At 63, Michael Keaton is enjoying the attention that comes with hitting a challenging role out of the park. Look closely at his career, and you see a man who always paid attention to the details and pushed for more than the ordinary as he built his characters, no matter what the movie. During his long SBIFF Modern Master chat with Leonard Maltin, Keaton ranged from running around naked as a kid performing for his seven siblings, early standup at Catch a Rising Star and The Improv, which allowed him to “write little plays and perform, not asking permission,” and comedies like “Night Shift,” “Mr. Mom” and “Johnny Dangerously” to Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” (he’d love to take it to the stage) and drama “Clean and Sober.” He recalled how he surprised director Tim Burton with his wild and crazy take on “Beetlejuice” (yes, he’d still love to do a sequel), who was willing to run with it, how he never had any doubt that he could pull off Batman, and why he had to come up with that crazy voice (so people wouldn’t nail Bruce Wayne).
Thing is, Keaton is very different from the character of Riggan Thomson he plays in “Birdman.” He’s more centered and confident, if anything, and always willing to walk away when a role isn’t inside his strike zone. “Birdman” came at him like a fast ball and he slammed it. Only later did he realize that he was playing four characters at once: Thomson in the midst of a mental breakdown, the director of the actors in the Raymond Carver stage play, the character in the play, and Birdman. And he had no idea how tough making hairpin turns inside long continuous takes–one does go 20 minutes–from comedy to tragedy and back, would be. “Every day on ‘Birdman’ when I went home, I did something,” he told Maltin. “It was more difficult than I thought it would be. You are exposed. It shows people warts and all.” Gonzalez Inarritu told him, “‘You are going to go deeper than you ever have. And deeper every time.’ It was a risky gig. I don’t know how we did it in 29 days.”
“Birdman” is doing well with the Guilds (SAG ensemble, PGA, DGA), whose members recognize the high degree of difficulty. I suspect that in a competitive year, with Eddie Redmayne winning SAG and BAFTA prizes for “The Theory of Everything” (he and Keaton both took home Globes, for drama and comedy respectively) and Bradley Cooper coming up on the outside with “American Sniper,” that Keaton will still prevail on Oscar night, as an actors’ actor with a narrative the Academy voters appreciate. They’ve been up and down and do battle with their egos every day.