HOLLYWOOD – “Birdman” stars Michael Keaton and Edward Norton popped into the Egyptian Theatre Saturday morning for a conversation on acting in tandem with the on-going AFI Fest. It was an enlightening and at times heady discussion on the particulars of being an actor in show business and of course the unique opportunity of Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest film.
Early talk circled around each actor's introduction to the business and the moment when it clicked. Keaton, the youngest of seven (though he says nine, as his mother miscarried twice), grew up outside of Pittsburgh and wasn't discouraged at all from being a dreamer. He made his way to Hollywood with maybe $300 in his pocket after doing the comedy circuit in New York, hitting venues like the Improv and Catch a Rising Star and, on the west coast, The Comedy Store and Second City workshops. “You parked cars and tried to figure it out,” he said of making his way.
Norton, on the other hand, grew up with cultured parents and a mother who taught Shakespeare. He was introduced to theater at an early age and would watch films like “The Magnificent Seven” and “12 Angry Men” with his father. He was really bit by the bug in high school when he took a trip to Washington, D.C. and saw Ian McKellen's one-man show “Acting Shakespeare” at the Folger Theatre. “He would use the text and commentary to talk about artistic life, and it was so amazing,” he recalled. “It flattened me.”
Keaton did a bit of television and was eventually spotted on the comedy circuit by writer Babaloo Mandel, a friend of director Ron Howard's who made the recommendation. Howard cast the actor in “Night Shift” and the rest was history. Norton, however, hit the Hollywood scene nearly 20 years ago in “Primal Fear” as a complete unknown. He had worked closely with playwright Edward Albee on a New York play, the first occasion he can remember his career feeling “real,” but said he owes a debt to director Gregory Hoblit for seeing the virtue of an unknown in the 1996 Richard Gere drama, which builds to a jaw-dropping twist regarding Norton's character. “He was more interested in turbo-charging the value of the surprise than he was in the collateral of a name person,” Norton said. “I think that was ingenious.”
When asked how much the business has changed over the years, Keaton modestly suggested he wasn't the best person to ask (perhaps as someone who has maintained such a life removed from the fray), but he had an answer ready to go nevertheless. “It became real corporate real fast,” he said. “I couldn't give you the date, but I kind of know when I started noticing it. But let's face it, it always was. There's no sense in whining about it – there's no sense in whining about anything, in my opinion – but the world is pretty much a strip mall now and has been for a really long time. And then you just work from there; you have your anchor store and your anchor store is everywhere. Therefore, certain decisions, I think, in terms of casting someone or taking a chance, it starts to shrink up. But art is an amazing thing, and creativity is an amazing thing, and you can't kill it, which is beautiful.”
Norton agreed with the latter sentiment, though pushed back a touch in regards to any sense that interesting work has been snuffed out in favor of franchise suffocation. “People are always lamenting the end of interesting films and commercialism taking over, and it's sort of a lot of what is embedded into this film, but I came into the business in the mid-'90s and it didn't feel that way to me,” he said. “I remember Peter Biskind, when he was writing his book about independent film in the '90s, he called me and said, 'I gotta talk to you because I'm doing this book on independent films that came out in the '90s and you were in so many of them,' and I said, 'I've never been in an independent film. Every film I was in was made by the studio system. 'American History X' was at New Line and 'Fight Club' [was at Fox], all of the movies he wanted to talk about were at studios.”
He then went on to echo sentiments similar to those he gave in a HitFix interview in October about the films of 1999, of which “Fight Club” was a part. “I just don't get it when people say interesting films aren't getting made,” he said. “I just don't agree.”
Later in the discussion, Keaton was very candid about a particular scene in “Birdman” that completely caught him off guard and left him feeling vulnerable and worthless when it came time to shoot it. It's the last scene of the play being staged within the film, and without spoiling it, something drastic happens to close it out. “I suddenly realized I saw that very differently, after all this time, than Alejandro did,” Keaton confided. “The realization came to me, literally, as we were ready to go. Throughout the whole thing, when you had an opportunity to panic, which was always, you had to bear down and not. And I was doing pretty well at that until this moment, and I was caught. I was frightened. I thought, 'I'm lost. I don't have it. I can't find it.' And then, I found something, and so when I see that scene, I enjoy seeing it because I remember it all and it's kind of intense. Oddly I kind of like that.”
Added Norton, “I could see you were struggling, and not struggling bad, but you were discontent. We hit some zone it and it was fantastic. Sometimes a moment has so much import in it, it has so much significance, so many things for our character are reaching their total density that it's impossible – you're brain is your enemy at that point. There's so much complexity to it, the brain can't choose. But it's very difficult as an actor to leave those scenes behind, to walk away and go, 'I crushed that. We got it. Let's move on.' Those are the ones you're going to go until someone drags you out, because it's very difficult to content yourself. But it was very interesting to watch Michael, who had done one after another after another of a really compelling and kind of heart-rending version of it. I could see that there was just no way you were going to credit yourself with what was happening.”
Norton expanded on that point when asked what he wished a number of directors understood about acting that many simply don't. His answer: simplicity. “I think directors sometimes think that talking about the totality of the meaning of a moment, talking about the film they're trying to make, is going to be helpful to an actor, and it's the worst thing in the world,” he said. “There's a really famous story – I've always wondered if it was true – about Greta Garbo. There's a shot at the end of that movie called 'Queen Christina,' I think, and she's leaving her homeland on a ship and she's supposed to be staring at her homeland receding. All the emotion of the film is on her face, and she was apparently paralyzed with the inability to convey that. Supposedly the director said to her, 'Just stare at the wall and think about what you had for breakfast,' which, if you think there's something to what Eisenstein says about the theory of montage, I think it is really interesting for an actor to take that in. Because there are certain moments, especially in a close-up, where if you're doing too much, you're just going to murder it.”
Indeed, the onus is on the director to convey certain emotions, and it might not simply be in the construction of a scene in the edit. It might be about trying to find something while on the set in what can amount to trial and error. Norton told a wonderful story about “Birdman” that illustrated that point well:
“I remember the first scene [between the two of us], we were ripping into it and we were having a blast. I would say we were quite happy. And Alejandro came in and was very, very unhappy with what was going on. He was, you know, tearing at his hair and going, 'Guys, guys, guys.' He basically said, 'Everything that you're doing is the exact opposite of what this needs to be. I need it to go 180 degrees in a different direction. So it's like, 'Great,' so we did and we lit into it and did different things, and he came in and said, 'No, no, no. It's got to be 180 degrees in a different direction.' And in my mind I went, 'Well, that means going back to what we were doing before,' and I looked at [cinematographer] Chivo [Lubezki], because they have been friends since college, just, like, 'You heard that, right?' And Alejandro walked away and Chivo goes, 'He's not talking to you. He's talking to himself.'
“That was actually real wisdom because you've got to let it go and give somebody room. If they say black, just do black. And if they say white, then do white. And if they say go back to black, go back to black, because there's just something he's trying to figure out for himself. And if you don't apply the full force of what you've got, then how's he going to put away that idea and say, 'That was not a good idea?' If you really trust a director, just paint it four different ways so he can see why an idea isn't working.”
The experience of making the film, with its one-take camera wizardry and heightened production accoutrements, left Keaton in such a place that he admitted he was at first concerned that every movie he made thereafter, he was going to be bored out of his mind. “I'm making another movie now, and thankfully, that hasn't happened,” he assured. “What does happen is you'll be sitting there running lines or sitting there looking around, and you think about what he and everyone did to make 'Birdman,' and you kind of can't believe it. It's weirder down the road than when you're in it, because when you're in it, you don't have a choice. You've just got to go to work. Later, when you look back, it's like looking back at an almost head-on collision you had in your car one time. At the time, you make the move, and then hours later you go, 'Holy shit. I should have never done that.'”
Thankfully, with “Birdman,” he did do it. He took the leap, along with everyone else on the cast and crew. And the result is one of the most talked-about films of the year.
“Birdman” is now playing in theaters.