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Ghost Canyon

Michael Keaton  ('Birdman') Michael Keaton ('Birdman')

'Is It A Bird? Is It A Plane? Nope, It's Just Michael Keaton!

A fading actor (Michael Keaton) best known for his portrayal of a popular superhero attempts to mount a comeback by appearing in a Broadway play. As opening night approaches, his attempts to become more altruistic, rebuild his career, and reconnect with friends and family prove more difficult than expected.

Chatting just before Christmas with Michael, within a small round table conference call press junket, I note that 'Birdman' begins with a shot of a meteor blazing towards earth and it is this very same image that Keaton has used to describe his involvement in the film ie: sometimes, he says, you have to stand out in the desert and wait for that meteor to hit you. “Yes, that’s what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years. Looking. Making a few manoeuvres. Some adjustments. Just trying to get in the way of something.”

I point out that his chosen metaphor also contains a destructive, even deadly, component. Meteors tend not to leave their targets unscathed. “That’s very true,” he laughs. “I guess I just saw it as this kinda ‘Boom!’ and lights going off and me standing there glowing. But you’re right. I could have been shattered to f**king dust. Well, Birdman is a very risky movie. I knew I wanted to do it just from watching Alejandro’s other work. I told a friend: ‘I would have done it based on Amores Perros alone.’ And he said, ‘I would have done it based on the car crash in Amores Perros alone.’ But as an actor, you’d be a lot safer in his other movies with all their different stories. In this one, there’s nowhere to hide.”

He is referring not only to the emphasis on him – he is in almost every shot, the camera as close to him as his own perspiration – but to the illusion, audaciously sustained, that the picture has been filmed in one two-hour take. Would it have changed the tenor of his performance if that hadn’t been the case? “Yes, I don’t think we could have made it without that. There was a part where Zach Galifianakis and I were saying: ‘Why don’t we make the movie the normal way? Why are we doing it like this?’ Then you see it and … woah. At about minute four or 11, you feel that door behind you slowly click shut and you go: ‘OK, now I’m in. There’s no getting off.’ It might be extreme to say this, but other people have said it too so I’m gonna go ahead.” He gathers himself. “Birdman has kinda … changed things.” He glances at me for a reaction. “I’m not saying you won’t see traditionally made movies any more. But I’ve had meetings with directors and they’ve said it makes them rethink everything. You can hate this movie but you have to talk about it. It’s going to go down as one of the most interesting movies ever made.”

The movie exploits deliciously the frisson between performer and role. (In one scene, he is even shown demolishing his dressing room in a tantrum – he’s a good smasher-upper.) Thomson bailed on the Birdman series in 1992, the same year Keaton bowed out of the superhero genre with Batman Returns. Birdman is Thomson’s albatross but it would be a mistake to say that Batman was an equivalent burden. By the time he donned the cape in 1989, to the horror of comic-book fans who bombarded Warner Bros with letters of complaint, he also had the putrefied prankster Beetlejuice to his name. (That was his first collaboration with Burton: the director recently expressed a desire to make a sequel but Keaton tells me he’s heard nothing: “I’ve been talking about wanting to do it for years but no one ever did anything about it.”) The integrity he brought to Batman eclipsed anything the character gave to him, with the exception perhaps of temporary commercial clout.

“The first Batman was a risk for everybody,” he says. “Tim didn’t just change that whole genre – he made it. That could really have gone south. And I happened to be his guy.” What separates Thomson from Keaton, I suggest, is that the former probably never had a role as demented as Beetlejuice. Nor would he have played a yuppie-taunting psychopath, as Keaton did in Pacific Heights, immediately after his superhero payday. “That’s a very good way of putting it. I wish I’d thought of that. He probably did a Speechless, right? [the 1994 comedy in which Keaton and Geena Davis played rival political speechwriters]. And he was a good actor. If he had only been bad he would never have got to be Birdman. Pick any of those movies – the Avengers, anything, they’re not bad actors. The Dark Knight – Christian Bale is a fucking monster! He’s unbelievable. He’s awesome. Riggan’s mistake was to let it define him.”

As we head to the end of the interview time allowance, it is fair to note that Keaton is fluent in the politics of Hollywood (“You’ve got to drop in a studio picture here and there”) and diplomatic enough to be wide-eyed about the Oscar race (“It’s amazing to see it all unfolding around me!”) immediately after assuring me: “All actors are my brothers and my sisters. It ain’t cool to compare or disparage them. It ain’t polite.”

It all comes down to staving off boredom. “I’m just shocked and thankful that I’ve gotten away with everything – experimenting here, trying at this, failing at that, being good in some things, not so good in others. It’s kind of amazing that people are still sticking by me. When they come up to me in the street, I just want to write them all checks.” He mimes doing so. And it’s a sweet idea. But possibly he wants it only in the same way that he “wants” to get hit by meteors!

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