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Flying High With ‘Birdman,’ Keaton Looks Back on ‘Batman,’ ‘Beetlejuice’ and More

by  in Movie News Comment
Flying High With ‘Birdman,’ Keaton Looks Back on ‘Batman,’ ‘Beetlejuice’ and More

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) already has a long-form alternate title, but given the awards-showered victory lap the film’s leading man has been enjoying, it might just as well be called Keaton Returns.

Along with its own deep bench of creative merits, filmmaker’s Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu absorbing meditation on acting, celebrity and artistry demonstrated that the much-beloved actor Michael Keaton — the performer whose livewire turns in movies like Night Shift, Mr. Mom, Beetlejuice, Clean and Sober and Batman made him an in-the-moment icon — remains a very welcome presence on screen, whether he’s doing comedy, drama or, in the case of Birdman, both.

Keaton’s been rewarded with a host of industry and critics organization awards for his performance as an aging Hollywood movie star known for playing a blockbuster superhero role who’s trying to reclaim credibility and fame by mounting an ambitious but troubled stage production, including a Golden Globe Award as Best Actor along with nominations for both the pending Independent Spirit Awards and the Academy Awards, for which he’s considered a frontrunner.

But unlike Birdman‘s Riggan Thompson, Keaton tells SPINOFF ONLINE that he’s enjoyed nothing but a healthy relationship with his cinematic superhero alter ego, and remains proud of bringing the moodier, edgier incarnation of the Dark Knight to the pop consciousness at large. “Yeah, I was glad. Are you kidding? I mean, who gets to play Batman? It was awesome!” enthused Keaton. “It goes down in film lore, film history. What Tim Burton did really reinvented how those modern day superheroes are done. He started a whole thing, and I was part of his pioneering venture.”

On stage at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where his “Batman Returns” co-star Danny DeVito presented him with the festival’s prestigious Modern Master Award, Keaton looked back on his storied career during an insightful Q&A conducted by renowned film historian Leonard Maltin.

On whether he ever had a career game plan:

Michael Keaton: No — employment was the goal! Really, honestly, and it’s true now: the idea is to see if you can accomplish the job at hand, for whatever gig you’re in at the time. I just didn’t want to waste it. I left it on the field, as they say. I just wanted to be better. That still is the goal.

On being cast in Birdman:

I was doing a movie, and I got a call from my agent. She explained what it was and said, “They don’t want to tell you exactly what it is.” So, I flew back for a day to meet Alejandro, because any actor with a pulse wants to work with someone like him. I’d seen his movies and am an enormous fan. I just flew back to have this conversation, but he really couldn’t explain what the movie was that he wanted to make. He really was trying to explain it. He was very forthcoming about his whole life and that he was going through changes and what he thought. He was really open about what he was going through, and what he wanted to say with this movie.

It was a great conversation. He lives near me, so I drove him home and got the script, got on a plane to go back to work, and read it. It would have been so hard for me to say no. I was going to be in it, regardless of anything he said. I told a friend of mine, “I would have done this movie based on ‘Amores Perros,'” and he said, “I would have done it based on the car accident scene in ‘Amores Perros’.” He’s quite something, that guy.

On the precious little prep time he had to devote to the role:

Honestly, I didn’t really have that luxury, and it didn’t really require it. It’s so fundamental and human. Did it help that I’m an actor? I suppose it helped, but so did Alejandro talking about the ego, and whether he was really an artist. I didn’t really have to think about it. It was really a day-to-day situation. He explained how he wanted to make the movie, and I thought I got it — but I didn’t really get it until we were doing it.

I can’t imagine the things that he had to keep in his head to make this thing work. Alejandro is such a powerful personality, and he’s so willful and passionate that you have to keep up with that. When you see somebody working that hard, you need to work as hard as that person, in my opinion. So, the approach was just about discussing everything and every detail. It was tough, in the beginning, to catch on through the rehearsal process, but once we got it, we were good. I knew I knew it, I just didn’t know how I was going to get there. It’s just really fundamental, human stuff.

I don’t really have a set process, necessarily, but I was working my way towards something. I knew it was going to be tough, but it was more difficult than I thought it would be. I have a weird job. I show people, warts and all, what the character is. This went really deep. He said, “You’re going to go deeper than you ever have,” and I said, “Okay.” I thought I got that, but every time, he was right. It was a risky gig, frankly, for all of us, but I never want to look back. To me, courage is the ultimate thing. You’ve gotta have guts. If you don’t, you should just do something else.

On the initial fan uproar over his casting as Batman:

It baffled me that anyone was thinking about that. I was flying home whenever I could from London — The Concord was flying then, and I’d fly home for like a day [to see my son], all the way to Los Angeles, turn around and fly all the way back to London. And I was sitting on the Concord, and it was The Wall Street Journal who does — they still do it; they don’t do a photograph, they do those ink drawings of the person they’re speaking of. I had no idea I’d be in The Wall Street Journal, first of all! I was reading newspapers and I picked up the Journal and I thought, “Gee, that looks like me… It is me!” And this article was about the outrage, and I kind of couldn’t get it. I kind of couldn’t understand why this would get print, why this was such a big deal.

And so of course, I went “Geez, I kind of feel badly.” That it was even in question, I thought it was kind of half-funny, but it was also in the middle of shooting, so the pressure was on. The pressure was on all of us to see if we could pull this off. We didn’t even know if the suit was going to work. It’s true — and it kind of didn’t the first couple days [Laughs]. It was pretty ridiculously funny, actually.

On what did work about the Batsuit:

I’m claustrophobic, and being in it, you can’t get out of it, all day long on set. And when you do, it’s a huge deal. So once I got in, I thought, “I’m never going to get through this, ever.” This suit encapsulated — and I thought, “You’d better figure out a way to make this thing work.” And I did. I just went really deeper inside the guy. He’s an alienated dude, very inside himself, so I thought, “This is perfect, man. Just go deeper and darker. Just keep getting deeper inside him — kind of go to that place.” And then you got used to it. You started to move, then you just work. Once they start lighting a certain way, turn a certain angle, just work it. The symbol, the imagery, is so strong and powerful, there wasn’t really much I had to do after a while. Just work that suit. [Laughter]

On the origin of the whispery Batman voice:

I’ll tell you where the voice comes from: I’m logical to the point where I annoy people. I’m just really, really logical about everything. And so certain things — and even when I did “One Good Cop,” which was tremendous fun, as silly as that movie is, I have to understand certain things. It might only be a 30-second conversation, but until I understand certain things, I don’t know where to start. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. So I go through this thing.

I’m doing this scene in Gotham — it’s lit and kind of big and relatively bright, and I’m doing a scene, with a dignitary from Gotham and I’m saying, “Tim, he’s going to stand there and go, ‘Hey everybody, It’s Bruce Wayne. We figured out who Batman is!’ You know what I mean? He sees me. I just don’t know how to play –” People are thinking, “Well, it doesn’t matter — It’s ‘Batman.'” No — It matters a lot! I don’t know how to play this. I said, we’ve got to figure out how — so we started to figure out how to shoot me where I’m kind of off in the shadows or kind of on angles. And really worked really great. But the voice, I thought, “This is just going to make me laugh. This is silly.”

I’d already worked out a whole thing that kind of showed up, kind of didn’t. Like hanging from the thing was my idea, hanging like a bat, and I used to do this thing where I’d move from Bruce Wayne into Batman, the transformation. I’d worked out this whole bullshit actor thing because I had to have some reason. So I said, “Hey, man, he’s going to hear the voice and go, ‘Hey, we just figured it out! ‘”

So I created the voice. I got to have something that makes me believe that I don’t walk down the street in this big, black, rubber suit, and people go, “Bruce Wayne’s out again?” So I did the voice, and then we just used it. People think it was electronic — It wasn’t. It was me. Just every time I was in as Batman, I just kind of altered it, because I had something in my head that I could rationalize to play it, frankly. So when I told that story to Alejandro on Birdman, he thought it was the funniest thing I did and starts laughing like crazy. He said, “You have to do that!” And then the voice got crazier, the incarnations of it. We did everything — the post [production] on the voice alone went on forever.

On the invention of Beetlejuice for Tim Burton:

Tim’s unique, and that’s not a word you can apply to many people. And also original — certainly not a word you can apply to many people. He is both of those things and also an artist.

He had this thing. He saw the visuals and the bigger picture, but he couldn’t quite [figure it out]. He’s got a character that he does called Coal Boy. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it. He’s an artist, and he draws this little guy called Coal Boy. And at one point, he kind of mentioned Coal Boy. But that Coal Boy is nothing like what we eventually came up with. He tried to describe it to me, and I said, “I really like this, but I don’t know what he’s talking about,” so I wasn’t going to do the movie. Then, I saw him again, and he’s a good guy and really funny, but I just couldn’t understand it. It wasn’t quite there yet. It was more of a conceit of something. He saw the big visuals of the house, and all of that. But because he’d given me a couple things to think about, I said, “Give me a day.”

So I gather up a giant collection of wardrobe from various time periods, because that’s something that stuck in my head. And then he said, “He lives in all types of different times, and he exists in another world but doesn’t…blah, blah, blah.” Then he says, “I don’t know — maybe he lives under rocks.” And so I got the idea of mold [on his face]. And then I thought, I want to do those teeth, because it was funny but also kind of frightening. He’s really dangerous, actually, which is kind of what I like about him — he’s a little dangerous and scary. I knew that I wanted hair like that, and I had a walk that I wanted to do. It was all so freeing because I couldn’t say, “My character wouldn’t do that.” 

Tim never really saw the guy. We started shooting, and they didn’t know what they were going to get. He had the idea of a striped suit, I knew that — and that didn’t really tell me much — and we hadn’t rehearsed it. We hadn’t done anything. It’s not like he said, “Well, here’s what it’s going to be…” I started coming into the makeup trailer that morning — they weren’t even shooting yet, and they looked at me and went, “Oh, yeah! Cool, cool — add this…” And [makeup artist] Ve Neil was going crazy, and she wanted these dark eyes. So I walked in and said, “Man, I don’t know. I’ll see if this works, and if doesn’t work, whatever.” And weirdly, the crew, as I walked in — I had a walk I wanted to do — started chanting “‘Juice…’Juice…’Juice…” And then I started shooting the first scene. And I just started going.

And Tim — that’s why he’s so great — went “Yes! Okay! You go over there, because I’m going to shoot your head spinning, and then we’re going to go do this thing…” Now the energy is built. We’re having fun.

On working with Quentin Tarantino on “Jackie Brown”:

He’s Quentin, and he’s really high-energy. He really wants to talk about the scenes a couple of times and discuss it. He’s really, really hands-on, and he’s really specific. He’s so good with language and words. He sits right there, very close, and wants to talk to you a little bit. I thought it was lazy thinking to hear, “Once you’ve cast it, you’re pretty much there,” but I’m starting to believe that’s really true. Once you have the right actor, then you know where to move them or what you want to get out of them.

On his road toward acting aspirations:

When I was a kid, I was a big reader, and I would get lost in books. I used to love to draw. We had a little black and white TV, when I was a kid growing up out in the country. I would watch old movies on the television. Going to a movie theater didn’t happen a lot, so I was free to roam the woods and play. I had a really vivid imagination.

In high school, I started getting in serious trouble. I was a terrible high school student. And then, I got into a play in college, and I was not good. The earth didn’t shake, and it wasn’t that big of a deal. And then I dropped out of school to make money. I did another play, and I got it. I thought I was figuring this thing out. I started to really get a feel for using language and using your body and being on a stage.

On his early forays into stand-up comedy:

I performed stand-up because I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission. My set was never joke-centric. It was a performance. There really were not a lot of clubs where you could get up and perform. It was exhilarating. It was as exciting a time as I could remember. My feet barely touched the ground when I got asked back.

I really wanted to be an actor. That’s really what I was doing, but I wisely stuck at stand-up and kept writing. I’d go to workshops, and I still went to acting class. I formed an improv group, and I was always writing. It gave me a place to perform. Plus, I just loved comedy, and I still do. I was starting to do pretty well. I was never on television, because it was very confined, but in clubs, I was pretty good. But, it wasn’t ultimately what I really wanted to be doing. I love motion pictures, and I love filmmaking. I really like television a lot, too. I really like working on television, but I don’t think I’m very good on television.

On how Michael John Douglas became “Michael Keaton”:

I got a job and somebody said, “There’s a Mike Douglas and there’s a Michael Douglas, so you can’t use the name.” I said, “Yeah, I can.” Because I actually liked my name, I’m very proud of my name. And they said, “You have to change it.” I never really got around to doing it, but they said, “You have to change it before you can start working.” Ironically, Michael Douglas’ last name is actually not Douglas — his father Kirk had a Russian name. So I went down the alphabet

My middle name’s John, and where I come from, everybody had a nickname, but it changed, every week — they would call me “Johnny,” and “Johnny Jackson,” and then “Hey, Jackson.” So I thought “You know what? I’m going to call myself Michael Jackson.” [Laughs] So then I was in the Ks and I thought this is nothing either way so I just landed on something [at random]. I thought I’d change it later to something really cool after the gig, but I never changed it. It seemed to fit.

Honestly, it’s really handy because I only use it professionally. Nothing else in my life has that name associated with it. It kept things really clear: that that’s my job, and this is my life.

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