Contrary to how some pundits have framed it, Michael Keaton never left show business. His 1980s hits, such as Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice, were a boom at the boxoffice, whereas the actor’s dramas, which included My Life and Desperate Measures in the ’90s, arguably were busts. Keaton couches his trajectory, which picked up during the ’00s with supporting turns in The Other Guys and the recent Robocop reboot, simply as: “I went through a lazy period. And (then) a hardworking, dedicated period.” Now comes the role of battered Hollywood star Riggan Thomson in Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman, which perfectly displays Keaton’s sublime ability to segue between comedy and drama. Like Keaton, Riggan has seen his share of ups and downs, with his heyday being a Batman-like tentpole entitled Birdman. Comeback, homage, the actor’s process—these all are virtues that awards-season voters crave.
When you received the Birdman script, were you looking to segue to auteur-like projects?
I was working on Robocop and got a call from my agent saying that Alejandro wanted me in the movie. And if you get a call from an auteur like that, you want to have that meeting. I wasn’t looking for anything specifically from an auteur, but rather projects of quality. I liked Robocop because of the director, and it was an intelligent, big action studio movie.
Early in your career when you were doing a lot of studio films, would you have been able to spot and commit to an indie project like Birdman?
Definitely, yeah. Birdman is really simple. I’d jump in with a filmmaker like Alejandro simply based on the crash scene in Amores Perros. It’s not a complicated decision. At 25, if I had the opportunity to commit to a good script and director, then it’s an opportunity. Birdman came around when it came around. It’s like being an athlete— you just want to be good when you start and when you finish.
Do you know this guy, Riggan? Have you met someone like him?
I never knew anyone like him, but, that said, I never knew anyone who was a murderer, and I played one in Desperate Measures. I never knew anyone who was cloned, but I played one in Multiplicity. I would be full of shit if I didn’t say this man is an actor and I don’t share his sensibility, his sense of desperation. I don’t have his personality type. As an actor, you work from the basics and with Riggan, it’s mostly on the page. He’s pretty clearly drawn.
You’ve worked consistently, but began to peter out from studio projects at the start of the millennium. Why was that?
The reality is I was “Doctor No” for a long time. I’m sure I made some mistakes (in passing on projects). I got sick of me saying the same thing. I’m sensitive and wanted to repaint myself. I was turning down things that this man on the sidewalk over here would probably turn down as well. There was a point when (the studios) weren’t coming to me.
When you read Birdman, did you see it as an homage to yourself?
I remember (me and Alejandro) spending no time talking about the material being reflective of me personally. We jumped immediately into other discussions. I’m sure at some point we said, “We gotta figure this out…” We discussed what was happening to artists, to human beings, a person’s ego. This is more about Alejandro than it is about me, Ed (Norton) or Emma (Stone)…. It’s about the effects on an artist, how they question things.
Where are you with talks regarding Beetlejuice 2?
Tim Burton and I have emailed about it. We’re both in the same situation (of always being busy on other projects). Neither one of us gets tired of the conversation… Tim says he’s working on something, then goes away for a while. At some point, someone is going to say we really want to do it. You don’t want to fuck it up, so it has to be perfect.
Any regrets over not continuing with the first Batman franchise in the ’90s after the second film?
Not for me. If I didn’t do Batman, Birdman wouldn’t have happened. Christopher Nolan is smart, but I haven’t seen all of the newer films.
You haven’t seen any of the new Batmans?
Not all the way through. But there are a ton of movies I haven’t seen. I bet they’re good, and I’ve seen pieces of them, like when I’m waiting around a movie theater and poke my head in. (Movies are) a two-, three-hour commitment. I’ve seen Birdman three times, I’m so proud of this movie.
You mentioned there was a lot of pressure when you did Batman…
There was pressure at the time on everyone, pressure on Tim (Burton), pressure on Jack Nicholson, pressure on Warner Bros.
That said, would you commit to a superhero franchise today?
I would. If you look at what I do, there’s no consistency. The consistency is that there is no consistency. I do projects that are good and not so good. But I do like big, fun movies.
Photograph of Keaton by Mark Mann