Michael Keaton on ‘Birdman’: “I can’t tell you how hard it was. I like hard; it keeps me interested”

Michael Keaton in Birdman

When director Alejandro González Iñárritu announced that Michael Keaton would star in his film Birdman about a former superhero actor attempting to revive his career with a Broadway play, many assumed that it would be a self-parody of Keaton’s career. After all, Keaton starred as the title character in 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns. However, Birdman goes so beyond that self-parody concept that it actually has very little to do with Keaton’s past work as Batman. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Keaton explains why he actually doesn’t relate to his Birdman character, comments on the difficult shooting process of the technically marvelous film, and what he thinks of the awards buzz that the film is generating.

Despite the fact that Keaton’s Birdman character, Riggan Thomson, is also an ex-superhero actor, Keaton says he doesn’t relate to Riggan’s craving to be admired and respective. He reveals, “I’ll bet a lot of actors might understand what I’m talking about. I never wanted to be subject to people’s whim. I figured, ‘This career is going to be really hard, but it’s what I’ve chosen to do for a living.’ Actually, I don’t know if I thought about it consciously. I just learned very quickly it was hard! But the one thing I was always clear on was: I never wanted the determining thing to be, ‘Am I good? Am I not?’ You hear someone say how much you sucked in something, and you think ‘Oh boy, that hurt.’ But I’ll give myself a little credit for working hard to not be subject to that. Therefore I really don’t know Riggan. I worked hard to work out of [that] fear, and this is an industry based on fear. That said, every year I love acting even more, and it took me a long time. I would assume deciding to be an actor is a little bit like when one has to come out of the closet. Where I come from, the minute I said I wanted to be an actor, somebody would just punch me right in the face. (Laughs.) As I get older, I’m extraordinarily proud of it. But I never had a ‘I hope you love me’ thing, like this character has, so he felt really unsure to me. If I ever think like that, I’m dead. Once you swallow that pill, there ain’t no comin’ back.”

Since the film is cut to look like it is almost entirely made up of one continuous shot, Birdman features extremely long takes. Because some of those shots were done in New York’s Theater District, the film was incredibly difficult to coordinate. Keaton says, “I can’t tell you how hard it was. I like hard; it keeps me interested. But this was really, really hard. The movie wasn’t shot in sequence, which made it even harder. Here’s what we had to do: Because we didn’t have access to the theaters to rehearse, the movie is basically one long shot — even though we know it’s not just one shot — but there’s no editing. As an actor you don’t have the luxury of going, ‘Oh boy, that’s not really a good take.’ You get no break.”

Nonetheless, Keaton recalls the process as extremely difficult, but satisfying. He continues, “They started the process of walking through every shot and timed it by the foot. So you have to be spot-on with the dialogue, and then the prop guy’s gonna come out, and the stage manager is gonna be here. It was unbelievably accurate because by the time we got to New York to run through it, there weren’t many surprises. But we were all living in fear [during rehearsals]. You’re like, ‘Man, I really don’t want to be the guy who screws this up today.’ It was definitely the hardest thing I’ll probably ever have to do. Part of that makes me sad, because man, when am I going to get a chance to do something this challenging again?”

Because of Keaton’s fantastic performance in such a challenging film, there has been serious Oscar talk about for the first time in his long career. Keaton doesn’t go the route that most stars tend to go by not pretending that he is immune to the whispers. He admits, “I get a little spooked. I was talking to my friend the other day — I’m a big baseball fan and my friend is too — and he says, ‘You know this movie is a no-hitter right?’ I’m stupidly transparent. I just do the f—ing job. Keep my head down, go to work and deal with the other part later. So I guess we’re going to deal with the other part now! But I’m not dumb. I hear those things and go, ‘OK, it’d be awesome, it’d be great, it’d be tremendous!’ And if it doesn’t happen I’ll go, ‘OK, whatever.’ And I’ll just keep doing what I do, which is sometimes kind of good, sometimes not very good, sometimes stupid, and sometimes really pretty good.”

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