SANTA MONICA – Michael Keaton is having the time of his life. Cruising along an awards circuit that has brought him plenty of kudos for his performance in Alejandro González Iñárritu's “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” and probably more opportunities to talk about himself than he'd prefer, he seems consistently high on life and not at all phased by the grind. He's not someone who has really sought out this kind of attention and acclaim, often retreating to his ranch in Montana away from the Hollywood fray, but now that he's feeling the love? Let's just say I doubt anyone's having as much fun with all of this than he is.
On the eve of this year's Oscar nominations announcement, I met Keaton for coffee and a light lunch at one of his favorite Santa Monica spots to chew on as much of his career and the awards season tempest as 90 minutes would allow. In the end, a focus on a couple key departments made sense. We talked about “Birdman,” of course, as well as his experience at the heart of the “Batman” explosion in 1989, his love of journalism and journalism movies and, “Birdman” being a laugh riot and all, his history with comedy.
That's where we start today, and it seems an organic place to begin. Keaton's roots are in comedy, hanging around spots like Catch a Rising Star in New York and working with improv troupes inspired by the greats of the 1970s. It has even been said he owes his stage name in some way to the form: To satisfy SAG rules early in his career, Michael John Douglas became Michael Keaton, but alas, it was a random pick and not an ode to comedy legend Buster Keaton, as has been reported in the past.
With all that in mind, settle in and read through the back and forth below for a discussion about the early days with Ron Howard, a personal favorite flick from the era, “Gung Ho,” working with Harold Ramis on “Multiplicity,” tackling Shakespeare with Kenneth Branagh and a little bit about his Tarantino/Soderbergh sojourn. And be sure to check back over the next several days for a whole lot more.
“Birdman” was nominated for nine Academy Awards including Best Actor. The film hits DVD/Blu-ray Feb. 17.
HitFix: It's obviously hard not to play a bit of career retrospective with you. We know the stories by now about Babaloo Mandel and Ron Howard clueing into you and you getting the “Night Shift” gig. “Mr. Mom,” “Johnny Dangerously,” career lift-off. But I want to fast forward a little bit to is “Gung Ho.”
Michael Keaton: OK.
I actually love that movie so much. It's broad comedy but it's also a smart send-up of American machismo. I watched it over and over again when it was on HBO as a kid. George Wendt, John Turturro, the entire cast is so good. I love the “80s” of it all.
Yeah, that great Chrissie Hynde song in there. You know, that's interesting because that's one of those movies we did – it's like Edward Norton was talking about the other day, “Fight Club.” It's so great and it wasn't really a hit, but it is a hit because over time it doesn't matter what the money was. Guys like you, you were in a camp of comedy film fans because people who love that movie really love that movie for the reasons that you just mentioned. Like “Multiplicity” has those people, too. But you're right, I'll be honest with you, I really like that movie. And I always felt like I kind of let Ronnie down on that one and I don't know why. I think I could have been better. I can't put my finger on why.
Really? I actually think it's one of your best performances! I do. You don't watch your movies a lot, though. When is the last time you saw?
Oh, I don't know. I probably saw it once and then that's it. I haven't watched it for a long time.
There's a specificity to it, and I note this in a lot of your work. To me, that's the stuff you remember. Sometimes a comedy comes out and it just washes over you and you don't really remember it anymore, but if there's specificity – I'll just give you example. There's a scene with you and Gedde Watanabe getting drunk and laughing. He kind of wipes his eyes and says, “I've got troubles, bud.” The way he says it is kind of hilarious, and you go to take a sip of beer, but you can't because you get the giggles. For some reason I lose it every time.
Oh, thanks. Boy – honestly, I'm not just saying this, when people – that's maybe one of the giant reasons why I do what I do, when people get that I'm so appreciative of little things like that. I'll give you an example. I was telling [Mark] Ruffalo the other night. If you really examine what he does, he's actually quietly doing really specific characters. You think you're just watching Mark Ruffalo most of the time, but I just worked with him in “Spotlight” and it's happening kind of in front of you. But when you look at “Foxcatcher,” which I thought was great, all those guys are so good. But he does so many great little, quiet little things. And this is something I kind of made them do in “Mr. Mom,” little behavioral thing, tiny little things that I would add all the time because they really didn't understand what a guy with real kids is like.
Mark does this thing [in “Foxcatcher”] where he's getting out of the car when he first pulls in and the family is there and he's pulling into the estate and he's having a conversation, I think with his brother or maybe with Steve Carell or someone, and he's getting the kids out of the car. And it's as if he's getting out grocery bags. He kind of grabs this kid, the kid's kind of, like, hanging. Little things like this. [He mimics Ruffalo's multi-tasking moment from the film.] He's talking, he sets the kids down, because in life, parents – and that guy specifically, that kind of guy – that's what he does. Most actors really pick a child up, put a child down [separately from any other action], and that's not what happens. Thanks for appreciating that.
You mentioned “Multiplicity.” You talked about this earlier this year with Letterman, I think, working with Harold Ramis. What was that like for you, given the comedy world he came from?
Great, because guys like Harold, they came along out of that stuff, y own generation, when comedy hadn't really blown up yet. I've never read this or heard anybody discuss this but I'll bet you you would hear this from Marty Short and I'll bet you would hear this from Albert Brooks – comedy really wasn't what comedy became. It was a much smaller niche, you know? I mean the stand-ups who started influencing me, and then the movies and the magazines and the television shows, there seemed to be this smallish group of people that really dug comedy.
There are so many good comedy people now it's crazy. Honestly. So many good people. And I think in the last five, maybe a little more years up to now, there's an explosion of great people. It used to be a tiny group all over the country and in Canada and probably in London were watching, you know, Jonathan Winters and National Lampoon and Bob and Ray. And then Pryor, Albert, little improv groups. There was a little thing called The Ace Trucking Company that was going. As much as I like “SNL,” I was really more of an “SCTV” guy. That really spoke more to me. And I think there were some of us that's true for.
So it was a niche, then. Now it's less. It's like there's people everywhere doing shit on everything, you know? And pretty damn good, too. I think those Key & Peele guys are funny. A few years back I saw those two guys, I went, “Oh, those guys are really smart.” I always talk about Chris Rock – when I saw him, really, really young, and I met him and he was just getting going, not only was he funny, he was really smart, which I thought was cool.
Did you read his New York Magazine interview?
I thought it was great.
I couldn't stop nodding. I thought my head was going to fall off. I'm just like right, right, right, right.
Me, too. A hundred percent. I went, “Yeah!” And then the other one I thought was pretty good, in the back of Rolling Stone. I wonder why he wasn't on the front of Rolling Stone? I barely read any of that shit, but if I see his interview, I'll read it? So comedy then was really fun and it's even in a weird way even more fun now. But there were certain things I really wanted to do. Like the stand-up stuff that you could dig up now online, I guess. There's one thing I've seen that I did on little talk shows, that was nothing. I don't even think it's very good because it wasn't really what I did. It's like, what, five minutes you have to discuss or talk on a panel that you're allowed to say – that was never really me. It had a fit and a place. What I was doing on stage was for a different thing, forming an improv group or writing. We all wanted to be in that world but there were very few places where you could do it.
And then it started changing. “SNL” really started changing things. And then it started opening up more and more and more. Now, man, you could say and do anything anywhere, really show people how you think and what you're about. But I was always confined. Even in movies. Ron Howard really deserves a lot of credit for trusting me when I improvise and go off and might have references. That was the first time I got to let a little of how I thought out inside of a character. I didn't want to just improvise to improvise. I wanted to improvise inside the character. It's easy to go off but I'm not impressed with people who improvise unless they're staying true to the character, which stays true to the story.
Right. And I imagine you were able to do that within “Multiplicity” given where Harold was coming from.
Yeah, Harold was in the epicenter of that world of comedy. And while he admittedly was not the performer that those other guys were, he had that mind. And he was just such a nice man, you know? He became Buddhist, but his Buddhism may have gotten in the way in terms of aggressively being on the studio to push “Multiplicity.” Because what they pushed instead, put the money behind, was “The Cable Guy,” because they were invested. And it didn't work. I kept saying, “Harold, Harold, let's go. This is really good. We put a lot of work in this. Let's go sell this movie. Let's ask these guys.” And he was so mild-mannered that he didn't want to do it. That's one thing I think he and I probably should have done. The campaign was kind of odd and didn't make any sense. But working with him was really good because he was so smart and he quietly got you to do things that you didn't really know, and he was so open to ideas and improv, because that's where he came from. So he was really a good co-conspirator.
I'm a massive “Stripes” fan.
See, like that era where you go, “Oh, guys are saying that?” You know, “Guys are getting to be rebellious?”
When he says, “All the plants are gonna die,” I lose it.
And talk about specificity – this is a weird question, and maybe you've been asked before, maybe not. I don't know if anyone's obsessed on what you do in your movies as much as this but there's something you do in “Multiplicity,” and you do it in “Gung Ho” and you do it in “Beetlejuice” and you do it in “Birdman.” I've come to call it “the patented Keaton jerk-off hand gesture.”
[Laughs.] That's true!
I have to ask what that's about.
It's unbelievable. It's unbelievable.
Has anybody ever asked you about that?
No, but it just always makes me laugh when guys do it because it's such a smartass kind of way of dismissing everything. And you don't say anything!
There's a .gif of the “Multiplicity” one and it's glorious. I use in in Internet arguments sometimes. If I've had enough I just leave it at that.
[Laughs.] That's hysterical! That's hysterical.
And it's never out of place, either, in the movies. That's the funny thing about it.
You've got to know where to use it.
Yeah, yeah. Is it just something that you'll do naturally?
I think the first time I did it I improvised it, probably, and somebody probably laughed. When those moments come sometimes I don't know anything else to do. But that's so funny. Now I'm going to try to drop one, you know…
Do it in some prestige project.
Yeah, do it in, like, a Merchant/Ivory film. Yeah, I'll be wearing a ruffled shirt, you know, powdered wig and I'll go, “My Lord…” [And…boom, he does it.]
You should have worked it into “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Actually, it would have fit the character.
Actually, you're right, it would fit the character. I think there's an improv thing where I hump something in “Much Ado.”
They may have cut that out. But that was a character, you know, I was with a buddy of mine that I knew. He's truly, 100% an intellectual, this guy. He's a really interesting guy. He's written this really wonderful book called “Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks,” which I really recommend. And he's a really cool dude. But he's a dude from Pittsburgh, he talks that way, he's got all these expressions. We were talking about that last night and he's a crazy Shakespeare fan. He loves Shakespeare so much. I took one little Shakespeare thing in one of my acting classes. I didn't understand Shakespeare. I'd never done any of it or anything. And at first I said to Kenneth [Branagh], “You don't want me doing this.” He kept insisting and he said, “No, this is going to work.” He really wanted to use American actors and he was using stars, Denzel and everybody. He said, “No, everybody, don't do it with British accents. Don't do that.” And I said, “Well, OK, I'm out.”
But he kept coming at me. I said, “Give me a minute.” And I had this kind of half of a character I used to do, but I used to do it with Valri Bromfield, who was a partner for a while with Danny Aykroyd. She was one of the funniest women I've ever met in my life. And she and I used to goof around and do these guides. She'd do this one guide and we had a way of speaking and I took that and I added, like, this kind of crisp, Celtic vibe, like half of a Celtic accent. And interestingly, when I went to a Shakespeare coach to work on the character and talked to him about it and said, “Here's what we're going to try to do” – and he thought I was nuts – but he said, you know, interestingly there are scholars who think that some of that language was really from the Celts, from Ireland and parts of Scotland and not England. I said, “Well, whatever. I know nothing about it.” It's just something – I had to find a way in because for me to speak like this, I said, “I don't know how to do that.” And also, you say what you want about the comedy. I guess back then people thought some of that shit was funny. They'd go, “Oh, he's one of the wonderful comic characters.” And I'd go, “Not for me, man.”
[Laughs.] You had to put a spin on it for yourself. You had to put some English on it, so to speak.
No shit. And so I said, “OK, this is what I'm going to do,” and I'm sure scholars will hate me but I found no other way to do it. Then there was a guy where I grew up who was a local constable. And that's actually what Dogberry is, is a constable. But I never knew what a constable was and I remember this guy – I always found this guy really slippery. We all did. He would come in and he'd always want things from my dad and my dad would never do it. He'd want a favor here or a favor there, you know? He's never straight-up about anything. And I based a lot of the character on him and just thinking about that guy and how to kind of watch him.
Then I wanted to add to him, like, kind of a little bit of badass. There's stuff that's cut out of that movie where Dogberry actually really confronts a guy and threatens him. It's funny but you go, “This guy might be crazy,” you know? And that was really fun. But that was one of the most fun things I ever did. And I had a horrible fever. I got really sick and I was sick almost the whole time. And the weather was so hot; it was like 95 degrees every day in Tuscany, where we shot it. In all that hot clothing and I was constantly dripping in sweat, sick through almost the entire shoot. But I really loved doing that movie. In fact that's something, of all the things I want to do – there are now a bunch of things I want to do but I would really like to grab a Shakespeare piece again somewhere.
What about theater?
Yeah. And, I mean, that would really be ballsy because I'm sure they'd line up to stone me. But if I could find a smaller role that I could manage… It's so fun to try to pull it off because it's like learning another language. It's like doing a role in a foreign language, you know? The discussion about, “What does this mean?” And you know what was really the coolest? I showed up to the set, I was so nervous thinking, “I've got to be around all these Shakespearean actors and they're going to look right down their nose at me.” But they were the coolest guys. You'd be doing a scene and these guys working on Shakespeare several times would stop and say to Kenneth Branagh, “What does that mean? When he says…” And I'd go, “Oh! I am so relieved!” And then he'd say, “Well, he's really saying this but, you know, remember,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I'd go, “Oh, man.” That really took a lot of the pressure off. They were so cool about it. They would read the London Times and I'd get up, do the scene, no big deal.
Yeah it was cool.
And then there's the comedy stylings of, say, Elmore Leonard. One interesting note in your filmography is the “Jackie Brown”/”Out of Sight” thing. You played the same character in both. It's interesting because we live in this world of shared universes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, etc. But that's just this funny little example of a shared character across two studios that's so rare.
No, I don't think anybody had ever done it and that's what made it. First of all, it was Soderbergh.
Which has to be weird. You get, like, a taste of Soderbergh. You had to have wanted more after that.
Yeah, because somebody asked me, “What's he like? How does he direct?” Still I'm not quite sure. But I'm a giant Soderbergh fan, and not only that, I thought, “Wait a minute. I don't think anybody's ever done this,” because we don't talk about it. You don't talk about, like, the minor, meta – if there is such a thing. I said to him, “The only thing I ask is he can't look exactly the same but he has to have a look that we maintain there,” and maybe I think I kept the jacket or something to go, “Oh, there he is again,” like he might pop up, you know, in another movie somewhere. I mean this guy – it makes him like a guy out there. It's, you know, Ray Nicolette might pop up. You might be standing in line at Starbucks and he might be there. Anywhere you can get next to originality, man, that's my thing. If I can get anywhere close to it I want to be part of it. And I never saw anybody do that so I was all in to do that. I didn't care if it was 30 seconds.
Was Tarantino fun?
Yeah, really fun. Really fun. And I loved “Jackie Brown.” You know, of the Tarantino movies, that's got its own little vibe. It's not like his other movies in a lot of ways, you know? And I think that's one of the cool things about it. There are some shots in that movie that are so good. He's something.
Tomorrow: “The Paper,” “Live from Baghdad,” “Spotlight” and a love of journalism.
Michael Keaton will receive a career tribute and the Modern Master Award at the 30th annual Santa Barbara Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 31.