When Michael Keaton met Barack Obama shortly before Obama would become president, the then-senator had a question for the actor: “Why don’t you make more movies?”
That quandary has long bedeviled moviegoers, too. Why did the roundly beloved Keaton — a manic comic actor, an intense live wire, a real-deal movie star — become such an infrequent presence on the big screen?
Even at the height of Keaton’s stardom in the 1980s and ’90s, he was famously picky, usually doing a movie a year and turning down about as many hits (Splash, JFK, among them) as he said yes to. But after a handful of flops in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Keaton all but disappeared from movies.
“I did turn a lot of things down. But a lot of the things I turned down, you would have turned down,” said Keaton recently. “It was because I was bored. I was bored with what I would do. Maybe it just didn’t interest me for a while, I don’t know.”
But Keaton’s revival, begun with a handful of supporting roles, reaches a blistering, wildly meta crescendo in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” which opens Friday. Keaton stars as a washed-up, middle-aged actor, Riggan Thomson, trying to mount a serious play on Broadway based on a Raymond Carver story when all his fans want is for him to make a fourth “Birdman” film — a superhero identity that haunts him.
The reference to Keaton’s Batman days is unmistakable, but Birdman — shot in long, flowing takes that capture the chaotic swirl of backstage life and a theater full of people striving for their own sense of self-importance — only plays a little with Keaton’s own persona. It’s a gonzo portrait of an actor’s out-of-control psychoses that appears certain to land the 63-year-old’s first Oscar nomination.
Keaton’s comeback is the result, he says, of sharping his focus.
“I turned the dial up,” says Keaton. “I don’t know if I got re-interested or I settled a lot of other things in my life. I really don’t know. I just thought: ‘I’m going to dial the scope in a little more,’ like on a rifle. … It’s amazing when you focus on the things you want and keep your eye on the ball. You start to create it or something.”
Keaton has in many ways spent his career avoiding the typecast fate of Riggan. The Pittsburgh-native, Catholic-raised, youngest of seven began as stand-up. After his breakthrough in 1982’s Night Shift, he deliberately sought to avoid what he calls “glib young man” roles. When development on a third Batman film sought to lighten Tim Burton’s universe, he bailed.
“He’s a very self-assured guy. He doesn’t need to be validated,” says Inarritu (Amoros Perros, Babel). “In order to play a role like this and be naked — spiritually, intellectually, physically — you have to have a lot of self-assurance.”
Keaton, who has a 31-year-old son from his marriage to Caroline McWilliams, spends much of his time on his ranch in Montana, fishing and hunting. Next, he’ll star in Tom McCarthy’s Catholic scandal drama Spotlight.
Will he keep up the pace?
“I honestly don’t know,” says Keaton. “I’m sure I'll do something that won’t work, that will be stupid and people will point their fingers and say I’m a dope. And I'll go to the next one and maybe they won’t.”