Filming the black comedy Birdman for director Alejandro González Iñárritu was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of Michael Keaton’s career.
Keaton is Riggan Thomson an actor who once starred as Birdman, a comic book superhero, which brought him fame and wealth but damaged his credibility whilst inflating his ego. He was a huge star but now that star is on the wane. Keaton himself played The Caped Crusader in two Batmanfilms for Tim Burton.
Thomson is trying to ignite his flagging career and regain some credibility – and impress his troubled daughter Sam (Emma Stone) – by staging a Broadway production of a Raymond Carver short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Riddled with doubt and insecurity, Thomson’s fears are articulated by his alter ego – the Birdman character who appears, in full costume, to pour scorn on his efforts as a theatre director and actor and tells him, in no uncertain terms, that he is still a movie star who shouldn’t be wasting his time on a play.
When he loses his leading man in a bizarre accident, Thomson decides to recruit bad boy actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who is undeniably talented but insufferably arrogant and only adds to his insecurities as opening night approaches.
Shiner also flirts outrageously with Sam, causing even more tension between the two battling alpha males. Zach Galafianakis is pitch perfect as Riggan’s long-suffering agent Jake, who warns him that he’s in the last chance saloon and that his play needs to be a hit to save his career.
Andrea Riseborough is the neurotic Laura, an actress who is in a floundering relationship with Riggan who is less than thrilled with his reaction when she tells him that she might be pregnant. Naomi Watts is Lesley, an actress who, just to add to the mayhem, is in the play and in a difficult personal relationship with Shiner. Amy Ryan plays Thomson’s ex wife, Sylvia.
Keaton shot to stardom with a brilliant performance in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice in 1988. He was reunited with Burton when he played Bruce Wayne/Batman in Batman (1989) and reprised the role in Batman Returns (1992). His other films include Much Ado About Nothing, The Paper, Multiplicity, Inventing The Abbotts, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight, White Noise, Robocop and Need For Speed.
Did the film turn out how you’d hoped it would?
Yeah. You work on a project and you go, “I hope it’s good”. On that simplistic level, it was more than what I hoped. I knew it would be difficult – not just for me, or the actors, but for the entire enterprise. I thought, “Oh man, I don’t know if this is going to work, because this is really difficult to do. He [director Alejandro González Iñárritu] has no luxury of editing.”
Because of the long takes?
Yes, compounded by what Alejandro was trying to do, and then there were the effects. But to answer your question more succinctly, it’s not like it felt any differently than the way you hope any movie is a good movie, but as we were doing it I went, “Oh, it’s going to be really hard. I hope he can pull this off.” Then when I saw it – and by the way, you’re talking to a guy who’s only seen it once, and the first time you see it, you see it, but obviously you watch the movie and you’re watching your work, and probably criticising your work a little bit, so I’ll be curious to see it again – but I walked away going, “I just saw something that’s hard to explain to people”.
It sounds wholly pretentious when you say, “It’s not like anything else”, so when I tell people that, I go, “I mean, it’s not like I’m saying it’s so good that it’s not like anything else; I’m literally telling you, it’s not like another movie I can describe”. I just can’t think of a comparison. I love being part of something like that. If it was terrible I would still be proud that I was part of something like that. When I did Jackie Brown, and that character who exists in Elmore Leonard’s books popped up again in Out Of Sight, one of the reasons I did it was that I liked the idea of a guy popping up in a movie, and maybe he’ll pop up again in another movie. It’s kind of like he exists in the world, like you’re going to run into him at Marks & Spencer’s or something.
What intrigued you about this character?
Well, I may have related less to this character than any other. I know that’s the weird irony, but I don’t relate to him, except for the fact that he and I have the same occupation, and obviously he played a superhero and I played a superhero. I’m not afraid to talk about that because it’s right there, and because it’s right there, it was one of the easiest obstacles to jump over. When I read the description of the movie, I went, “Yeah I guess one would have to describe it for people to understand what the movie’s about”. But when they go in, they’re going to go, “Oh, there’s so much to this film”. So what did I like about the guy? As snivelling and pathetic as I think he is, and so unbelievably insecure, which I thought was great to play – and we catch him just at the worst part of his life – in the end, he’s really noble.It’s true, this guy, you can say what you want about him, but he was, in the end, quite courageous, and that’s where I guess the Don Quixote thing comes in.
Your character has been accidentally locked out of the theatre and you have to walk through Times Square in your underwear. That must have been an interesting scene.
This is the amazing thing about actors, I think – I think; I don’t know, I guess I’d have to ask other actors, but they just do these things but maybe you don’t take it in when you first read the script. You get this script and you’re reading it and you’re intrigued, you’re turning the page, and then he’s talking to Naomi and he’s talking to Zach about the play, and then he’s in the theatre, and reading, and he walks outside, and you’re laughing, you go, “Oh that could be pretty funny”, and you start to think, “Okay, I might have an idea of what to do there”, and you turn the page and he’s locked out, in his underwear, running through Times Square, and then you go to the next scene, and you read the whole thing, and you go, “Oh, that’s going to be funny”.
Then you start making the movie and you’re there, and you don’t even think about taking your clothes off and then when you’re about midway through, you kind of go,”Wait a minute, it never occurred to me that this was a crazy idea”. I mean, it did, but you went, “Oh that’s going to be funny, I think. I hope I can make that funny and be believable”, but you never once think, “Oh, I’ve got to talk to him about this.’ It never enters your mind that you might not want to do it. It’s so weird! And then you do it! And you’re running through it, and people are looking at you and you go, “Wait, I’m walking by people in my underwear, with little black socks on, in the middle of Times Square. This is insane!” and you go, “What happened to that part of my thought process?”
There were certain parts of the play that were difficult for me because, if you read the short story, I actually play a combination of the characters. You have to go, “Wait a minute, now this is a guy who is an actor, who is a director, who is playing two roles, so what is he thinking?” Also, you have to learn word perfect the entire script of the movie, but also, in that play, I wasn’t quite sure what everything meant, because I hadn’t read Raymond Carver up until then, and he’s a big Raymond Carver fan, Alejandro. Also, the part of the underwear scene that I did worry about was, “How am I going to play this once I get back into the theatre? I get what’s going on outside, but when I go back in, and I see my play falling apart and I’m outraged, but I’m in my underpants, how am I going to pull that off?” It’s an amazing scene.
Were there members of the public there for the filming of the Times Square scene?
Yeah, they’re there. I mean we had extras, but you can only have so many extras. Here’s a cool little side story. One of the last nights of the shoot was there, and one of the guys in the crew comes and he says, “Michael, come here”. He was with some guy who was walking by, on his way somewhere, and he goes, “Look, show him.” The guy puts out his arm and it is an astonishingly great tattoo all the way down his bicep and down his forearm of Beetlejuice. The likeness was unbelievable, on moving flesh. First of all I thought, “What kind of person would put Beetlejuice on their arm?’ But then I thought, This work is extraordinary’.” I mean it was like, crazy good. I was knocked out by how good it was, and I’m talking to the guy, staring at him like this, and he never recognised me. He didn’t put the two together.
He was just going like, “I don’t know why this guy wants to see my tattoo”. He wasn’t high or anything, he wasn’t like a weird dude – well maybe he was a weird dude – but I go, “Man, that’s cool!” and I keep expecting him to go, “Dude, I can’t believe this is happening”. But he just kept on looking at me like, “I don’t know why I’m doing this. Some guy wanted me to show another guy a tattoo. Whatever, I got to go to work.” He rolls down his sleeve, gets back on his bike and bolts, and I went, “That was the weirdest thing of the whole month”.
Did you know Alejandro beforehand?
No. I knew maybe all but one of his films. Man, I loved his movies. When I saw Amores Perros I thought, “Who are these guys making these kind of movies?” and Babel and 21 Grams and everything. I got a call from my agent who said that he wanted to meet, but she said, “I don’t see you doing this. You’re working on two movies”. I was doing Robocopand an HBO thing with Larry David. So I flew home for not even 24 hours. He and I had dinner and were just talking. We got to know each other, and he asked me certain questions and I asked him certain questions, and he started explaining the movie as best he could, but he couldn’t explain it all. He said, “Will you give me a ride home?” – because we live near each other. I said, “Sure”. He said, “Come round and I’ll give you the script”. He wanted to make sure I knew how he was going to make this, and what it was about, and to talk about the character. I didn’t really know if I was going to do it or not, or if he was going to make it or not. I just went back to work.
I didn’t know it, but he was going through a really hard time getting it financed because if you explain this movie to someone, not a lot of people would go, “Oh yeah, I’ll give you money for that.” I’m not sure I would have given him any money for that. So that took a while for him to pull that off, but he just kept on moving forward without telling anyone. It kind of came together at the last minute, and he was assembling the cast and then the next thing I know, we’re in rehearsals, which was an experience in and of itself, and then we were making the movie.
Was it an enjoyable process?
Extremely enjoyable because you were challenged every second. I’m not always excited about doing what I do. There was a long period where I wasn’t excited at all. I just didn’t think what I was doing was very interesting, and in fairness, it wasn’t just that I wasn’t interested. I wasn’t reading anything, or getting offered things that I thought were particularly great or interesting. I managed to go out and do something here or there, because you’ve got to stay somewhat involved until something comes along, and I’m fortunate that I did okay financially, and I’m half Scottish, so I’m good with my money.
Did you recognise these characters from the real world of show business?
Well, I didn’t really relate to the guy, but that doesn’t mean anything, because I didn’t really relate to other characters. Obviously I relate to some degree because I make a living the same way that this guy makes a living, and also because I know what it’s like to play the superhero. We all talked about how to play the theatre scenes, and that was really difficult. Should we be playing at theatre level, where you’re projecting? We all said, “Yes, we should”, and then when you see it on film, you go, “That looks weird, it doesn’t translate.” So we had to all make minor adjustments to make sure we looked like we were performing a play, but we had to bring the projection way down, because everybody was yelling.
All that modulation was interesting. I was looking at all the other actors and thinking, “Oh this is interesting, I guess these are all different types”’ but I don’t think there are any particular types of actors, necessarily. I suppose there are guys like Ed’s characters, but I’ve almost never had any experience with them. It’s unbelievable. I’ve been doing this for a long time now, to various degrees, and I can count on one hand the amount of jerky people I’ve known. Honestly, I’m being realistic.
How did the other actors approach their roles?
Naomi does stuff in here that is so subtle. I thought, “How do you play someone who is just getting their first big break?” Her character never really did much, and here you go, “This is Naomi Watts, this is a big movie star”. With Ed’s character, it was always about the work. If he had difficulty, or wanted to discuss things, it was always about trying to make something good, as opposed to being a dope or a jerk. He never did that, but his character did that. His character was full of ego. But that’s what’s great about this movie, it’s never one thing, because then you see the other side of that, you see the really nice part of Ed’s character. He’s got a lot of balls. One of my favourite scenes is that Gordon scene where he walks up to the critic and she’s criticising me and he, without my knowledge, stands up for me, and he stands up for actors, but what he stands up for is courage. I love that scene. When I see it I actually get a little chill. I’m not even in the scene, I just love it.
They’re all redeemable in a way.
Yeah, and the reason is not because Alejandro is afraid of making them unredeemed – he’s not afraid of anything, I don’t think – so I don’t think he did it to say, “Oh, they’ve got to be nice people at the end of the day.” I think it was more that people are human. They have all kinds of things. They’re horrible, they’re great, they’re sad, they’re loving, they’re giving, and they’re self-involved. It gets heightened a bit with actors because it can be a narcissistic profession, if you’re not careful. Although the weird thing is that actors, in my opinion, ironically are often the least narcissistic people.
Do you think actors are inherently insecure?
Yeah, extremely. It’s a job that, if you’re not careful, will feed that every day. It’s a job, essentially, based on fear. There are those that feel that the stage is the only place that they feel comfortable. I think they used to say that about Michael Jackson. That’s where he felt at home. Everywhere else felt odd.
You talked about pulling back from acting for a while. Was that because you grew tired of life on the stage?
I was out for a long time because I wasn’t offered anything that was very good. I was turning things down but it wasn’t like people were pounding on my door all the time either. It is what it is. It’s my job. I always knew it would be like this. It has its ups and it has its downs. I have a son who is very successful currently, but I’ve told Sean that himself. “Get ready dude, this is how it’s going to go. You’re going to go sideways, you’re going to drop down, you’re going to be ‘the guy’. That’s the journey. You picked it. That’s okay”. As a father, you wish he wouldn’t have. I’m happy because he always was a creative little dude, so I’m happy that he’s doing the thing that he wants to do, but then you go, “Man I’d like a steady income for somebody. I’d like to not have to worry that he’s going to be okay, and that everything’s going to be alright, or that he’s going to have a house”.