After big festival bows at the Venice, Telluride and New York film festivals, Alejandro González Iñárritu's “Birdman” finally opens in limited release this week. Michael Keaton is well on his way into the awards spectrum this year, but his co-stars deserve some looks, too, and none more so than Edward Norton, whose mercurial method actor Mike Shiner lights up the screen every time he's on it, and might be the best thing he's done since “Fight Club” and “American History X.”
Norton's a pretty soft-spoken and thoughtful guy, but confident in his perspective. He has a reputation for taking a major part in the creative process when he can, and Shiner has that shade, too. You're free to consider that more or less than a footnote; the meta discussion around the film will continue to be as overstated or understated as it needs to be to fit this or that think piece. But it's part of the bedrock of the material regardless and is sort of the special sauce that adds an intangible spark.
Norton and I recently talked about that meta angle, working with Michael Keaton after growing up on “Night Shift” and a whole lot more. Plus: Can you believe it's been 15 years since “Fight Club” and the landmark film year of 1999? We talked about that, too. Read through the back and forth below for more.
“Birdman” opens in limited release Oct. 17.
HitFix: You're on fire in this thing. Your character has a sort of energy that's magnetic throughout. Was it difficult to stay “on,” given these long takes, or did shooting it that way actually help you maintain the energy?
Edward Norton: I would say definitely the latter of those. I actually, generally speaking, think most actors would agree that when you make a film in the “normal” way, which is to say very fragmented, you know, broken up into many alternative coverages of the same thing and scenes broken in half – there's an enormous challenge of concentration in that. It's almost what I would call the fundamental challenge of film acting, is, like, maintaining not only your concentration but also the through line of whatever you're playing, because it's so hard to get a sustained rhythm going, you know? And the way that Alejandro shot this film it just — whatever else it might have demanded in terms of more rehearsal or more preparatory work, in the actual doing of it there was so much more freedom to live into the fullness of the scenes and I thought that was wonderful.
Have you been looking for something like this lately? Not specifically this, but just something that sort of felt like it didn't have a safety net?
I don't think anyone can say they were looking for this because it's such an audacious and original idea flowing very specifically from Alejandro. I think that as a general statement, yeah, you know, these types of things are – not to overstate it – but they're sort of the types of projects that, when you get into this whole enterprise of making movies and stuff – I mean I guess there are some people who do it for different reasons but if you're drawn to films by the experiences you had when you were younger seeing films that had a huge impact on you or were just wildly creative or, you know, opened up your sense of how film could be bent as a form of expression, then when you hope and aspire to do some things that kind of reach for that same standard. So it's just delightful when things come along.
Actors are both sort of trapped within a certain lack of autonomy – because if you're just acting in something, a lot of the authorship of it is coming from others – and yet at the same time we get to move through more things, you know, change our skin and jump into different sorts of projects more fluidly. And I don't think anybody can expect everything you do is going to be of the same caliber. But you do hope that if you're careful with your choices and if you cultivate it, at least a few times here and there you can have the opportunity to get engaged in something that's really special and, not to say groundbreaking, but at least it's original and substantive and all the best things. And so I've been lucky over the years to work with people on a lot of things that fit that, but I'm always delighted when someone comes along like Alejandro with a great, great, great, great, very, very creatively bold idea and says, “You know, I'd love you to dive into this.”
How well did you think the film captured the theater environment?
It's actually somewhat amazing to me that these four guys, none of whom are what I'd call native New Yorker theater people – they nailed so much of it. Actually, I'm still mystified by how well they captured it.
Michael Keaton is sensational in this and I really feel like the movie captures his versatility and all he can do in a single role. It's a great reminder, if needed, of that range. Can you just talk about working opposite him?
That was wonderful. I mean early in the rehearsals, I remember Zach [Galifianakis] and I kind of caught eyes at one point and sort of grinned, just because, you know, we grew up on “Night Shift” and “Beetle Juice.” I'm old enough to remember when HBO was sort of, you know – you had to flip through the guide to see what was on in the rotation. And my friends and I would, like, fold the corners over the pages, like, you know, “'Night Shift's' on at 11 on Thursday and it's on at 3am on Friday morning.” And we watched that movie over and over and over again, mostly because he was so – he just had this tossed-off kind of cool. He seemed to sort of know what was up, you know? It's hard to explain the unique kind of quality he had but it was a very different kind of cool for us at that age. And even though, you know, of course he was the Batman of our youth, but not in a way like with Riggan, his character [in “Birdman”], where he's sort of trapped. I always thought Michael Keaton, the things he had done that were so definitive and interesting were so wide-ranging. So I've always associated him from my growing up with so many other things as much as with “Batman.”
Absolutely, though I have to ask – and I can ask Michael this, I guess – but when the movie played Venice it seemed like the idea was, you know, “I'm OK with the elephant in the room.” And now there seems to be some distancing from that positon.
I mean, I couldn't say in his case. It might be just, you know – there's an understandable and maybe necessary kind of reductivism that comes into the way the media covers something like this. It's obviously any easy kind of three lines of copy to talk about the obvious fun parallels between him and that character. But I think, to my mind at least, it kind of does stop there, not only because his career is so much more expansive than the character he plays but also because if you've spent one day with Michael you can tell he's not at all like that guy. He's just so grounded. His life is a lot bigger than his career. He's a very happy, very discerning, very, you know – it's like Riggan's an alternative universe version of maybe what someone, an actor like Michael, could have become. To me it actually is only more of a compliment to his performance that he kind of spins off that superficial riff on his own career and creates this character who really is noble but in the end revealed to be sort of a guy who has tortured himself with the excesses of his ego, or the fallibilities of ego and stuff like that. And what I love about his performance is how little he does what I would call like, you know that thing where actors sometimes protect a character or protect a performance? They sort of want to show you their dysfunction but in a way that makes sure that you like them, and I feel like he doesn't do that. It's like he takes it right down to the raw nerve. And the breakdown that the guy is having by the end is, you know – you realize he's really kind of done this to himself. And a lot of the things people are saying about him in the film are on target. He hadn't been victimized by others so much as he has been victimized by his need for approval. I think there's ways you can calibrate that kind of thing, and I think Michael really didn't flinch from the less admirable qualities of the guy.
If you look at a scene like the one where he's saying to his wife that he was on the flight with George Clooney and all he could think about was “x.” There's a lot of ways you could spin that so that it's being said in kind of self-aware way, and therefore it's a little more charming, a little more rueful. And he didn't do that. He says it like he's real upset and needy, and so that the look that Amy Ryan gives him and she's like, “Now I remember why we broke up.” It's a nuance thing but if someone plays that a little more coy, it's a very different thing, if you feel like they're aware of their own problem. But to go ahead and just play it in a way where you're like, “Wow, this guy really, really doesn't see the forest for the trees.”
Did you see anything of yourself in your character?
I think he's sort of similar. I think there's sort of the superficial, obvious things of being an actor and being a New York actor and stuff like that. But I never really relate. I've never done a character in my life that I used myself as a reference point. I tend to be more interested in studying other people, and I also just think it's more my methodology, to sort of mimic or draw off other things. I'm happier building something out of other reference points, so there were people when I was young and getting fascinated by theater, like actors who were really famous New York theater actors – one of whom was a pretty famous sort of alcoholic anarchist. And I drew on stories I'd heard about one or two of these legendary, combustible – but talented – figures that I was enraptured by when I was young, and that was a lot of fun.
You're also in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” this year, so I'd love to ask you, after “Moonrise Kingdom” and this, what have you gotten out of your collaborations with Wes Anderson?
It's delightful. It's like being part of a repertory company, you know? It really is. But I would say, for me, these two experiences were very similar in that regard. I think Wes and Alejandro both create a really unusual sense of camaraderie and of an ensemble. They draw people into an intimate collaboration in a very conscious way. And sometimes movies don't fall together by default or, you know, they act like planets within a universe but orbiting around each other. And Alejandro and Wes both really cultivate that conscious sense of group collaboration, not only with the cast but with the whole crew. And I love working that way. It fulfills a kind of romantic notion I think lots of actors have when they get into the business of the community of the whole thing. And I think they both, Wes and Alejandro, in very different ways, really get something unique out of people because of the way they work. Plus, no one's doing their movies for money, you know? Wes is making movies for cheap, Alejandro is making movies for even cheaper and everyone just sort of has to come together around these things because they believe in them and that, too, I think, creates a different energy. I admire both of them and honestly I think they're both among my peers among people that I came up in the same period with. I think they're both two of the most consistently personal and authentically original filmmakers in the time I've been working in film.
And I'll close with this. You talked about wildly creative films that open up doors of self expression. I think David Fincher's “Fight Club” qualifies. Can you believe it's been 15 years?
Yes and no. Time always goes by fast but at the same time, I don't know. There was a feeling in that premillennial moment of certain anxieties and I think a certain sense of uncertainty about the way that the technological sort of highly franchised world was metastasizing around us. I love the film but it does feel like it was born in a moment that is sort of, you know, feels a little more distant.
It was part of an outstanding year, 1999, and all of that seemed to have come to a head.
Yeah, I remember – I think I've said this but I remember reading some interview with the really great screenwriter William Goldman, who definitely has been a part of many great generational films. But I was sort of pissed off by a certain snarkiness that he had about, you know, “How come no generation has stepped up to make really defining films like those of the sort of 1967 to 1975 era?” And, you know, kind of went through the list and almost said like, “Where are the filmmaker like these people and where are the actors like these people?” And I remember thinking, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
1999 was like “The Matrix,” “Fight Club,” “Three Kings,” “Election,” “Magnolia”…
“Being John Malkovich”…
“Being John Malkovich.” I was like, pick any year between '67 and '75 with that many people who became their generation's best auteurs. That, to me, felt like someone who was having a hard time getting his films made. And I kind of think this year is pretty great, too, you know?
It's shaping up to be more interesting than I anticipated, honestly.
There's “Grand Budapest” and Richard Linklater's film and Fincher's film and Paul Thomas Anderson's film and Bennett Miller's film. A lot of directors and actors are doing tremendously terrific work, I think.
It feels like we might be building toward another one of those moments, actually.
Yeah everybody's always saying like, you know, “Franchise films are taking over,” but then lo and behold, you get the kind of films that are coming out this year and I just – I think it's a thing people like to write but the truth is there's a lot of very exciting work going on right now.
I totally agree. All right, man. I'll cut you loose. Thanks for talking today.
Okay, yeah, sure.
Have a good one.
Have a good one. Bye.