“Birdman” flies into theaters this weekend, and with it comes one of the year's most finely tuned and vibrant ensembles. Indeed, as wonderful as Michael Keaton is in the leading role, and as much as actors like Edward Norton and Emma Stone stand out on the periphery, one of the unsung stories of the film is how well the cast jumped through the hoops of production, turning out an incredibly organic community performance.
That was one of the main topics of discussion when I hopped on the phone with actress Andrea Riseborough recently. It was just hours before the film's big New York Film Festival premiere, which she said felt like a homecoming for all involved as they shot “Birdman” just a few blocks away at the St. James Theater in April of 2013. We talked about that camaraderie, the film's humanist theme of seeking love and approval and working with the likes of Keaton, Naomi Watts and filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu. Read through the back and forth for all that and more.
“Birdman” opens in limited release on Oct. 17.
HitFix: Are you excited for the New York premiere?
Andrea Riseborough: Oh, I'm really, really excited. We filmed in the St. James Theater in the center of town. And a little bit in the Astoria studios in Queens. And now we're all back. It's a reunion and it was such an ensemble.
That is a perfect segue to my first question. You're amazing.
This is one of the better ensembles of the year. What was the environment like on set between all of the actors?
There were two things running through my mind as we were shooting. One was Charles Mingus, because Alejandro had given me these CDs, like heady jazz. Charles Mingus wasn't on those CDs but personally I love Charles Mingus and so really inadvertently a kind of like heady, erratic score just kept coming into my mind as we were winding in and out of the entrails of the backstage set of the theater. It's so claustrophobic and hot; you feel New York City, I think, when you watch it. And it felt like that when we were shooting it. There was a pace and an energy that the city brought to what we were making. And it was choreographed as almost like a dance because we had long sections that we were trying to achieve at once. And Emmanuel Lubezki, our incredible DP, I mean he really was like an acrobat. The stuff that he was achieving in this incredible 360 spectrum was mind blowing, and that involved all of us; none of us could drop the ball for a second. In a strange way it was like being a sports team because we were behind and then in front of the camera. We had to know exactly the time that we were coming in. Alejandro described it more than once like an orchestra, you know? You can't have a, you know, you can't deliver a wonderful score with bad musicians. And so we all had to be on our A game.
So it was nerve-wracking but it was also hilariously fun, waiting behind wings, waiting behind pieces of set and in doorways and under tables ready to pop out. It was kind of the only way that we could achieve it, so it was really a groundbreaking way of working.
I asked this of Edward Norton, too, but when you've got Chivo running around with his crew and everything, does that make it difficult to stay focused or does it kind of keep you alive and in the moment?
What really helped with that were the three weeks that we had of rehearsals prior to shooting. We shot for about 30 days but actually rehearsed for three weeks before that. So it very much felt like the rehearsal process was as long as the filming process. Not as intense, because we were figuring things out. Essentially that was the time Alejandro was choreographing the steps. We rehearsed inside of a Los Angeles studio that was marked out exactly to the inch the way that the backstage at the St. James Theater is. So we were all negotiating pieces of tape, you know, and very much trying to imagine they were walls. And then negotiating our way around one another as well. We did that for such a long time that by the time that we actually came to shooting – of course things changed and the whole film, the whole piece was an ever-evolving beast. Alejandro's talent is that he's discovering the meaning of every single moment as he goes along. No moment's wasted. So that discovery was always happening, but we were freed up to focus on where we needed to be tonally, in terms of emotion and volume, in terms of whether we wanted to be very, very close to the camera or far away. It was all rehearsed, so we knew that was freeing in a way. It's like you learn in steps and you can forget about it and just relax and bring your own flare to them.
There's also that romantic notion of community in acting, so it's nice to have a project like this that really taps into that so potently.
I talked about this play a lot in reference to the film because it reminded me so much of it. We were doing “Ivanov” in the West End in London and Tom Hiddleston very kindly used to lead a warm up for us every night which was was lovely. It was a chance for the whole cast to get together and have a laugh before we went on. I was playing opposite Ken Branagh and I remember the day that we found out that Obama was elected – we used to do this warm up that Tom created that was called “Big Booty.” We had to jump around singing “Big Booty,” “Big Booty,” “Big Booty,” “Big Booty,” and like shake our ass. And all of us were a wreck in London's West End on those days jiggling our asses about. It was ridiculous – including Ken Branagh, if you can imagine that. And the day that Obama got elected, you know, one of many moments I remember in my life where I shared it with a company of actors in a theater. And we all danced around the stage, and instead of “Big Booty” we said “O-bama,” “O-bama,” “O-bama,” “O-bama.” And so it just felt like a homecoming being in this film, because we really were a company of actors relying on one another. We were making a film about a production, a Raymond Carver adaptation, as you know. And it needed that kind of technical prowess, I think, to be able to handle doing it, really. Because when you're on stage and there's 1,500 people waiting out there before you're about to go on, there's not a lot of room for fucking up.
You only get that one shot at that moment. And of course we were filming long sequences as we were. We were filming them over and over again until Alejandro felt like we were in a place that every element was just as it should have been. But because the sequences were so long, it felt every time like you just didn't want to let it all drop. You didn't want to be the one jigsaw piece that ruined the puzzle, you know? The one reason that Alejandro had to shout “cut.” Nobody wanted to be that reason.
I've never really thought about that correlation between just the high of being live in front of a theater audience and needing to maintain that kind of focus without dropping the ball, and then the manner in which this was filmed. Even though it's right there.
Yeah, it's one of those like mind fucks if you think about it too much. Because it's also a film about a play that's being put on my film actors, you know? And there are so many elements going on. The play within the play. The film within the film within the play. And it gets so confusing. But in film anyway you're always reflecting life and vice versa.
Now you share a number of scenes with Michael Keaton. My point of view on this is that it showcases his versatility like no other role he's ever had. And I think this movie really forces people who maybe forgot about that to remember all the stuff this guy can do. So I just wonder if you could talk about working opposite him.
I mean Michael's work, as a kid for me, was so formative. He was one of the only actors really in comedy who was putting his neck on the line every second, you know? The man has a big pendulum swing, you know? Like he has a big range, a big palette to draw from, and he has so many unusual and interesting responses. To me the way that Michael responds is just very human. Humans are inconsistent. We are erratic. We have unusual responses and inappropriate responses to things. And Michael is – I always admired him for just being unafraid of showing that. And I think that's what makes his comedy so funny and so brilliant. Because we all identify with him. We all identify with a crisis. And I think in this film, what's really true is when you watch him, you identify with Riggan's humanness with his feelings of inadequacy, with him wanting to make a mark on the world and wanting to do it in a substantial way. But then confusing that need for affirmation or admiration with love. And I think that's such a human condition; it's not specific to an actor. We're all trying to make our mark. He conveys that beautifully.
That's very true. And then just working with Alejandro. This is a very unique situation for both the actor and the director to be in, but how did he strike you?
When I met him on the street corner for a cup of tea and I was praying that he would offer me the job, I told him that I would crawl across hot coals to work with him. I remember when I was at drama school and I went to see “21 Grams” and there were two things: one was Alejandro and the other thing that stands out in my mind is Naomi [Watts]. But I remember when I went to see it, me and a friend of mine who was also a writer. We bought a whole load of snacks before. I don't know why. You know drama students, who are hungry! I don't know how we bought them because we had no money. But I don't think we ate anything.
Not really a popcorn kind of movie.
I think from the moment that the film started, it was like a guttural reaction to what he was saying. In such an interesting way, this film reflects our time in such an unexpected way. And making it I had no idea that watching it later, objectively, that's how I would feel about it. But when I got through watching “Birdman,” I felt how incredible that he's managed to put his finger on so many things that we are troubled with, you know, in these two thousand and teens – whatever you call them. I don't know what you call our era at the minute.
Yeah, I don't either.
Whatever time we're in. All those unarticulated, subconscious thoughts. And one of the other things I love about this film is how much we all live in our heads, how Michael's character, Riggan, you get to see how relieving it is for him to be in his head, and then what a relief it is to get outside on the street and out of that claustrophobic theater and go to a different place where he doesn't have the responsibilities of an ex-wife and my character, Laura, a girlfriend, and a daughter, Emma's character.
You mentioned “21 Grams” and Naomi. Now 10 years later you're working with her in this film. So I hate to keep asking “what was it like working with so and so,” but there are so many people to talk about regarding this movie that it kind of becomes a default question. But a lot of your scenes are with Naomi as well, so…
Naomi and I had a lot of fun. We had a really, really good time. I think probably we laughed more than anything with each other, you know? We spent a lot of time together. And I really like the relationship that my character Laura and Naomi's character Lesley have because I think through Lesley's experience with Mike, Ed's character, Laura realizes that the thing that she's looking for, love – from Riggan – is really never going to be fulfilled. And that she, too, is confused. That want for admiration with love. In so many ways, all of the characters in the film are looking for love, whether they're conscious of it or not, I think.
That does seem to be the case. Well thank you so much for talking today. I've seen this movie twice already and I just love it. I saw it at Telluride and I saw it here in LA.
Oh, that's so wonderful. It's always great to hear people have gone to Telluride. I was talking to somebody about it the other day, a director, and she was saying, you know, it's the real film lover's festival, Telluride. “If you go to Telluride you really love film.”
You've got to go. It's so fun and there are always so many wonderfully curated little sidebars that don't pertain to new releases. There's a sense of history there.
Oh, how wonderful.
But good luck with the release and congratulations.
Thank you very much. Lovely to talk to you, Kris. Have a great day.