EXCLUSIVE: At a time when the Best Actor aspirants are elbowing for position, watch out for Michael Keaton. A fixture in the last two Best Picture Oscar winners Birdman and Spotlight, Keaton this year arrives in the John Lee Hancock-directed The Founder. He plays Ray Kroc, who in his 50s evolved from a failing milkshake equipment salesman to the entrepreneur whose efforts led to there being a Golden Arches on what seems like every major thoroughfare the world over. Keaton’s Kroc evolves slowly from a frustrated dreamer and idealist into a ruthless industrialist who learned to take what he wanted; those who got in his way became as disposable as the paper wrappers on his burgers. That included the two brothers who invented the fast-food philosophy that would change the way we consume food. The Weinstein Company stepped up its slow release of The Founder, and audiences will start finding Keaton’s Killer Kroc turn this week. He discusses the film, looks back over a great career, and tries to explain why he’s thriving as much now as when his star first rose in films like Night Shift, Batman and Beetlejuice.
DEADLINE: Head down any major street in America, these drive-through restaurants chains are everywhere. You don’t realize until you see The Founder that Ray Kroc was ruthless fathering this fast-food Manifest Destiny. What made him worth playing?
KEATON: Here’s what’s really weird about this. I sat right at this table with John Lee Hancock. I said, you might want to really think about getting somebody else to do this. I won’t back off what he is. I don’t believe in begging for someone to love you when that’s not the job at hand. I said, if you want me to soften this or go, aw shucks, he’s really not so bad, I’m not your guy. That said, you don’t play a role where you say, I’m Floyd the barber but then you decide to make Floyd the barber some kind of maniacal prick. That’s not exactly accurate, either, but when the guy does what he does, you play that.
DEADLINE: Kroc is this fiftysomething failed salesman who stumbles across the McDonald brothers, and his appetite increases as quickly as the country’s taste for those burgers in the disposable paper wrappers.
KEATON: That’s only one part of Ray Kroc. What John did really well as a storyteller and director is he didn’t paint the darkness of it with a big, thick brush, with red flourishes. There are some very funny and amusing things here, an odd almost Rockwell-ian tableau. But woven underneath the surface is a lot of stuff. People like to throw the word darkness around. Billy Wilder was the best of that, in movies like The Apartment. You see the first time and your reaction is admiration for Wilder. You go back and see it again 20 years later, and you realize there is a lot more going on underneath those charming people, and that fast-paced dialogue. The Coen Brothers do a similar thing. It’s fun to be a part of that. I love that this is really a movie in the best sense. Sometimes, the thing is a film and sometimes it’s a movie. This is both, even though it’s not even a biopic, really, and it’s not some giant-canvas extravaganza. It’s good storytelling that stands up on multiple levels.
DEADLINE: Why were you initially apprehensive?
KEATON: I’m not one of those actors who beats up on what people call the suits, or the studios. It’s a business. If you don’t accept that you should probably do something else. I often do, because there are other things in life that interest me, certain movies I’d like to see if I could do that has nothing to do with your standard studio. When you work for studios, it’s understood they’re beholden to the giant corporation that owns them.
DEADLINE: Like McDonald’s…
KEATON: So you accept that going in. I was only wary in, is this palatable enough for me to get my money back? I’d only met John once, socially, and here he was trying to get this movie made. I’m ridiculously transparent and straightforward. I said to him, before we do this, if there’s a part of you that wants to waver…and he never did. Ray Kroc for sure is interesting, but the story is what’s important so that when Kroc turns that corner…
DEADLINE: In his 50s no less, when he found Dick and Mac McDonald, and then made off with not only their business innovations, but also their name.
KEATON: He turns the corner and said, I’m going to cut these guys off at their knees, and be relentless. That turn, that making a deal with the devil is something I find anything but admirable. What I really find interesting as an actor is, up until that moment, I really admired Ray Kroc. He worked his ass off. Ray Kroc to me was a bootstraps guy. One of my favorite aspects of this movie comes when he finally has had it with his country club friends.
DEADLINE: Those are the early investors who didn’t care enough to hold true to the high standards of the McDonald brothers…
KEATON: So he says, I’m going to the VFW halls, to find the guy selling shoes part-time, who has a night job. I’m going after those guys who are hungry and really work, as opposed to these guys who claim they work but don’t. I hear all these people in America, especially the politicians, they love to throw around that words “hardworking Americans.” You know who most of those hardworking Americans are? They’re brown-skinned and they’re dark-skinned. If you really want to find who’s working really hard, many, many of them aren’t a bunch of white guys.
DEADLINE: Are you Irish?
KEATON: I’m Scottish Irish.
DEADLINE: It was them, years ago, which is how it works in an immigrant-driven country.
KEATON: Very few people talk about that, about how the Irish were on the parallel with black folks. You’ve seen the signs, Irish need not apply. That’s what’s so great about this country. The immigrant aspect is one of my favorite things about America, especially cities like New York and Chicago and Pittsburgh. L.A. is a real immigrant city.
DEADLINE: When you grew up near Pittsburgh, was it a steel town economy?
KEATON: It was outside Pittsburgh. My dad was a surveyor and an engineer with his own business, where all his boys worked for him on and off as part of the crew. I also worked for another surveying company. He worked himself up to become county engineer. My mom raised seven kids, had nine babies but lost two.
DEADLINE: Sounds like a middle class upbringing in the suburbs…
KEATON: We were lower middle class. We were kind of country people because my mom comes from a town where John Casey was from called McKees Rocks, which has always been tough, industrial, a real immigrant city that sadly is in really bad shape right now. My dad came from out in the country closer to a town called Coraopolis. My mom’s town was a mill town. Her dad used to walk down Churchill Street, every morning, with his lunch and go to work in the mill and come home. My dad’s family lived in the country, but closer to what you might call a railroad town on the Ohio River. They were industrial little pockets like Western Pennsylvania is but in between we were mostly country kids, always in and out of those towns, so I had the best of both.
DEADLINE: This narrative is intriguing because as much as it charted Kroc’s progression from salesman to ruthless mogul, it was told from the perspective of these two brothers who are right out of a Normal Rockwell painting, or Mayberry, with the wholesome values you just described from your own family.
KEATON: Pretty great guys.
DEADLINE: Who symbolically stood up for quality but stood in the way of progress and Kroc’s ambitions.
KEATON: After a while it was absolutely at the expense of the two brothers. That’s what I mean when he turns the corner and says I’m making these deals. He wasn’t making money on these restaurants, but meets the man who tells him, you think you’re in the restaurant business. You’re not. You’re in the real estate business. From there, the film jumps to another level. Ray Kroc becomes another man. I didn’t realize it was as interesting a story as it turned out to be, down to little things like when he mentions his Slavic name. We are talking about immigrants, and there were the McDonald’s brothers, with the perfect name.
Before this, I knew there was a Ray Kroc but if someone asked, I’d probably have offered the generic response that he started McDonald’s. I didn’t know there were McDonald’s brothers and 90% of the population doesn’t know that. I’m going to try to put this as succinctly as I can. I would argue that that’s mostly where branding started and I don’t think he knew he was starting it.
DEADLINE: How much did Kroc foresee, in screwing over the McDonald’s brothers and where all this was going, when he started?
KEATON: He saw what it was and they didn’t. And when they didn’t see it like he saw it, and they didn’t want to go along, he basically said, this bus is leaving with or without you. Which, in a lot of ways, is how I think about things. I am going, and I want you along but at some point, if you aren’t on the bus, the bus is going anyway. Backing up a little bit. Branding is constantly around us, but we don’t stop and go, that’s a brand, or, a person branded that. He didn’t initially say, I could use that logo as a brand. He didn’t know that it would become nationwide or worldwide. He didn’t know that it was branding, necessarily, but he saw what it was and could be. That scene where he stops and looks at those arches and says, “Those, in every town.” You could argue that McDonald’s becoming McDonald’s changed the culture but you and I don’t even think twice about how it started. Something happened to me that never has before, when I was in the middle of a scene. As an actor, I just want to be the character, trying to show truth in the moment. That scene where I walk up to the counter the first time, and this kid hands me the bag of food…I’d read the script, and we rehearsed it several times. We’re rolling, and I look at him, dumbfounded, like what do I do with this thing? There’s food in a bag. What do I do with it? Where do I eat it? This has never happened to me before [while acting a role]. As I’m in it, I got it. I went, oh my God, this was a pivotal, seminal moment. It looks simple and kind of funny on the screen, but the truth is that all of a sudden, life became portable. That is where that started.
DEADLINE: That atom-splitting moment that makes movies like The Social Network or The Imitation Game so riveting?
KEATON: So now, you and I every day do something that’s portable and disposable. You don’t have to sit at home and cook a meal for your family if you don’t want to. You could have wonderful food that you stop and pick up. You can do everything on the road, and be mobile in every sense of the word. You don’t even think about how life was; it’s just automatic. A long time ago a friend was interviewing scientists and guys like Ray Kurzweil and futurists, 30 years ago. He would try to explain what was going to happen with the Internet and computerization, after meeting all these guys. He said the idea is to never have to understand anything. When people flip the light switch on, nobody goes what happens when I do that? I drive a Tesla. My car is a computer. Everything we do is computerized. It’s the way we live and we don’t think about it. I just got done working in London and Rome. London is a wonderful city, but it doesn’t look like London did when I was doing Batman, or when I first visited as a kid kicking around Europe. It looks more generic because people act differently than they did there, 20 or 30 years ago. The world is now a strip mall. It might be a giant leap to say it all started with McDonald’s but those golden arches became imagery for all of this.
DEADLINE: This is a profound realization to have, during a scene in a movie you are making.
KEATON: I remembered when we would go to the first McDonald’s, and drive a long, long distance to it. I remember what it felt like as we were driving down Ohio River Boulevard on a summer night and all of a sudden you look down and you see that glow and kids would be hanging out and there’d be bugs around the lights and you’d get this little package for 19 cents. It was like an event. It truly changed things.
DEADLINE: The movie got me thinking the same way. I spent 20 years at Daily Variety, all day gathering, writing and polishing stories to tell you tomorrow what I know now. It seems silly in hindsight, but it was my reality, when I thought trees had to die for me to be relevant as a journalist.
KEATON: I know we’re getting off the subject but do you miss that at all?
DEADLINE: In a way. But I like the urgency and immediacy of now. I just peeked at my iPhone, got a note that Sony’s head of business affairs is leaving. I forwarded it to a colleague to punch out a story. It took me three seconds and my concentration didn’t waver with you, and that story will be up in a second. But I love newspapers and coming to Hollywood and seeing my byline in the trades in agency and studio waiting rooms. There are no daily trades now.
KEATON: But didn’t you like that, seeing your name in print?
DEADLINE: I did. But the news was stuff I knew yesterday.
KEATON: You look, and go, I wrote that pretty well or I should have rewritten that paragraph. I Instagram-ed a Times article, with the message –really, you’re just figuring this out, now? — about how Internet news is loosening the truth because people will go toward where they’re already inclined. In that world, you’re fed a lot of lies and things that will take you to other places that create a mantra in your head. I would argue there’s a lot of things to reconsider about how amazing the Internet is.
KEATON: We all thought the Arab Spring was an amazing thing, in theory and philosophically. However, you can take a bit of disinformation or untruth and you churn things. That has a major, major impact, in a millisecond. No one stops and goes wait, let’s look more closely at the other side of the story. There is no other part of the story, anymore. No one exploited that more maliciously — and if you’re Machiavellian, brilliantly — than The Birther Boy thing. Now, there is great stuff that comes out of all this, too. Howard Schultz, I don’t know him, but admire how he runs Starbucks. That was McDonald’s, a long time ago, and Schultz created a lifestyle and branding phenomenon that is all over. McDonald’s is about two guys who had this great idea. We’ll cut our costs: no silverware. We don’t have to do dishes. It was really brilliant. Kroc made it brilliant on a grander scale, but they came up with it, and it was a moment that arguably changed not only what we ate but how we live.
DEADLINE: Kroc second mortgaged his home without telling his wife. He bet it all. When you look for ways to find the handle on a great character like this, what’s the closest thing that you’ve done in your life that replicates that?
KEATON: I always bet on me; I just don’t know another way. At the time, Batman was an enormous risk. If you go down in that you go down in a big, big way and I would have needed a yeoman’s effort to resurrect myself. If that fails, it fails in a huge way. So I’m not averse to risk. But I do have a practical side to me. I would never risk a house or anything that could hurt my family.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Batman. I remember when you took the role. The criticisms. Is his jaw square enough? He’s not a big muscular guy. He does comedies.
KEATON: I’m not sure that was it more than I was associated with playing certain characters.
DEADLINE: What made you take the leap?
KEATON: Conversations with Tim. We saw it exactly the same way.
DEADLINE: Which was?
KEATON: Some of it was baked in already because he was doing the Frank Miller Batman. I didn’t know anything about the lore and to this day, I still don’t. Zero. I just saw it as an interesting character. I knew Tim was an artist, and Tim changed everything.
DEADLINE: Too much to call him the Ray Kroc of the superhero movie?
KEATON: Tim changed everything about that genre. He’s such a unique filmmaker, and he has such a true, unadulterated, creative mind that his take on it was also very risky. I didn’t have anything to do with what he did in terms of that imagery, but I got what it was. The only question for me was, how do I make this imagery work for me on a really practical level? It was so big and powerful. I’ve joked about it, but that’s when I decided, just work the suit. It was really practical and I saw what it could be and where I stood and where I put myself, in the light. Those were all conversations. In The Founder, it was all there. Sometimes in movies it isn’t there but Tim saw exactly what this was. He said, read this. I did. I figured I’d tell him what I thought and he would go, “You’re probably right, but I can’t do that.” I had only done Beetlejuice with him at that point.
DEADLINE: That was pretty crazy, too.
KEATON: Yeah. I got to know him, I liked him and thought, this guy’s pretty special. So even given that I wasn’t sure Tim was going to agree with what I said and even though we both understood it was the Frank Miller version of Batman, I told him how I saw it. He just kept nodding and nodding and said, that’s it. That’s what I see. I said, good to see you. I never really thought about it after that. But it started moving forward.
DEADLINE: Did you ever imagine that here we are, talking about these atom-splitting moments with fast food and the Internet, and that conversation you described is probably when the atom got split on the superhero movies that are now the most prized studio commodities?
KEATON: That is one hundred percent right, and no, I don’t think of things like that, especially at the time. It hits me in various times. The further you get from events, you start to look at it from a little distance, position and height, and you get it. I have thought about the way things have changed, because I just did Spider-Man, and Marvel? That is one well-oiled machine. It is remarkable how they have got that whole thing covered in a really qualitative way.
DEADLINE: What impressed you most?
KEATON: Just how efficient it is, in the best sense, and how it operates on a practical level. How organized they are about what they make and how conscientious they are about what they have. They’ve got really wonderful actors for one thing, but I guess that has always been the case. Batman always had great actors surrounding that character. We had Pat Hingle and all these terrific actors. They really get that script is important, and they really protect their lore and that culture and they see the enormity of it, on a capitalistic level.
DEADLINE: Their accomplishment on Captain America: Civil War showed that. Not only did they tell an absorbing story that set up the next two Avengers films, they set up the Black Panther spinoff and introduced Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming, which you co-star in.
KEATON: A great kid, by the way. That doesn’t sound easy to do. I haven’t seen any of those movies, though. I just haven’t. It’s not a judgment.
DEADLINE: You lived it. But you said you worked the suit, and with that came a level of fame you weren’t accustomed to. What did you like, and not like, about the fit of that suit?
KEATON: I don’t really like a lot of attention. So you might ask, why would you ever pick this way to make a living? Because it wasn’t just Batman; it was anything that gets me a lot of attention. I had to really learn how to maneuver inside all that and outside all that and then later capitalize on all that.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
KEATON: Suddenly, you’re a giant image on a giant screen and you’re on billboards and you’re in magazines. So you want not just to capitalize monetarily, but from the standpoint of being smart about what it does for your career. I’m really not a good self-promoter and I’m not good politically because it feels inauthentic to me. So it was, how do I stay the person I am and keep trying to be someone who is simply good at what he does and keeps getting better, while dealing with all of this.
DEADLINE: Sounds like a difficult balancing act.
KEATON: Frankly, there weren’t really many downsides. I mean if I give myself credit, I’m a cake-and-eat-it-too type of guy. Probably really selfishly, I want it how I want it. I want to make a living and continue to do what I do for a living. I’m insanely blessed and ridiculously fortunate and exponentially grateful. But I also want to be able to walk into my local hardware store, my local bar, restaurant, and local coffee shop. Hang out, and when I walk out, talk to the doorman in New York City and talk about what’s in the Times this morning. I enjoy that and live a normal life and have a normal family. It takes finesse and it doesn’t come easily, but if you’re willing to put in the work and not create a lot of shit around you, you can do it. So I give myself credit I guess in terms of working hard enough to have a life like that, but I’m fortunate we can even have this discussion. Sometimes even talking about this is crazy.
DEADLINE: You play The Vulture, the villain in this new Spider-Man iteration. How envious were you when your stoic Batman anchored those films, while Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer got to bring these gleeful psychopaths to the screen?
KEATON: Those three and everybody else were so great. I didn’t have time to be jealous or even think that way. I can’t remember if there was a time I thought man, they’re having a lot of fun and Ive got to be the center of this thing. I just hoped what I was doing was working. I had never done anything like that and it was a big risk, going down that road. That was the only way I know how to do this and boy, do I hope I’m right about how I’m playing this. There’s so many things in that movie that were never in the script. The whole hanging thing, in order to sleep, the rewriting or improvising of the big, long dinner table. What Tim and I agreed on was, this was darkly funny too. I didn’t think about it as being charming but in retrospect it had a style and a charm. The truth of it is, I never ever thought about Batman. For me it was all about Bruce Wayne. Who was he? The other part, I hope we figure out a way to make that work. But the key was always Bruce Wayne.
DEADLINE: Was the Batman part Tim’s job? He is the visualist, and Batman was all about spectacle set pieces…
KEATON: We had a lot of discussion about that. There was a lot in there that were my ideas, too. We worked together so well and he let me do them. But even in the Batman aspect of it, there had to be a reality to it and sometimes even where I placed myself, in the light. I talked to Tim and said I’ve got to tell you this…and he’d go, “Oh, that looks cool. Turn this way.” He’d relight it, and hit these beautiful angles and shadows. He’s just an artist. As I was saying this, I was thinking about when I mentioned how people capitalize monetarily.
The thing about The Founder is, it’s really about a lot more things that I continue to realize, even in retrospect. John Hancock and I had dinner the other night and we were talking about all of this. It’s about so many things, but I think fundamentally it’s a story about a free enterprise system and capitalism and America and all those things.
DEADLINE: Like ambition?
KEATON: Sure. One of my favorite scenes, there’s not even a line of dialogue. It’s that nighttime shot when Ray Kroc’s alone and outside, sweeping, making sure that restaurant is neat and clean. There’s a lot of me in that. When I get locked in, there’s no other way to accomplish anything than by just working hard. There is almost never really as much luck in successful people as a lot of people would like to think. You don’t get to be successful by not working hard. There’s this envy about people who are wealthy or famous. Ninety-five percent of the time those people work their ass off. I’m blessed that I don’t need a lot of things in my life. It’s easier to not be encumbered by a lot of…things. I also find consumerism kind of obnoxious. Not that I don’t have some nice things. But how Ray Kroc went about getting that? His relentless pursuit, and the almost the sadistic way he went about getting it, is obviously beyond reprehensible. But the idea of working hard to get what you want? I’ve got nothing but admiration for that. It’s not even working for what you want. If I show up on a set and my job is to tell the story with everybody else, then I need to work hard to do that. I like that I have a place to go to work. I have a weird job, where I come home and I’m not sure what I did most days. My hands aren’t dirty. My muscles aren’t tired. I’m not quite sure what I did. It’s kind of an odd feeling. That’s why I have other things in my life where I feel like I actually do something.
DEADLINE: Do you watch yourself on screen?
DEADLINE: I interviewed Daniel Day-Lewis once time and it became clear he cannot bear to watch his performances.
KEATON: Me, either.
DEADLINE: What a wacky way to make a living. You do all this preparation, you have people like John Hancock or Tim Burton to guide you, but you don’t see the results of that work…
KEATON: And there’s tons on the line, if you really think about it. People’s jobs are on the line. The movie’s got to make its money back or some people won’t get hired again.
DEADLINE: What do you love then about making movies?
KEATON: I remember when I was lying down taking a short nap in my trailer while doing Mr. Mom. The trailer was on the stage. I was just kind of lying there; sometimes I really love to listen to the sound of movies being made. People are talking, there’s discussion, somebody’s laughing over there, nails are being pounded, a saw might be going, lights are being moved. I like the sound of people working, in general. I love construction at night. One of my favorite smells to this day is the mix of that goopy grease and dirt, when people are building highways. I love that smell. Sometimes the cool air in the evening brings that smell out. I love when I’m out driving somewhere and they’re working on the road at night and those lights are out. It feels like stuff’s going on at night. I love the whole sound of that. I was trying to take a nap in my trailer and I was just getting lost in the sound of it. Then it hit me, and I kind of sat upright and I went oh my God…everything everybody’s doing out there is based on me…because I was Mr. Mom. I was playing that guy. The name of the movie is Mr. Mom. It only works, Birdman and others, if I work. Everybody’s working here. They’re not thinking about this. It’s all on me. That was an eye opener.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Birdman. I saw it at its New York Film Festival premiere, and then saw Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his co-writers the next day. They were all hung over from the party and it was very clear they had no idea what the reaction was going to be, if people would understand this manic movie that was a manifestation of Alejandro’s insecurities and paranoia.
KEATON: He’ll tell you, he was going through a giant change.
DEADLINE: What was the challenge in being his vessel?
KEATON: It was really, really, really hard. That’s how hard it was.
DEADLINE: It looked like jumping out of a plane and hoping the parachute works.
KEATON: I like things like that. I’ve done that more than once. The hardest and probably best thing about it was you had to ride hard, all the time. You could never let up. You had to be on it and in it, every millisecond of the day. And those were long days. To push yourself, challenge yourself to that level…all of us, everybody on the crew and cast, Alejandro tenfold…we all had to be on it and locked in it because it wasn’t like anything that had been done before. It wasn’t just staying in the character. It wasn’t just making sure you’re locked into the scene. You had to make sure you could orchestrate yourself. It was choreographed and you had to do it and also stay inside the guy, with all of the other extenuating circumstances. Usually, you stay inside the person you’re playing, and other things are being handled around you. You don’t have to think about it. You had to be aware of everything but you had to forget everything at the same time.
DEADLINE: Sounds like there is some purity in that.
KEATON: Hundred percent. I’m not saying that with any kind of oh my God, it was so hard for me; I’m talking about how good that is and what that makes your brain do. There wasn’t a day I didn’t come home that I didn’t feel like I’d done something, that I’d worked today. You don’t always feel like that.
DEADLINE: Any long career brings ups and downs. We wouldn’t see you for a while, and you would show up in these small roles like Ray Nicolette in the Elmore Leonard movies Out of Sight and Jackie Brown. You are among a handful of actors, Kevin Costner is another, where you go, damn, I miss that guy. If a young guy you just worked with, like Spider-Man’s Tom Holland or American Assassin’s Dylan O’Brien, asked you how to best make it last, what would you say?
KEATON: Well, the first thing I’d say before I answer that is what good guys they are, and Taylor Kitsch as well, who’s also in American Assassin. I genuinely like them; really professional, talented, serious, but fun. I just enjoyed the hell out of these guys. I guess what I would say is, whatever you’re doing, in terms of all of that that I just said, just keep doing that. They seem to be having fun, so that’s a bonus. I wouldn’t let myself have fun. I would be too afraid to have fun. I thought, if I have too much fun while I’m doing this, I’m going to screw this whole thing up. So I would say you have to balance that. I’d say pick wisely, but that sounds too cautious and hard in the movie business. I always tell young people, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I always rolled the dice on me, and if Batman didn’t work, I would have had to recover from that. So just go and make mistakes, you aren’t going to know until you make mistakes. Whatever those guys are doing, they should keep doing it because from where I sit, it sure is working.
DEADLINE: I once interviewed George Clooney in his office and he had one picture on the wall. Him, as Batman. He didn’t have as good a time as you did, and said the picture was there because it reminded him to never do a movie for the wrong reasons, which in his case was taking that movie to become a globally bankable star. How does this factor into what you said about choices and how you make them? What makes you say yes?
KEATON: It depends on the thing. There is no set way to judge. Sometimes I will go, I never played that guy before. I’m in. This guy in American Assassin, I’ve never really played this type of person before.
DEADLINE: What kind of person?
KEATON: Physically tough, and mentally very tough. I played people who may have had some of those qualities but not in the context of this type of movie. Here’s the other truth: you’ve got to run a business. I am a business. If a movie like that works, and it’s international, that keeps your business alive. I want to keep doing this for the foreseeable future, and if I can help my business by doing that film, I’m going to do it. I won’t if it’s not good. I might try and I might fail but I’m not…I’m being very honest and very realistic about it but usually there’s no set thing. With The Founder, I had been working real hard and I wasn’t really looking to do anything. They told me what it was about and I thought like most people would think, McDonald’s, Ray Kroc, I don’t know what that would be. Then I read it and thought the script was good. I met and really liked John and what he had to say. I thought about it and I thought what do I have in my life right now personally? One of the things I could have used was sleep. But I thought, I’m in a good spot right now and yeah, you should do this, it’s interesting. It’s a good role. Don’t overthink it. Just go do it, throw yourself into it. It wasn’t anything more than that. You were talking about lulls, before. There are always lulls and there will be more lulls, but there are never lulls in my life. Life is as important as what I do for a living.
DEADLINE: You’ve worked with really interesting actors. Jack Nicholson comes to mind. Was there anybody you observed or talked to who helped forge this patience?
KEATON: I’ll tell you one thing Jack told me that doesn’t pertain anymore. It hasn’t for a long time but at the time he was right. We were riding around and he goes, “Keats, if this thing works, you could go have three flops in a row and it won’t matter.” At the time, he probably was right. But soon after that, the business changed and that’s not the case for anybody anymore. You see these guys, these great actors and big movie stars and if something doesn’t work, people say, he’s in trouble. When it is just that something didn’t work.
DEADLINE: Stars do seem more disposable.
KEATON: I think it comes from watching at the guys who came before you, and paying attention to how they did and didn’t do things. After that, I just do what I’m going to do, anyway. I’ve got to bet on me. I always did and I’m always going to. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong. One thing about Jack I liked was, early on when I was wanting to do this for a living, I looked at him and thought, I’d like the opportunity to play all those different roles in different types of movies. In terms of a movie star combo actor of which there aren’t really that many, there’s nobody to me as good as Paul Newman in terms of how he well he did it, and what he did in his life via his charity work and really truly being independent without going, look at me.
I know people say I’m a bit of a renegade. I do keep one foot outside. I live where I live and do what I do because I like it. I enjoy things in life but I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m just being who I am. But you hear people like John McCain and Sarah Palin going, we’re renegades. If you have to tell me you’re a renegade you’re probably not a fu*king renegade, so you won’t hear me say that. Paul Newman naturally and authentically did that. He raced cars because he dug racing cars, and his friends were his friends. I’ve got the widest variety of friends. I would put me up against anybody in terms of friends. I’ve got people all over. In terms of range, my friendship range is probably better than my acting range. The way Paul Newman authentically did it and lived where and how he wanted to live, and still maintained this iconic thing and was really genuinely good. In terms of the whole package, if you’re going to be a movie star, that’s it.
DEADLINE: Fair to say you don’t give a rat’s ass about fame?
KEATON: I really frankly don’t but at the end of the day but I can’t act like, aren’t I so groovy. If you’re walking down the street and people walk up to you and pay you these amazing compliments… anybody who tells you ‘I hate that,’ they’re full of shit. They’re lying. It feels good when people tell you they like what you do it. It just does.
DEADLINE: Aren’t the selfies taxing?
KEATON: Those are getting harder to take.
DEADLINE: You’re 65 now, you starred in the last two Best Picture winners, you’ve got American Assassin and Spider-Man. We talked about lulls. Was there some performance that turned things in your favor to make this run possible?
KEATON: It was more a mentality and a will that turned it and there was a lot of work and focus that I can’t quite explain to people. I have always tried to be good at what I do. So I don’t know that there was any one thing. Obviously Birdman had an enormous impact, but it really started before Birdman. I’m shocked that I still have all the fans that I do after all these years. Amazed and dumbfounded. There were a lot of nonbelievers, but I always had the believers, people who love certain performances that never got a ton of attention. Most people don’t know how difficult Multiplicity was. You have to do [multiple characters] like that, and be funny, and comedy can be tough enough as it is. Then there were little roles I did. I think it was just willfulness.
DEADLINE: Moments that stick out to you on those two Oscar-winning films Birdman and Spotlight?
KEATON: I can give you that just as easily on Much Ado About Nothing, Multiplicity, My Life. There are so many.
DEADLINE: Let’s have a few.
KEATON: I’ll tell you one about Birdman and that director. The accolades he gave me publicly and personally, and through people in the business in terms of an actor were as good as you can get. The single thing I remember when we wrapped the final shot, and we were down at this little bar in the theater district. There were a few of us hanging around and he and I were having a couple of drinks. The thing that I always remember, out of all those compliments was, he said, ‘and the best thing about you is you’re a gentleman.’ That, to me, did it. That’s the thing that sticks. I hope he’s right, but that’s the thing that I always hang on to.
DEADLINE: What about Spotlight?
KEATON: It was so nice to be part of that group. It’s weird to say something like, we had fun, given the subject matter. But we did, because they were such a good group of people. They were all so funny and you had to be on top of your game in the morning. Somebody would be wise cracking, giving somebody a hard time. The quality of those actors…everything was real and nothing flashy. Mark Ruffalo has that great moment where he blows, but aside from that it was really based on, hang on, stay in that real zone. We all came to like the characters we played. Robby Robinson has become a real friend. Tom McCarthy was just so strong and specific, every day. And I happen to be a guy who really loves journalism and the newspaper world.
DEADLINE: You starred in The Paper…
KEATON: And I carry one around, all the time. I’ve always loved that world. That movie meant so much to so many people. Just yesterday, some woman stopped me, to talk about it. Working in London, people talked about it.
DEADLINE: You grew up Catholic?
KEATON: Altar boy. I liked being an altar boy.
DEADLINE: What did that movie do to your feelings about the faith?
KEATON: I haven’t been a practicing Catholic for a long time. I have no right to call myself a Catholic. I know who good Catholics are, and I’m not one. Many, many years ago, I lost faith in the Catholic Church for all the reasons that I think one should lose faith in the Catholic Church. I’m still not a fan of the institution. But here’s the thing I’ll defend and I don’t care who you are, Baptist, Judaism, I defend it to the death, to the end because I actually admire and I’m kind of envious of deep faith. There is no better Catholic than my mom. You couldn’t get better. She was devout. That got her through a lot of stuff, man. So for me, that’s like if my mom had a pal looking after her, and religion was her pal, that guy’s in for life. Even if you don’t like that guy but he saved your brother’s life or something, he’s a made guy. I have my own thing and I’m solid with where I am with it. I just lit a candle yesterday actually. I have my form of meditation. I’m good with it. Spotlight didn’t really shake my faith because I didn’t have much faith in the general institution. I’ve got to tell you, what I kept saying through the interviews, don’t attack necessarily the entire religion. Some things deserve to be attacked. Go after and be relentless about what the bad stuff. And there has been a lot of bad stuff. But you could say that about all religions. The thing that hit me deepest in that movie was Rachel McAdams and that scene with her character’s grandmother, Tom handled that so well. Rachel handled it so well and the actress handled it so well where you see her faith really shaken. That broke my heart.
DEADLINE: What is religion, really, other than a mechanism to trigger conscience, empathy and dignity, things that are so disposable in this fast food age?
KEATON: You know what’s the scariest thing about everything that’s going on now? The absolute loss of decency. It’s so disposable. How can you admire somebody who says the things they say [in this presidential campaign] but are just not decent? The thing I’ll miss about Obama is how unbelievably classy and decent that family is. Man, am I going to miss that. He’s a gentleman.
DEADLINE: To come full circle, it does feel like it all swings back around to Ray Kroc, ending that Norman Rockwell painting that was America.
KEATON: Ray fu*king Kroc. We have one man to blame for all this. That’s how I should push this movie. I’ll tell you the trouble with America. The studio will go, wait…what?