Michael Keaton soars again
New York — When Michael Keaton met Barack Obama shortly before Obama would become president, the then-senator had a question for the actor.
“Why don’t you make more movies?”
It’s a quandary that has long bedeviled moviegoers just as it has, so it seems, heads of state. Why did the roundly beloved Keaton — a manic comic actor, an intense live wire, a real-deal movie star — become such an infrequent presence on the big screen?
Even at the height of Keaton’s stardom in the 1980s and ’90s, he was famously picky, usually doing a movie a year and turning down about as many hits (“Splash,” “JFK,” among them) as he said yes to. But after a handful of flops in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Keaton all but disappeared from movies.
“I did turn a lot of things down. But a lot of the things I turned down, you would have turned down,” said Keaton in a recent interview. “It was because I was bored. I was bored with what I would do. Maybe it just didn’t interest me for a while, I don’t know.”
But Keaton’s revival, begun with a handful of supporting roles, reaches a blistering, wildly meta crescendo in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” In it, Keaton stars as a washed-up, middle-aged actor, Riggan Thomson, trying to mount a serious play on Broadway based on a Raymond Carver story when all his fans want is for him to make a fourth “Birdman” film — a superhero identity that haunts him.
The reference to Keaton’s “Batman” days is unmistakable, but “Birdman” — shot in long, flowing takes that capture the chaotic swirl of backstage life and a theater full of people striving for their own sense of self-importance — only plays a little with Keaton’s own persona. It’s a gonzo portrait of an actor’s out-of-control psychoses that appears certain to land the 63-year-old’s first Oscar nomination.
Keaton’s comeback is the result, he says, of sharping his focus.
“I turned the dial up,” Keaton says. “I don’t know if I got re-interested or I settled a lot of other things in my life. I really don’t know. I just thought: ‘I’m going to dial the scope in a little more,’ like on a rifle. … It’s amazing when you focus on the things you want and keep your eye on the ball. You start to create it or something.”
His hair trim and gray, Keaton is intense in person and initially standoffish. He doesn’t look up from his phone entering a Manhattan hotel room. At the mention that many have overdone comparisons of him to his “Birdman” character, he grows tense: “If I were you, I’d take a higher road,” he says.
Keaton has in many ways spent his career avoiding the typecast fate of Riggan. The Pittsburgh native, Catholic-raised, youngest of seven began as stand-up. After his breakthrough in 1982’s “Night Shift,” he deliberately sought to avoid what he calls “glib young man” roles. When development on a third “Batman” film sought to lighten Tim Burton’s universe, he bailed.
“He’s a very self-assured guy. He doesn’t need to be validated,” Inarritu (“Amoros Perros,” “Babel”) says. “In order to play a role like this and be naked — spiritually, intellectually, physically — you have to have a lot of self-assurance.”
Keaton, who has a 31-year-old son from his marriage to Caroline McWilliams, spends much of his time on his ranch in Montana, fishing and hunting.
“People can say, ‘Oh, he hasn’t been around because nobody’s called,’ ” Inarritu says. “No, it’s because he has a life. He has a ranch, he has a family.”
Keaton gave Inarritu (whom Keaton calls “the mad Mexican”) the kind of “Beetlejuice”-level commitment he’s known for. Keaton didn’t even question shooting a scene in which Riggan gets locked out of the theater during opening night, forcing him to stomp through Times Square in his tighty-whities. The actor says his only thought was “ ‘I wonder what type of underwear I’ll wear.’ ”
Keaton pegs Adam McKay’s white-collar crime comedy “The Other Guys” (2010) as the start to his return, calling it “the first jab” that proved he “could still hit.” He’s also played a Steve Jobs-like CEO in “RoboCop” and appeared in the HBO comedy “Clear History.” Next, he’ll star in Tom McCarthy’s Catholic scandal drama “Spotlight.”
Will he keep up the pace?
“I honestly don’t know,” Keaton says. “I’m sure I’ll do something that won’t work, that will be stupid and people will point their fingers and say I’m a dope. And I’ll go to the next one and maybe they won’t.”
Opens Oct. 24 in Metro Detroit
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