In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a former superhero movie star struggling to stay relevant as he settles into middle age. The film, shot to look as if it were captured in one long, glorious take, follows Riggan in the days leading up to his Broadway debut, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that he’s directing, producing, and starring in. Less than five minutes into the storyline, one thing becomes very clear: This is Riggan’s last-chance, make-it-or-break-it moment.
On paper, the film sounds like one of those great art-imitating-life setups. Keaton, who’s probably best known for his stint as Batman, hasn’t seen a whole lot of on-screen action of late. At 63, the part-time Santa Barbaran is decades removed from his cape-crusading heyday. Even before he picked up the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor earlier this month, people were calling Birdman Keaton’s “big comeback.” But spend just a few minutes talking to the man, and you’ll discover that Keaton’s not really much like Riggan Thomson at all.
Last November, on Thanksgiving Eve, I had the actor on the phone to discuss his impending hometown coronation as part of this week’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival. There were no publicists or agents or assistants to connect the call. Just Keaton, on his cell, running errands with his dog somewhere in downtown Santa Barbara. Thanks to small-town living and the powers of social media, my friends and I would later triangulate the actor’s day, which included the aforementioned errands, a quiet dinner out, and an evening trip to Whole Foods, where he chatted up at least one customer about the key to a good stuffing. This, in a nutshell, is Michael Keaton. In conversation, he’s precocious but also endearingly scattered. He’s humble and self-effacing, and he equates his sporadic film roles not with choosiness but with his boundless number of “other interests,” which range from fly-fishing to horseback riding to raising his son, Sean. Discussing his long-awaited return to the big screen, Keaton laughs, “I’m only half-joking when I say that if I show up in a movie every two years, I figure people are saying, ‘Hey, please stop already. You’re boring us to death.’”
Growing up outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Keaton said he was always drawn to creative endeavors, even if his upbringing wasn’t especially artsy. He drew and later painted and liked reading and writing stories. “I always kind of figured my creative side had to come out somewhere or some way in some fashion,” he says. “But sometimes I’m shocked this is how it did because I’m not particularly crazy about a lot of attention. It seems kind of odd that this is what I ended up doing.”
In the early 1980s, Keaton got his big break in the Ron Howard–directed comedy Night Shift, where he played the fast-talking morgue attendant Bill “Blaze” Blazejowski. The film led Keaton to series of comedic roles (Mr. Mom, Johnny Dangerously), as well as a new label as Hollywood’s favorite “glib young man.” Since those days, Keaton’s projects have run the gamut from the title role in Tim Burton’s 1988 creepy comedy Beetlejuice to playing an everyman and his three clones in 1996’s Multiplicity. He donned the Batsuit in 1989 and 1992 and got a Golden Globe nod for his portrayal of CNN producer Robert Wiener in 2002’s Live from Baghdad. Today, Keaton says he’s drawn to parts that are unlike anything he’s done before, no doubt a nod to the pigeonholing he experienced early on in his career. He also admits that he’s taken roles in part to stay loose. “I’ve said yes to a couple of pretty stupid things,” he laughs. “Some of it is just about staying in the gym. You can’t just stop all together; you’ve got to keep one foot in it, wait for a really nice role to come up so that you’re not caught flatfooted.”
To test Keaton’s theory, one need look no further than Birdman. The story is a white-knuckle character study that’s smart, unapologetic, and surreal. The supporting cast, which includes Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis, is near perfect. And the execution of Iñárritu’s one-shot vision is one of the more beautifully realized risk-taking moves Hollywood has seen in years. After reading the script, Keaton says he was all-in. “The thing was so adventurous, and that usually gets me going. And this was a director whose work I had seen and thought, ‘Boy, you want to be in movies with guys like that,’” he recalls. “The character I thought would be fun in a weird kind of way. Alejandro kept emphasizing that I was going to have to go deep, and I said, ‘Yeah, I know that.’ And he said, ‘No, like really deep. Deeper than you ever have.’ I said, ‘I know.’ But then when you really start to go deep, you realize that you’re just going to drop deeper and deeper and deeper.”
As for his similarities to Riggan, both real and media perceived, Keaton just chuckles. “He’s not like I am in terms of personality, but at the same time, I admire him. He’s courageous, but he’s also pathetic. He’s so desperate and so needy and so weak, and I’d never really had the opportunity to play that before,” he says. “As far as the Batman thing or the actor thing, though, I’m fine with it. I really don’t care what the takeaway is that people have. It’s all really okay with me.”
Michael Keaton receives SBIFF’s Modern Master Award on Saturday, January 31, at 8 p.m. at the Arlington Theatre. Visit sbiff.org for tickets and info.