better than Bill Murray did it.” And he turned down Matthew Fox’s role in the Lost pilot when ABC convinced J.J. Abrams that he had to keep the character alive after the first two hours (no regrets there; Keaton didn’t want to do a series). So the notion that any one character, especially a guy in a big black cape, might be symbolically following him around is something he finds laughable. ”The fact that anyone would think about that?” he says. ”I don’t get it.”
Iñárritu, however, got it from the day he started writing Birdman. A couple of years ago, the director, best known for plumbing the depths of human sorrow in 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful — and also for the powerful, Oscar-nominated performances he elicited in all three of those films — decided to try his hand at something more personal, not to mention funnier: a seriocomic character study that would serve as ”an exploration of my own ego and how it can become a dictator — how it can elevate you and say, ‘You are the best’ and then 30 minutes later make you start doubting yourself. For me it was about the everyday fight we all have with mediocrity and the fact that we can’t accept our limitations.”
Keaton says it’s absurd to think Birdman was written for him. ”How could it be?” he says. ”First of all, you’d have to assume I was going to say yes. Why would anybody do that?”
But Iñárritu says that once he decided to make Birdman‘s protagonist not a director but an actor who had once played a superhero and was now struggling to reclaim his professional identity, ”I knew that Michael was, obviously, the best choice. He is a master at shifting tones and emotions, and that’s important since this movie moves more like a jazz piece than something in 4/4 time. That, plus his charm, plus, yes, the fact that he was who he was and that he had worn that cape would give the film a meta-reality beyond his talent. Once I finished, I had a clear revelation that I had no other option.”
Keaton, after all, has lived through every shift in the vicissitudes of modern movie stardom; in essence, he pioneered a genre that turned out to colonize the entire industry the second he began, by virtue of both age and temperament, to grow out of it. Who else could take on Riggan, the celebrity version of a man almost destroyed by his own creation, in a movie that finds both the comedy and pathos in its own showbiz contemporization of the Frankenstein myth? ”If he hadn’t wanted to play it,” Iñárritu admits, ”I would have been absolutely f—ed.”
Two years ago, Keaton was in Canada shooting a supporting role in the remake of RoboCop when his agent called saying that Iñárritu wanted to meet him. ”He’s one of my favorite directors,” Keaton says. ”So I said, ‘Great — what’s the project?’ And my agent said, ‘Well…it’s hard to explain. He wants to talk to you before he shows you anything.”’ Keaton flew home from the set for a day, and at dinner, Iñárritu nervously pitched his idea — including the unavoidable Batman connection. After they ate, he handed Keaton the screenplay. ”When I read the part of the script that talks about Riggan turning down the Birdman sequel,” says Keaton, ”I did have a moment of thinking, Is this just going to be a movie about that? And I hesitated for, oh, maybe 13 seconds. And then I said yes.”
”I knew that there was a chance he could read the script and personalize it and maybe feel insulted,” Iñárritu says. ”But instead, he read the other side of it — the side that any human being could identify with.”
During that initial meeting, Iñárritu also shared with Keaton an aspect of his vision for Birdman that would ultimately prove to be a much more formidable challenge than coping with any superhero references: his plan to make the entire film appear seamless (there’s only one intentionally visible cut in two hours). Very few directors have essayed versions of this before. Alfred Hitchcock did it in his 1948 thriller, Rope (given existing technology, he had to pan to a neutral surface every 10 minutes or so when he needed to change magazines of film), and Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 Russian Ark unfolds in one 96-minute Steadicam shot. There’s a reason it’s not done more often. ”Alejandro wanted to press the point that it was going to be very difficult,” says Keaton. ”Did I get what he was talking about, how much rehearsal it was going to require?”
Iñárritu didn’t view it as a gimmick or flourish but as an integral part of his story: He had decided to take that approach the day he and his three writing collaborators started work on the script. Most of Birdman is told from Riggan’s perspective as he endures rehearsals, an emergency recasting, a potential lawsuit, rocky previews, unwelcome encounters with critics and journalists, a physical fight with one costar, an affair with another, his daughter’s resentment, and the skepticism of his colleagues on his road to opening night. ”The movie is about a state of consciousness,” says Iñárritu. ”I wanted the audience to be in Riggan’s mind and make people feel what it was like to go through the labyrinthine corridors and halls without blinking or fragmentation. I wanted it to feel like reading somebody who’s writing without commas or periods.”
Once Keaton was aboard, Iñárritu tweaked the script further, tailoring aspects of it to his star’s propulsive speech rhythms. ”He probably started going, Okay, now that I’m sure it’s him, now that I’ve seen what he looks like and how he talks, I’ll rewrite a few things,” Keaton says. ”But I don’t remember one Batman discussion. In fact, I know there wasn’t one, because there was an actual reference in the script early on, and I thought, Well, obviously, you can’t keep that — it’s too distracting. Then, all through rehearsal, we just kept doing it, assuming it was gonna go. Only when we were getting close to the day of shooting did I finally say, ‘Alejandro, uh, you know…’ And he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, right!’ And then he took it out.”
That turned out to be the easiest part of the rehearsal process. Birdman was not an expensive film, but its complete financing didn’t come together until only a few days before work was due to start. Time was tight — just 30 days were allotted for the shoot in the spring of 2013 — and so was space. Most of the movie takes place in and around the St. James Theatre, a venerable 1,700-seat venue on West 44th Street in New York City’s theater district that has housed everything from the original 1943 production of Oklahoma! to The Producers. Iñárritu and his team got lucky — most Broadway theaters aren’t empty in the spring — but neither the St. James’ stage and wings nor its serpentine maze of dressing rooms, stairwells, and wardrobe and prop departments would be available for much preproduction time.
The crew’s reaction was to undertake a demanding feat of collective choreography in which the actors homed in on their roles in one space while Lubezki, his camera operators, and a group of stand-ins worked out their moves in a carefully measured full-size spatial replica of the theater, timing out every pan, tracking shot, and swerve down to the second. Lubezki (who, like Iñárritu, was born in Mexico City) had played with long tracking shots before, including a stunning sequence in the 2006 thriller Children of Men that won him one of his six Oscar nominations. But a movie full of them — including one shot that appears to last more than 30 minutes without an obvious cheat — was daunting even for him.
By the time all of the creative principals came together in New York, Keaton says, ”you had to be word-perfect, you had to be off script, and you literally had to count your paces down to the number of steps you needed to take before turning a corner. To pull it off — concentrating on your performance and the nuances of the story, then add in the technical stuff, and then add the perfectionistic nature of me, and of Alejandro and Chivo, who are beyond perfectionistic — well, that’s what gets me turned on. When things start to get that hard, that’s when I get interested.”
Keaton had a tougher time trying to immerse himself in the neediness and insecurity of the bitter, jittery character he was playing — an actor whose desire to be taken seriously threatens to turn him into his own worst enemy. Could he live inside Riggan’s most unflattering qualities? At first, he says, ”even some of the language didn’t feel right to me. Sometimes I thought, These words don’t fit in my mouth.” As he got closer to the heart of the role, Iñárritu urged him on. ”I would always joke with him and say, ‘All of us have our Birdman. It can be a vulture or it can be a rooster, but all of us have a little guy inside us giving us s— about ourselves,”’ says the director. ”Nobody escapes.”
As the first day of shooting neared, Norton and Galifianakis (who plays Riggan’s anxious manager/producer) both saw Keaton transform. ”Zach and I grew up on Night Shift,” says Norton. ”You know, when you’ve been a fan of someone for a long time, one part of you is a professional but the other part is excitedly waiting for that person to show up. I think it took a while before any of us could get into the loose and available place where you want to be when you’re acting. But one day in rehearsal, all of a sudden it wasn’t just the choreography, it was that guy we were all such fans of clicking in. And I looked at Zach and was like, ‘Ah, there he is!”’
The stresses of the shoot itself helped Keaton live within Riggan’s obsessive state of mind. Anything — a misremembered line, an extra step taken, a camera operator stumbling on a stair or veering off course or out of focus — could blow a take, rendering the first several minutes unusable even if they had been perfect. ”Alejandro had given us all a picture from Man on Wire — the man walking on the tightrope between the [World Trade Center] towers,” says Stone. ”It felt like that — like making a film and doing a play and doing a stunt all at the same time. He would shout at the monitor ‘No!’ or ‘Yes!’ and you didn’t stop until you heard that accent-tinged ‘Yes!”’
”Everyone would apologize perfunctorily if they messed up,” says Keaton, ”mostly because we were aware of how hard it was on the camera operators. And the camera operators didn’t want to screw up because of us. There was so much they had to think about, including the fact that the hallways keep getting narrower as their world closes in on them.”
”We didn’t have many days to make it happen,” says Iñárritu. ”But when it worked, I’ve never been so excited. We got rid of everything we use in conventional cinema. The adrenaline that came with that was like shooting amphetamines.”
That terrifyingly amped quality helped bring Keaton a big step closer to figuring out who Riggan was. By the end of the shoot, he felt that he was playing ”a really admirable dude. As pathetic as he is, I embrace his patheticness. Even though I probably wouldn’t want to hang out with him much, he puts himself out there.” In fact, now that more than a year has passed since production ended, Keaton is even willing to amend his claim that he’s never related to a character less. Early in Birdman, there’s a scene in which Riggan is bombarded with questions from reporters. Does he inject baby-pig semen into his face? Is he ever going to do another Birdman sequel? As the press corps swoops down on him, decontextualizing and uploading his answers practically before he’s given them, they ask him about everything except the reason he’s there. Riggan stays polite, but he’s unnerved — there’s no escape.
”In that scene,” says Keaton, ”I was going, Oh, yeah, this is not Riggan. In this moment? This is me. The moment when the journalist says, ‘You turned down Birdman 4?’ Okay, yeah. Me. Me me me me me. I mean, all that stuff…” He smacks the front page of the Times. ”Read this! And people give a f— about who plays Batman? Honestly, I’m not an elitist by any stretch of the imagination, but the fact that anybody would think about it, I just don’t get. So in that moment, I went, Yeah, this is me, specifically.” He pauses. ”Unless there’s other guys. Maybe Christian Bale did the same thing.”
So…uh….would this be a good time to ask about Batman, or has this whole line of discussion been a trap designed to deter any journalist from coming off as an imbecile who missed the whole point of the movie and just can’t let Keaton’s past go?
Turns out it’s fine. Keaton doesn’t mind talking about Batman at all; he’s proud of it. When he was cast in the first film, which opened 25 years ago this summer, he faced a level of fanboy fury that was limited only by the fact that in those pre-Internet days, all that complainers could do was write lengthy screeds to Warner Bros. and to comic-book letters pages. ”The only risk in deciding to do the movie,” says Keaton, ”was that I knew if this misses, it misses really big. There was tension. A lot of money was being spent. And I was dressing in a big black rubber suit.” He remembers Batman as a lonely time; the film shot in London, his son (now a musician) was then very young, and Keaton would fly back to the U.S. on the Concorde often to see him. The protest against Keaton’s casting turned to praise almost as soon as Batman opened — and by the end of its run, it was one of the 10 highest-grossing films ever released up to that point. But the initial skepticism stung enough for Keaton to end an acceptance speech at the 1990 People’s Choice Awards by saying, ”All you gotta do is tell me no, baby! So keep those cards and letters coming.”
Would he do it again? ”If it was Tim Burton directing?” he replies. ”In a heartbeat. Tim, in movies, really invented the whole dark-superhero thing. He started everything, and some of the guys who have done these movies since then don’t say that, and they’re wrong.” After returning for the 1992 sequel Batman Returns, he and Burton both thought that a third installment delving into Batman’s past would be an interesting way to go; instead, Warner Bros. asked for a new director, bigger supervillains, and a lighter, more colorful look. ”I hadn’t been stupid about it,” says Keaton. ”I always knew it was a big machine with a big studio and corporation and board behind it. But the simple answer was, It wasn’t any good. I was nice. I said to them, ‘This is a really interesting character with a dual personality.’ I tried to make them understand. But when somebody says to you, ‘Does it have to be so dark?’… I thought, Are we talking about the same character? So finally I just said no. And as the years wore on, I think more and more people said, ‘Yeah, I get what that dude was about.”’ (Whether the dude to whom he’s referring is himself or Batman, it feels like vindication.)
He’s never looked back — nor has he returned to those films. ”Chris Nolan is great,” he says, ”but I’ve never seen any of the Batman movies all the way through. I know they’re good. I just have zero interest in those kinds of movies. I mean, people are asking me, ‘Is Ben Affleck going to be any good?’ And my attitude is, First of all, why would you ask me? Second, he’s probably going to be very good, and third, frankly, it’s all set up now so that you’re weirdly kind of safe. Once you get in those suits, they really know what to do with you. It was hard then; it ain’t that hard now. Now I can say this, because for many reasons, I never allowed myself to say it at the time: It was never about Batman for me. It was always about Bruce Wayne. He’s funny! He’s screwed-up! The guy is the coolest motherf—er in the world, and he’s messed-up! As for the other half of the part: Just work that suit, man. Just let that suit go to town.
”But listen,” he says. ”We could be talking a year from now and I could be doing one of those movies. That’s very possible!” He laughs. And for a moment, Keaton sounds like Riggan — a veteran actor handling with bemusement and determination the current realities of his chosen profession, a world in which, in Iñárritu’s words, ”all those guys in suits fighting other guys in suits can get a little bit annoying. Sometimes it’s fun. But honestly, how many good ones can you do? It’s not the movies I don’t like. It’s the noise and the space they take up.”
There comes a moment in Birdman when Riggan decides to go for broke. He knows he’s got just one chance to succeed, and he chooses to put everything he’s got on the line. The details of how he does it would constitute a spoiler, but suffice it to say that at the climax of the movie, Keaton seems to inhabit his character as fully as any he’s ever played. In that scene, he’s going for broke too, because literally and figuratively, one shot is all anybody gets.
”I’m a big believer that you can make certain things happen in your life,” Keaton says. ”At a certain point, you think, How much longer do I have to live? And do I have anything to prove? I’m a sports fan, and young athletes always think, ‘Well, we almost got to the World Series or the Super Bowl, but this is only my second or third year in the league, I’m gonna get a bunch more chances.’ No. You’re not. So when a director like this comes along…” He stops talking. He looks like he’s considering several different ways that sentence could end. ”Once I started the movie,” he says, ”I thought, I can’t imagine ever again being a part of something this unique and great. I might. But it’s not likely.”