Ahead of its Blu-ray and DVD release next Monday, Michael Keaton discusses Birdman…
Were you fearful about giving such a warts-and-all performance?
Kind of, yeah. When you’re presented with a movie and a role, I think a lot of times it’s good if you’re a little bit frightened. “I don’t know if I can pull this off.” This one I really didn’t know if I could pull off because of how Alejandro [Gonzalez Inarritu, the director] was gonna make it, what was required, the limited amount of time we had… It looked like this was gonna be a tough one. And also there’s the emotional ride that the work required. When you work with a guy this talented, you know the likelihood of it being really good is strong or better than most. Even if it fails it will be a worthy endeavor so you go: “I want to keep up my end. I assume he’s going to keep up his end and everybody else will.” Then it got more and more intense because his work ethic is so unbelievably good that you can’t help but go there. You’re going “I like this air up here”. Even if you don’t want to go there, I don’t think you have a choice when you work with people like that.
When you were offered the part did you feel like “I was born to play this”?
Not really. What I thought was that I knew how to do it. I told Alejandro that. It’s a tricky one because I went “I know how to do this but I’m not sure how to get there”. I don’t use GPS because I trust me more than I trust GPS. Sometimes I’m wrong because GPS has gotten so good now, but I’m real cocky and I think I’m better than GPS, then I’m sitting in the truck going “Motherf****r!” But most of the time, I still get there better than GPS only because I know the back roads and the shortcuts and I drive too fast. So with this film I went “Yeah, I know how to do this” but I wasn’t sure about how I was gonna get there. I was going: “I know where that is. I’ll get going and I’ll get there.” I knew the road would be hard but it was way harder than I thought because of how we worked. It’s one thing to say “This is going to be a tough scene”, then you get there and it’s like “Oh man, this is really a tough scene”.
How was shooting such long and intricate takes?
It sounds weird when I say this but it was fun. I know that seems like a dichotomy but it’s like anything. If you’re skiing you come to a certain point and you go “Woah, I didn’t know it was going to drop off at that point”. It’s like “I don’t like this but I’m curious to see if I can do it”. Then you do it and you go “Oh OK that was satisfying”. The film was kind of like that. It was a challenge but it was fun because you didn’t have a second to be bored. It would have been impossible to be bored.
Your character is constantly trying to prove himself. Have you ever felt that way yourself?
Yeah, sure, I’m human. I like that. I’ve liked it ever since I was a little kid. I hate clubs. Well, I don’t hate them but I don’t like the idea of “We’re a club”. Being in a club means “We’re better than you” or “You’re different from us”. I don’t like that mentality but to this day I love the mentality of a team. That’s a whole different thing. When I was a kid and I was exposed to being on teams – and I liked to play sports a lot – I loved it. If you’re good then you’re on the team and you’ve got to be good all the time, and that was exhilarating to me. Those good butterflies were really exciting. The idea of having to prove yourself in that way I like. You also have to prove yourself as a father or prove yourself as a husband or a friend or a citizen, and I’m good with that. But the idea of “I hope I prove myself to you so you accept me” – that I don’t do. “I hope you love me.” OK, I’d prefer to be loved rather than hated. I’ll take that. But if you hate me then I guess you hate me and I can’t really control it. I might feel really shitty for a while but I’m gonna get over it unless it’s someone you love to death – then that’s hard to get over. But in life, in general, if you don’t love me then you don’t love me. If I was a plumber I ain’t sweating so much. Well, now people maybe would tweet about me if I was a plumber. They’d be going “You really suck as a plumber” and I’d be going “I’m a plumber, what do you care?” But generally speaking, before Twitter, if you’re a plumber you’re not living your life worrying about being judged every moment. I happened to choose an occupation where you’re constantly being judged. So somewhere I must have gone “Woah, I gotta figure that out” because I’m too lazy to have to sweat about that. I don’t think I’m smart or too enlightened, I’m just too lazy. I thought “If I have to think about that all the time and do my work I’d better pick something else” so I just went “That’s silly”. Also it felt childish to me.
Unlike Riggan in the film, have you embraced social media?
This is interesting. [Laughs] Or I’m gonna say it and you’re gonna go “Actually it’s not that interesting”. But I’m really fascinated by social media on a lot of levels. It’s interesting to be on it and yet I don’t really do it. I do tweet from time to time and I was on to Twitter early on because someone who was aware of the company and what it was showed it to me. I went “That’s pretty amazing” and he said “You should do this”. I went “Yeah!” but I never really got around to it. I do it if I see something in the paper if I want to make a comment about. Facebook – I have zero interest in it, but that could change tomorrow by the way. If somebody shows me something on there and I go “That’s really interesting and fun and helpful” I might do it. I do like to Instagram though. I find Instagram really fun and I go on streaks with that. I’m a collector of photography and there’s some really good Instagram photography too. I do think social media is really interesting. Do you watch Portlandia? It’s really funny. I talk to my kid and his girlfriend about this all the time because they are of the generation – or they’re actually a little bit older than the generation – that is 100% dependable on social media. Your identity is based on whether you’re known or not, let alone liked. You exist on the internet. It’s literally like science fiction. At first I said “It’s like you don’t exist if you’re not connected with your friends on the internet” then when I thought about it further it was like “You literally don’t exist”. In a certain world where you only communicate through social media, if you remove yourself from that then in a weird sense you literally don’t exist. There’s a scene in Portlandia where that literally happens to one of the character’s friends. He doesn’t recognize her. She takes herself off Facebook and he doesn’t know who she is. In the movie where Emma [Stone, as Sam Thomson] hits me with that thing about not being on social media it’s so great because it’s so cruel and true. Riggan’s personality would really take that hard. It would just break him. That reality, that he’s nobody and he’s nothing and nobody cares, is the coldest and cruelest and saddest thing, and Emma was so good at it. She made me feel so bad every time we did the scene. I just felt so horrible when she was done and I’m not even somebody who gives a s**t about Twitter but I’d leave the scene going “Oh my God, I feel so horrible”.
Could you relate to Riggan when you were playing him?
I don’t relate to that personality type. But I’m a human being so the human being side of me relates to him because we all get scared, we get happy, we get all those things. I’m simplifying but that’s the truth. And the actor part? I’m an actor so I understand that side of it, but I’ve never lived like that. I feel lucky that early on I went “I don’t think that’s gonna be so healthy or work for me because I don’t want to sit around hoping to be loved”. Here’s how stupid I am, by the way. I literally thought Twitter – and this is embarrassing to admit – was all based on “Hi, that was really funny” or “You’re really cute”. I thought there was maybe a censoring thing; someone was going “F**k you” and the censor was going “We can’t put that on there”. Then I read some mildly critical thing. The guy wasn’t even being that mean, he just didn’t agree with me, and I went “What? Jesus! I don’t want to read this s**t every day”. Why would I want to talk to some guy in Seattle who has an opinion about something or other? I have things to do. I’ve got a car to take to the garage. My roof needs fixing. I’ve got a zillion things to do rather than worrying what some guy in Seattle thinks. It’s insane to me, but at the same time I think it’s really fascinating.
How did you judge the tone of the performance so it wasn’t too broad?
That’s just instinct and working with your director. Talking about acting can get boring. Well, I like to listen to actors talk about acting. I find it really interesting, but I bore myself when I hear myself talking about it. There are 10,000 things I could tell you right now but you’d fall asleep. Here’s how it really starts. It’s pretty simple for me. The director is the captain. He runs the show, he has the vision, and then we all sign on to help present a world and tell a story. The actor’s job is I’m the messenger. I’m the guy who goes out and tells everybody the story. You work with the director and you ask “Where do you think this guy is?” and you have your own opinions and the director will say “No, that’s too much” or “I need more out of you”. There’s that – the actor and director working together. The more you’re in the mood and the longer you’re in the movie you go “I’m getting it, I’m in the groove” so you kind of know where you’re going to go that day. Sometimes you show up and you think “I know exactly where I should be, he should be this angry or that happy” and you hit it. Or there was a scene in this movie where I didn’t realize how little I knew about it until we were just about ready to shoot and I thought “I don’t know understand this scene at all and I totally thought I did”. It was very nerve-wracking but it ended up being a very powerful scene.
In some ways the film is a reflection on fame. When you look back to the late 1980s, when you were one of the hottest names in Hollywood, how do you feel about that time?
Heat is relative, you know? There have been other periods where the movies were small but the reviews were great. There are all kinds of heat. But when I look at those years I go “Yeah, fun” mostly. I can’t sit here and go “Oh, that was really hard”. It was probably really good and really fun. [Laughs] The paychecks were probably really good. I’m being honest here; they probably were really good. But I live now the way I lived then, so not much has really changed. OK, I was younger so I may have stayed out an hour or two later at night.
Was it a relief to shed the Batman cape?
The big factor was that it wasn’t going to be Tim Burton directing it. I didn’t think the third film was going to be any good and it wasn’t any good, although in fairness I never saw it the whole way through. I saw bits and pieces of it. But all you had to do was read it to go: “I don’t think this is going to be very good. Why go this far and do something that’s really not very good?” I just didn’t want to do it.
So Batman never became your Birdman and haunted you the way Riggan is haunted in the movie?
[Laughs] No, that’s pretty extreme. But Bruce Wayne in Batman is a really interesting character. There have been other characters like that, with dual personalities, so it’s not particularly original but it is interesting to me – and that’s a shame, that it could have gotten really interesting and it didn’t until Christopher Nolan made his Batman movies. Before that it was going the opposite way. But Bruce Wayne is different. He’s a guy who’s proactive. He proactively creates the thing. Riggan has something that haunts him. It’s foisted upon him whereas Bruce Wayne goes: “OK, I need power to seek revenge or to right wrongs so I’m going to create a persona.”
How was it doing the scene in Times Square when you’re walking around in just your underwear?
It was crazy. What I think is really funny about it is that you talk to Alejandro about doing the movie, he gives you the script, you read it, you get to the bit where Riggan locks himself outside in just his underwear and you think “That’s pretty funny”, then you read another scene and you think “I can’t be too clownish there” and so it goes on. You do the rehearsals, months go by, and all of a sudden you’re in just your underwear, you’re doing the scene and you go “What the f**k was I thinking?” It never occurred to you earlier to say no to it. What kind of crazy job do I have where I never thought “This is stupid, I can’t go out into Times Square in my underwear”? It never occurred to me, then suddenly you’re doing it and you’re thinking “What am I doing?” Then you go the next level where you don’t even think about it. You don’t think about being in Times Square in your underwear with stupid little black socks on. It’s like “Whatever, here we go” and it becomes a non-issue. I was thinking about people doing nude scenes. I’ve done scenes where I don’t have a lot of clothes on but I’ve never been naked in front of the camera. When I see nude scenes I go “I don’t ever want to do that” but then I think – and I don’t know this because I’ve never done it – actors probably get there and they kind of don’t know they’re doing it. I think some weird thing happens to actors. I don’t know what it is and I don’t think about it too much, but you do stuff you never thought you could do or would do. I remember getting undressed to do that scene and going “What was I thinking?” It’s like “Yeah, it’s on the page, it’s written, whatever” and then it’s a reality.
There’s a lot of awards buzz about Birdman. Is that something that’s important to you?
Well, sure. It wouldn’t matter to me if it doesn’t [win awards] but if it does then you go “Wow! Isn’t that great?” If people are going “Hey, we think the movie you’re in is really great so here’s an award” then sure, it would be nice.
This is a film people will want to add to their collections and watch again and again. Do you do that yourself?
Not usually when it’s a movie I’m in myself but this film is about so much and it’s such an unusual type of movie that I’ll probably want to watch it on my iPad or wherever because there’s so much in it.
Birdman is out on Blu-ray and DVD on May 4th.