‘It’s all fun when you don’t have any­thing to prove’

From Beetle­juice to Bird­man, Michael Keaton’s ca­reer is built on sur­prises. Hadley Free­man meets an ac­tor with no time for Hol­ly­wood schmooze

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents - Amer­i­can As­sas­sin is re­leased on Thurs­day.

From Beetle­juice to Bat­man to Bird­man: Michael Keaton tells Hadley Free­man about his sec­ond act

The thick black curls that helped make Michael Keaton look so manic in all those 1980s come­dies, and which he then tore at as a tor­mented Bruce Wayne in Tim Bur­ton’s Bat­man movies, are long gone; but the satyr-like eyes are un­changed. As he walks into a Lon­don ho­tel room on a grey Satur­day morn­ing, hold­ing a cup of cof­fee, he looks strik­ingly dif­fer­ent from the man I have spent four decades watch­ing on screen: he has the trim, spry build of a wiry woods­man rather than a 66-year-old ac­tor, thanks to half a life­time spent in ru­ral Mon­tana, fish­ing and hunt­ing. His walk is rem­i­nis­cent of a rooster’s strut, with his chest puffed out and a bounce on his toes; that swag­ger we saw in 2014’s Bird­man, for which Keaton won a Golden Globe as the epony­mous for­mer su­per­hero ac­tor, was not a put on, it turns out.

“Hadley, huh? My niece is called Hadley,” he says, shak­ing my hand, and em­barks on a wind­ing di­gres­sion about Ernest Hem­ing­way, whose first wife was called Hadley, and var­i­ous Hem­ing­way de­scen­dants whom Keaton has met over the years, and do I know them (I do not), and how I re­ally ought to meet them. So was his niece named after Hadley Hem­ing­way, I man­age to ask.

“Huh? Oh no, I just think her mom liked the name,” he says, and he’s off again, talk­ing about every­thing from whether or not he’s a lib­eral (he is, mostly) to why cli­mate change shouldn’t be politi­cised. Keaton is not a straight Q&A kind of guy; his ap­proach to con­ver­sa­tion is a lit­tle like his eye­brows, loop­ing in mem­o­rable and un­ex­pected di­rec­tions.

He has made a ca­reer out of tak­ing the un­pre­dictable route: you can never guess his next role, and then he never plays it the way you’d ex­pect. In his break­through movie, 1983’s Mr Mom, Keaton played a stay-at-home fa­ther at a time when such a con­cept was al­most un­heard of, and he played him as a man who has no idea how to do any of the stereo­typ­i­cally mas­cu­line jobs around the house; when asked if he’s rewiring the house with 220 volts, Keaton adlibbed, “220, 221, what­ever it takes”. He was the daz­zlingly fre­netic lead in Tim Bur­ton’s Beetle­juice, a largely im­pro­vised per­for­mance op­po­site fel­low ghosts Alec Bald­win and Geena Davis. With Bur­ton again, he played Bat­man as a con­flicted nerd, rather than a grin­ning mus­cle man. In Bird­man, he plays an ac­tor so neu­rotic, he ends up run­ning through Man­hat­tan in his un­der­wear.

He sur­prises me to­day by ar­riv­ing with a big grin, which is un­ex­pected in a man who has never made any se­cret of his dis­like of in­ter­views: you don’t move to the mid­dle of Mon­tana at the peak of your celebrity if you en­joy be­ing the cen­tre of at­ten­tion. But he is clearly hav­ing a ball on this, the sec­ond wave of his ca­reer. Since Bird­man, he has played the edi­tor of the Bos­ton Globe in the 2015 en­sem­ble movie Spot­light, which won a Best Pic­ture Os­car; and he was a curve­ball choice as Ray Kroc, the man who turned McDon­ald’s into a fran­chise, in 2016’s too-lit­tle-seen The Founder.

“It’s all fun, man,” Keaton says, “and at a point when you don’t have any­thing to prove? Yeah. We’re all here for a mil­lisec­ond, so how bad can this be?” he says, his drawn-out vow­els (“maaan”, “baaad”) re­veal­ing his Pitts­burgh ori­gins. This month, he plays a CIA spe­cial ops trainer, Stan Hur­ley, in the Bourne-es­que Amer­i­can As­sas­sin. Hur­ley is train­ing up a new da­m­aged-but-bril­liant re­cruit (Dy­lan O’Brien), who wants to kill Mid­dle East­ern ter­ror­ists after they killed his girl­friend. Keaton’s crazy eye­brows are put to good use as the on-the-edge men­tor, but it is a some­what baf­fling choice for him: the movie is un­de­ni­ably generic for an ac­tor who has al­ways es­chewed straight­for­ward genre. But maybe this is just an­other of Keaton’s sur­prises?

“Yeah, ex­actly, and not to be cute or ‘cheeky’, as they say” – he switches mer­ci­fully briefly into an ap­palling English ac­cent – “but that’s what keeps me in­ter­ested. My bore­dom level is fairly low. And that’s too bad, but that’s the way it is, and this genre, a com­mit­ted ac­tion thriller movie, was just dif­fer­ent for me. A change.”

I don’t get the im­pres­sion it’s a change he’ll nec­es­sar­ily re­peat. When I men­tion one par­tic­u­larly in­tense scene, he shrugs: “I think I’m OK in it. I’d like an­other shot at it, but the di­rec­tor wanted to turn the vol­ume up. You have to ask your­self, ‘OK, what kind of movie is this? It’s an ac­tion movie. OK.’ You have to buy into the pro­gramme.”

After be­com­ing known for his hy­per-comedic per­for­mances in the early 80s, Keaton switched to dra­matic roles – first as a re­cov­er­ing drug ad­dict in Clean And Sober (a flop) and then as Bat­man (one of the big­gest box of­fice hits of its day). In the space of five years, he went from to­tal un­known to house­hold name. He also got mar­ried, to ac­tor Car­o­line McWilliams, and had a son, Sean. Can he even re­mem­ber any of that pre­sum­ably pretty over­whelm­ing decade? →

“Not re­ally, no, and that’s a good way of putting it: mar­ried, house, kid right away, ca­reer, a lot of at­ten­tion, which is not some­thing I’m crazy about. I don’t hate it, but it’s never my first choice. It was mostly good,” he says. He and McWilliams di­vorced in 1990.

Keaton’s Bat­man com­pletely changed the way su­per­heroes were por­trayed in Hol­ly­wood movies, coin­ing the re­luc­tant, self-loathing al­ter ego that is still de rigueur 30 years later (Chris­tian Bale’s Bat­man, An­drew Garfield’s Spi­der-Man, al­most all of the X-Men). But he was a con­tro­ver­sial choice and fans bom­barded the Warner Bros stu­dio with fu­ri­ous let­ters, in­sist­ing Keaton was too weird and weedy, not un­der­stand­ing that this was ex­actly why Bur­ton cast him: “He’s got all that wild en­ergy in his eyes, which would com­pel him to put on a bat­suit... He does it be­cause he needs to, be­cause he’s not this gi­gan­tic strap­ping ma­cho man,” Bur­ton later said.

I in­ter­viewed Bur­ton a few years ago and, meet­ing Keaton, it is ob­vi­ous why the two men feel such an affin­ity (they are cur­rently work­ing to­gether again, on Bur­ton’s live-ac­tion re­make of Dumbo). Although Keaton isn’t as out­wardly ec­cen­tric, he has a sim­i­lar ten­dency to­wards un­medi­ated stream-of-con­scious­ness re­sponses, and blunt plain-speak­ing – both the op­po­site of slick Hol­ly­wood schmooze. It must have been par­tic­u­larly hard for them, fac­ing so much scru­tiny dur­ing Bat­man, but Keaton in­sists he wasn’t aware of it – or not un­til he hap­pened to pick up the busi­ness sec­tion of a news­pa­per and saw a car­toon of his face in an ar­ti­cle sug­gest­ing that he, per­son­ally, would dam­age Warner Bros’ stock. “I truly didn’t un­der­stand why peo­ple cared one way or an­other, and I can’t be­lieve peo­ple still care. I just thought, ‘I know what I’m do­ing, and I could be wrong, but in terms of what Tim and I dis­cussed for the movie, I knew we were right on,’” he says now.

And they were: Bur­ton’s first Bat­man film re­mains one of the most in­ter­est­ing big-bud­get movies ever made, with Keaton’s psy­cho­log­i­cally sub­tle per­for­mance a ma­jor part of that. But un­like Rig­gan, the Bird­man char­ac­ter who be­comes ob­sessed by his su­per­hero al­ter ego, Keaton walked away, re­fus­ing to make Bat­man 3 when Bur­ton wasn’t re­hired as di­rec­tor. Was he also just sick of the bat-suit by then?

“[The film] just wasn’t any good, man. I tried to be pa­tient, but after a cer­tain point, I was like, I can’t take this any more, this is go­ing to be hor­ri­ble. But, look, there was some re­ally hor­ri­ble taste in the 90s, and I prob­a­bly con­trib­uted to that, un­for­tu­nately. It was a time of nou­veau riche ex­cess – ev­ery­one was known for their jets and their stuff. And I thought, I’m in this job for the long run, I don’t want this. And the truth is, I’m not boast­ing, but I was cor­rect. There are a whole load of peo­ple who ran things that are long gone.”

Joel Schu­macher’s two Bat­man movies were no­to­ri­ously ter­ri­ble, star­ring first Val Kilmer and then Ge­orge Clooney. A few years later, Keaton had a cameo as a de­tec­tive in Steven Soder­bergh’s Out Of Sight with Clooney. Did they swap bat tales?

“I didn’t,” he says, “but he used to shout at me, ‘Hey, the brother­hood!’ And I’d go, ‘Hey!’ But

I had no idea what he meant. Swear to God! And he did it a bunch of times: ‘Brother­hood!’ And then some­one ex­plained it to me and I was like, ‘Oh­h­hhh!’ I mean, I think I’d for­got­ten he was in [Bat­man].”

After Bat­man, Keaton took a se­ries of no­tably un­starry roles – a ten­ant from hell op­po­site Me­lanie Grif­fith and Matthew Mo­dine in Pa­cific Heights, a hammy Dog­berry in Ken­neth Branagh’s Much Ado About Noth­ing. There was a run of come­dies, in­clud­ing Harold Ramis’ Mul­ti­plic­ity, in which he played a man who clones him­self, that were smart and funny, but never go­ing to set the world on fire. Was he de­lib­er­ately try­ing to get out of the shadow of the bat sig­nal, or did he just like the scripts?

“It was both,” he says. “I do what in­ter­ests me.” So he would never do any­thing just for the money?

“Look, it’s not like I don’t think about the busi­ness – I am cog­nisant of that side of things – but if you over­think the money part, you tend to mess it up. I ac­tu­ally thought [Bird­man] might not work, but I also thought, even if it doesn’t work, I want to be a part of this kind of cre­ativ­ity. I want to be around this. It’s like mak­ing movies with Tim [Bur­ton],” he says, those eye­brows ris­ing in var­i­ous di­rec­tions. “Be­ing around that is so much fun, you just want to be in that en­vi­ron­ment.”

After Out Of Sight, he pretty much dis­ap­peared for next 16 years. What hap­pened?

“Look, there’s two dif­fer­ent things here,” he says, lean­ing for­ward and tap­ping my knee, em­pha­sis­ing his points in a man­ner that feels more pa­ter­nal than creepy. “There’s me tak­ing a pause: I re­ally like life, do­ing things, hav­ing a nor­mal life. So there was that. And there was me get­ting bored, hear­ing the sound of my voice, see­ing the same old tricks. So I may have lost in­ter­est, com­bined with a whole lot of peo­ple not knock­ing on my door. It wasn’t just me. But I also con­sciously started to slowly change things in­ter­nally, and it worked.”

What does he mean by chang­ing things in­ter­nally? Deal­ing with the men­tal side of things?

“Yeah, yeah. Just think­ing about things, ask­ing what you want, what you don’t want, how am I go­ing to get to there? And it takes a lot of stum­bling around, and it takes dis­ci­pline.”

He spent those years hang­ing out in Mon­tana, hunt­ing with neigh­bours and walk­ing in the woods. His fam­ily vis­ited him, and there have been girl­friends (he is in a re­la­tion­ship now, but it’s the one sub­ject he re­fuses to dis­cuss), but in the main he was on his own. It’s the life, he says, that he dreamed of as a lit­tle boy.

Michael Keaton grew up just out­side Pitts­burgh, and his real name was and re­mains Michael

Keaton is the youngest of seven. ‘You get away with more be­cause your par­ents think, “Who’s that? He’s cute, he’s been around a while”’

Dou­glas; by the time he started act­ing, the other one had got there first. Did he ever tell him that he stole his name? Keaton lit­er­ally spits out his cof­fee with laugh­ter. “Kinda! Once we got some­thing mixed in the mail, some­thing from one of the [act­ing] unions, and I had to re­turn it to him and we talked about it then. He’s a re­ally nice guy, Michael, but it’s not even their name, I think?”

No, Kirk changed it from Danielovitch, I say. “Rus­sian Jews, right? It’s funny.”

Keaton was the youngest of seven children in a work­ing-class fam­ily, and they never went to the cinema be­cause it was too ex­pen­sive to buy tick­ets for all the kids. But he loved to watch old movies on TV, es­pe­cially ones star­ring James Cag­ney and John Garfield. Was he drawn to act­ing be­cause he was used to hav­ing an au­di­ence of sib­lings?

“Prob­a­bly. I was talk­ing about this with Colin Far­rell the other day on the Dumbo set, ac­tu­ally, be­cause he’s an­other youngest, and we youngests al­ways re­late to one an­other. You also get away with more, be­cause by that point your par­ents are like, ‘Who’s that again? Oh, yeah, he’s cute, he’s been around a while.’”

He de­scribes him­self as a “weird” kid, but then cor­rects him­self: “I mean, I don’t think I was weird. I’d be happy hav­ing me as a kid. I was a kid who liked ad­ven­ture sto­ries, who fan­ta­sised too much, who was ex­tremely phys­i­cally ac­tive. I had friends at school, but I wasn’t re­ally so­cial. I didn’t re­ally like sleep­overs – I liked sleep­ing out­side.”

This gets him think­ing about his son, Sean, now 34, when he was a boy. “He was just a re­ally so­cial lit­tle guy, so thought­ful and sen­si­tive and prac­ti­cal, and al­ways hang­ing out with friends, whereas I wanted to be on my own play­ing in the woods,” he says, his voice soft­en­ing.

Pre­sum­ably that’s be­cause he had to fight for space, whereas Sean was an only child and happy to fill the house with friends?

“Yeah, prob­a­bly. He was al­ways hang­ing out in groups and go­ing to some­one’s house, I re­mem­ber that,” he says.

After he and Sean’s mother di­vorced, Keaton moved to Mon­tana. He dated Courteney Cox, and Michelle Pfeif­fer, but never mar­ried again. I ask if it was strange hav­ing an only child when he grew up in such a big fam­ily.

“Not strange, ex­actly. I wished I’d had more, but then Sean told me he liked be­ing an only child,” he smiles.

Sean Dou­glas is now a Grammy award­nom­i­nated song­writer who has worked with Madonna and Demi Lo­vato, and who is rou­tinely re­ferred to as “Michael Keaton’s hot son”. The two are of­ten each other’s dates to award cer­e­monies: Sean came to the Golden Globes when his dad won for Bird­man, and Keaton tear­fully thanked him, call­ing him his “best friend”. When Keaton was last year added to the Hol­ly­wood Walk of Fame, Sean gave the speech: “I’ve seen every­thing from Bat­man to bath time when I was a young kid. I’m so proud to be your son. You’re my hero, my best friend and I love you so much.” Keaton, stand­ing be­hind his son and mov­ing ex­cit­edly from side to side, pinked with de­light.

Ini­tially, Keaton thought about go­ing into com­edy rather than act­ing, and you can still find some of his very funny standup rou­tines on­line. The most strik­ing thing about them is how lit­tle he has changed: on stage, he comes across as a nervy, neu­rotic fast-talker given to flights of sur­re­al­ism. In one rou­tine, he talks about how just a look from a stranger on the streets of New York can send him into ther­apy; in an­other, he imag­ines what it would be like if the car­toon strips that used to come with gum pack­ets ex­plored philo­soph­i­cal con­cepts. “My mom’s side of the fam­ily and my broth­ers and sis­ters are re­ally funny – that’s the Ir­ish Catholic side. My fa­ther’s side, the Scot­tish Protes­tant side? Not so much,” he says.

I tell him I al­ways thought it was a shame he didn’t do more John Hughes come­dies after Mr Mom. Keaton reels back in his chair, hands over his face. “Aw, man! Planes, Trains & Au­to­mo­biles – that’s the movie I re­ally wish I’d been in!” he says, cit­ing the 1987 John Hughes clas­sic star­ring John Candy and Steve Martin. “Do you re­mem­ber when peo­ple would write off John Hughes and those movies he made?”

Ac­tu­ally, I say, I wrote a book about why those movies are the most im­por­tant ever made.

“Re­ally? ” he cries, bounc­ing out of his seat. A pub­li­cist comes in to tell us our time is up, but he waves her away. “Wait a minute, she’s re­ally smart and I need to talk to her about this,” he says point­ing at me, although I sus­pect this is more about John Hughes than my in­tel­lect. “I mean, if you look at the speci­ficity of John Hughes’ di­rec­tion in those movies, it’s in­cred­i­ble,” he con­tin­ues. “Th­ese weren’t just cute lit­tle movies; th­ese were about the econ­omy, em­ploy­ment, un­em­ploy­ment, small towns. Man, you got me go­ing on this!”

We spend 10 min­utes nerd­ing out over The Break­fast Club, be­fore he thinks back to when he met Hughes while mak­ing Mr Mom: “I read the script and I thought, ‘Wow, this is re­ally funny, this guy has some­thing.’ And then I met John and I said, ‘You ought to di­rect this [too].’ But he said no, he was off to di­rect those movies star­ring peo­ple closer to your age,” he says, re­fer­ring to the teen movies, which is sweet, be­cause I am in my late 30s. “But, yeah, I would have loved to have worked with him. That would have been an ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Michael Keaton, Brat Pack fan? The man truly is full of sur­prises •

Clock­wise from left: as Bat­man (1989); with Me­lanie Grif­fith in Pa­cific Heights (1990); in Spot­light (2015); with long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor Tim Bur­ton in 1994; in new film Amer­i­can As­sas­sin; with Wi­nona Ry­der in Beetle­juice (1988); with son Sean in 2015; Bird­man (2014); and his 1983 break­through, Mr Mom

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