Michael Keaton remembers Harold Ramis, tackling Shakespeare and Ron Howard's 'Gung Ho'
SANTA MONICA — Michael Keaton is having the time of his life. Cruising along an awards circuit that has brought him plenty of kudos for his performance in Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" and probably more opportunities to talk about himself than he'd prefer, he seems consistently high on life and not at all phased by the grind. He's not someone who has really sought out this kind of attention and acclaim, often retreating to his ranch in Montana away from the Hollywood fray, but now that he's feeling the love? Let's just say I doubt anyone's having as much fun with all of this than he is.
On the eve of this year's Oscar nominations announcement, I met Keaton for coffee and a light lunch at one of his favorite Santa Monica spots to chew on as much of his career and the awards season tempest as 90 minutes would allow. In the end, a focus on a couple key departments made sense. We talked about "Birdman," of course, as well as his experience at the heart of the "Batman" explosion in 1989, his love of journalism and journalism movies and, "Birdman" being a laugh riot and all, his history with comedy.
That's where we start today, and it seems an organic place to begin. Keaton's roots are in comedy, hanging around spots like Catch a Rising Star in New York and working with improv troupes inspired by the greats of the 1970s. It has even been said he owes his stage name in some way to the form: To satisfy SAG rules early in his career, Michael John Douglas became Michael Keaton, but alas, it was a random pick and not an ode to comedy legend Buster Keaton, as has been reported in the past.
With all that in mind, settle in and read through the back and forth below for a discussion about the early days with Ron Howard, a personal favorite flick from the era, "Gung Ho," working with Harold Ramis on "Multiplicity," tackling Shakespeare with Kenneth Branagh and a little bit about his Tarantino/Soderbergh sojourn. And be sure to check back over the next several days for a whole lot more.
"Birdman" was nominated for nine Academy Awards including Best Actor. The film hits DVD/Blu-ray Feb. 17.
HitFix: It's obviously hard not to play a bit of career retrospective with you. We know the stories by now about Babaloo Mandel and Ron Howard clueing into you and you getting the "Night Shift" gig. "Mr. Mom," "Johnny Dangerously," career lift-off. But I want to fast forward a little bit to is "Gung Ho."
Michael Keaton: OK.
I actually love that movie so much. It's broad comedy but it's also a smart send-up of American machismo. I watched it over and over again when it was on HBO as a kid. George Wendt, John Turturro, the entire cast is so good. I love the "80s" of it all.
Yeah, that great Chrissie Hynde song in there. You know, that's interesting because that's one of those movies we did — it's like Edward Norton was talking about the other day, "Fight Club." It's so great and it wasn't really a hit, but it is a hit because over time it doesn't matter what the money was. Guys like you, you were in a camp of comedy film fans because people who love that movie really love that movie for the reasons that you just mentioned. Like "Multiplicity" has those people, too. But you're right, I'll be honest with you, I really like that movie. And I always felt like I kind of let Ronnie down on that one and I don't know why. I think I could have been better. I can't put my finger on why.
Really? I actually think it's one of your best performances! I do. You don't watch your movies a lot, though. When is the last time you saw?
Oh, I don't know. I probably saw it once and then that's it. I haven't watched it for a long time.
There's a specificity to it, and I note this in a lot of your work. To me, that's the stuff you remember. Sometimes a comedy comes out and it just washes over you and you don't really remember it anymore, but if there's specificity — I'll just give you example. There's a scene with you and Gedde Watanabe getting drunk and laughing. He kind of wipes his eyes and says, "I've got troubles, bud." The way he says it is kind of hilarious, and you go to take a sip of beer, but you can't because you get the giggles. For some reason I lose it every time.
Oh, thanks. Boy — honestly, I'm not just saying this, when people — that's maybe one of the giant reasons why I do what I do, when people get that I'm so appreciative of little things like that. I'll give you an example. I was telling [Mark] Ruffalo the other night. If you really examine what he does, he's actually quietly doing really specific characters. You think you're just watching Mark Ruffalo most of the time, but I just worked with him in "Spotlight" and it's happening kind of in front of you. But when you look at "Foxcatcher," which I thought was great, all those guys are so good. But he does so many great little, quiet little things. And this is something I kind of made them do in "Mr. Mom," little behavioral thing, tiny little things that I would add all the time because they really didn't understand what a guy with real kids is like.
Mark does this thing [in "Foxcatcher"] where he's getting out of the car when he first pulls in and the family is there and he's pulling into the estate and he's having a conversation, I think with his brother or maybe with Steve Carell or someone, and he's getting the kids out of the car. And it's as if he's getting out grocery bags. He kind of grabs this kid, the kid's kind of, like, hanging. Little things like this. [He mimics Ruffalo's multi-tasking moment from the film.] He's talking, he sets the kids down, because in life, parents — and that guy specifically, that kind of guy — that's what he does. Most actors really pick a child up, put a child down [separately from any other action], and that's not what happens. Thanks for appreciating that.
You mentioned "Multiplicity." You talked about this earlier this year with Letterman, I think, working with Harold Ramis. What was that like for you, given the comedy world he came from?
Great, because guys like Harold, they came along out of that stuff, y own generation, when comedy hadn't really blown up yet. I've never read this or heard anybody discuss this but I'll bet you you would hear this from Marty Short and I'll bet you would hear this from Albert Brooks — comedy really wasn't what comedy became. It was a much smaller niche, you know? I mean the stand-ups who started influencing me, and then the movies and the magazines and the television shows, there seemed to be this smallish group of people that really dug comedy.