The acting MVP — who stars in two new films, action-thriller The Protégé and the 9/11 drama Worth — looks back at a life's work from Beetlejuice to Batman, Shakespeare to Spotlight and beyond.
Michael Keaton Role Call
Credit: Simon Varsano/Lionsgate; Everett Collection (3); Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films; Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures
Michael Keaton Role Call- Night Shift
Credit: Everett Collection

Night Shift (1982)

Ron Howard's Oscar-and-Felix tale of two mismatched co-workers (Keaton and Henry Winkler) at a New York City morgue nearly didn't become the actor's first big break: "I don't how many times I had to go back in and audition," he recalls. "It was just callback after callback after callback." But he loved the concept of opposites, and the script: "Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, they're terrific comedy writers. In fact, I never thought of this before, but Lowell, I think, actually wrote on The Odd Couple. [Ed. note: it's true]....And they gave me the green light to riff a lot, so I did."

On opening day, he remembers, "I purposely went to see it alone. I wanted to sit right there in the middle of the theater in the afternoon, and it was wonderful. I don't know any other word to use, to tell you the truth." So where, these days, is his character's trademark satin bomber jacket? Keaton laughs. "You know what, I try to keep a little something for me and also to hand down to kids and grandkids, and that's one of the few things from that movie that I hung onto."

Michael Keaton Role Call- Mr. Mom
Credit: Everett Collection

Mr. Mom (1983)

Penned by a then-unknown John Hughes, the story of a Detroit auto executive who becomes a stay-at-home dad was "perfect for its time and ahead of its time at the same time, in terms of the social consciousness. You have this man who loses his job and has to function traditionally as what was then considered a housewife, and it dealt with my insecurity, Jack's insecurity about that, and how he had to come to terms with it — and also a woman, Teri Garr, who had to go out into the workforce saying, 'No, no, no, I'm more than capable.' But it had almost a Norman Rockwellian framing.... I just love this movie. It's like a little American classic."

As for the late Hughes, "I remember sitting at the Palm having lunch with him on Santa Monica Boulevard. I listened to him talk, and I said to him, 'Why don't you direct this movie? You know how to make this.' [Stan Dragoti would helm it instead.] He was unbelievable, just how prolific he was, how he had his finger on the pulse. He was the voice of a generation in terms of movie comedies, you know?"

Credit: Geffen/Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Beetlejuice (1988)

The fact that director Tim Burton originally wanted Sammy Davis Jr. for the part may be apocryphal, Keaton admits. At first though, he couldn't see himself in the part: "I liked Tim personally, but I really didn't know what he was trying to explain with the concept of the movie. And so I said no two or three times."

But once he signed on, "It was off to the races. I called the wardrobe department and I said, 'Send over racks to my house, clothes all time periods.' I went to the makeup artist, Ve Neill, and said, 'I want mold on my face. My hair has to look like I stuck my finger in an electric socket.' She came up with the eyes, Tim had the idea of the striped suit, and I said, 'These are his teeth. This is his skin.' Beetlejuice is the ultimate 'Yes and...' movie, really, because Tim never went, 'Wait, no, you can't do that.' He went, 'Oh, you're going to do that? Cool. Then watch this. Then go over there and do this." [My character] isn't even in the movie very much! But it's 100 percent just an original piece of art."

Michael Keaton Role Call- CLEAN AND SOBER
Credit: Everett Collection

Clean and Sober (1988)

"People thought it was not a wise idea for me," he says of playing a coke-addled salesman in his first major dramatic turn. "I didn't care, I just thought the script was really good. [But] I had to learn what addiction is, how it manifests and how the disease works. There was no way around that. You just had to go do the research and go to meetings and talk to addicts. It still gets shown at rehab centers, apparently, and people come up to me all the time to talk about it and to thank me, which is...I mean, I don't know what to say. I'm just the guy in it, but I believed in it."

Michael Keaton in 'Batman'
Credit: Everett Collection

Batman (1989)

Deciding to slip into the iconic rubber suit "wasn't hard at all. Tim [Burton] and I had a couple of meetings, and I didn't necessarily think he'd agree with how I saw it. It turns out he not only agreed with it, he saw it exactly as I saw it — but the only difference was, he was way ahead of me." Still, putting a modern Batman on screen in a pre-MCU world was "a big risk and a gamble, and the pressure was really on all of us," he says, "especially Tim. If it's a miss, it's a gigantic miss. That could set you back awhile, you know? There were zero [superhero films at the time]. There was only the original Superman, which is a very charming movie. But Tim started all of it. There would be none of this if it wasn't for what he did."

Michael Keaton Role Call MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Credit: Everett Collection

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Kenneth Branagh's starry reimagining of Shakespeare shot in Tuscany, and Keaton recalls sun-dappled days and wine-soaked dinners with costars Denzel Washington and Emma Thompson. "In my life, I had taken two Shakespeare classes," the actor admits. "That's it." And though Branagh insisted he find his own his non-traditional take on the smug night constable Dogberry, Keaton's "weird kind of Celtic accent" that he landed on nearly killed the on-set Bard expert: "This poor man in his 80s with a straw hat on, God, he was so nice. He was watching me, going, 'He can't do this. Please don't let him do this.' But Kenneth went, 'No, no, no, no. Trust me, this is good. Keep doing what you're doing.'"

Michael Keaton Role Call THE PAPER
Credit: Everett Collection

The Paper (1994)

"I'm a bit of a news junkie, so I've played a journalist more than a few times. The Paper's one of my favorite movies, I think, because it's just such a wonderful ensemble, a really, really well-written script and a well-directed movie....The truth is, there were two other things I would've liked to have done for a living: a journalist or a landscape designer. I like digging in the dirt and designing things." Dirt was what Keaton got in Ron Howard's kinetic tabloid drama — plus an iconic onscreen battle: "How about the fact that the great Glenn Close and I get into a fistfight together?" he laughs. "How great is that? We had a really big discussion about that scene, [because] basically, you're fighting a woman. I went, 'Whoa, Jesus, what am I going to do with this?' But she's so f---ing awesome. And she was so locked in, so formidable. She kind of scared me, frankly."

Michael Keaton Role Call- Multiplicity
Credit: Everett Collection

Multiplicity (1996)

Shooting Harold Ramis' loopy sci-fi comedy about an L.A. construction worker who clones himself in the days before CGI was "so different from how you could do it now, acting against yourself with a ping-pong ball. But I loved it. The other thing that I like about it is, [the character] is cloned, but I didn't want a fat suit. I didn't want makeup. The challenge was, he's off just a hair from his original self." The film was ultimately embraced more in Europe than Stateside, but Keaton stands by it. "To me, Steve Martin invented what I call smart-dumb. Jim Carrey does it so well too, Jerry Lewis. And this movie is somewhat of an homage to all those great big silly comics. Comedy is hard! To be good at it is hard."

Michael Keaton Role Call- JACKIE BROWN
Credit: Everett Collection

Jackie Brown (1997)

"I f---ing love Jackie Brown," Keaton says. "First of all, Tarantino is a whole other discussion. Like, Kill Bill, you just go, 'Holy mackerel.'" So he was a hard yes when it came to the director's bloody 1997 crime romp, in which he played Ray Nicolette, an ATF agent chasing down Pam Grier's felonious flight attendant. "How about that cast? It's just really clean, the vibe is cool. And one of the great, great film shots of all time in my opinion is Chris Tucker and Sam Jackson, when Sam puts him in the trunk to that tune [the Brothers Johnson's "Strawberry Letter 23"]. Man, that is as good as movie-making gets."

Michael Keaton Role Call- Out of Sight
Credit: Universal Pictures

Out of Sight (1998)

"I'm a huge Steven Soderbergh fan, and the script was so good," he says of the stylish George Clooney-Jennifer Lopez caper. But it was the idea of revisiting Jackie's Ray that sealed it: "I said, 'I'll do this on one condition. He has to have at least most of his same exact wardrobe, the same haircut, the same look, so you go, 'Oh, that guy.' The notion that a character shows up again in a whole other movie, whole other studio, whole other director, that's the fun of all this stuff for me." Also, he jokes, "I was Jennifer Lopez's boyfriend way before Alex Rodriguez. I always wanted to remind him of that."

Michael Keaton Role Call - THE MERRY GENTLEMAN
Credit: Matt Dinerstein

The Merry Gentleman (2008)

"I had shot little shorts, like probably a lot of people, with little 8-millimeter cameras and stuff," Keaton says of the melancholic indie drama, which he directed and starred in as an aging assassin who befriends Kelly Macdonald's Kate, a young woman fleeing her abusive husband. "I had a really good comedy career and acting career, and at the time, no one really was knocking down my door going, 'God, you've got to direct a movie, Michael.' [Then] this script came along, and it was very, very, very, very, very spare, but it had something in it. And so there you are. And now I'm preparing to do something like that again."

Michael Keaton Role Call The Other Guys
Credit: Macall Polay/Columbia Pictures

The Other Guys (2010)

It felt like fate when director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Vice) chose Keaton to play boss-man to Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg's hapless NYPD duo in his antic comedy — a no-guff police captain who can't seem to stop quoting the lyrics of TLC. "Steve Carell and I have had this conversation. I think maybe Will Arnett and I have had this conversation. People that I really love comedically have said that even among truly, truly great comedy people, Adam McKay is always the funniest guy on the set. When he called me and said, 'Oh, by the way, [your character] has to take another job, so you work at Bed Bath & Beyond,' the phone fell out of my hand. I said, 'That's it. I'm in. I'm as in as you can be.'"

Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014)

"I had seen all of Alejandro Iñárritu's movies and loved them," he says of signing on to star in the director's high-wire comic drama, which earned him a Golden Globe for Best Actor and an Oscar nod. "I was shooting RoboCop, but I flew out for one day to meet him. I landed, I called him, we went out and had dinner. We talked and talked and talked and talked. And he said, 'Can you give me a ride home?' I drove him home, which was like four blocks from where we were. He said, 'Sit here. I'm going to go get you the script.' And I knew from the get-go I was doing that movie. I thought, 'Boy, this is going to be really scary.' But when I'm frightened, that's generally speaking a good sign."

SPOTLIGHT, from left: Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d'Arcy James, Michael Keaton, John
Credit: Everett Collection

Spotlight (2015)

It took a minute for Keaton to agree to sign on to the fact-based exposé about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, though not for lack of interest. "I'm a big Tom McCarthy fan," he says of the Oscar-winning writer-director (The Station Agent, Stillwater). "One day, I called him, and I said, 'Hey, man, I really dig your movies. Let's see if we can do one together someday.' And he goes, 'Yeah, I'd like that.' And then time goes by. He sent me a script, and I read it, and I said, 'I like your movies. I just don't want to do this one." And he said, 'What?' [Laughs] But then Spotlight came around, and it was so good."

The actor's role as the real-life Boston Globe editor Walter Robinson offered him another crack at activist journalism on screen, and a connection to his childhood too: "Being raised Irish Catholic and being an altar boy and all that, it was just too good not to do it," he says. "And to make an audience sit there spellbound like Tom did, that's really an extraordinary accomplishment, because it's a procedural."

The Trial of the Chicago 7
Credit: Netflix

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

"I met him a long time ago, we had lunch," Keaton says of writer-director Aaron Sorkin, "And I said, 'We've got to do something together.' And then I don't know how many years passed. So when this came up, he had talked to me about being in it in different roles, but I couldn't. It's hard to explain." Instead, the actor actually requested his near-cameo — just two impactful scenes — as former U.S. AG Ramsey Clark in the sprawling courtroom drama. "I said, 'I know this sounds funny, but I want that little role.' I was way deep into the [1960s protest] movement. I marched, I went to Washington for antiwar demonstrations. This is of my generation. Plus, it's Sorkin."

Credit: Monika Lek / Netflix

Worth (2021)

It took Keaton time to find his take on Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney charged with heading up the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, for Sara Colangelo's true-life biopic (Netflix, Sept. 3), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2020. "It was always a good script, and it just hung out there in the world for a couple of years. I circled back to it, or it circled back to me, and I went, 'I always liked this thing. Let's think about this again and figure out how to make it.... I have a job where I get to do things that make people aware or make a statement. It's extraordinary that I get to do it and make a living doing that. For these kind of movies, there is a sense of responsibility and obligation in all that. What happened on 9/11 changed the country."

The Protégé
Credit: Simon Varsano/Lionsgate

The Protégé (2021)

"Maggie Q makes it look so easy," he says of his costar in the assassin thriller helmed by Martin Campbell (Casino Royale). "So then you go, 'Well, it's a point of pride here. I want to see how much of this I can do.' I'm a grownup and I'm a realist, so I knew this was going to be hard. I didn't do everything. You know why I didn't do everything? Because those stunt guys do it 50 times better than I could ever dream of. And they make me look like I can actually do what I'm doing. But to my credit, I did a very large percentage of my stunts, and I'm proud of it. And I'd do another one! I did it in The Flash, where I go, 'Hey, you know that suit I fit into back in 1988? I still fit in that motherf---er.' [Laughs] Because when you're a little kid you think, 'God, I'd love to be able to be that kind of guy.' And then you get to be that guy. It was a ball, man."

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Keaton portrayed Boston Globe reporter Michael Rezendes. Mark Ruffalo actually played Rezendes, while Keaton played Boston Globe editor Walter Robinson. EW regrets the error.

A version of this story appears in the September issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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