Michael Keaton Birdman by Kurt Iswarienko
Kurt Iswarienko for Variety

Actor talks about Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s drama, fly-fishing and his career rebirth

Like most actors, Michael Keaton claims he doesn’t enjoy watching himself in his own movies. But when it comes to his buzzy starring role in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman,” which Fox Searchlight opens in limited release Friday, 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 says over a recent lunch at Santa Monica’s Miramar Hotel, the day after he’d 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 realized: Wait a minute, I’m in this movie!”

Coming from most people, a statement like that would sound like false modesty at best and willful self-delusion at worst, but when Keaton says it, it has a tinge of sincerity — or, at least, of a very seductive hustle. That may be why Keaton, who’s 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).

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 roller-coaster 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 says. “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 $20 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 Riggan Thomson to be a thinly veiled version of Keaton himself, much as critics of an earlier era took “Sunset Boulevard’s” grotesque Norma Desmond to be only a slight exaggeration of Gloria Swanson. 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.

The actor claims he’s 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 says 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 says. “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 fucked if you buy into it.” And indeed, in conversation, Keaton exudes a 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,” says 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 says 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,” says 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 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, as you will about his own work. “I really like to hear actors talk about acting, but I don’t really like hearing myself talk,” he confides 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.

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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,” says Norton, who remembers 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.” As critic and frequent Keaton champion Pauline Kael deftly put it in her review of that film: “Michael Keaton is a human whirligig with saucer eyes and quizzical eyebrows — the face of a puzzled adolescent satyr … Keaton is part hipster, part innocent lost soul; he’s the idea man, and he seems to have all the screwed-up big-city energy in his jive talk and his jiggling movements.”

At the time, Keaton had been pounding the Hollywood pavement for the better part of a decade, doing standup comedy and sitcom guest spots before landing series regular roles on two 1979 TV series — the hybrid comedy-variety show “The Mary Tyler Moore Hour” and the sitcom “Working Stiffs” — which both got the axe during their inaugural seasons. But the latter gig got Keaton noticed by screenwriter Lowell Ganz, who had scripted “Night Shift” with writing partner Babaloo Mandel for director Ron Howard (who was making his big-studio directing debut on the project). While Howard’s “Happy Days” co-star, Henry Winkler, was already onboard to play the nebbish morgue worker Chuck Lumley, the director and his neophyte producer, Brian Grazer, were having trouble casting the flashier role of Blazejowski, the fast-talking entrepreneur who leads Lumley into temptation (and the arms of gold-hearted hooker Shelley Long). A revolving door of potential Blazejowskis, including John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Eddie Murphy, had come and gone when Ganz suggested that the still mostly unknown Keaton might be perfect.

“Michael came in and auditioned two or three times, and every time, he got progressively looser and owned the character with more and more confidence,” recalls Howard, who went on to direct Keaton in two more films (“Gung Ho” and “The Paper”) and also executive-produced “Clean and Sober,” the searing 1988 alcoholism drama that gave the actor his first non-comedic lead. It was an electrifying debut, typified by Keaton’s killer entrance: his distinctive silhouette gradually coming into focus in the opaque glass of an office door as his crescendoing voice belts out an off-key rendition of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

For Howard, 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,” says Burton, 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.”

But 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 SAG nominations, respectively) and the low-budget indie world, where he earned strong reviews for directing and starring in the 2008 hitman drama “The Merry Gentleman.” Even before he went gray, though, Keaton had amassed a reputation for turning down lucrative offers, starting with a reported $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 says before switching to a baseball metaphor, something the Pennsylvania native and lifelong Pittsburgh Pirates fan has a habit of doing. “It’s really like saying, ‘I’m going to make you throw me my pitch. I’ll foul a bunch off, but ultimately I have faith that somebody’s going to throw me my pitch.’ ”

By those terms — the Keaton version of “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small” — “Birdman” may best be described as a fast-breaking curveball the actor manages to hit out of the park. Onscreen, Keaton is — like cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s roving Steadicam — an object in constant, exhilarating motion. Make that four objects in motion, as there are nearly as many versions of the actor on display in “Birdman” as there were in “Multiplicity,” the underrated 1996 comedy where he played a harried husband and father who submits himself to an experimental human cloning program. In the current film, in addition to Riggan himself, there are the two characters the fictional actor plays onstage in his Carver adaptation. Then there is Birdman, the superhero alter-ego Riggan abandoned two decades ago, but who never quite abandoned him — a goading, resentful inner voice he can’t quite expel from his head and, occasionally, a fully manifest apparition staring him down like Mr. Hyde freed from the skin of Dr. Jekyll.

“I love the trick Alejandro and Michael pull off together, which is that you begin the film aligned with this character,” Norton says. “You’re with him because his aspiration seems to be to do something for all the right reasons, and the people around him are his tormentors: his daughter’s a bitch, his producer’s a nut, his actresses are insecure.” But then, gradually, things begin to change. Norton points to a scene in Riggan’s dressing room, where the character tells his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) about a turbulent transcontinental flight he found himself on with George Clooney (another ex-Batman), and his paralyzing fear that, if the plane crashed, Clooney’s death would overshadow his own.

“There are a lot of actors who would play that moment with just enough rueful self-awareness for the audience to go, ‘This guy’s OK. He knows that he’s ridiculous,’ ” Norton continues. “And Michael doesn’t do that at all. That’s one of the most important moments in the movie. You realize that this guy has not become enlightened. He hasn’t grasped what an emptiness he’s made out of his life.”

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 says. “In terms of Riggan, he’s not dumb. He’s a Raymond Carver fan, and Raymond Carver’s a very well-respected writer. When he gets into the play, he’s pretty good, and he’s going to get better. But his job, besides just being good onstage, is so enormous. He’s directing this thing, and he adapted it, and his money is in it. So I had all this stuff that I had to play and think about, which weirdly started to make it easier.”

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Keaton isn’t the only ’80s-era star who’s 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’s 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’s 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,” says 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,” he continues. “Not that I ever hated it; it wasn’t as dramatic as that. But I’d raised a kid, I’d been through a lot of stuff like everybody. Then things started to level off, and I thought, ‘OK, 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 stresses. “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.’ ”

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