STORY WRITTEN BY AMY LONGSDORF
For 21st Century Media
Just as Quentin Tarantino gave John Travolta’s career a boost with 1994’s “Pulp Fiction,” so “Babel” helmer Alejandro G. Inarritu has handed Michael Keaton the opportunity to soar with “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.)”
No sooner did the film take flight on the festival circuit than critics began lavishing praise on Keaton’s performance as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor who, following a career in superhero films, has been struggling to re-invent himself by staging and starring in a Broadway play.
Variety reviewer Peter DeBruge called Keaton’s performance “the comeback of the century,” before describing the film itself as “a triumph on every creative level, from casting to execution, that will electrify the industry, captivate arthouse and megaplex crowds alike, send awards pundits into orbit and give fresh wings to Keaton’s career.”
Needless to say, Keaton is considered a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. And, as he begins promoting “Birdman,” he already has his next role lined up with “Spotlight,” the saga of a Boston Globe reporter chronicling a pedophile-priest scandal.
So, what’s it like to be on top of the world?
“How does it feel?,” says Keaton, 63. “Amazing.”
Largely set and shot in and around the St. James Theater in Manhattan, “Birdman” co-stars Naomi Watts and Edward Norton as actors in the play Riggan is directing. Andrea Riseborough plays Keaton’s girlfriend and co-star; Amy Ryan is his ex-wife; and Emma Stone is his just-out-of-rehab daughter/personal assistant.
In the days leading up to opening night, Riggan battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career, and himself.
“What do I think about the character?,” muses Keaton. “The character is Alejandro, so you should ask him.
“The character is really, really one of the most difficult things I’ve done … within 30 seconds, you have to surf a lot of different emotions, and be a part of this giant picture … and because this picture is always shifting and moving, and has so many different levels, therefore, it’s really difficult.
“But I like that; I like difficult, most of the time.”
Keaton isn’t kidding about the difficult part. Not only is the film (opening Oct. 24 in Philadelphia) emotionally challenging but it’s also a technical tour-de-force. Inarritu decided early on that he wanted “Birdman” to appear as if it was shot in one long continuous take. The actors were required to be note-perfect for scenes that lasted as long as ten or 15 minutes.
“Every beat, every line, every joke, every open door, had to be perfect, and exactly the same, because we were like a band playing live, without the ability to alter and edit and move things around,” says Inarritu. “It had to be right!”
As nerve-wracking as it was to be flawless on every take, Keaton believes it was worth it because the continuous flow of one scene into the next moved the narrative along in a unique fashion.
“It was always [a question of ], ‘is this shot helping to tell the story?,’’ says Keaton. “Even if it’s magic [realism], or whatever that’s called. Even if it’s all that, it’s about the story, and moving the story along. When you do that, and make it beautiful, that’s compounding the issue.”
That said, Keaton admits to being a smidge intimated by Inarritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also shot “Gravity.”
“When you watch them work together, you have to come up to that [level], otherwise you’re a punk, and you’re just dead weight,” notes Keaton.
For much of the movie, Riggan is haunted by Birdman, the fictional character he played in three films before finally passing on a fourth. Keaton famously appeared in “Batman” (1989) and “Batman Returns” (1992) before turning down a $15 million paycheck to do “Batman Forever” (1995) which subsequently starred Val Kilmer.
Like Riggan, Keaton has suffered plenty of career highs (“Jackie Brown,” “The Paper”) and lows (“Jack Frost”) in the years since his heyday. Still, the actor insists he never felt like he was playing a variation of himself.
“In terms of the parallels, I’ve never related less to a character than Riggan, but I did understand him on a lot of levels because he was so visceral and true and heartbreakingly human,” Keaton says.
Beyond that, notes the actor, “it was just another gig that happened to be a really, extraordinarily demanding gig.”
Inarritu thought of Keaton early on and admits that the actor’s history as a cinematic superhero was a factor in his casting.
“Michael is a very talented, impressive actor who dominates the craft of drama and comedy unlike anybody I have seen or worked with before,” says the filmmaker.
“At the same time, he is one of the few guys who have truly worn that cape. Actually I think he was one of the first global movie star superheroes and he resurrected one of the biggest icons, Batman. He is the grandfather of that overwhelming kind of comic book franchise world we are now living in, so he was the perfect choice.
“When he said yes, I knew then that the film would be exactly what I wanted because he would not only reflect and project a much stronger reality because of his background and authority but also because of his incredible depth of talent.”
The idea for “Birdman” came to Inarritu not long after he turned 50. The Mexican filmmaker, who is best known for his hardcore dramas “Babel” and “21 Grams,” was looking for a way to lighten up.
“[We all have] our stupid ideas of art or money-making, and however important we think we are, life will take care to tell us no,” says the filmmaker. “I found that incredibly tragic, but at the same time, really funny.
“With humor, you can survive, and become a better guy … I think the way we can survive is by laughing at ourselves, and we’ll have a little better time.”
To hear Inarritu tell it, “Birdman” is about creativity and the “tyranny” of the ego.
“Sometimes when I’m doing something, I say, ‘Oh, this is great! Fantastic! You’re a genius!’ And then, twenty minutes later, I feel like a jellyfish, and I say, ‘You’re a stupid [bum]! Nobody will care about [this]!”
“So, it’s a constant bipolar [situation], my [creative] process. I thought, ‘Oh, the ego is a tyrant.’ I thought it would be a cool thing to portray in a film.”
One of the reasons Keaton signed on to “Birdman” was because he could relate to the themes that Inarritu wanted to explore.
“I go through exactly what Alejandro goes through,” says Keaton. “I do the same thing. I think, ‘Oh, you’re the greatest. You’re wonderful,’ and … then like Alejandro, twenty minutes later… [I have doubts].
Just like Riggan, Keaton has been blasted by his share of critics. In the movie, a nasty reviewer (Lindsay Duncan) goes so far as to threaten to demolish Riggan’s play simply because she considers him an interloper from Hollywood.
Keaton insists that, unlike Riggan, he doesn’t pay much mind to what reviewers say about him.
“What I thought, originally when I started out, was, ‘be courageous and read everything.’ I did that a couple of times, and then I thought, ‘Well, I won’t do that anymore.’ That’s just miserable. So I don’t really bother.
“It’s not that I don’t bother, it’s just that I don’t do it. Admittedly, if someone says, ‘Oh, you got a really nice review,’ I’ll go, ‘Okay. I’m willing to make myself feel better.’
“I ain’t going to fight that.”