Acting, Michael Keaton has long maintained, “is an act of pulling your pants down.” And for the film that one-and-all have labeled his “comeback,” “that’s literally true.”
For “Birdman,” the one-time Batman plays a has-been actor, bitter and a little crazy after all the years that have passed since his days of fame and fat paychecks. So Riggan Thomson adapts, directs and stars in a stage drama on Broadway. It isn’t going well. He’s hearing voices, the growl of his former superhero character. His co-star (Edward Norton) is a nut. The critics are sharpening their knives for opening night. And then he gets locked outside the backstage door, his robe is ripped off and he has to make his way through Times Square in nothing but his tidy whities.
“This is CERTAINLY not a vanity project,” Keaton says, laughing. “Riggan has gone to seed. You’ve got to commit to saying, ‘Oh, this guy is going to look rough around the edges. Should I?'”
The Keaton trotting gingerly through “The Crossroads of the World” wasn’t the lean Dark Knight of the ’80s, with something like a full head of hair. His Riggan is paunchy, balding and wears 60-plus years on his face (Keaton just turned 63). But co-writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Babel”) says he was the only man for the job.
“It was very brave for Michael to get this naked emotionally and physically for a movie,” Iñárritu says.
That’s a word critics are hurling at Keaton like never before — “brave.” Because “Birdman” blurs the line between where the one-time Batman actor ends and the Birdman begins, part of a “metadialogue” Iñárritu says he wanted to inject in his movie about celebrity and the crazy reputation that can come with it. Edward Norton, an actor famous for being “difficult,” plays a co-star famous for being difficult. And an actor for whom, as The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane put it, “the Bat-Mantle…rested uneasily on (his) shoulders” plays an actor driven a little crazy by a role he played decades before.
“You just do it, have the (testicles) to say ‘This is who I am right now, in this moment,” Keaton says. “Warts and all, you know?”
His post “Batman” years — Keaton played him twice — weren’t necessarily bad. But Keaton was infamously touchy about discussing the role. Pair him up in a romantic comedy (“Speechless”) with Christopher “Superman” Reeve” and all tact flew out the window. He’d had enough, and he earned the reputation as somebody you didn’t want to interview. Even now, he doesn’t start stammering until that past is brought up.
“You’re-you’re-you’re talking about the bigger picture, me playing ‘Batman,’ having that history,” he says. Iñárritu created “Birdman” with Keaton in mind, but Keaton claims he had no idea that was the case. “Early on, to me it was just a part that maybe ten or eight or five guys would have been right for — guys who’ve played characters like ‘Batman.’ But I think he settled on me earlier than I realized. I read Alejandro saying it was always for me after making the movie.We never discussed how much of me he saw in this guy.
“Yeah, I played ‘Batman,’ but what else did he see in me that says ‘Riggan?’ It’s totally OK with me, but I think he gave me more credit for thinking I’d get the connection. That didn’t hurt me or help me. It was a non-issue for me. I’m an actor — so you know, you know — to some degree you have to identify with a part, no matter how crazy he comes off. Not much, in this case. I’m not that personality type, but I’ve played other extreme characters. In ‘Desperate Measures,’ I was a vicious killer and I’m not that personality type either.”
Keaton always seemed too cool to sell out, which explained his gripes about decades of Batman questions. But the testiness has faded, perspective has kicked in. An actor who most fondly remembers his most comically extreme characters — Dogberry in “Much Ado About Nothing,” Joe Stumpo in HBO’s “Clear History” — got a great part, one he was born to play, in a critically-acclaimed Oscar contending film. It’s all good. Now.
“I’m human. So your experience makes up who you play. And I’ve experienced despair. I’m not at that desperation part of my career, so I don’t think like that…You’re human, so you’ve had disappointment, emotions like everyone else. I related to that.”
But that one big hurdle, the Times Square Tidy Whities Scene, would be the test. Check your vanity at the door.
“Alejandro kept insisting at lunch or dinner that I clean my plate. He was ATCHING me. Looking at the plate, then looking up at me, and pushing the plate at me. ‘You need to keep eating.’ I did the best I could. The guy’s not looking as fit as he used to.”
But the director, after giving his star a paunch and taking away any hint of his vanity, had a heart. With the modest budget of “Birdman,” they’d have to shoot in Times Square at night, on the fly. He figured out a way to protect his 60something star from ridicule.
“I came up with the idea of hiring a drums band, getting them to set up in the middle of the square,” Iñárritu remembers. “I needed a distraction. We didn’t have money for a lot of extras. Those are real people, and I did not want ALL of them staring at Michael. It’s embarrassing enough. But we did it, got away with it. And look how brave he was!”
(Read Roger Moore’s review of “Birdman” here)