Don't call it a comeback: Michael Keaton on biding time, waiting for a 'Birdman'

Posted by · 10:12 am · January 29th, 2015

SANTA MONICA – It's been really easy for the media to talk about “Birdman” and Michael Keaton's award-winning performance in terms of being a “comeback,” and of course, the meta angle of playing an actor who formerly starred as a superhero is just begging for attention. On one hand it's a fortunate hook to help sell the movie, but on the other, it's been a pretty simplistic reduction, not necessarily one that Keaton has had a big problem with, but one that could certainly be discussed with a little more nuance.

You might have to go back to the late '90s for examples of the actor's work that really landed culturally, but in the time since, while he's certainly taken a few breathers, he's worked very consistently. He's done TV spots on popular shows. He's starred in acclaimed TV movies like “Live from Baghdad” and the TNT miniseries “The Company.” He's struck up a relationship with Pixar and he's even cranked out a directorial debut.

So in wrapping up a series of chats with the actor today, we focus a bit on that, what he's done over the last decade or so and what's been important to him during that stretch, the build to “Birdman” and the work that went into a powerhouse performance that now finds him nominated for his first Oscar.

Read through the back and forth below.

“Birdman” was nominated for nine Academy Awards including Best Actor. The film hits DVD/Blu-ray Feb. 17.


HitFix: Congratulations on the Golden Globe win. I loved your speech. Obviously I don't know you but just observationally, it seemed to capture who you are in this business. It wasn't a broad, lofty statement or anything. It was personal. I thought that was nice.

Michael Keaton: Oh, thanks.

A certain amount of people every year get to go on this weird awards circuit roller coaster. What's been the most unexpected thing about it for you?

Probably – and you'd think one would, after a while, figure this out or learn this – that things are very often not what you think they're going to be. I wouldn't have predicted that it would have been as easy for me to do all this and talk about – I don't really like talking about myself very much, and unfortunately, you don't have a choice for these months. But I'm a little surprised that it's as easy to do all this stuff as it is. I mean it's really grueling in a lot of ways but I guess I'm surprised. I think maybe the reason it's easy is, as a couple of the other actors on the movie have said, it's so easy to talk about this movie and promote this movie. And I don't think I've even hit 60% of everything that you can discuss about this movie. I could really bore people to death and take up too much of their time going into so much about this movie, because there's so many levels to it, so many angles to discuss if you really want to. I like it so much and I'm so knocked out by it.

I always say, take me out of the equation, I'm still knocked out by this movie; it doesn't even matter if I'm doing this. And I'm pretty convinced that as much as people think they're getting what Alejandro did, they're not getting what he did. Forget the long shot thing. It's all the things he managed to say and do and how unapologetic he is about what he wants to say about really raw human things and do it with laughs and then do it with subtlety and then be huge and then be small. And then the way he and Chivo, the accomplishment in shooting with one camera and the look and sometimes even the psychedelic vibe to it. There's a portion in the movie that's a big ass action movie for a minute. I mean, it's a full-on – all of a sudden you're in a giant action movie. And then for him to stay on top of the acting and what we wanted to say, if you talk about filmMAKING, making a film, directing a film, beginning to end, with a vision, writing it and then completing it, how do you not – sorry man…

And a lot of people get hung up on the meta thing, too, but it's obviously so much more than that. It's like there's so much paint splattered on the canvas, but when you step back and look, it's immaculate and controlled.

Yes. Exactly. That's a really good way to put it. And then when it's not controlled, you dig the parts that are not controlled and then you are amazed with the parts that are controlled. And we shot it in 29 days. What he and Chivo did, and I guess the cast, too, but just from a directing standpoint, I'm sorry. For my money, it ain't even close. And I'm telling you I'd say this if I wasn't in that movie. I would say this is another level.

You've worked with Tim Burton a couple times, a master of expressionism, right? What's on the outside is reflecting what's on the inside. For me, that's very much what this is. It's expressionism.

Yes. That's what Tim does. Tim is such a physical kind of artist in terms of visuals and impact.

I've obviously seen people talk about this in regards to a “comeback,” and I've seen you deflect that a bit. I think on one hand they just haven't been paying close attention. Obviously you've been working. But I do think it's fair to say that it's been low key working.

Yeah. And I did do a version of dropping out here and there. But what people call dropping out and I call dropping out I think may be two different things because I've probably done that before. And I do get the comeback thing. If it wasn't, “So he's an actor [in 'Birdman'] who played [a superhero]” – you know, if it wasn't those things, they may not say it as much. I mean, to me it's lazy, and it's the easy way, but I understand why.

Right, same thing with that meta stuff.

Yeah. But I get where that comes from and I don't resist that. I really don't care. It's OK with me, honestly.

For me I'm just curious, over these last 10 or 15 years, what has been important to you?

Look, you know, everybody talks about, “Oh, you turned down so much.” And I go, “Yeah, I do,” but it sounds like I turn it down because I'm so cool or I turn it down because – sometimes I turn it down and it's a good thing I turned down. Sometimes I turn it down because I've got stuff to do in my life. A big part of all of this, going way back to when I was getting thrown scripts every 15 minutes, was I was raising a kid, you know? Separately from his mom. I was a really involved dad, not because I'm such a wonderful person. I like being a dad. So I turned down movies just because I didn't want to go on location. Or I wanted to be able to pick him up from school, take him to school, you know? And there was a lot of stuff I wasn't being offered. It sounds like I was getting offered great shit all the time because there's some stuff I'd go, “You know, that one there, wouldn't do it.” I mean this busboy cleaning these tables wouldn't do it. They weren't that great. It just was what it was.


I'd be the first to tell you if I was turning down wonderful projects. Also, things that probably would have been OK for me to do, I thought, “I already did that. I already said that.” I get tired of hearing the same – my voice in a movie or seeing me do the same kind of thing, you know? And I understand from the corporate point of view why they wanted me to do a certain thing. “There's less risk if they go get him to do that in this kind of movie. At least we'll make that much money and we might get lucky and make a lot of money.” Like, I totally get it. If I was running a company and I wanted to make my money back, I would probably play it safe. But I had a manager that was tougher on this shit than I was. He'd say “no” more, because he kept saying, “No. There's no reason when I see that guy getting that, that [Michael] shouldn't get that movie,” and he stuck to it. We stuck to it. We said, “No, man. Get me that. You've got to get me that kind of movie.”

Well you obviously ended up with a hell of a project, finally, and everything's coming full circle.

And people don't have to believe it when I say I have more fun watching everybody else enjoy this for me that were around through everything and watched and observed, but it's true. Or just people who are, you know, just fans or friends or something. I have more fun watching them have fun than me having fun. My hand to God, I really – I'm having so much fun watching them enjoy this and them saying, “Oh, shit,” or whatever they're saying. I don't need to say it. I'm cool. I'm good with everything. I have a nice life.

You're Batman. You're very secure in that.

[Laughs.] No, honestly, I never had that issue of desperation. If you want something bad enough or you're in deep trouble and you might be going to jail, you get desperate, or you're running out of dough you might get desperate. But I never had that thing.

If it was me I wouldn't be doing anything, to be honest. If I was Batman I would be in Montana right now. I'd be soaking it up!

I told Zach [Galifianakis], I said, “I think we're going to do this movie 'Spotlight.'” He looks at me with a funny smirk. I go, “What's that about?” And he goes, “Man, if I was you, I wouldn't be doing nothing. Just sitting back and enjoying everything.”

[Laughs.] That's very laid-back, southern boy of him.

He likes getting on his tractor. He digs it. It's fun. It gives you time to think.

But there's interesting choices in this stretch we're talking about. Like, you worked with Michael Hoffman for peanuts on “Game 6.”

Yeah. Nothing.

And “White Noise” was that same year.

Yeah, you know, “White Noise” was – and I'll be really honest with you. Those movies at the time, if you pick the right one – you know what that movie opened to? When I read box office now and I see people go, “Hey,” you know, “17 million” or something, I go – I don't know. What do you think “White Noise” cost? Ten at the most, maybe? It opened to 24 and a half million dollars.

Yeah, and a January release. It was in a good spot.

Yes, and at the time nobody tried that release for those kind of movies, and it happened to work. I think they gave up on it after that because 24 and a half million dollars for a movie like that, you know, that's unbelievable. And I'm not saying it was a brilliant movie but it was at least a little – the conceit was really interesting to me and it worked to some degree, I guess. I don't really know. But sometimes you can make a lot of money and you can do really well to afford to do what I'm talking about. To go, “OK, now let me wait for the really good one,” or, “Let me wait for the one that means” – and then I did a couple of stupid things, you know? Not everything's a brilliant move. There are a couple of things you do that just suck, you know? I did a movie that was – I don't remember the name of it but a girl graduating and getting ready to go to college, a really sweet, nice…

I guess that's either “First Daughter” or “Post Grad.”

You know, Forest Whitaker [who directed “First Daughter”], Forest is a great actor and really I think a good director and a really smart guy. For that I thought, “Yeah, I'd like to be in business with guys like Forest Whitaker.” Then there was another movie in there and I can't remember the name of it. But that came around the time we were about to go on strike and…

There was a Michael Caine film that went to DVD. “Quicksand?”

No, it was a different movie. They were about to go on strike and to be honest, the work schedule was so easy and so light – I'm really transparent – and the check at the time was really good. I went, “I just have to go to the valley like twice a week for” – you know. I am pretty discerning and I think I've made mistakes, but I've also done a couple practical moves in order to stay around so that you get a “Birdman” or you can get a “Much Ado About Nothing” or you can get those things. You've got to be smart about it. But the Caine thing is funny because I used to joke early on, people would say, “What kind of things do you want to do?” I'd say, “I don't know. I want to do a 'Caine' kind of movie.” And they'd go, “What's a 'Caine' kind of movie?” And I said, “Caine kind of admittedly would take films based on location and good food.”

Yeah, totally. I've read that.

And I said, “I would do one of those. I've never done those. I always go work, like, at Stupidville,” you know? “I've got to do one of those movies.” Well one comes along, which actually had potential. That director directed a really, really good English mob movie and I remembered seeing it and I went, “Wow.” Now he didn't necessarily pull it off with this movie but he did direct a really cool little English movie. And then I thought, “It's with Caine. And it's in the south of France.” I actually ended up doing a Caine movie with Caine!


Don't ever do that. Don't ever do it for the food or the money. Yvon Chouinard is a friend of mine who started Patagonia and he said, “Every time I've made a decision that was financial, based in finances, making money, almost every time I've made a mistake.”

It's kind of fun to balance it all out, though, I guess.

Yeah. And it's so fun to talk to a film-savvy dude. It's cool because it makes me want to talk about it.

Ha, well thanks! And then the Pixar relationship along the way was nice as well. You voiced characters in “Cars” and “Toy Story 3.”

You know, I'm slow to come to those movies. They had been out for probably years before I ever saw any of those Pixar movies. I thought, “What's the big deal?” And I watched “The Incredibles” at home one time and I went, “Holy shit.” And I saw “Ratatouille” and I was watching it and I go, “These are kind of unbelievably remarkable things.” And you know who I just worked with? These dudes from “Minions.”

Oh, yeah.

Man, are they funny. Brian Lynch and those guys? Man are they funny. And that director. Those guys are really funny. That is a breeze to be in a room with those guys.

You've got to be a certain kind of fun or crazy to even come up with that world.

Yeah. Yeah. Who knew that he would create that thing and language and people would totally jump on board? Little kids go insane for those guys.

You also did the English version of my favorite Miyaziki film, “Porco Rosso.”

And, you know, I don't think I was as appreciative at the time when I did that. They said, “Hey, do you what?” And I was not really aware about it. Somebody said, “Did you ever see this,” and I know what it is but I never saw it. And he said, “Major league, dude.” Then I read it and I went, “God, I'll do that. That'll be fun.” And then later on I started to piece it together. I felt what he did at the Governors Awards thing was so classy and simple and just cool and unassuming.

I didn't even think about that, that you were there while he was getting his award.

I didn't either until the time. I didn't get a chance to go say hi to him.

You've never met?


Well just to bring it back to “Birdman” here, I mentioned this to you I think at the Governor's Awards, that the meta thing is easy to talk about, but what I saw in the movie – all these movies we've been talking about, villains, heroes, comedy, drama – it's all in “Birdman.”

And more.

And it kind of crystallizes what you can do, what you've done. Did you see that in the project coming into it?

No. That I didn't at all. All I saw was I wanted to be in business with guys like Alejandro González Iñárritu. Look, man, it's so hard to even get a shot at doing anything for the average actor or writer or director, anybody, that if you have the luxury of being around – I mean I'm talking right now to a director that called me and wanted me to do a supporting role. And I can't quite say yet, but this guy's so fucking great. This film is going to have to suck for me to say “no,” just to go put in some time with these kind of guys. And I keep saying this, that script from Alejandro would have had to have been horrible or embarrassing for me to say “no.” And even then I might have said “yeah” and crossed my fingers. So right from the get-go, you just want to be in that world. That's why I take a little role with Soderbergh. Or, you know, you take a small role with Tarantino. To be part of great films is so unbelievably fortunate. I think of a guy like [John] Schlesinger [who directed “Pacific Heights”]. I mean, come on. This is unbelievable, you know? So just for that alone, you want to be in that neighborhood. Because of the schedule one time I couldn't go and be in a Robert Altman movie, and to this day I go, “Oh, man, I could have added Robert Altman to this list. Jesus.” And it was a really good little movie, too. But I couldn't make it. And sometimes I think to myself, “You know what? Maybe if I'd have changed something or forced something to be moved, maybe I could have done it.”

So “Birdman,” there's that. And then I read it and it was really good and it was really daring and risky. And I hadn't been around anything. I had done that Larry David thing and I had done “The Other Guys,” you know? And I got to turn the dial and focus and right around “The Other Guys” and a couple of other things, I started to go click, click, click, click, click and I was on a mission. So then you do “Robocop” and then you do the HBO thing with Larry David and then I go, “Yeah. Yeah. I'm kind of in the groove of what I've got.” And then “Birdman” comes along, and I'm not making money on most of these little things. And you say, “Yeah, I want to be in this role and step out there, take a risk,” because that gets really exciting. That gets you going again. You don't get bored with stuff like “Birdman.” And I don't think I had time to even think about it. I just had to focus on the work and the scene one day at a time and just go and bear down and stay locked in. And then I guess I kind of put it together later.

I imagine once you found yourself in the middle of making “Birdman,” particularly on such a tight schedule, there isn't a lot of time to put it together in the moment.

I didn't know how I was going to make certain transitions, like three or four in the course of, like, eight minutes sometimes. I went, “Oh, man. I don't know how I'm going to do that. I don't know how I'm going to go from the craziness at the top to, like, a quiet moment, to being in sync.” Because you look at the character – just when things might for a couple minutes get settled, another fucking thing happens, you know? He essentially has a breakdown, and the trippiness of it all – like when I leave the scene with Emma and walk in the hallway, that beautiful shot, that kind of gloomy, kind of hazy, smoky thing down the hallway.

Yeah, and I talk to DPs a lot but I couldn't get Chivo on the phone until a few weeks ago, because they've been up in Calgary doing that thing. But obviously we could go on about that technical part of the accomplishment.

Chivo's great. Chivo and Alejandro together are a sight to behold. And I'll bet you they'd drive you really crazy at times, but look what you get.

And while the physicality of the camerawork is one thing, just being able to consistently light while doing that is nuts.

Dude, the lights were physically moved and people had to run around the whole thing. I mean, that's what I mean. It's not like they got lucky. Alejandro was so meticulous about making that work. And the thing I love about it is he never pandered, not one time. Not one character in that movie begs to be loved, where it makes you feel sorry for them, where he'd say, “I achieved this with all these obstacles in my life,” you know, with swelling music. He said, “Fuck that. We're not doing any of that shit. I'm playing fucking drums and I'm gonna show ugliness. I'm gonna show crazy.” Everything he accomplished inside a movie that is an entertaining movie. It's not just an art movie, you know? All that art inside a movie that is really accessible. I'm telling you, I don't get it. I've been trying to think of when I saw somebody do something as bold.

Michael Keaton will receive a career tribute and the Modern Master Award at the 30th annual Santa Barbara Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 31.

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