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Michael Keaton Soars To Heights of Award Season Through Birdman

Updated: May 7, 2023


Michael Keaton at New York Comic-Con 2014.

Michael Keaton Soars To Heights of Award Season Through Birdman

by Brad Balfour

Of all the Mexican new wave directors who emerged in the ’90s, Alejandro González Iñárritu always pushed the envelope further than cohorts Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro. He does so once again with Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance), a dark comic tragedy co-written with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo that was the closing night film at last year’s New York Film Festival.

Few films deconstruct the effects of mega stardom in such a unique way, with its long singular tracking shots, hallucinatory superpower sequences (exhibiting levitation and telekinesis), and fourth wall-breaking monologues.

Famous for portraying iconic superhero Birdman, actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) struggles to mount a Broadway play. He sees it as a form of redemption from having played this one-dimensional character in three mega-hit films.

In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego, family miasma, his career record and himself. While doing the play, Thomson copes with neurotic co-stars — particularly the difficult and demanding Mike (Edward Norton) and the insecure Lesley (Noami Watts). He also has to deal with his  on-again/off-again girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), close friend/manager/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and daughter Sam (Emma Stone).


If any actor could possibly play Thomson, Keaton was the man. The Pennsylvania native has had the kind of career the film deconstructs — in and out of the media spotlight, coping with and running away from the mayhem of Hollywood.

Keaton’s own career turns have, at times, been surreal. He’s gone from being known as a great comic actor to a favorite of wacky director Tim Burton. Burton transformed him from the cranky miscreant ghost Betelgeuse (in Beetlejuice) into an emblematic Batman. Keaton (and Burton) evolved the franchise, then left it before it become a self-parodied costumed-geek series.

Keaton himself has been in the wilderness. Literally, he lives far away from the spotlight on his Montana ranch. Being tapped for this part has brought the 63-year-old actor back into the spotlight but also at the forefront of the awards season. He has already won a Best Actor Golden Globe and several other awards, and is currently in the running for the Best Actor Oscar.

Thomson wonders in Birdman whether he has the talent or insight to be the both the actor and artist he believes he can be. So has Keaton. Playing Batman made him an iconic figure, one that could earn the big bucks just if he wanted to (working the conventions; reprising his iconic Tim Burton-directed roles). But he has shied away from Hollywood, instead trying directing (The Merry Gentleman) or doing interesting indies (Game 6 based on a Don DeLillo story).

Besides, few films that address superhero worship actually star two people — Keaton and Edward Norton (who starred as The Incredible Hulk) — who have played two superheroes that stirred fan obsession.

This Q&A is culled from a Birdman press conference at NYFF 2014, the 2014 New York Comic-Con Birdman panel and some remarks to the press after his Golden Globes win.


What does your amazing career resurgence feel like for you? 

How does it feel…??? It feels good!

How did you get involved with Birdman?

I got a call that Alejandro [González Iñárritu] was making this movie. When I asked what it was about, I was already working on another movie. [The producers of that film] said, “Unfortunately, you can’t fly home because you’re in the middle of this movie.” But when [Alejandro’s] name was mentioned, I thought, “Well, maybe I should find a way to fly home.” I was a big, big fan of his movies. So, I flew home.

They couldn’t tell me what it was about. Now that I’ve done the movie, I understand why they couldn’t explain it, because I’m not sure what happened. I went and had dinner with him. It was very pleasant and really interesting. [Alejandro] is a really interesting, extremely passionate guy, which is contagious. At the end of the meeting, he said, “Here, read this.” It took me about 27 seconds to decide, “Yeah, I probably want to do this.”

What do you think of the Riggan Thomson character? Is he crazy? Is he depressed? 

The character is Alejandro, so you should ask him… No, the character is really one of the most difficult things I’ve done. Not in terms of the character necessarily, but in terms of how the film was made. Within sometimes 30 or 49 seconds, you have to surf a lot of different emotions and fit them into this giant picture. Because this picture is always shifting and moving, and it’s got so many levels, therefore, it was really, really difficult. But I like that. I like “difficult” most of time…


Did the director make you suffer?

He tried. I go through what Alejandro goes through, the same thing. I think, “You’re the greatest. You’re wonderful.” The difference is, I go, “No, you’re actually more than that, Michael.” (jokingly) It keeps getting bigger.

There’s a lot of underwear shown in Birdman…

That’s Alejandro. (Smiles)

What were rehearsals like?

In this, as hard as it was, and as grueling as it could be, we had the luxury of saying the words over and over again. As you start to hear them, being in a play, you go, “Oh, I never heard that line coming out of my mouth.” You find another level to it, without sounding totally pretentious and obnoxious. That was a great luxury to have. It was hard, though.


Riggan clashes with an influential Broadway critic. You were also involved with a movie called Game 6, which also dealt with how a critics can affect a Broadway show. What are your thoughts on how critics can affect careers?

This is where I’m a dope. I make it really simple. The first play I ever did, in Pittsburgh, someone walked up and said, “Hey, I read the thing in the paper. Someone said you were real good” or something like that. I hadn’t even thought of that part. I still often don’t think of that part. What I thought originally was, “You should be courageous and read everything.” I did that a couple of times. Then I thought, “I don’t want to do that anymore.” That’s just miserable, so I don’t really bother. I just don’t do it.

Admittedly, when someone says, “Hey, you got a really nice review,” I’ll read it. I’m willing to make myself feel better. I ain’t going to fight that. It’s real simple for me. I think — unless I’m really stupid here, and there’s a strong possibility that’s true — I’ve basically been treated fairly. But I’m the wrong person to ask. There’s probably a lot of you out there going, “Oh no, you haven’t.” I think it’s been pretty fair. I don’t know. I’m the wrong guy to ask. By the way, I really liked Game 6. That was a Don DeLillo story.


Is this a movie about a man going through a crisis/breakdown, or is he kind of becoming enlightened?

Not “kind of.” There’s no “kind of” about it. It’s tricky. I don’t want to be coy by saying, “I don’t want to give away too much.” I really don’t, because it would be unfair, frankly. But yeah, that’s the thing that you get. I’m in the movie and I read the script. I did all the discussions. I did all the rehearsals. Yet when I saw it, I go, “Wow, he had to go that crazy to get that sane.” He had to go that crazy to find that little sweet spot.

How would you describe Birdman to people who haven’t seen it?

When people ask me, I always tend to say, “It’s not like anything you’ve ever seen before.” Then I say, “No, literally, it’s not like anything you’ve seen before.” It’s not just a glib expression. I don’t know that I’ve seen any of my movies in ten years, outside of looping and little bits and pieces. But I’ve seen this movie two-and-a-half times…. I’m going to watch it all the way through tomorrow [at its premiere]. And I’ll watch it many, many times after.

I was watching it the other day, and I kept looking at the screen. I noticed things that I didn’t really get [before]. I think, “Man, I could love this movie.” Then you realize, “Wait a minute. I’m in this movie.”


Did you get to keep your Birdman costume?

No, and what a great idea! How stupid am I not to keep one of those? Now I’m thinking of a way to get one.

The superhero genre is part of the debate about and within this film. Having starred in superhero films — Batman and Batman Returns — what did you think of them? 

When Tim [Burton] called and I took the original Batman script home, I was mostly unfamiliar with the superhero books. [I] wasn’t that big a comic book reader. I thought, “I can’t imagine anyone making this movie the way I see the character, but I’m sure glad to read it.” I told Tim what I thought. Tim was just nodding, his long hair going up and down. He was smiling and looking excited. I said, “Okay, they’re not going to make that, are they?” He said, “I don’t know. Let’s find out!”


Would you star in another superhero movie in the future?

[I’d have to ask,] Who’s directing, what’s the cast and is the script good? What’s it all about [before I could say.]

You’ve always given spectacular performances, especially in comedies like Night Shift where you were cutting your comedic teeth. In a movie like that as opposed to a movie like Birdman, do you approach them the same?

When I saw Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I had seen this kid as a young guy. Holy moly! This guy’s approach to comedy was so good and authentic. I called and said, “I saw this guy in this movie. I want to do a movie with him.” As it turns out, he was this wonderful actor Sean Penn. He happened to be funny. But what I dug about it was how authentic it was. Jonah Hill is the same way, so committed to the comedy. So I approach them the same: Do your homework and go to work.

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: February 15, 2015.

Photos 1-3 ©2014 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

Photos 4-8 ©2014. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.

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