Michael Keaton on Being Particular and Why He’s “Incapable of Phoning In” a Role

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Michael Keaton in The Protege

“I’m incapable of phoning anything in, I would love to phone something in… But I take what I do for a living seriously.” – Michael Keaton 

Michael Keaton may not have had as many high-profile roles as other actors of his generation, but he cannot be accused of not being serious about the roles he chooses. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter about his career, Keaton spoke about why he is so particular about his roles and how he gets invested in each character — no matter how significant the part is.

Keaton reveals that he picks his roles from a variety of projects because he fears “phoning” a role in. He explains, “Probably because I’m too frightened, I’m incapable of phoning anything in, I would love to phone something in. Trust me. I would like to just go, ‘Hey, I don’t know what the f—k we’re doing. Let’s just go have some laughs.’ But I take what I do for a living seriously.” In fact, Keaton even doubts his ability to act convincingly, later adding, “I have this thing like, ‘I wonder if I can pull that off? How much longer can I fool people?”

For example, Keaton appeared in a supporting role in the 2010 film The Other Guys as a police captain who (absurdly) moonlights at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Though Keaton’s character spends much of the film spouting one-liners, it was important to him to speak with the movie’s co-writers Adam McKay and Chris Henchy about the role. He remembers, “I said, ‘Hey, man, can I just spend an hour with you guys? Can we talk about my character?’ I’m sure they thought, ‘Oh, no. Is he crazy?’ [McKay] is like, ‘Look at the role. Don’t sweat it.’ But I thought, ‘I don’t care if I’m playing an amoeba, I have to know something, just give me anything. I promise you, after we spend 15 minutes, it’s all I need.’”

For Keaton, doing something different movie-to-movie is extremely important. His 2021 film The Protege is one of his first all-out action thrillers and includes a substantial amount of fight choreography. He reflects on that, saying, “I haven’t done that specifically, so I went, ‘Oh man, I don’t know. Go do it.’ I’d blow my brains out if I had to play the same thing all the time. I don’t think I’d be doing this anymore. First of all, people would have been so f—ing bored with me that it would have been over a long time ago. I also lose interest pretty quickly, which is not necessarily an admirable quality. It’s a combination of being curious, not to a fault, but almost obsessively. Also, the challenge. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work. But I will give myself a little bit of credit for hanging on this long and still doing that, and then that, and then that.”

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