The 30th Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) presented the Modern Master Award to Michael Keaton for his stunning and remarkable work in Birdman. The Modern Master Award is the highest honor presented by SBIFF, created to honor an individual who has enriched our culture through accomplishments in the motion picture industry.
While there, Michael Keaton talked about not having any particular goal for his acting career, how he veered from stand-up to acting, having picked the Keaton name (he was born Michael John Douglas) totally randomly, how Night Shift and Mr. Mom changed his career, how he came up with his wacky but memorable performance in Beetlejuice, what he looks for in a director, working with Quentin Tarantino, being cast as Batman, doing Shakespeare for Kenneth Branagh, how he got involved with Birdman, and the experience of working with Alejandro González Iñárritu. Here are the highlights of what he had to say during the Q&A.
Question: As an actor, when you start out, you’re just trying to work. Did you ever have a game plan or a goal?
MICHAEL KEATON: No. Employment was the goal. Really, honestly, and it’s true now, the idea is to see if you can accomplish the job at hand, for whatever gig you’re in, at the time. I just didn’t want to waste it. I left it on the field, as they say. I just wanted to be better. That still is the goal.
What did you want to do in show business?
KEATON: When I was a kid, I was a big reader, and I would get lost in books. I used to love to draw. We had a little black and white TV, when I was a kid growing up out in the country. I would watch old movies on the television. Going to a movie theater didn’t happen a lot, so I was free to roam the woods and play. I had a really vivid imagination. In high school, I started getting in serious trouble. I was a terrible high school student. And then, I got into a play in college, and I was not good. The earth didn’t shake, and it wasn’t that big of a deal. And then, I dropped out of school to make money. I did another play, and I got it. I thought I was figuring this thing out. I started to really get a feel for using language and using your body and being on a stage.
And you did stand-up?
KEATON: I performed stand-up because I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission. My set was never joke-centric. It was a performance. There really were not a lot of clubs where you could get up and perform. It was exhilarating. It was as exciting a time as I could remember. My feet barely touched the ground when I got asked back.
So, how did stand-up veer into acting?
KEATON: Because I really wanted to be an actor. That’s really what I was doing. But, I stuck at stand-up and kept writing. I’d go to workshops, and I still went to acting class. I formed an improv group, and I was always writing. It gave me a place to perform. Plus, I just loved comedy, and I still do. I was starting to do pretty well. I was never on television because it was very confined, but in clubs, I was pretty good. But, it wasn’t ultimately what I really wanted to be doing. I love motion pictures, and I love filmmaking. I really like television a lot, too. I really like working on television, but I don’t think I’m very good on television.
How did you come up with your last name?
KEATON: I got a job and somebody said, “There’s a Mike Douglas and a Michael Douglas, so you can’t use the name.” I said, “Yeah, I can.” I actually liked the name. And they said, “You have to change it.” I never really got around to doing it, but they said, “You have to change it before you can start work.” Ironically, Michael Douglas’ last name is not Douglas. So, I went down the alphabet. My real name is John. Where I come from, everybody had a nickname, but it changed, every week. So, I was in the Ks and I picked it. I thought I’d change it later to something really cool, but I never changed it. It seemed to fit.
You just picked it at random?
What was life like, after Night Shift? How was it to go from auditioning to overnight movie star?
KEATON: There was a big leap within the business. That film was successful enough, but it wasn’t a giant hit. But inside the business, things accelerated rapidly. And then, Mr. Mom was quite successful, especially since it was made for very little money. I was bankable and hireable. Mr. Mom was a John Hughes script. It was his first big thing. I remember telling him that he should direct it, but he didn’t.
How did you come up with your performance in Beetlejuice?
KEATON: Tim Burton is unique, original and an artist. He had this thing. He saw the visuals and the bigger picture, but he couldn’t quite [figure it out]. He tried to describe it to me, but I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I wasn’t going to do the movie. Then, I saw him again, and he’s a good guy and really funny, but I just couldn’t understand it. It wasn’t quite there yet. It was more of a conceit of something. He saw the big visuals of the house, and all of that. He gave me a couple of things, so I told him to give me a day. I gathered a giant collection of wardrobe from various time periods, and I wanted to do these teeth. He’s a little dangerous and scary. I knew that I wanted hair like that, and I had a walk that I wanted to do. So, we got the striped suit, and I walked into the make-up trailer and said, “Let’s see if this works.” It was all so freeing because I couldn’t say, “My character wouldn’t do that.”
KEATON: Glenn Caron, who’s a really underrated director, came to me and said, “I’ve got this thing I want to do.” It was really well written material. I wasn’t necessarily looking to be taken seriously because that’s making the assumption that people are even thinking about you, at all. I just thought it was good material. I didn’t think, “Yes, this is my chance!” It was just the next job, and I really, really enjoyed it. At the time, there was not a big independent film scene. Now, that movie would have been at Sundance.
What do you look for in a director, and what do you want from your director?
KEATON: It depends. Alejandro [González Iñárritu] is very, very, very hands-on. He talks about the scene, the dialogue, the specific lines, and everything. It’s sometimes tricky when you don’t know what they do. You have to feel out the person and know their movies. It really changes with everyone.
How was it to work with Quentin Tarantino on Jackie Brown?
KEATON: He’s Quentin, and he’s really high-energy. He really wants to talk about the scenes a couple of times and discuss it. He’s really, really hands-on, a bit like Alejandro, and he’s really specific. He’s so good with language and words. He sits right there, very close, and wants to talk to you a little bit. I thought it was lazy thinking to hear, “Once you’ve cast it, you’re pretty much there,” but I’m starting to believe that’s really true. Once you have the right actor, then you know where to move them or what you want to get out of them.”
KEATON: It baffled me that anyone was thinking about that. I heard about the outrage, and I couldn’t get it. I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal. It made me feel bad that it was even in question. I thought it was half-funny, but it was in the middle of shooting, so the pressure was on. The pressure was on all of us, anyway, to see if we could pull it off. We didn’t even know if the suit was going to work. It kinda didn’t, for the first couple of days. It was pretty ridiculously funny, actually. I have claustrophobia, and being in it and not being able to get out of it, all day long, was a huge deal. I thought, “You better figure out a way to make this thing work,” and I did. I just went a little deeper inside of the guy. He’s a very alienated dude, inside of himself. I just went to that place. And then, I got used to it and worked it. It was so strong and powerful that there wasn’t much I had to do except work that suit.
What was it like to be approached by Kenneth Branagh for Much Ado About Nothing?
KEATON: I said, “No, I can’t do that.” And he really wanted American actors to speak with American accents. I took one Shakespeare thing that wasn’t even a class. He kept talking to be about it, and he’s really intelligent. So, he came to my office, and I said, “I don’t think so.” And he just wouldn’t let up.
How was Birdman first presented to you, and when it was presented to you, did you get it and want to do it right away?
KEATON: I was doing a movie and I got a call from my agent. She explained what it was and said, “They don’t want to tell you exactly what it is.” So, I flew back for a day to meet Alejandro because any actor with a pulse wants to work with someone like him. I’d seen his movies and am an enormous fan. I just flew back to have this conversation, but he really couldn’t explain what the movie was that he wanted to make. He really was trying to explain it. He was very forthcoming about his whole life and that he was going through changes and what he thought. He was really open about what he was going through and what he wanted to say with this movie. It was a great conversation. He lives near me, so I drove him home and got the script, got on a plane to go back to work, and read it. It would have been so hard for me to say no. I was going to be in it, regardless of anything he said. I told a friend of mine, “I would have done this movie based on Amores Perros,” and he said, “I would have done it based on the car accident in Amores Perros.” He’s quite something, that guy.
How much time did you spend thinking about this and developing your performance?
KEATON: Honestly, I didn’t really have that luxury, and it didn’t really require it. It’s so fundamental and human. Did it help that I’m an actor? I suppose it helped, but so did Alejandro talking about the ego, and whether he was really an artist. I didn’t really have to think about it. It was really a day-to-day situation. He explained how he wanted to make the movie, and I thought I got it, but I didn’t really get it until we were doing it. I can’t imagine the things that he had to keep in his head to make this thing work. Alejandro is such a powerful personality, and he’s so willful and passionate that you have to keep up with that. When you see somebody working that hard, you need to work as hard as that person, in my opinion. So, the approach was just about discussing everything and every detail. It was tough, in the beginning, to catch on through the rehearsal process, but once we got it, we were good. I knew I knew it, I just didn’t know how I was going to get there. It’s just really fundamental, human stuff. I don’t really have a set process, necessarily, but I was working my way towards something. I knew it was going to be tough, but it was more difficult than I thought it would be. I have a weird job. I show people, warts and all, what the character is. This went really deep. He said, “You’re going to go deeper than you ever have,” and I said, “Okay.” I thought I got that, but every time, he was right. It was a risky gig, frankly, for all of us, but I never want to look back. To me, courage is the ultimate thing. You’ve gotta have guts. If you don’t, you should just do something else.