‘Everybody’s got a Birdman in their life,’ says Michael Keaton. ‘He‘s your negative ego who wants to win, and you either live with that or you kick him out.’ Keaton, now 63, is talking about the second superhero movie to put him in the spotlight, 25 years after the first – Tim Burton’s Batman – made him an international star.
Directed by Mexico’s Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman tells the story of Riggan Thomson (Keaton), a former action star who is mounting his first Broadway show. Financial pressures are mounting as first night looms – a situation not aided by a needy daughter (Emma Stone), a pregnant mistress (Andrea Riseborough) and a neurotic co-star (Edward Norton) – but Thomson makes the best of it, even if his one-time alter-ego is determined to sabotage his passion project.
The main difference between Keaton and Thomson is that Keaton bailed after two Batman movies, while Thomson played the Birdman in three. But otherwise there are certainly parallels. ‘It would have been easier to play if everyone was like, ‘Oh God, this guy has always been a bad actor,’ notes Keaton. ‘But Riggan Thomson wasn’t considered a bad actor. I mean, he wasn’t a genius, but he couldn’t have gotten the Birdman job if he was bad, and when he got it, it became a franchise. He was probably a pretty damn nice actor, he just drifted away from what it was that he did.’
Keaton’s equally fine acting chops serve him well in a carefully choreographed film, shot in long, uninterrupted takes that at one point find him striding through New York’s Times Square wearing only his Y-fronts. ‘Did I do it for real?’ he asks, incredulously. ‘Do you mean was that really my underwear or was that really a crowd?’ He laughs. ‘Well, you saw the movie! Did you think we digitised that?! No, we did it, and it was pretty crazy. It was really, really not easy, especially in a film like this, when you’re shooting with one camera, handheld the whole time. It had to have a feeling of theatricality, you had to get the perspective of being in the theatre but at the same time you had to see everything through my point of view. Man, when I think about it I don’t know how we did it.’
With talk of Oscars getting louder in industry circles, Keaton can certainly put Batman behind him. Does he feel that the shadow of the Caped Crusader has finally stopped following him around? ‘I don’t really think about it,’ he says. ‘It certainly had an effect, because it was the first. It was groundbreaking, frankly. What Tim did has been chopped and sliced up. I don’t want to say it was copied but it changed a lot, and I was proud to be a part of that. But Batman hasn’t followed me around. I’m a normal human being, I work on living in the present.’ He pauses. ‘I love the idea of Birdman following me around, though. I really do.’