Michael Keaton on his career from “Batman” to “Birdman” to everyman
It’s almost as if Michael Keaton slipped on to Hollywood’s A list, and then never left. Except that we were actually looking. Collectively, Keaton’s films have grossed billions at box office. He has starred in “Spiderman” and played Birdman. Ironically, Keaton’s true power lies in portraying the everydayman. The salesman and FBI-man, as well as the newspaperman. Keaton, an actor on a long-running crusade against typecasting is unpredictable in his choices of roles. He is however consistent in executing them. As we first reported last October, at age 70, he’s still at it. He’ll find a character in Michael Keaton that he likes and it’s time to showtime.
Forget about meeting at a Malibu bistro, or on a movie set. Michael Keaton wanted to meet us in his element so we did. We met him here on his thousand-acre tract of trout streams and mountains, under Montana’s big skies. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the vastness of this place. This is not a movie star who needs to be humbled by the sheer size of the place.
Michael Keaton – It hit me as soon as I bought the place. It was obvious that I don’t own anything. You don’t own anything. We are renters. You know what? I don’t actually own this. This is just– I made a transaction.
Jon Wertheim – Just passing through.
Michael Keaton: Passin’ through.
After a short drive up a dirt path we discussed range of a different sort. We talked to Keaton about his incredible versatility and the secret to his success.
Jon Wertheim – Scroll down your IMDB page until you get whiplash. This archetype is American male. It’s lawyers, newspaper men, and doctors.
Michael Keaton : I think that’s true. Yes, I think so. I was there, but I haven’t seen my IMD. Or IMBD Which one? I can tell which one is first, but I–but, yes. If you put it that way, I’d say, yes pretty much. It’s just a representation of the many, you know, that are included in this job. But, who is that person in this job? You already know. You know.
Jon Wertheim: Right, right, right, right.
Michael Keaton – People talk about range. It’s flattering, you know? But range, schmange, doesn’t really mean range. It’s —
Michael Keaton : Yes, well range Jon Wertheim : I would imagine you’d be proud of that.
Michael Keaton: I do. But I don’t see it as “Well, you played this.” Then, you were funny. Then you became a sad man. Then you– “You know, that’s not really within my– range. You know what? You go inside the–the person.
Jon Wertheim – Is there range in a character?
Michael Keaton: Yeah. Because they are human beings, you see.
This includes one superhero: this ranch may have been built by Batman. Keaton bought it in 1989 the same year as his biggest blockbuster. He had already established his M.O. His M.O. was to deliver a certain level of belief to a wide range of characters. A father, a stay-at-home mom, a crazy-haired actor, a founder. Keaton does the Keaton thing in each of these roles. His brows arch, his eyes narrow, and his mouth puckers with disarming intensity. We are instantly drawn to his character, even before his trademark staccato patter kicks into action.
Michael Keaton – I used to think I had to flee, you know. But then, it changed. I have something within me that is– that’s okay. I never had fear of going to dark, scary, or really, really, really, raw places. But I also didn’t want anyone to look back and say, “You kinda– kinda wussed out.” Sometimes it’s okay to say, “This is quite easy.” Simply open your mouth and let the words flow. Then, tell the truth. This sixth sense of authenticity. It was Keaton’s home in Western Pennsylvania that it first reached him. It was a pivotal moment in his life when his family won a black and white TV in a raffle.
Michael Keaton : What I watched and learned, and– which I loved, was television, primarily old Westerns. I wanted to be like them.
Jon Wertheim – You didn’t want the role of Gene Autry. You wanted to be a cowboy.
Michael Keaton : Yes. You know what? I never bought those guys, even when I was young. I said, “They are too beautiful.” They are too clean. They probably don’t smell. Since I was young. I had to believe everything that I saw.
Michael Keaton grew up the youngest of seven kids, raised in a working-class town outside Pittsburgh. His father was a civil engineer and his mother ran the show at their home. Keaton was an altar-boy–literally–and he says, a decent student — as long as there were nuns around. After a year at Kent State University, he became serious about what had been, until then, vague plans of performing stand-up comedy and acting.
Michael Keaton – Everyone has the bad memories, the embarrassingly difficult times, and the down moments. You know, without money or a place to live, . That’s not a big deal for me. That’s part of the deal.
But his nostalgia has its limits. He remembers the dangers of the open mic.
Jon Wertheim – I heard a tale. You followed an Irish folk singer up to the stage?
Michael Keaton: Ugh.
Jon Wertheim – What happened?
Michael Keaton : First of all, the f ‘ man would wear a knit sweater, like in July. One of those fisherman sweaters.
Jon Wertheim – he’s fully committed to the role.
Michael Keaton – Yes, I’m totally committed to the role that you know. He’ll sing the song where all the children in the family went down on the ship, you understand, in the cold f Irish Sea. And I’m going to say, “Hey everybody. How are you doing? “
Jon Wertheim : This is a good warm-up act.
Michael Keaton: No.
Keaton honed his improv skills in Los Angeles’ clubs at sunset and on the small screen. After his big break, Keaton was recommended to a hot director by a veteran comedy writer.
Michael Keaton: I got an audition. Then I got a callback and another callback. Another callback. Another callback. Another– I think it was five or six.
Jon Wertheim – All for the role as Billy Blaze.
Michael Keaton : Yes, Billy Blaze. Yeah.
“NightShift” was Keaton’s debut movie. It was a brilliant, memorable performance that still holds up. He is a master of improv and steals scene after scene as Bill Blazejowski. Blazejowski is an antic-frantic morgue attendant who moonlights as a pimp.
Jon Wertheim – You seemed to have that guy.
Michael Keaton : Yes, I got that guy. It was just there on the page. It was just there on the page.
Michael Keaton : They were open to all improv.
Jon Wertheim – You can bring your improv skills.
Michael Keaton: Yeah, yeah. They were very good at that.
Jon Wertheim -kinda the best of both. You are not doing stand-up. But, like…
Michael Keaton: 100%.
He would use those skills one-year later in “Mr. Mom.” But right before Hollywood could corner Keaton solely as a comedic actor, he swiveled in the opposite direction – with movies like “Clean and Sober” and the thriller “Pacific Heights. “
Jon Wertheim – Not a lot typecasting. Accident or design?
Michael Keaton – I wanted more shots. I wanted to be able play many different things. Because I quickly learned that they were saying, “Oh, he likes when he does that.” You should get him to do this. Let’s get him to do this. I thought, “Oh, boy, that’s what I could think, frankly, I would have been out the business.” If they weren’t already bored, they would have been bored to tears with me.
This overlay of light and dark convinced director Tim Burton that Michael Keaton was right for the lead in his next big budget movie: “Batman.” Keaton would portray Bruce Wayne – Keaton is a complex, even tormented, tycoon bent on justice. Hardcore DC Comics fans were horrified at the casting of Mr. Mom will play the Caped Crusader.
Michael Keaton – You know, I have a lot of memories. There were a couple of occasions when people were kinda– maybe more than they doubted you. You go, “Okay. I’ll wait. “
Jon Wertheim – Peers or reviewers?
Michael Keaton – These are just things that have happened a few times. You just kinda clock it.
Jon Wertheim : You’re good at remembering that stuff.
Michael Keaton: Yeah.
Jon Wertheim : You’re coming in’ to this role. You’re the new Batman.
Michael Keaton: Yeah, yeah. No, I am the– Batman.
Jon Wertheim : You are the Batman. But you’ve got this lineage…
Michael Keaton: Yeah. Let’s be very clear about this. No, I’m kidding.
Michael Keaton: “Batman,” the first “Batman” I think Tim and I both knew if that doesn’t work– that one, I had awareness of. I thought, “Ooh! This– this could really go wrong.” “
Jon Wertheim : It strikes me that there’s another type of risk, right?
Michael Keaton: Yeah. Yeah. That movie was very stressful for everyone.
Holy gamble-that-paid-off, Batman. The movie made more than $400 million and catapulted Keaton to a new plane of stardom – proof that resisting conventional Hollywood wisdom had its advantages. Keaton continued his game of character hopscotch in another 30 movies from Shakespeare to “Spotlight.” Some movies were more successful than others at the box office. But when he wasn’t acting, Keaton was a hands-on dad to his son, Sean– who is now 39 and a successful songwriter in Los Angeles. Keaton was at a point in his life where he was able to be picky. In 2014, enter “Birdman” and Keaton’s almost absurdist role that earned him a Golden Globe for Best Actor.
Jon Wertheim – What’s the most difficult role you’ve ever played?
Michael Keaton: Mostly, yeah. It had to be precise and specific. It had to be on a specific word or point in the sentence, and geographically at a particular spot. You could say, “on–in a hallway” or “down a set of stairs.” Particularly, perfect. It was hard. Every day was scary.
Jon Wertheim – Do people in your field of work have competitors like athletes? I mean, aren’t you– “You know Bill Murray, I’m coming to you?” “
Michael Keaton – I don’t know. That’s the truth. We can’t do anything. We can’t box each other, you know. (LAUGH) I know what you mean. We’re all in, it’s a brotherhood and a sisterhood to a certain degree. You know, the criticism of other people’s performances, I find really bush league. It’s like “What do you know?” I don’t know enough. I’m not being humble. I’m being honest. I don’t– I don’t know that I even have the knowledge to say, “Well, that’s no good. “
Keaton is back to interpret the American male. “Dopesick”, a Hulu mini-series that focuses on the nation’s opioid crisis, was released last October. Keaton plays the role of a doctor in a town that has been overtaken by oxycontin. He admits that there is more to the role this time.
Michael Keaton : That means a lot to us, ’cause, as you know, we lost a nephew to heroin and fentanyl.
Jon Wertheim – What is it like to have such a personal connection to a job?
Michael Keaton – You have to get rid of the emotion.
A man who switches from one role to the next, Keaton is thrilled about Pittsburgh’s transformation from steel to technology. He often returns home and invited us to visit a modified steel mill that has become an innovation center, not far from his childhood home. Keaton is an investor of Nexii, a Pittsburgh-based construction company that plans to create eco-friendly concrete alternatives.
Michael Keaton : I get that. It’s actually something I like. This summer is proof that I am a man. If I have the chance to– do anything, I will. Climate change is not something you can just say. It’s here, right now.
Jon Wertheim – The bill is due, huh?
Michael Keaton: That’s right. The bill’s due.
Keaton would be happy to spend more time in Montana and here, if not for his day job. He finished filming “The Flash,” reprising his role as Batman, 30 years after he left the franchise. We also had to know Jon Wertheim. Is this Bruce Wayne still the tortured, dark man we remember?
Michael Keaton: Ish. He’s kinda–you know, I can’t give too much away. I’m one those guys who says, “Well, I-I-I– I’m givin’ that saway.” Go see the movie.
Jon Wertheim – How does the costume fit?
Michael Keaton (LAUGH) I’m proud to say that I slipped right into it.
Jon Wertheim: You’re 70 years old, and you’re still kicking bad guys’ ass. That must feel good.
Michael Keaton: Yeah. Don’t call me if you know anyone who needs their ass kicked. (LAUGH)
Produced by Michael Karzis. Associate producer, Katie Kerbstat. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Craig Crawford edited.
I have been writing professionally for over 20 years and have a deep understanding of the psychological and emotional elements that affect people. I’m an experienced ghostwriter and editor, as well as an award-winning author of five novels.