Michael Keaton: There was a lot of bad taste in the 90s and I contributed to that

From Beetlejuice to Batman to Birdman: the actor on superheroes, astonish roles and his second act

The thick black curl that helped stimulate Michael Keaton seem so manic in all those 1980 s slapsticks, and which he then tore at as a tormented Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s Batman movies, are long gone; but the satyr-like eyes are unchanged. As he walks into a London hotel room on a grey Saturday morning, holding a cup of coffee, he appears strikingly different from “the mens” I have expended four decades watching on screen: he has the trimming, spry construct of a wiry woodsman rather than a 66 -year-old actor, thanks to half a lifetime spent in rural Montana, angling and hunting. His stroll is reminiscent of a rooster’s strut, with his chest puffed out and a bouncing on his toes; that swagger we ensure in 2014′ s Birdman, for which Keaton won a Golden Globe as the eponymous former superhero performer, was not a put one over, it turns out.

” Hadley, huh? My niece is called Hadley ,” he says, shaking my hand, and embarks on a winding digression about Ernest Hemingway, whose first spouse was called Hadley, and various Hemingway descendants whom Keaton has fulfilled over the years, and do I know them( I do not ), and how I really ought to meet them. So was his niece named after Hadley Hemingway, I manage to ask.

” Huh? Oh no, I just think her mommy liked the name ,” he says, and he’s off again, talking about everything from whether or not he’s a liberal( he is, mostly) to why climate change shouldn’t be politicised. Keaton is not a straight Q& A kind of guy; his approach to conversation is a little like his eyebrows, looping in memorable and unexpected directions.

He has made a career out of taking the unpredictable road: you can never guess his next role, and then he never plays it the route you’d expect. In his breakthrough movie, 1983′ s Mr Mom, Keaton played a stay-at-home father at a time when such a idea was almost unheard of, and he played him as a human who has no notion how to do any of the stereotypically masculine undertakings around the house; when asked if he’s rewiring the house with 220 volts, Keaton adlibbed,” 220, 221, whatever it takes “. He was the dazzlingly frenetic lead in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, a largely improvised performance opposite fellow ghosts Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis. With Burton again, he played Batman as a conflicted nerd, rather than a grinning muscle man. In Birdman, he plays an actor so neurotic, he aims up operating through Manhattan in his underwear.

With Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice( 1988 ). Photograph: Moviestore/ Rex/ Shutterstock

He surprises me today by arriving with a big smiling, which is unexpected in a man who has never made any secret of his detest of interviews: you don’t move to the middle of Montana at the peak of your celebrity if you enjoy being the centre of attention. But he is clearly having a ball on this, the second wave of his career. Since Birdman, he has played the editor of the Boston Globe in the 2015 ensemble movie Spotlight, which won a Best Scene Oscar; and he was a curveball selection as Ray Kroc, the person who is turned McDonald’s into a franchise, in 2016′ s too-little-seen The Founder.

” It’s all fun, man ,” Keaton says,” and at a phase when you don’t have anything to prove? Yeah. We’re all here for a millisecond, so how bad can this be ?” he says, his drawn-out vowels (” maaan “, ” baaad “) uncovering his Pittsburgh origins. This month, he plays a CIA special ops trainer, Stan Hurley, in the Bourne-esque American Assassin. Hurley is developing up a new damaged-but-brilliant recruit( Dylan O’Brien ), who wants to kill Middle Eastern terrorists when they are killed his girlfriend. Keaton’s crazy eyebrows are put to good use as the on-the-edge mentor, but it is a somewhat baffling choice for him: the movie is undeniably generic for an actor who has always shunned straightforward genre. But maybe this is just another of Keaton’s surprises?

” Yeah, precisely, and not to be cute or’ cheeky ‘, as they say”- he switches mercifully briefly into an appalling English accent-” but that’s what maintains me interested. My boredom level is fairly low. And that’s too bad, but that’s the way it is, and this genre, a committed action thriller movie, was just different for me. A change .”

In new cinema American Assassin. Photograph: Allstar/ CBS Films

I don’t get the impression it’s a change he’ll inevitably recur. When I mention one particularly intense scene, he shrugs:” I believe I’m OK in it. I’d like another shot at it, but the director wanted to turn the volume up. You have to ask yourself,’ OK, what kind of movie is this? It’s an action movie. OK .’ You have to buy into the programme .”

After becoming known for his hyper-comedic performances in the early 80 s, Keaton switched to dramatic roles – first as a retrieving drug addict in Clean And Sober( a flop) and then as Batman( one of the biggest box office hits of its day ). In the space of five years, he went from total unknown to household name. He also got married, to actor Caroline McWilliams, and had a son, Sean. Can he even recollect any of that presumably pretty overwhelming decade?

” Not really , no, and that’s a good way of putting it: married, house, kid right away, career, a lot of attention, which is not something I’m crazy about. I don’t hate it, but it’s never my first choice. It was mostly good ,” he says. He and McWilliams divorced in 1990.

With director Tim Burton. Photograph: BEI/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Keaton’s Batman wholly changed the way superheroes were portrayed in Hollywood movies, coining the reluctant, self-loathing alter ego that is still de rigueur 30 years later( Christian Bale’s Batman, Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man , almost all of the X-Men ). But he was a controversial choice and fans bombarded the Warner Bros studio with furious letters, insisting Keaton was too weird and weedy , not understanding that this was exactly why Burton cast him:” He’s got all that wild energy in his eyes, which would obligate him to put on a bat-suit … He does it because he needs to, because he’s not this gigantic strapping macho man ,” Burton later said.

I interviewed Burton a few years ago and, meeting Keaton, it is obvious why the two men feel such an affinity( they are currently working together again, on Burton’s live-action remake of Dumbo ). Although Keaton isn’t as outwardly eccentric, he has a similar propensity towards unmediated stream-of-consciousness reactions, and blunt plain-speaking- both the opposite of slick Hollywood schmooze. It must have been particularly hard for them, facing so much scrutiny during Batman, but Keaton insists he wasn’t aware of it- or not until he happened to pick up the business section of a newspaper and insured a cartoon of his face in an article suggesting that he, personally, would harm Warner Bros’ stock.” I truly didn’t understand why people cared one way or another, and I can’t believe people still care. I just guessed,’ I know what I’m doing, and I could be wrong, but in terms of what Tim and I discussed for the movie, I knew we were right on ,'” he says now.

And they were: Burton’s first Batman film remains one of the most interesting big-budget movies ever constructed, with Keaton’s psychologically subtle performance a major part of that. But unlike Riggan, the Birdman character who becomes preoccupied by his superhero alter ego, Keaton walked away, refusing to construct Batman 3 when Burton wasn’t rehired as director. Was he also just sick of the bat-suit by then?

In Batman( 1989 ). Photograph: Allstar

“[ The cinema] just wasn’t any good, human. I tried to be patient, but after a certain phase, I was like, I can’t take this any more, “its going to be” horrible. But, appear, there was some really horrible savour in the 90 s, and I likely contributed to that, unfortunately. It was a day of nouveau riche excess- everyone was known for their airplanes and their stuff. And I guessed, I’m in this job for the long run, I don’t want this . And the truth is, I’m not boasting, but I was correct. There are a whole load of people who operated things that are long gone .”

Joel Schumacher’s two Batman movies were notoriously terrible, starring first Val Kilmer and then George Clooney. A few years later, Keaton had a cameo as a detective in Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight with Clooney. Did they swap bat narratives?

I didn’t ,” he says,” but he used to shout at me,’ Hey, the brotherhood !’ And I’d go,’ Hey !’ But I had no idea what he meant. Swear to God! And he did it a bunch of periods:’ Brotherhood !’ And then person explained it to me and I was like,’ Ohhhhh !’ I entail, I think I’d forgotten he was in[ Batman ].”

After Batman, Keaton took a series of notably unstarry roles- a tenant from hell opposite Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine in Pacific Heights, a hammy Dogberry in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. There was a operate of slapsticks, including Harold Ramis’ Multiplicity, in which he played a man who clones himself, that were smart and funny, but never going to set the world on fire. Was he deliberately trying to get out of the shadow of the bat signal, or did he just like the scripts?

With Melanie Griffith in Pacific Heights( 1990 ). Photograph: Fox/ Kobal/ Rex/ Shutterstock

” It was both ,” he says.” I do what interests me .”

So he would never do anything just for the money?

” Look, it’s not like I don’t think about the business- I am cognisant of that side of things- but if you overthink the money proportion, you tend to mess it up. I actually thought[ Birdman] might not work, but I also believed, even if it doesn’t work, I want to be a part of this kind of imagination. I want to be around this. It’s like constructing movies with Tim[ Burton ],” he says, those eyebrows rising in various directions.” Being around that is so much fun, you merely want to be in that environment .”

After Out Of Sight, he pretty much vanished for next 16 years. What happened?

” Look, there’s two different things here ,” he says, leaning forward and tapping my knee, emphasising his points in a manner that feels more paternal than creepy.” There’s me taking a pause: I really like life, doing things, having a normal life. So there was that. And there was me getting borne, hearing the voice of my voice, insuring the same old tricks. So I may have lost interest, combined with a whole lot of people not knocking on my door. It wasn’t just me. But I also consciously started to slowly change things internally, and it ran .”

In Spotlight( 2015 ). Photograph: LMK

What does he mean by changing things internally? Dealing with the mental side of things?

” Yeah, yeah. Merely thinking about things, asking what you want, what you don’t want, how am I going to get to there? And it takes a lot of stumbling around, and it takes discipline .”

He spent those years hanging out in Montana, hunting with neighbours and strolling in the woods. His household visited him, and there have been girlfriends( he is in a relationship now, but it’s the one topic he refuses to discuss ), but in the main he was on his own. It’s the life, he says, that he dreamed of as a little boy.


Michael Keaton grew up just outside Pittsburgh, and his real name was and remains Michael Douglas; by the time he started acting, the other one had got there first. Did he ever tell him that he stole his name? Keaton literally spits out his coffee with laughter.” Kinda! Once we got something mixed in the mail, something from one of the[ acting] unions, and I had to return it to him and we talked about it then. He’s a really nice guy, Michael, but it’s not even their name, I guess ?”

No, Kirk changed it from Danielovitch, I say.

” Russian Jews, right? It’s funny .”

Keaton was the youngest of 7 children in a working-class family, and they never went to the cinema because it was too expensive to buy tickets for all the children. But he loved to watch old movies on TV, especially ones starring James Cagney and John Garfield. Was he drawn to acting because he was used to having an audience of siblings?

In Birdman( 2014 ). Photograph: Fox Searchlight/ Courtesy Evere

” Probably. I was talking about this with Colin Farrell the other day on the Dumbo set, actually, because he’s another youngest, and we youngests always relate to one another. You also get away with more, because by that point your parents are like,’ Who’s that again? Oh, yeah, he’s cute, he’s been around a while .'”

He describes himself as a “weird” kid, but then corrects himself:” I mean, I don’t think I was weird. I’d be happy having me as a kid. I was a kid who liked escapade narratives, who fantasised too much, who was extremely physically active. I had friends at school, but I wasn’t really social. I didn’t really like sleepovers- I liked sleeping outside .”

This get him thinking about his son, Sean , now 34, when he was a boy.” He was just a really social little guy, so thoughtful and sensitive and practical, and always hanging out with friends, whereas I wanted to be on my own playing in the woods ,” he says, his voice softening.

Presumably that’s because he had to fight for space, whereas Sean was an merely child and happy to fill the house with friends?

” Yeah, likely. He was always hanging out in groups and going to someone’s home, I remember that ,” he says.

After he and Sean’s mother divorced, Keaton moved to Montana. He dated Courteney Cox, and Michelle Pfeiffer, but never married again. I ask if it was strange having an merely child where reference is grew up in such a big family.

” Not strange, exactly. I wished I’d had more, but then Sean told me he liked being an only child ,” he smiles.

With son Sean in 2015. Photo: Michael Kovac/ Getty Images for Dom Perignon

Sean Douglas is now a Grammy award-nominated songwriter who has worked with Madonna and Demi Lovato, and who is routinely referred to as “Michael Keaton’s hot son”. The two are often each other’s dates to award ceremonies: Sean came to the Golden Globes when his father won for Birdman, and Keaton tearfully thanked him, calling him his “best friend”. When Keaton was last year added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Sean dedicated the speech:” I’ve seen everything from Batman to bath day when I was a young child. I’m so proud to be your son. You’re my hero, my best friend and I love you so much .” Keaton, standing behind his son and moving excitedly from side to side, pinked with delight.

Initially, Keaton thought about going into comedy rather than acting, and you can still find some of his very funny standup routines online. The most striking thing about them is how little he has changed: on stage, he comes across as a nervy, neurotic fast-talker given to flights of surrealism. In one routine, he talks about how merely a appear from a stranger on the street of New York can send him into therapy; in another, he imagines what it would be like if the cartoon strips that used to come with gum packets investigated philosophical concepts.” My mom’s side of the family and my brothers and sisters are really funny- that’s the Irish Catholic side. My father’s side, the Scottish Protestant side? Not so much ,” he says.

In Mr Mom( 1983 ). Photograph: Fox/ Kobal/ Rex/ Shutterstock

I tell him I always thought it was a shame he didn’t do more John Hughes comedies after Mr Mom. Keaton reels back in his chair, hands over his face.” Aw, man! Planes, Trains& Automobiles– that’s the movie I genuinely wish I’d been in !” he says, citing the 1987 John Hughes classic starring John Candy and Steve Martin.” Do you recollect when people would write off John Hughes and those movies he made ?”

Actually, I say, I wrote a volume about why those movies are the most important ever induced.

Really ?” he weeps, ricochetting out of his seat. A publicist comes in to tell us our time is up, but he waves her away.” Wait a minute, she’s really smart and I need to talk to her about this ,” he says pointing at me, although I suspect this is more about John Hughes than my intellect.” I mean, if you look at the specifics of John Hughes’ direction in those movies, it’s incredible ,” he continues.” These weren’t just cute little movies; these were about the economy, job, unemployment, little town. Man, you got me going on this !”

We expend 10 minutes nerding out over The Breakfast Club, before he supposes back to when he met Hughes while building Mr Mom:” I read the script and I believed,’ Wow, this is really funny, this guy has something .’ And then I met John and I said,’ You ought to direct this[ too ].’ But he said no, he was off to direct those movies starring people closer to your age ,” he says, referring to the teen movies, which is sweet, because I am in my late 30 s.” But, yeah, I would have loved to have worked with him. That would have been an experience .”

Michael Keaton, Brat Pack fan? The man genuinely is full of surprises.

* American Assassin is released on Thursday.

Commenting on this piece? If you would like your remark to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email weekend @theguardian. com, including your name and address( not for publication ).

Make sure to visit: CapGeneration.com