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Interview: Michael Keaton on his 'Birdman' comeback and on critics

Michael Keaton says "it feels good" about "Birdman" serving as his comeback, and talks about critics and people thinking his new film is about superheroes.

Michael Keaton attends an "Birdman" talk at New York City's 92nd St. Y. Credit: Getty Images Michael Keaton attends an "Birdman" talk at New York City's 92nd St. Y.
Credit: Getty Images

Michael Keaton doesn’t mince words when asked, point blank, what it’s like to have a career resurgence in “Birdman”: “It feels good.” It should feel at least weird: In the film — made as a single (albeit fake) shot by “Babel” and “Biutiful” director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — the former “Batman” star plays the uncatchily-named Riggan Thomson, the former star of a winged superhero franchise. Keaton’s character is staging a comeback with an out-of-control Broadway take on Raymond Carver; in real life, Keaton is staging a comeback with a tightly controlled piece of cinematic chaos.

“Birdman” has already earned Keaton raves, though he was already feeling good about himself. When Inarritu, at a presser for the film’s New York Film Festival closing night appearance, talks about how he tends to feel good about what he’s doing before turning to self-doubt, Keaton replies that he feels the same way. “The difference,” he adds, “is 20 minutes later I think, ‘No, you’re actually more than that, Michael.”

Still, the production was atypically demanding, with Keaton having to stay “on” as Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki — an old pro at long takes, with “Children of Men” and “Gravity” under his belt — kept the cameras running. “When you watch them work together, you have to come up to that [level],” Keaton says. “Otherwise you’re a punk. You’re just dead weight.”

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Michael Keaton retreats to the bar in "Birdman." Credit: Fox Searchlight Michael Keaton retreats to the bar in "Birdman."
Credit: Fox Searchlight

On top of hitting his marks and not knocking over Lubezki’s ever-moving camera, Keaton also had to juggle his character’s various stresses, including the looming first preview performance as well as the often abrasive interpersonal relationships with a hot dog costar (Edward Norton), his angry girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and his just-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone). “Within 30 seconds or 49 seconds, you have to surf a lot of different emotions, while being part of this giant picture. Because the picture is always shifting and changing, you’ve got so many levels. That was really, really difficult. But I like that. I like difficult — most of the time.”

One of the criticisms of “Birdman” has been, appropriately, its critic character (Lindsay Duncan), who is open about writing a vindictive pan of Thomson’s play, even before she’s seen it. Keaton doesn’t share the film’s withering take on the critical community. “The first play I ever did back in Pittsburgh, someone went up and said, ‘Hey, I read the thing in the paper. They said you were real good.’ I hadn’t even though of that part,” Keaton recalls. “Originally I thought I should be courageous and read everything. I did that a couple times and thought, ‘Wow, I’m not going to do that anymore. That’s just miserable.’ But if someone says, ‘Hey, you got a really nice review,’ I’ll read it.”

Keaton and Norton actually attended the New York Comic-Con for “Birdman,” even as they laughed about how what they’re not shilling for is not a comic book movie — though there’s always a chance viewers who didn’t do their research may buy a ticket to “Birdman” thinking it’s one. Keaton remembers seeing “The Dead,” the last film of director John Huston, back in 1987. Perhaps inevitably a couple young horror fans showed up — and were nonplussed to discover a film called “The Dead” was a lyrical and chatty film of the short story by James Joyce. “You could tell they totally thought it was a horror movie,” he remembers. “All of a sudden you could hear mumbling in the back. I kept clocking them. At about minute 14 they were like, ‘F— this.’”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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