Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is an actor’s showcase for star Michael Keaton, who delivers a comeback performance for the ages as former action star who mounts a Broadway production to revive his ailing career. But as is the case with all of the Mexican filmmaker’s work, his supporting cast is also given ample moments to shine.
In “Birdman,” Edward Norton nearly walks away with the picture as Mike Shiner, an egomaniacal Broadway star Keaton’s character is forced to work with when one of his play’s stars suffers an onstage injury. The role marks Norton’s best one in ages and the actor tears into it, delivering a showy performance sure to be remembered this awards season.
Indiewire sat down with the actor in New York a week before “Birdman” opened to huge numbers in limited release.
I’ll get the gushing out of the way by telling you that the film’s one of my favorites this year.
I remember talking to somebody about this. It’s so funny, I think sometimes think people feel the need to—
It’s what this movie is about, but people like to say that the balance of art versus commerce is shifting in the wrong direction. And I remember reading something back in 1998 or 1999 where William Goldman, the famous screenwriter was basically going, “Where’s the great generation? Nothing compares to the heyday of ’67 to ’75. And then I was thinking, ’99 was “The Matrix,” “Fight Club,” “Election,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Three Kings,” “Magnolia.” It was like are you kidding me? Pick me any year between ’67 and ’75 that has a more impressive bunch of young filmmakers throwing down very very good things.
This year again, I feel like people are always talking about the business and how hard it is. But, [David] Fincher’s got a terrific movie. Alejandro’s got this movie. Wes [Anderson] has made one of his best movies ever. Richard Linklater made another great movie. Paul Thomas Anderson has made another great movie. Bennett Miller’s movie is incredible. Do you know what I mean? I mean like, c’mon. You can’t get cynical. I’ve been going to the New York Film Festival. Noah Baumbach’s got his movie. I’ve been going to the New York Film Festival every other night because there are so many. The Dardenne Brothers movie… what more do you want? How many good movies do you expect there to be? I don’t quite get it so it’s always fun to get involved in one that is —
— part of that conversation?
Yeah. But, as much, I honestly really like looking around the landscape and seeing a lot of our peer group — like “Foxcatcher” is not a fake art film. It’s not one of these masterpiece theater movies.
Yeah, it’s very modern.
Yeah and it’s hard. It’s like a horror film in super slow motion. So, I think it’s a really nice year of films from people that I like.
I’m curious; have you spoken to Zach [Galifianakis] about what he thinks of the current state of Hollywood? He just unloaded his views on me during our interview a few minutes ago.
[Laughs] Zach’s experience has been really different than mine.
[Laughs] Yeah, I’m sure.
It’s totally endearing, and I’ve seen rough cuts and stuff, but the first time I saw the finished mixed version in L.A with Zach and a few other people and we walked outside afterward and Zach says ,”I think…I think…Am I in a good movie? I think you’ve been through this experience, but I think I’m actually in a really good movie!” And I said, “Yeah, you are. You’re in a great movie.” And he said,’ That is the weirdest fucking feeling. This is a really good movie.” [Laughs].
So, I think he may have more cynicism about what the system does. It’s all in balance. I just give a lot of credit to Alejandro because I think if you look at his stuff — Alejandro has got the ammo in the can to be able to say the things he says in this movie because he’s never capitulated on them himself. One after another after another of his films, he’s defied anything resembling a movie on someone else’s terms or a movie in an expected format or a narrative structure. His themes are always insanely ambitious, mostly emotionally driven, not plot-driven. When I read it, I thought I’ll be damned. He’s really just unafraid to sort of stick a fork in and say look, this is where my head is at. This is what I think is hard. This is what scares me in my life right now as an artist. This is what I’m angry about. This is what I’m inspired by and I’m just going to put it into a movie about people trying to be creative. It’s just a very personal approach to making movies, which I think is pretty cool.
Yeah, and even though it’s personal, the film works on so many levels. It’s not just about the insular community of actors and directors.
No, no. I think it’s very much about doubt, self-doubt and the way that our brains go to war with us about our choices and how badly we beat ourselves up. Our own ego becomes literally a voice in our head saying you need more. You should be doing this. Why aren’t you this? Why haven’t you done this? You’re an idiot. I really think the whole idea of the way ego picks at us and drives us, taking it and turning it into this demon in this film, I think is entirely about an agent life, more than it is about being performers. Performers are just fun, melodramatic people to satirize, but I think that a mid-life crisis is something that anybody can relate to. I think having that fear that you’ve drifted from a vision you had of yourself is something that people relate to almost on a day-to-day basis. Have I become something different than the person I want to be or thought I wanted to be when I was young? All that, I think, transcends the inside baseball of the industry stuff.
But, the inside baseball, the performer’s aspect of the film is something that you’ve known and lived.
Yeah, it’s funny.
Having been in a superhero movie [“The Incredible Hulk”] and done well since, what about that aspect of “Birdman” spoke to you on some level?
In anything I do, I don’t really look for a personal reference point, even though there are many ones someone might project. It’s part of the nature of my relationship to acting I think. I’ve always been much more drawn to the idea of… characters are much more interesting to me if that makes any sense. As soon as I read it, I laughed because of the familiarity of some of it, but my brain, as soon as I started looking at Shiner as a character, my brain started racing to actors that I loved and thought were genius when I was younger. Those who you always heard were legendary, like anarchists and drunks and preening egoists and there was one immediately in my head that I thought ‘that’s who this is.’ And once I find something to latch onto, I almost never at that point relate to the character through my own experience, so much as I do partly because I think mimicry is half my toolbox. I just thought it made me laugh.
It’s a very funny character. All the characters are funny. Zach’s character is funny, Naomi [Watts]’s character is funny. Andrea [Riseborough]’s totally madcap. They all seem at first, if you look at the daughter and Shiner, they’re all causing problems for Michael [Keaton]. But the more the story goes on, as they begin to say harsher and harsher things to him that really land, you realize they actually have a point. He is sort of causing these problems for himself. And I love inversions like that in a movie because then people don’t stay two-dimensional. You suddenly realize that Shiner has a real point. He’s actually very artistically mature relative to him and when he’s on the roof with the daughter, you realize he’s really not that high on himself.
I love that your character had that moment.
He’s actually quite down on himself in a lot of ways and when you get to all those shadings — and she’s really harsh on her dad, she has a real point when she takes him down. But then you realize she’s quite sorrowful as well. She’s propping herself up. When you start having characters that you have an initial impression of, but then they bloom and deepen for you, I think that’s what makes for a more interesting movie.