When director Tom McCarthy told Walter “Robby” Robinson that Michael Keaton would be playing him in Spotlight, the true story of the Boston Globe reporters who exposed the Roman Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal in 2002, the veteran journalist was delighted. More than 20 years ago, Keaton starred in Ron Howard’s The Paper, playing a savvy New York tabloid’s Metro editor who could get into any restricted building with just a clipboard and a confident wave — the kind of character who would’ve fit right in with Robby’s Boston colleagues. “He said, ‘[The Paper] happens to be one of my favorite movies on journalism, because I was a Metro editor, and that’s what it’s like,'” McCarthy said.
Spotlight, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival two weeks ago and drew raves when it recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, isn’t a galloping comic adventure like The Paper. Instead, it tells the tense and sober story of the Globe‘s “Spotlight” reporters — played by Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James — whose story that the Boston Archdiocese was shielding child-molesting priests shocked the world and won them a Pulitzer. The film’s ensemble is an embarrassment of riches, with additional sterling performances from Stanley Tucci, John Slattery, and Liev Schreiber, but Keaton is the first among equals and for the second consecutive Oscar season, the Birdman star comes to the festivals with a film that’s generating awards buzz.
Keaton, who recently finished filming The Founder, the story of McDonald’s entrepreneur Ray Kroc, is in an especially good mood. In addition to the positive notice that Spotlight received, his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates have won three in a row and are positioned for another playoff run. They have a double-header with the rival Cubs on Tuesday, and Keaton is punching up baseball stats on his phone to research the day’s pitching matchups. All things being equal, he’d probably prefer to be on the third-base line at PNC Park, but the 64-year-old Oscar nominee graciously discussed his latest movie, the frightening surreal existence of being a celebrity in the modern internet age, and the phone call from the New York Times he fears most.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: That was a special screening on Monday night, when the actual Boston Globe reporters joined the cast on stage after the movie.
MICHAEL KEATON: That was good. Everybody thinks, “Oh, that’s a great [Oscar campaign] move.” But then you think about it and go, “How do you not do that, though?” You couldn’t not have these people around, and they’ll be around for all this stuff over the next few months.
The film is set in 2001, and the journalist in me noted the wealth of research capabilities and personnel at the paper, things that are considered a rare luxury these days. It made me wonder: maybe the Globe has only one researcher now. Maybe they have none.
I know. It’s changed enormously. That’s a great thing [about the film]: you really see how it works and how it worked then. Now, people don’t have the money to do it, so you then say, “Well, why would a person go in to journalism?” and you know, for a 15-year old kid or 25-year-old guy, I wonder what their perception of journalism is now.
I don’t even know if what they read or whether they know where it came from: “Oh, this is a story on The Huffington Post.” But who are the actual news gatherers?
Totally, and they need to keep it going and keep it hot and keep it current and keep eyeballs on it. You’ve got to have it every second. I was just reading this insane article about this girl, she’s 25 and she’s the mayor of a not-that-tiny of a town in Brazil. And she’s like this party girl married to a multimillionaire, and she gave him a position, like in charge of mining or something. He couldn’t run because he had a prison record, so she ran and won, and she’s just on WhatsApp 24 hours a day. That’s how she runs her government. She’s always at a party or some nightclub somewhere. It’s such a great insane story. They have journalists pulling their hair out, because she’s omnipresent. And everything is covered 24 hours a day, seven days of week.
My life is now on — this is frightening to think about — but when I go out, my life is kind of everybody’s. It’s not mine. In fact, I’m dull, but George Clooney’s or somebody’s life who is a big exposed guy, you’re out there all the time in the world in somebody’s camera somewhere. So arguably, that person [with the camera or blog] has the power to do what he or she wants to. All these [news outlets] need it all the time, need the quickest and the most recent, so you don’t have time, or the interest in saying, “I really wonder what the story is on that.” I can make anything I want and call myself a journalist because somebody needs it right then and there. You don’t have to do the work any more. In fact, you probably don’t have time to do the work, because it has to be out.
Talk a little about Robby. What was your first impression when you met him?
I have a feeling the other actors did more hardcore research than I did. [Laughs] Tom gave me links to his TV interviews because I was living in fear of doing the Boston accent. I thought, “Man, this is the thing I always hoped I’d never have to do.” I don’t want people watching me for that. So I watched him and I called McCarthy; I go, “He doesn’t have an accent!” He said, “No, but keep watching the other interviews.” Then, all of a sudden, [the accent] pops up. What he does is — and this is something I share with him because I know a lot of people from different worlds — Robby easily blends in. Not that he’s a chameleon, because he doesn’t change colors. He’s Robby. But he really adjusts to all levels of society. He knows the Brahmins of Boston. He knows working-class guys. His wife runs this shelter she started for homeless men, so he goes to all those events with her. So his accent changes. He’s not putting on airs. It’s just like when he probably goes back to where he grew up, it comes out. Then I met him, and he and I just got to be friends. I wasn’t working at all, so I always had this guilty feeling that I didn’t really do all the stuff that those [other actors] did. Just hung out with him mostly, and I felt like I kind of knew him. He’s a guy I would hang out with anyway.
He’s a professional hanger-outter; he’s a reporter.
He is. And he’s very sly about who gets his stuff. Very, very sly. Sometimes he’s very casual, but the other thing is, he might not be a killer, but he can be real, real tough when he has to be, with whomever he has to be tough with.
I’m struck by the similarities between the relationships and work atmosphere between the St. James Theatre in Birdman and the newsroom in Spotlight. That becomes your family.
Spotlight doesn’t really dig into the family lives of these reporters. The “family” is at the office. So how did the actual reporters and the cast work together: similarly?
I wouldn’t be surprised that it is actually. I’ve done ensemble movies since the beginning. People told me I shouldn’t — “No, you’re a movie star,” you know — but I find certain stories interesting and I like to work with actors and good directors. I’ve been parts of really good ensembles. And I got to tell you, this was more fun playing than almost any movie I ever made. You wanted to go to work every morning just to hang out with everybody. They’re really funny, really fast on their feet, bright, great senses of humor. I never knew Brian d’Arcy; he’s such a good dude. I knew he was a talented guy, but then you go, “Holy moly, this guy’s fantastic.” And Rachel is so good. You see how much [her character] is hurting because she doesn’t want [her grandmother]’s world to come crashing down [because of the newspaper’s story]. That’s part of this movie that I think is not mentioned enough: all the people who really lost their faith. My brother was so upset about [the Church scandal] that he walked away and wanted nothing to do with the Church. He’s a smart guy, so he’s kind of hovering back around, you know, to his faith. But when you believe in something so much and people let you down… It’s not like being let down by a president. This is 50-fold. This is a deep, deep, deep, deep, deep blow. Disappointment. Because it’s about faith, it’s about everything.
One of the great things about the script is it doesn’t spare the reporters. There are scenes where your and Slattery’s characters aren’t very enthusiastic about tackling this story. Were you aware of any creative tension with the slightly competing points of view of the Globe reporters?
Hmm. No. Because I don’t think I asked about it. I don’t really know. I wonder. When you see them altogether, they all seem real friendly, but not like, “God, we love each other so much.” I think they’re pros. They go to work. I don’t know how that worked, but I think there was real mutual respect.
When you were palling around with some of the New York writers for The Paper, 1993/94 was like the 1650s in the print journalism timeline compared to where we are now. Did you notice a huge change from then to when you worked on Spotlight?
Well, it’s what we were talking about: Are those papers going to stick around? There’s no money. I keep thinking today’s the day that the Times calls me and says, “Thank you for being such a great subscriber. Unfortunately, due to the world, we have three months.” That’s probably going to happen at some point. Though I’m curious: [Tom] Brokaw told me once that the editor of the Post-Gazette in my hometown in Pittsburgh said that that paper does pretty well, their reader base is pretty strong. And I was surprised by that. And Brokaw said Pittsburgh is still a city where a lot of people don’t move away. Basically this is a population that goes, “We’re Pittsburghers. We live here. We go to our grandmothers on Sunday. We work here.” So therefore, you’re still getting the Post-Gazette to find out what’s going on in your town. It pertains to you. It effects you. You watch what your mayor does. And I think what might really happen is local, local, local newspapers are going to do just fine, because that’s where you get your news. Maybe that’s where journalism is going. You might get these great little articles or writers who come out of papers from towns with populations up to 25,000 people. And the others will just go away.
So here’s the $1 million question then: Did you read the newspaper this morning or did you get your information from your phone?
I have to get on a plane, and I realized I knocked off the whole first section of the New York Times [this morning]. I went, “Oh, damn! Why did I do that?” I always save it for the plane. Now I’m down to the remaining sections. But I always grab local papers, like I’ll pick up the two Toronto papers.
Spotlight opens in theaters Nov. 6.
WANT MORE EW? Subscribe now to keep up with the latest in movies, television and music.
Keep up with all the latest from last night’s television by subscribing to our newsletter. Head here for more details.