If The Trial of the Chicago 7 wins the SAG Award for Best Ensemble, it would mark a precedent-setting third time that Michael Keaton has been in the winners circle, previously in eventual Best Picture winners Spotlight and Birdman. Deadline caught up with an actor willing to share the spotlight, hang onto certain things — a Batman reprise in The Flash — and try his first TV series for Hulu, in Dopesick, a drama about the insidious rise of addictive prescription Opioid pain killers. In The Trial of the Chicago 7, Keaton’s turn as former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark is pivotal in showing just how desperate the U.S. government and a federal judge wanted to imprison protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. They disregarded Clark’s testimony about his investigation that would have upended the entire trial by pointing the finger at authorities for inciting a riot. Keaton doesn’t have nearly as many lines, or screen time, in the Aaron Sorkin-directed Netflix drama as does Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong, Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, or Frank Langella. But he delivers an important B-12 shot at an important moment.
DEADLINE: You have two scenes in Trial of the Chicago 7. While you certainly left a mark, you are usually atop the call sheet. Why did you do the film?
KEATON: Let me go back in my history with Aaron Sorkin. We share a business manager, and a long time ago I watched this television show called Sports Night. I said, I don’t know if this is a show that’ll last, but this is some really good writing. I checked him out, and then my business manager said, oh, yeah, I manage him. I almost never do this, but I told him I wouldn’t mind meeting with this guy because, this is some writer. We had lunch, all three of us. I think I threw a rough idea out at him and said, I’d like to do something with you. All these years go by and we never do anything. He calls and says, I’m doing a reading with some actors of A Few Good Men, are you free? This was five years ago. Chris Pine, and a bunch of really good actors took part.
DEADLINE: What part did you read?
KEATON: Jack [Nicholson]’s role. I’ll tell you, when it comes to the line, the great line, you’re sitting there…it’s just a reading. There’s no cast, no audience, but I’m still sweating. Thinking, how the hell do I pull this line? What do I do? I’m not going to do Jack, and then you go, wait a minute, maybe you should do exactly Jack. How do you something that is so iconic, by one of the great film actors of all time, and a friend.
DEADLINE: And the Joker to your Batman. How did you handle it?
KEATON: I took a route that I felt was authentic to me. We all knew it’s coming…you’re reading it, and you go, god, this is good material. This is really good. This reading is going so well, but in the back of everyone’s head, they’re going, that fucking line is coming up. Everybody knows. Everybody knows it’s on the horizon.
DEADLINE: So, how was your delivery different from his?
KEATON: I can’t remember, honestly. I figured, you have to sell it with the power that it has, but don’t even think of doing Jack. And then you go, wait a minute, maybe just do Jack. What am I, crazy? Why don’t I just steal from him? So I found my own way. But I couldn’t tell you what it was. I remember I felt this thing hit me in the head, a rolled up piece of yellow legal pad. It wasn’t at that line, you can’t handle the truth, but some point before it. I look around. Sorkin’s looking at me, and he gives me the okay sign. The reading was good, but I thought, well, maybe this is just one of those things that won’t happen [that we do a movie together]. And this comes around. I liked the subject matter. This happened to me in my late teens, just when my consciousness was raised in this area. He talked to me about a couple of the parts. I said, honestly, I got a bunch of stuff going on, but I like the Ramsey Clark thing. I know it’s not a big thing, but I just want to do something with it. I thought, maybe I never get to do another one [with Sorkin]. You got to grab these guys when you can get them.
DEADLINE: Clark, LBJ’s Attorney General, seemed one of the few government guys who actually had a conscience and weren’t trying to stack the deck against the protesters, in disclosing his belief that law enforcement started the clash with protesters.
KEATON: I liked the impact of Clark, he’s an interesting character. Some of these guys in the legal profession, they’re heroic. He also defended some, I’ll say, tricky people, but he was a bit of a renegade, a true American, and to me, a real patriot. I liked the moment. As I was reading this script, I thought, [Sorkin’s] writing is so good that if he pulls this movie off…you’re rolling along and just when you think, am I going to get bogged down in the minutiae of the legalese? Then he hits you with a scene, or a line, that is either humorous or absurd, and all of a sudden it’s like a jazz player playing a sax, he’s deep into some intricate things, and all of a sudden, boom, he hits some notes. And it makes you go, wow, I wasn’t ready for that. Tony Bennett sang that way, he’ll take a note way up high, and you’re like, that woke me up. That is what I think the Clark scene did. So I said, how about that role? It’s not much. I can definitely find the time in my life to do that.
DEADLINE: What kind of memories did that period evoke? You were turning draft age in 1968, and the Vietnam War was raging.
KEATON: There was always political talk in my family, my mom and dad. My dad was always involved in the county, and then the city of Pittsburgh, local government. I remember when Kennedy was elected, my mom kept us home from school for his inauguration because he was Irish and a Catholic, and that was huge for her. So, there was always a consciousness. But I wasn’t really paying much attention. I remember distinctly it just stood out in my high school and I went to Kent State after the shootings.
DEADLINE: What was it like, facing the draft?
KEATON: Two ninety-five. You ask anyone my age, where were you in the lottery, I guarantee, 9 out of 10 will remember exactly their number. I worked since I was 15, always had a job, and you’d come home from work, come into my house, wash up, grab a quick meal, your mom would be mad at you for not sitting still, and then you head out with your buddies for the night. You’d wake up in the morning and go to work again, and everybody was home from college. Guys who weren’t going to college, they were aware. We all had been talking. Tomorrow’s the lottery, what do you think’s going to happen? What are you going to do? Some guys are like, I’m going to Canada, and other guys were going, no, I’m going the fu*k in the Army. I remember coming home, taking my shower, running into the living room. I had a towel wrapped around my waist, because I knew what time they were going to do it. I’ll never forget it, dripping wet, staring at the TV, watching the numbers come up. You knew if you were past a certain point, it was unlikely you were going to be drafted. 295 was my number. If your birthday came up at a certain time, that was what your number was and you were going if you didn’t have a reason not to. Some of us were against the war. I just happened to draw a draft number…well, they were never going to get to me. You never knew for sure what was going to happen, but it forced you to think about what you were going to do.
DEADLINE: lf The Trial of the Chicago 7 wins the SAG Ensemble, you would be the first actor to win three times, after Spotlight and Birdman, two Best Picture winners. What’s the best part of being part of an ensemble and not have to carry the movie?
KEATON: Contrary to advice I was given early on, I’ve done the ensemble thing a few times, going back to The Paper and even Gung Ho. I was advised early on, you’re a move star. That’s nice, but to me it is about good material and I’m an actor who likes to be around good actors. Unless you don’t have a pulse, you are going to improve. I get bored really quick. When you’re around really good actors, everybody brings everybody up. Actors, for the most part, are extraordinarily generous. I’ve never been the guy who walks around with the attitude, I’m the guy here. This allows you to see talent burst. This series I’m doing, Dopesick, I’m doing these scenes with Kaitlyn Dever, what is she, 18? I’m crazy about this kid. I just think she’s the greatest, and she is right there, man, and every word out of her mouth is honest and true.
DEADLINE: A TV series is new ground for you.
KEATON: It comes down to good writing. You forget after you read so many scripts and try to rationalize doing some of them, when one like this comes across the table. You just start turning the page and it gets clear what really good writing is. Danny Strong had come with high recommendations and great reviews from Jay Roach with whom I’m developing a project. And he proved to be as good as Jay said. One of the other factors in deciding to do this limited series was the chance to work with Barry Levinson. He and I had discussed a few different things over the years, and when this came up and he was directing the first two and producing all of it, it added another ingredient that made this appealing. I’ve been directed by Michael Cuesta before, who is known for his great work in Homeland. Patricia Riggen, who directed two episodes, was terrific and her husband Checco Varese was our DP. I tend to get real connected to the camera crew and the crew itself. I found Checco a great collaborator as well.
DEADLINE: We last spoke when you played McDonald’s magnate Ray Kroc in The Founder. I recently interviewed Jared Leto and John Lee Hancock for The Little Things, and Jared said he watched The Founder and sought out John Lee Hancock and said any movie you do, I want to be in it. That’s how he ended up the villain in that movie with Denzel Washington and Rami Malek. The Founder could have had the Oscar run that Spotlight and Birdman did but The Weinstein Company dumped it. How frustrated do you get when you see it’s all there onscreen, doesn’t get the push and underperforms?
KEATON: Well, usually, once I’m done I just move on. I don’t even watch the movie. In this case, it was very disappointing because John and I are friends, and it was a really good experience for me. I was disappointed because of what we put into it and for the actors, because we really hit it. I’d said in our meetings that what I was not going to do was let this guy [Kroc] off the hook or soften him. There was something very admirable about Ray Kroc and weirdly, one of my favorite scenes is the one when you see him late at night. Everybody’s gone and he’s outside sweeping the front of that place, I fu*king love that guy. When he’s doing that, man, I’m all in. Hard work, I have a lot of respect for hard work, and he was a hard-working guy. The dark side of this guy and the vindictiveness, oof, that ain’t good, but you can’t not show it. He said, I won’t sell that short. I said, okay, let’s go make a movie.
But it turns out we did it at The Weinstein Company. Let’s not even talk about the monstrous side of that guy, just about him as a business. When people were outraged he wasn’t pushing this, I told them, he was like a lot of these guys, doing two or three things at one time. Like a lot of these guys, he’s like, I’m going to gamble, put my chips on this film. That has happened to me a couple times. I’m backing this horse. Sometimes it’s the right horse and sometimes it’s not. If you’re not that horse, you aren’t getting the money, the push. That’s what happened. People were angry and mad and I was frustrated because this movie deserved the push. I got a call from an actor I really like who saw it and said, you should’ve been nominated instead of me. I said, forget about that, it doesn’t matter. The problem is when there’s a nice piece of work out there, it needs to get seen. When people would get angry and blame him for this and that, they were correct, but I would say, you’re wasting your energy. This is a person that you can stand 11 inches from his face…and I swear to you, this isn’t even judgmental, just fact, and you can say, you’re a liar. You’re a cheat. And it had no impact because he already knew it, and it didn’t matter, and by the way, he’s not alone.
DEADLINE: Like you said, this is just about business with Harvey Weinstein, but he was the one who orchestrated impossible Best Picture victories, for Shakespeare In Love over Saving Private Ryan, or when he took a black and white silent movie to Best Picture with The Artist. Rather than wonder what he might have done with The Founder had he bet on you, it reminds of how chancy things are in these Oscar races. The two you were part of that won the Best Picture Oscar, Spotlight and Birdman, were lucky to be at places that pushed those movies. The Founder deserved better.
KEATON: Yeah, I think you’re right. But these things have another life as time goes on. I’ll sit around and watch something and go, holy shit, look how great this thing is, and maybe it only played a couple weeks in the theater. Why did nobody talk about this one? That’s just how it goes. It’s tough, but like I always say, nobody knocked on my door, put a gun to my head, and said you have to do this for a living. I chose it. Me. The bad comes with the good and the good comes with the bad.
DEADLINE: Reports have you putting on the Batsuit again for The Flash. Why?
KEATON: He asks, with three exclamation points and three question marks. Well, now that you put it that way, maybe you’re right. Jesus, what am I thinking about?
DEADLINE: Oh, I’m not talking you out of it…cue the social media backlash against me.
KEATON: Well, now I’m nervous all of a sudden. No, now I’m thinking what a stupid freaking idea.
DEADLINE: It is going on 30 years. Men thicken over years. I am imagining you pulling out the suit and taking it to the dry cleaners to let it out so you can fit into it…
KEATON: That’s hysterical. Yeah, like, there’s a dry cleaner who handles everybody, all the superheroes. He’s got a specialty business doing that. You show up and go…you return something and say, what is this? This is fu*king Spider-Man. This isn’t mine. How come you gave me The Hulk’s outfit?
DEADLINE: Worst, it’s like in The Godfather when Don Corleone brings massacred son Santino’s body to that coroner, saying, I need to work all your miracles. You bring that Batsuit in and say, man, you got to fit me in this damn thing. I need you to work all your magic.
KEATON: I don’t know why I thought of this, but speaking of Italian, my favorite thing I’m watching now is that show on CNN with Stanley Tucci, who is in the film Worth with me. He’s great in it and the show is my favorite thing to watch right now. We’ll have to have a longer conversation about Worth, down the road. I don’t know why I thought of it…
DEADLINE: To take the focus off you playing Batman again?
KEATON: That’s right. No, you know what it is? I am needing a minute to think about it because I’m so fortunate and blessed, I got so much going on now. I’m really into work right now. I don’t know why, but I am, and so, yeah, I mean, you know, to tell you the truth, somewhere on my iPad is an iteration of the whole Flash thing that I haven’t had time yet…I called them and said, I have to be honest with you. I can’t look at anything right now. I’m so deep into this thing I’m doing. Also, I’m prepping a thing I’m producing and getting ready to do down the road in the fall that I’ll be in, and I feel responsible to that. So, yeah, there is that. I’m not being cute or coy. If I talked about it, I’ll be just bullshitting you. I don’t really know. I have to look at the last draft. To be honest with you, you know what worries me more than anything about all this stuff?
KEATON: It’s Covid. I’m more concerned. I keep my eye more on the Covid situation in the UK than anything. That will determine everything, and so that’s why I’m living outside the city here on 17 acres, staying away from everybody, because the Covid thing has got me really concerned. So, that’s my first thing about all projects. I look at it and go, is this thing going to kill me, literally? And you know, if it doesn’t, then we talk.
DEADLINE: So, we’ll call the Batman reprise a strong possibility. You’ve said you are not a real superhero fan, but you’ve worked in the genre from all angles. Starting with Batman, the first tent pole sized superhero from those movies with Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson. Then you did the satire of an actor typecast as a superhero, in Birdman. And then the villain with your Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming. You have the Morbius movie with Jared Leto, based on a Marvel comic. And now you are considering putting on the Batsuit that started it all. What’s with you and all these superhero movies?
KEATON: You know what’s interesting about the Vulture character? My knowledge of the lore of all these superhero lore comic book and culture is extremely limited, not for any reason except that it’s just limited. I thought, this’ll be fun. It fits into my life, and schedule, and Vulture I thought is really interesting. You’re talking to a guy who…I actually don’t know what I’m talking about, the culture of DC Comics and Marvel. But that character fit an element of dissatisfaction in the culture of the overlooked, especially among men. They feel like, hey, what about me? That whole anger thing. What I found interesting about this guy was, he made himself, worked hard and got somewhere. Only to see somebody who inherited wealth, who has all the toys, the advantages; it’s easy to see him say, yeah, I want to be this. What about me?
DEADLINE: You mean Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, who takes over the cleanup of the city and leaves your character in a rage…
KEATON: I had to make me, my business. I had to create this. I had to work hard to get here, and then a rich guy comes in and says, you know, I’m the hero, and my character is like, had you not brought it up, I would’ve gone on living my life just fine, but now that you pushed me…I found that interesting. I didn’t know if this was the character that’s been in a bunch of the comic books, but that’s an interesting guy. I’m fine being me, but if you’re going to put me in a corner, I’m going to do something about it.
DEADLINE: I remember the night after the New York Film Festival premier of Birdman, sitting with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his writers, and he said something about his aversion to superhero films that got picked up all over. He didn’t like people waiting to be saved, because the only thing in real life that approximates a superhero would be a government, and governments are sometimes tools for corruption and oppression. I respect his view, but at 60 years old, I am right there when the next Marvel movie comes out.
KEATON: Yeah, and just the technology involved is, like, mind-blowing. The Marvel people, I’ve got to say, they’re like a well-oiled machine. So with [the Batman reprise], I’m going to see what happens here. This is going to be kind of fun. We’ll see what happens. I think it’s kind of a drag we’re talking about it, and I’m like, do you really know what the hell you’re talking about? I mean, I could bullshit you, but…
DEADLINE: No, you did a good job there, not answering, but sort of answering. It sounds to me like you don’t overthink these things too much, philosophically.
KEATON: Yeah. Once I go, I don’t know, are we going this or not? They say, yeah, we’re doing it. Then I go, okay, now I’m going to overthink it, but until then, I don’t want to think about it.
DEADLINE: Wait until it’s a thing, depending on things like COVID…
KEATON: You want to say, like Joe Pesci from My Cousin Vinny…It’s a thing, but it’s not a thing.
DEADLINE: Worth just landed in a big deal with Netflix, and Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground. This was a movie that premiered at 2020 Sundance, and usually when a film sits unclaimed that long, that’s that. But this is going to be a big launch timed for the 20th anniversary of 9/11. For how long was that the plan?
KEATON: A long time. I’m fortunate enough to be successful at this, and be able to do something that might actually [help people]. Clean and Sober. I have people come up to me all the time and talk about that movie and how much it helped them. When I did My Life, I did it because I thought, if this helps five people, this is worth it to me. Worth is one is those. It falls in that column, and then we went and made it, and when it went to Sundance, the response was good, but we all thought timing is important, and so when they said let’s wait for the anniversary, I said, good idea. And now that the Higher Ground has come forward with Barack and Michelle Obama, and Netflix, well, it was the smart thing to do, to hold onto that movie.
DEADLINE: What part of playing Kenneth Feinberg most interested you? That was a tough job he took on, assessing the value of lives lost in the 9/11 terror attack…
KEATON: So, the interesting thing about Ken Feinberg is, he thought, I can do this, it’s the right thing to do. That takes a big ego to think you could pull that off. Then he got into it, he went, holy moly, I now realize the emotional toll. How do you determine the monetary value of lives lost?