After taking a few years off from acting, Michael Keaton has been making up for lost time with a string of impressive achievements — while making it all look so easy.
Mount an extraordinary comeback in “Birdman,” the role of a lifetime, and charm Hollywood with his self-effacing wit and humor? Check. Land his first Oscar nomination for said role? Done.
Show remarkable range by following the raging id of that role with the thoughtful, quiet performance of Boston Globe editor Walter “Robby” Robinson in “Spotlight?” Easy. Then see your two films win best-picture Oscars back-to-back? No problem.
Now comes another career milestone, as Keaton receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his career in film July 28. While he’s understandably thrilled, noting “it’s an amazing part of the life resume,” he can’t help but sneak in a zinger. “My biggest concern about having a star on Hollywood Boulevard — if I have a concern — is gum.”
Though, like the notorious nice guy he is, he does admit to one other worry. “I feel bad asking someone to come speak for me at the event since it’s during the summer,” he says. “I mean, everyone is on vacation!”
There’s no shortage of colleagues willing to share praise for Keaton, who broke through in the 1980s with seminal hits like Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice” and “Batman.”
“Birdman” helmer Alejandro G. Iñárritu once referred to the actor as fearless, calling him “a true artist in every sense.” John Lee Hancock, who directed Keaton as McDonald’s mogul Ray Kroc in the upcoming “The Founder,” has nothing but raves for the actor and the man. “Michael is a really great guy. He’s kind-hearted, loyal to family and friends, and loves to have fun on the set. We share a love for a calm, hardworking set — a place where everyone, from crew to cast, feels
comfortable enough to do his or her best work.”
Keaton says it was a combination of the script, by Robert D. Siegel, and Hancock that got him to sign on to the role. “John’s body of work is already amazing. He’s kind of old-fashioned in the best sense of the world; he’s such a thoughtful and solid storyteller.”
Keaton was intrigued by the story of Kroc, who saw the potential in franchising McDonald’s San Bernardino-based restaurants and turned the chain into an empire — though not without alienating some people along the way, including the McDonald brothers themselves.
“You think you know the story of Ray Kroc, but you realize you’re not even close. It’s a fascinating story, and not just about McDonald’s. It’s about the American free enterprise system, about capitalism. And when you look at the impact of McDonald’s culturally — it’s just such an interesting story.”
“The Founder” recently moved from an August release to a limited Dec. 16 slot before going wide Jan. 20, a sign of confidence from The Weinstein Co. in the film’s awards potential. And why not, considering Keaton’s back-to-back best-picture wins at the Oscars?
The film marks another doubleheader for the actor; he’s playing a real person for the second time a row. But there’s a big difference between playing Robinson, whom he was able to meet with for “Spotlight,” and Kroc, who died in 1984.
“With ‘Spotlight,’ you want to represent Robby Robinson. It was a very specific thing he did in the story, and you want to show that,” Keaton says. “With Ray, you have to be true to who Ray Kroc was, but at the same time, he’s really a representative of a time in America. You want to personify an ethos. You’re also kind of creating the personification of this time and culture and everything that goes with that.”
At the same time, Keaton didn’t want to sugarcoat some of Kroc’s more aggressive actions. “One of the first things I told John is, I will not back off if a character is unlikable,” he says. “I play the character; I have no interest in begging the audience to love me if the guy is not meant to be loved. I’m not the guy. And once we start this thing, I’m not going to back off. And John stuck to that; he never tried to make it something that he wasn’t.”
Watch Michael Keaton’s Walk of Fame ceremony on Thursday:
Echoes Hancock, “No matter what you may think of Ray Kroc, he was a very hard worker. Michael, too, is a hard worker. He’s a Pittsburgh guy, a roll-up your-sleeves-and-do-what’s-necessary guy.”
While Keaton was able to get a sense of Kroc through documentary footage and anecdotes, he also found an influence closer to home. “If I used anything as an inspiration or a study, it was my oldest brother, Robert,” Keaton says of his sibling, who has run several businesses. “The early Ray Kroc, when he was getting started in his career and he says what McDonald’s can be, I actually have a lot of respect for his work ethic. That’s what reminds me of my brother, and hopefully I have some of that. I like to think I do. But my brother has the best work ethic of anyone. I used him as kind of my guidepost as much as anything.”
And what is Robert up to now? “He just retired, actually, and he’s already looking for another business,” Keaton says with a laugh. “He ran a dry-cleaning business for a long time and he just sold it. About a month later he says, ‘I’m looking at this other business ….’ This is a guy well in his 70s, and he’s just a hard, hard worker.”
Keaton definitely shares that ethic, says Hancock, who admits to being a longtime fan of the actor.
“Michael is a great collaborator, both as a big picture and details guy,” he says. “We spent a lot of time talking thematically about the story as well as the necessity to help the audience understand a complicated, and sometimes confounding, man.
“Michael hit the ground running and felt, to me, like he locked in on Ray very early on, even in prep. He was so locked in that it enabled us to strike unnecessary dialogue from scenes. There’s a lot you get from Michael just walking through the door as Ray.”
Now that he’s back and busier than ever, Keaton says he has rediscovered his enthusiasm for the craft.
While stepping out of the limelight for some time was mostly by choice, he adds, “It wasn’t like I was getting fantastic offers or people were jumping up and down to hire me.” But it feels good to be back. “It’s great. I’m doing good projects, they’re not just work, and I’m so grateful for that. In addition, I’m just having fun right now.”