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From 'Batman' To 'Birdman,' Michael Keaton Knows Suits And Superheroes

Keaton says his 1989 bat suit was downright claustrophobic, but he somehow made it work. In the existential comedy Birdman, Keaton plays a washed-up, insecure actor looking for a second shot at fame.



February 9, 2015

Guest: Michael Keaton

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


MICHAEL KEATON: (As Riggan) How did we end up here in this dump? You were a movie star, remember?

GROSS: My guest, Michael Keaton, is nominated for an Oscar for his starring performance in the film "Birdman," which is nominated for eight other Oscars, including best picture and best director for Alejandro Inarritu. "Birdman" is kind of an existential comedy, with Keaton playing an actor named Riggan Thomson who's having a creative and personal identity crisis. Riggan had been famous for starring as the superhero Birdman in three films, but he gave up the franchise years ago and has been struggling to figure out who he is as an actor and a man. He's dealing with the actor crisis by trying to prove his artistic worth, directing and starring on Broadway in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver story.

During rehearsals and previews, he's constantly second-guessing himself. His insecurities and doubts, as well as his self-absorption, are physically manifested in the form of Birdman, who keeps appearing to Riggan, badgering him about having given up a lucrative Hollywood career for a play in an old Broadway theater. Birdman wants to regain the fame, glory and power that comes with being a superhero. In this scene, Riggan has just come off stage after one of several previews that turned into fiascoes. He walks into his shabby dressing room, opens the little refrigerator, takes a slice of packaged cold cuts and talks with his daughter, Sam, who's working as his assistant. Sam is played by Emma Stone.


EMMA STONE: (As Sam) Dad, Dad.

KEATON: (As Riggan) Hey.

STONE: (As Sam) Are you OK?

KEATON: (As Riggan) Why?

STONE: (As Sam) You seem sort of...

KEATON: (As Riggan) No, I'm good. I'm good. This is good. You want some?

STONE: (As Sam) No.

KEATON: (As Riggan) OK.

STONE: (As Sam) Do you really think you'll be ready for opening tomorrow?

KEATON: (As Riggan) Yeah, yep. Yeah, well, I mean, previews were pretty much a train wreck. We can't seem to get through a performance without a raging fire or a raging [expletive]. I'm broke. I'm not sleeping, like, you know, at all, and this play kind of starting to feel like a major, deformed version of myself. It just keeps following me around and, like, hitting me in the [expletive] with a, like, a tiny little hammer. I'm sorry, what was the question?

STONE: (As Sam) Nevermind.

GROSS: Michael Keaton, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love "Birdman" and I love your performance in it. When I saw the movie, I thought, perfect. Michael Keaton has done two "Batman" films and was famous for that. He must really relate to this character who used to be a superhero and had been famous for that. And then I read or heard you say that you'd never played a character more unlike yourself before.


GROSS: So explain why - even though I thought you'd be resonating so much with the character - you kind of didn't in spite of your great performance.

KEATON: Well, you know, I probably should qualify that a little more than when I said it, which was long time ago. I don't connect to that type of personality. I tend to not have those kind of personality traits - that constant neediness and insecurity and whininess and, you know, me, me, me - the narcissism. You know, when you're one of originally nine children, you know, there's not a ton of room for that. And, you know, I was raised Catholic, so speaking about yourself or talking about yourself too much is not necessarily - and, you know, then on the Protestant side of my family, even more so, do you not talk about yourself.


KEATON: So the whole thing of being self-involved took me a long, long time where I thought it was OK to talk about myself, but - so it doesn't come to me naturally.

GROSS: So how did Alejandro Inarritu offer you the part? Did you ask your agent to go after it or did he come after you knowing that you were the guy?

KEATON: He came after me and I - I don't think many people knew about the script because I think he was keeping it quite close to the vest. I got a call saying he wanted to meet me. And I was very familiar with his work, so I was going to find a way to make that meeting happen. And he handed me the script, said read this on the plane. And as I have said many times before it would had to have been horrible, just, like, unreadable for me to just say no.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KEATON: You know, I was pretty much in from the first phone call, but most of the conversation that evening was getting to know one another. And he really wanted to make clear what he was attempting to do here and how it was made and also about the person. And as much as he talked about what the movie was about and how he wanted to make it clear what was going to be required of me - as much as we spoke about that, he spoke equally as much about himself. He's very forthcoming and open about his personal life and what he was going through and had been through and what he - how he thinks and feels about things and the changes he was going through in turning 50 and confronting himself with really honest questions about his personal life and his artistic life. And that, it turned out, was extremely helpful.

GROSS: "Birdman" is, in part, about acting - about the egos, about all the talk about being truthful on stage. The actor that Edward Norton plays is, like, a hundred percent authentic on stage, but as his girlfriend points out, he's a fraud in the real world where it counts. And with you, every time something awful or ridiculous happens to your character, like being locked out of the theater in your underwear, it seems to just bring out a deeper, more honest and more emotional performance in the play that your character is performing in within the movie. And you get more and more naked metaphorically and literally as the movie progresses. So the movie's kind of operating on two levels. It's kind of mocking actors, but also getting to what makes their work so beautiful and so deeply felt. What did you do to get to the truth of your character, who, you've told us, is in a lot of ways not like you?

KEATON: Well, boy, that's about - just listening to what you just said is about as well put as I've heard it through all these interviews.

GROSS: Well, thank you (laughter).

KEATON: That's - really, that's about it. And it's true. And, you know, listening to you describe it, it really resonates again with me thinking about what he - or what Alejandro accomplished and, gee, Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer, and the camera operator and the crew and the cast and what everybody and the producers - what everyone really pulled off here in 29 days for very little money. And then I kind of retroactively become extremely frightened thinking, what was I thinking?


KEATON: Why did I ever think I should do this? And I think maybe really if I would've thought about it too much it would've been overwhelming because I actually end up playing kind of four different characters in the movie, which really didn't occur to me until we were about a week-and-a-half or two weeks in, thank God. If you factor in that I play characters in the play and then an actor who's actually directing other actors and then I play those actors and then I play the Birdman character - the actual Birdman and my alter ego.

And day-to-day and doing the work and getting to that honest point, that's - for me, it's always about and it always will be as long as they do this refining and refining and refining and refining the truth. Just telling the truth; constantly being as truthful and honest and raw and real as you can be. And this was just the mecca of that. If I wanted to escape that, if I wanted to kind of be cowardly about it I guess and not expose myself to it and kind of maybe phone a little bit of it in, even if I wanted to I couldn't have. I chose not to because I think it was a good timing at this point in my life and my career. And I'd like to think I'm a courageous actor anyway.

I think that's the thing - when it's all over, I hope someone, like, says about me that I had a lot of guts. And, you know, sometimes you fail. But to go down - you know, to be frightened and to go down that hole and to be as raw as you can be, that's a blessing to me, to get that opportunity. You know, it could've failed miserably. People could've laughed at me and, you know, made fun of me for the rest of my life. And honestly it probably would've hurt my feelings a lot and then I would've gotten by it and said, well, you know what? It doesn't really matter because I got a big set of [expletive], so...


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Keaton. He stars in "Birdman." He's nominated for an Oscar for best performance. The film is nominated for best picture. Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Keaton. He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in "Birdman," and the film is nominated for an Oscar for best picture.

One of the really special things about the film is how it's shot and choreographed. There's a scene, and it's the scene that we opened the show with, in which you're taking some food out of the refrigerator after coming off...


GROSS: After coming off a performance in which you'd locked yourself out of the theater and had to walk in your underwear around to the main entrance of the theater in order to get in, then walk down the aisle, do your performance on stage, finish the performance, and then go backstage and have that talk with your daughter. Is that all one take?

KEATON: No, that is not all one take.

GROSS: Not one take, I mean, like, one shot.

KEATON: It's all one - yes. I know what you mean. No, that is not all one shot.


KEATON: It's only two, like, I would say, like, two and a half really, because - and, you know, you're right. Actually, when I was listening to you explain to the audience how it was shot, even now I keep remembering things and I think about all the details because not only was it all those things you said - going down the hallway, another actor has to enter precisely at a moment. Then there might be three people in the hallway, then you go downstairs. It was even things like downstairs, out a doorway, into the hallway where I see Edward, then we walk down the sidewalk. It had to be timed perfectly to get to a line exactly when I tossed the coins to the drummer, and then timed out so we were dead on the exact word, not just the line, to enter the bar. And then we went into the bar and did the scene, and then that whole scene runs through the bar, and then I go over and I walk back out. Well, the scene you're talking about I think was almost that long, so in all those shots often it was also a cab had to pull up at the right time.

GROSS: (Laughter) Right.

KEATON: You know, and all the little details - and he is so detail-oriented. I mean, I can't imagine what it meant in his mind, in his brain, Alejandro's and Chivo's. But also the actors had to be aware of it. I had to be aware of it. I had to know kind of what was going to happen at all time, and at the same time stay right in the moment and stay locked in the character and be cognizant of all - of every tiny detail that was happening in every tiny little bit of the frame. At the same time, forget it, and just be in the moment and be truthful and just be the character, you know. Man, there was a lot to this movie (Laughter).

GROSS: Well, that sounds really hard.

KEATON: Really hard.

GROSS: But it's very exhilarating to watch. One thing I'm wondering is, like, if an actor - not you, but another actor - made a mistake after you - everybody worked so hard to get all of the choreograph motions down with exact timing, with everybody's emotion being truthful and funny and in the moment, but one person made a mistake, so you have to do the whole thing over again, would people get angry at that one person?

KEATON: No, never. That's interesting. You would think that that would at least happen at some point, but everyone was in the same boat, you know? And it didn't always exactly occur exactly like that, however, sometimes it would. It would just - you'd just go, oh, no, here we go.

GROSS: Were you ever that one person?

KEATON: I'm sure I was. I can't remember. You know, for me it was never about, oh, I hope I make it to the end of the scene because then you're not really in the scene. For me, it was about moment to moment, you know, second to second, scene to scene just staying right on the truthfulness and staying in character and just being the person and just living the truth of it. And then, we either got through it or we didn't. And when it didn't work, if you let that pull you down, you were - for me anyway - I was kind of done. I mean, you can't afford that. As mentally tired as I got through this movie, you couldn't afford to get angry or letdown because then it all starts to fall apart. You know, you - it's like an athlete. You have to really emotionally and mentally bear down and be really just as tough and say, let's just keep going, let's just keep going, let's just keep going. And everybody I think had that mindset, so it never really got like that. It was more like - you know who I really felt it for sometimes was someone who maybe had a small, small role in the movie, and they certainly don't want to be that person who walks in and was only working for two days and messes it up, because they probably feel a little bit like an outsider already, but there was just a big support system. Nobody ever really, you know, I mean, Alejandro, you know, would get very frustrated, but it was, you know, he knew it was brought on, most of it, by himself and Chivo because they're perfectionists. And I tend to be perfectionistic, too, so that's either a good combination or a bad combination. I don't really know.

GROSS: So let me mention that scene again where you get locked out of the theater.


GROSS: You leave your dressing room to have a smoke and accidentally got locked out in your underwear. It's raining out. So you have to walk around Times Square and get back into the theater through the main entrance where the ushers don't even recognize you and don't want to let you in.

KEATON: Right.

GROSS: But anyways, while your character is walking around Times Square, he's recognized because he used to be, you know, the superhero Birdman. People are taking his picture and posting it on Twitter and YouTube. And so you really did walk across Times Square in your underwear to shoot that scene. Was it all extras who were watching or were there real people there, too?

KEATON: Real people because you couldn't - once again, though, I'm sorry, just give me a second here. Every time I hear you describe things really well, I start to remember things again or realize things that I'm not sure I realized at the time, because as you described all these things I thought, you know, it was - not just this scene, the entire movie - it was, for Riggan Thomson, one indignity after another.

GROSS: (Laughter) I know, and his fly is open half the time, too.


KEATON: Yes, just horrible, just getting worse and worse and worse. Now, what's fortunate about all that is I happen to find that stuff really, really, funny. I mean, I have a weird job. The fact that I think that's a good idea to do that on a large screen and let millions of people watch it and I think that's a good idea, that's really weird to choose that as an occupation. But I really do think that stuff is really, really, funny.

GROSS: Did you buy special underwear for this scene? It looks like just your regular...

KEATON: No. Yeah, I wanted to...

GROSS: Regular shorts.

KEATON: And immediately...

GROSS: Briefs. Briefs, they're briefs, not shorts.

KEATON: Briefs, yes, what they call briefs. And I knew I wanted to look - they're pathetic enough, but...

GROSS: (Laughter).

KEATON: ...But what really is the beautiful finishing touch is the black socks. That's what really sold me.


KEATON: Just so sad and pathetic, and him trying to hold his dignity up somehow. You know, just for a second, here's how smart he and Chivo are - in as precise as this movie had to be, it also - you needed to be flexible, like, there were things coming up that you went, oh, man - every day was problem-solving. There are certain things you just can't know definitively how to shoot, so that always happened and you had to rewrite or refigure, sit down, or have a meeting. And one of them was, OK, we'll get extras for a while, and then they're probably going to disappear and get bored, and then they're not - how do you control the extras? Then, how do you control the people from coming in? So, kind of at the last second, he created that idea of the drummers in the marching band to distract people that way so that we cannot get in the way of actually people, you know, messing up the shot.

GROSS: When you're walking through the crowd it's like you're power walking, like your arms are kind of pumping back and forth almost as if, like, you're literally swimming through the crowd and you need your arms to propel you.

KEATON: Yes, here's a practical part of that - I'm a runner, you know, so and a jogger and a hiker and a walker, etc., so I still - my wind's pretty good, my legs are pretty strong, and I can move. I can still go, you know, for a guy, you know, my age, I can - but you can't really because camera can only go so fast. So you start to invent things, and one of the things I thought was just hold yourself upright kind of and do a - just a strut that'll work for camera but also look like kind of stupid - not stupid, but kind of, you know, kind of like - not silly, because you can't go silly, but in a way, like, kind of hold up his dignity. But in that shot everyone talks about that stretch. For me, the front part of that, when I get caught in the door, and how I was going to play that - play the reality of how do I get out of this jam? And when I - when he walks - when Riggan walks away and try to, like, goes into this crouch, like maybe if I crouch no one will notice.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KEATON: And then the idea - maybe my favorite little spot in the movie is when he comes in at the theater and picks up the scene and decides to continue playing the scene from the aisle in his underpants and a wig in his black socks, and keep - you know, the show must go on, and he keeps doing it. And that shot of Naomi when they look - she looks out and sees me, and then she feeds me the line instead of saying, wait a minute, we have to stop, this is ridiculous. She just - we all continue on with the play with a fake gun in my hand, you know, an imaginary gun. I mean, that stuff is really, really silly, and at the same time just totally fits in with this movie. I mean, you know...

GROSS: And at the same time, your character is giving a great performance when he walks in, in spite of the underwear and the black socks and all of that.


GROSS: He's totally in the moment and totally authentic in that performance.

KEATON: Yes, and also, you know, it's building toward the big moment where it took a breakdown for him to find - for the play to come together and him to come together in terms of a performance. It's just when you keep thinking about what he pulled off and, you know, if you'd have shot this traditionally it would have been much, much, much, much, much easier to do and not nearly as interesting.

GROSS: Your character played a superhero called Birdman, and the Birdman character follows him around as his alter ego. And he's always just kind of insulting him and hectoring him and saying, like, why did you - you know, you should've taken the role. You should have, like, played Birdman again. And you should have taken that reality show that you were offered instead of, like, doing this theater stuff, and so...


GROSS: ...So his alter ego is basically insulting him a good deal of the time. That's your voice, the voice of the Birdman alter ego, right?

KEATON: Right, right.

GROSS: And are you also in the costume?


GROSS: Or is that somebody else?

KEATON: No, that's me. And, by the way, same dimensions as the original Batman suit, I'm very proud to say.

GROSS: (Laughter) You haven't put on any weight.

KEATON: Well, I did actually early on in this movie. I had Alejandro go to lunch with me and look at the plate, look at the waiter, look at me and stand there and go, keep pushing the plate, because, you know, the guy is down and out and been - you know, he's out of shape, etc., etc., so he really wanted that.

But anyway, yes it is me. And also, you know, Alejandro, really, and I worked on this early on - rehearsing, talking about it, then we went into rehearsals, then we shot it. And then the post, in terms of getting the voice and getting the character and rewriting all that dialogue or monologue or language, you know, that Birdman comes up with and rewriting it and going back and trying different recording, like he wanted to do it really in a great studio. And then he didn't like the sound of it. It sounded too kind of perfect, so we found a place where the sound wasn't nearly as good. And we even had one where we could hear noise coming in from the window outside. And he's relentless and perfectionistic, and I was - you know, we had wrapped the movie, and he and I continued to work on it and work on it and work on it.

GROSS: My guest, Michael Keaton, is nominated for an Oscar for best actor for his performance in "Birdman." In the second half of the show, he'll talk more about his roles in "Birdman" and "Batman" and about growing up with six siblings, living for a while in an old farmhouse without plumbing or electricity. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Michael Keaton. He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring performance in the film "Birdman," which is nominated for eight other Oscars, including best picture. Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who had been famous for starring in several blockbusters as the superhero Birdman. He gave up the franchise and is trying to reinvent himself on Broadway, directing and starring in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. But he keeps seeing and hearing his "Birdman" character, who follows him around hectoring Riggan for having given up the franchise.

Let's hear a moment of you as the Birdman. And this is his voice kind of, like, taunting you.


KEATON: (As Birdman) How did we end up here in this dump? You were a movie star, remember?

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. There he is, like, insulting you 'cause you're doing theater instead of a superhero movie. So is that a processed version of your voice?

KEATON: No. How that happened was when I did "Batman" - the first one - because I'm ridiculously logical I - and, you know, I got to have some reason for truth of the matter, even if I am playing a guy in a big, black, rubber suit, I got to believe somewhere, you know, how - I got to justify certain things. So, you know, we were doing a scene with Tim and I said, hey, you know we're downtown (laughter) Gotham. I'm, you know, like, four and a half feet from one of the dignitaries in town. And I was looking at the lighting and I said this is not believable. You know, the guy's going to say - he's going to hear my voice and he's going to see my mouth and, you know, whatever he can see and go, hey, it's Bruce Wayne everybody. You know, so I thought - I got to get around this. We got to, like, change my angle or we got to - and Tim thought it was a great idea so we lit it kind of differently. And I said - I had already thought of creating a kind of - a very subtle change in his personality when he went from Bruce Wayne to Batman anyway. I kind of did it, a lot of it was cut out, but I did these other things.

But just to justify it for me, I said I got to make at least some voice change, something here that I can at least believe, you know? So I kind of did the shift in the voice at the top of the movie where I kick the guy into the door when he asks me who I am or what I am or whatever he asks me. And then I continued to use that voice when I was in the "Batman" thing just, you know, as a thing.

So I was telling the story to Alejandro, and he thought it was tremendous and funny. And he calls Chivo - Emmanuel Lubezki - over and goes, Chivo, listen to this. So we started laughing and he said, oh, my God, you have to do that. That's it. That's what we're going to do, we're going to do a voice for "Birdman." So I said, OK. And then the voice changed and changed and changed - got a little more gravelly and it got more and - he wanted me to go deeper voice and then raspy voice, then more dramatic. Then he'd hear it and would go back a week later and change it again. But that's really - that was the origin of it. And it became some kind of bastardized version of what the original Batman voice was.

GROSS: So, you know, you're talking about the voice that you used as Birdman in the film "Birdman" and comparing that to the voice you used as Batman in your "Batman" films. So let's hear a short scene from the first "Batman" in 1989, directed, as you said, by Tim Burton. This is from early in the movie. And two criminals are on a rooftop. They've just robbed a place. They're looking at their loot. And then you appear as Batman, you fight them off, you repel their bullets with your body armor, use your Batman grappling hook. Then you dangle one of the muggers off the side of the building, and he's hollering for you to spare him.


CHRISTOPHER FAIRBANK: (As Nic) Don't kill me. Don't kill me, man. Don't kill me. Don't kill me, man.

KEATON: (As Batman) I'm not going to kill you. I want you to do me a favor. I want you tell all your friends about me.

FAIRBANK: (As Nic) What are you?

KEATON: (As Batman) I'm Batman.

GROSS: And (laughter) as we can hear, Batman has a very stirring theme. And in "Birdman..."

KEATON: Yeah, I know. I...

GROSS: Yeah and in "Birdman," your character's always imagining - when he's fantasizing the powers that he had as Birdman or wanting those powers. He's fantasized and, like, his theme music behind him (laughter).

KEATON: Yes. Right, right, which is majestic and symphonic and really...

GROSS: Yeah.

KEATON: ....Like he's flying, you mean? Yeah - and beautiful, actually. It's funny. I was just listening to that score, which is a great score, you know - great. And when you hear it, it's not that it sounds dated because it's really good it actually, but you think, oh, I forgot it was that kind of score, you know, Danny Elfman.

GROSS: Yeah.

KEATON: And how about the courage when Alejandro said - I said, hey, you know - 'cause I really liked his score in "Babel" and I actually wanted to know what that instrument was. It sounded like a mandolin. It's actually not. I think it's a Middle Eastern stringed instrument - he told me what it was - that kind of is the base for that. And we we're talking about that and I said, what are you thinking about? You going to use those guys again? And he said, no, I think I'm going to do drums, only drums.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KEATON: And I go, really? And he goes, yeah. And I'm thinking, yeah, good luck. He's never going to stick to that. This movie's going to need manipulation, it's going to need strings and you know, blah, blah, blah 'cause it's already risky what he's trying. Man, when I saw it and he stuck to it and stuck with just - I thought, wow, man. This guy's got some guts. This is really - and it works. It works so great (laughter).

GROSS: I agree. I completely agree. But getting back to "Batman," how did it feel to be wearing the cape and the tights? (Laughter).

KEATON: Simultaneously ridiculous to the point where you had overcome it and risky. And I guess kind of cool. I'm claustrophobic so I had to work through that. It ended up working really perfectly for the character. It made me feel real isolated inside there - couldn't really hear and - but - so that really was a - ended up being a bonus - plus for me. But once again, you think, oh, boy. This is one of those things - this could really go down.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KEATON: This could just be a huge mistake. But if you punk out or if you go halfway or if you don't commit to it - if you get frightened and kind of want to save yourself and not look, you know, that just doesn't work. That's just never going to work. So - not to me anyways. So you commit to it, and you say OK, you know, I'm in. Let's make this thing work. And plus I had the advantage also - the imagery was so strong and powerful. And once I saw that, I went, oh, I'm going to work this thing, man. I'm going to work the angles of the suit, the shadows of the suit, the frighten-ness of it, the sexiness of it. I'm going to the work the [expletive] out of that.

GROSS: So Tim Burton first cast you in "Beetlejuice" in 1988. And the story revolves around a couple, played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin, who are killed in a car accident and they return to their home as ghosts. And a new family moves in and Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis want these people out. So they go to another ghost, played by you, Betelgeuse, who is bio-exorcist?

KEATON: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: And it's his job to, like, scare these people out of the house. Let's play a scene. And this is the first scene where you meet the couple played by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis.


KEATON: (As Betelgeuse) You know, there's something beautiful about this. You two kids picked me. You didn't have to, but you picked me. It makes me want to kiss you guys. Come on.

GEENA DAVIS: (As Barbara Maitland) No.

KEATON: (As Betelgeuse) Give me one.

DAVIS: (As Barbara Maitland) No.

ALEC BALDWIN: (As Adam Maitland) I beg your pardon.

KEATON: (As Betelgeuse) All right. Let's get down to business. You're right. I got a card letter somewhere. Here, here, who do I have to kill? Here, hold that for me, would you?


DAVIS: (As Barbara Maitland) (Screams).

KEATON: (As Betelgeuse) There you go.

BALDWIN: (As Adam Maitland) You don't have to kill anybody.

KEATON: (As Betelgeuse) Ah, possession - good. Learn to throw your voice, fool your friends - fun at parties.

DAVIS: (As Barbara Maitland) (Gasps). No, we just want to get some people out of our house.

KEATON: (As Betelgeuse) Ah, I understand, I understand. Well, look, in order to do that, I'm really going to have to get to know you guys, you know? We got to get closer. Move in with you for a while, get to be real pals, you know what I'm saying? (Sneezes, Coughs) Save that guy for later.

BALDWIN: (As Adam Maitland) My wife and I would like to ask you a couple of questions.

KEATON: (As Betelgeuse) Sure, sure. Go ahead, shoot.

BALDWIN: (As Adam Maitland) For instance, what are your qualifications?

KEATON: (As Betelgeuse) Ah, well, I attended Juilliard. I'm a graduate of the Harvard Business School, and I travel quite extensively. I lived through the black plague and I had a pretty good time during that. I've seen "The Exorcist" about a 167 times, and it keeps getting funnier every single time I see it. Not to mention the fact that you're talking to a dead guy. Now, what do you think? You think I'm qualified?

GROSS: (Laughter) That's hysterical. You're so manic in that. And your voice reminds me a little bit of the voice we were talking about for "Birdman."

KEATON: Yeah, I guess.

GROSS: Did it hurt to do that voice?

KEATON: You know, I'm not in the movie that much, frankly. You know, listening to that brings back - I actually - you laid out the storyline of "Beetlejuice" and I went, oh, that's right. That's what that's about. I forgot what the movie was about.


KEATON: And I realize how much of that was just written on the spot. How you just riffed, you know, I would just riff.

GROSS: Oh, really?

KEATON: Oh, yeah. And that was - that whole speech, in fact, was not really, you know, the whole - I went to the Juilliard - none of that was on the script, on the page. A lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of "Beetlejuice" was not on the page. The basics were kind of there, and I said well, if I'm going to play him, I'm going to play him like this, and what do you think? And they were great. You know, Tim was tremendous about - you know, he was open to my interpretation.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Keaton. He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring performance in "Birdman." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Keaton. He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in "Birdman," and "Birdman" is nominated for best picture.

So did you grow up in a farmhouse in western Pennsylvania?

KEATON: Yeah, actually it was an old farmhouse. The first house we grew up in was - I lived - we grew up - really, we were kind of country people mostly. But, well, in Pittsburgh anyway, western Pennsylvania, there were mill towns or railroad towns, you know, and most of them are mill towns. My mom came from a mill town, steel mill town, down on the river. But in between was very rural. And then, you know, I wasn't that far from West Virginia, really, the border between Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

And so the very, very first house we were in - I'm looking at the studio. Honestly, I'm not exaggerating this. It was about - man, I don't know - three of these studios big with a little attic bedroom upstairs where my mother and father slept. And I slept in a crib in that room. And there must've been a period where my sister slept up there, too, because there were, at that point - there was a period where there were seven - well, nine people but seven kids in a very small house, a very nice, neat, clean, little house, but a small house. Then we moved right down the road because my father got the family farmhouse which was totally run down, totally run down. And I loved that house. It was huge and just fun and pockets and places to play and an old porch that barely withstanding, you know, you could jump off of into the - you know, there were no steps. It was just this old...

GROSS: Electricity, plumbing, did you have that?

KEATON: Well, we didn't - yeah, we had electricity. And I, you know, I never saw it as - later, about a year ago, my sister told me, she said, you know, when we moved to that house we didn't have plumbing. And I said, what are you talking about? She said, we didn't have it. We didn't have an indoor bathroom. She said, you know, it took a while for Dad to fix things up and he had to do it himself, you know, kind of fix the pipes and hook it up and do everything. And then by the time - you know, he was always working two jobs, you know, his own practice, his own surveying job, and he was kind of working on and off for the county. And then we - I didn't know that. And so I guess we - and I was really still small. And then, finally, we got indoor plumbing. I mean, it sounds silly. It's not like we lived for years like that, you know. And then we moved down the road. And that house burnt down actually, our old farmhouse, which was a sad day for me.

GROSS: After you moved it burned down?

KEATON: Yeah, we had moved down. One day it just caught fire, just burned to the ground. And I'll never forget that night. We heard there was a fire. We all went up in our little pajamas and watched our old house burn down. It really made me feel sad. I loved that house. I think my mom and dad were glad to see it go. It was really hard to maintain. It was old, and, you know, my mom kept it really clean and did her best, but...

GROSS: So your mother had seven children?

KEATON: My mom had nine children.

GROSS: She lost two of them?

KEATON: She lost two babies, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: So you are the youngest of the seven kids who survived.

KEATON: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: What did it mean to be the youngest?

KEATON: It was kind of great. It was kind of great. Built-in audience, you know? A lot of love...


GROSS: People kissing you and playing with you and beating you up all the time, you know, wrestling with you, and you always had to like, you know, - there was always wrestling. You had four guys in the family, so somebody's always, like, hitting somebody or chasing somebody or getting mad or fighting or wrestling or - you know, it's just, like, what you did. And so when you're the youngest, you know, it's good for you. You figure out real early how to get out of headlocks and holds really quickly (laughter), how to squirm your way out of your older brothers and sisters fighting. We're all really close, you know. We're all very, very close.

GROSS: Was TV in your life from the very beginning? Did your family own a TV?

KEATON: Yeah, that's how I knew - that's how I figured all this out or fell in love with it, you know? Books, reading, and stories that I would read, stories that I would make up, but television, you know, little television set. There was a period when I was really young where we had the only television in the - for, I don't know, from just miles around. But my mother and father talked about people, neighbors coming down to watch something on the television, you know. And, you know, then people started getting television sets. They were black-and-white TV. And I would watch old - you know, occasionally old movies would play on that and then some television shows. I loved the Westerns. And I love real Westerns. I loved gangster movies, you know, or Army movies, you know, anything - I was a ridiculously cliched kid, you know, anything that was male and boy, fighting, shooting, you know, all that stuff. I was just in love with it. I always loved gangster movies - Jimmy Cagney and John Garfield and all that stuff, you know. And then the comedies, I really got into the comedies.

GROSS: So your parents were Catholic and observant.

KEATON: My mom was. My dad was a Protestant. And, you know, that was a big deal.

GROSS: Oh, that's right. You're right. Right, so what did that make you?

KEATON: It was a blessing because I distinctly remember, you know, hearing only Catholics are going to heaven. And I was blessed by that because I really was a, you know, I bought the whole deal. In Catholic school I was a good Catholic kid, altar boy and all that. And I remember thinking, whoa, now wait a minute, you know, my dad's not Catholic. I haven't really seen him do anything really that wrong. You know, I'm going, this doesn't hold up logically to me. So I think somewhere in the back of my head I tucked it away. I went, eh, I'm kind of in. I'm mostly in on the religion thing but not totally. That was a blessing in disguise, I think. You know, it really made me open-minded to things, I think.

GROSS: Did you have an official exit point?

KEATON: No, because I loved being raised Catholic. I think it was very - I really like it. And I - you know, if I meditate, I still occasionally find that because that's my - that's familiar territory for me. I'll find a church I think is cool, but not often, or, you know - yeah, there were exit points kind of early on, you know, like in - you know, I was kind of the kid who got in trouble in high school, and I was a party boy in college and I was a lot of fun. And also, you know, you start reading more and learning more and you're open to more people, you know, and different viewpoints. And, you know, I'm a curious dude, so I read a lot. But I never was one of those guys who went, oh, my God, this is scarring, this is horrible, you know. I thought it was pretty cool. I liked it. And I love Pope Francis. I think he's pretty cool. I hope the other slipper doesn't fall, as they say, you know, we don't find out something weird down the road. I hope he gets in and out and everybody goes, wow, how about that dude?

GROSS: So your family name. The family that you're from, the family name is Douglas.


GROSS: But because Michael Douglas was already Michael Douglas when you started acting professionally, you changed your name to Michael Keaton. Did you resent at all that somebody kind of owned your name already in the public sphere?

KEATON: Yes (laughter). Yes, I didn't think about it then, but I resent it. I just thought, oh, I actually like my name, you know. I've always kind of - I thought, yeah, you know, that's my name. I'm pretty good with it. Yeah, and I use it actually occasionally, you know. You know, I mean, I use it in private life all the time. That's my name. That's who I am, you know. But I just use the other one for jobs, which makes it really easy - clearer, frankly. It makes things very simple, you know. This is my career. This is how I make a living. This is how I live my life. And I sneak it in. You know, I directed a little movie and I want to use it. You know, I like my name. I want to tuck it in there somewhere. I'm trying not to go through the whole John Cougar/Mellencamp thing which went on for years, you know.


GROSS: So you changed it to Keaton in honor of Western Keaton?

KEATON: No, just randomly.

GROSS: Just randomly?

KEATON: Trust me, I'll talk about if you want to talk about it. It's so dull I can't tell you. I mean, really, I've been through this literally thousands of times or at least hundreds of times. But if you want to hear it, I'll tell you. But honestly, you'll nap. If you haven't had a nap, now would be a good time.


KEATON: There was a union. You can't get in if somebody's got a name. I got a gig. I had to make up a name. I was in the K's. I said, this seems kind of down the middle of the road, kind of flows nicely, and I'll figure out a cool name, you know, in a few weeks when I get the next job. And they said, you got to sign this thing now. You're going to start work tomorrow. Made it up, never changed it, and that's it.

GROSS: All right. (Snoring).

KEATON: (Laughter). Good for you.

GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry.


KEATON: Wise choice.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Keaton. He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring performance in "Birdman." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Keaton. He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in "Birdman." The film is nominated for best picture. Can I play you just, like, one little clip from "Birdman?" I want to know who this voice is 'cause it sounds so familiar, and I can't place it. It's a great voice. There's a scene in "Birdman," and this isn't a spoiler 'cause it's in the trailer - when you are on the roof and you're kind of feeling your Birdman superpower, but you're also in a very vulnerable state. And people are looking at you on the roof and not knowing - is this guy a jumper or is this a movie? Like, what is going on?

KEATON: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: So here's a woman who's yelling up at you.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hey. Is this for real, or are you shooting a film?

KEATON: (As Riggan) A film.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You people are full of crap.


GROSS: Love that.

KEATON: Kind of makes me laugh.

GROSS: Who is that voice?

KEATON: That's her - as far as I know, that's that actress. See, the thing about this movie is you look - even that - you barely see that woman, and she just nailed that. Every little role was done - was performed really well by really good actors in this movie. I really love that scene. That makes me laugh a lot when she says that. That's that actress.

GROSS: Like, what actress? Like, you don't know her name?

KEATON: I can't remember the woman's name, no...

GROSS: (Laughter) Right, OK.

KEATON: ...'Cause I actually never met her actually because...

GROSS: Oh, so that was just added in?

KEATON: No. She performed it, and she was right on cue. I mean, she - I kept thinking, oh, man, you know, I'm standing on the edge of this building, you know, and this is not - this is nervous - I'm not crazy about heights. And I'm nine stories up, and I'm thinking, man, I hope everybody's on their cue. And they were. And she was right on it 'cause it had to happen at a precise moment when the camera comes up the side of the building, like, inches from my face and then swirls around the back, and it has to pick her up. And so she had to be cued precisely. That's just something that people don't get. They don't realize how hard all that stuff is to do. You know, and it's not like you have a - $80 million or $120 million and days to - and different crews - you know, like, four crews. This was handmade, and, you know, we had to pull all the stuff off.

GROSS: So when you're on the edge of that roof nine stories high...

KEATON: Knees shaking.

GROSS: ...And you have fear of heights, do you have any protection?

KEATON: Yeah. You know, you're cabled in and the guys were great and all that.


KEATON: But, you know, to be honest with you, you go, yeah, you know, I'd probably feel better if the movie were, you know, like, $90 million and I'm cabled in...


KEATON: ...Than, you know, a few million dollars 'cause you go, who did they get exactly to secure me to this building, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

KEATON: Is this a guy who works, like, once every nine years and goes, yeah, I got a garage, but I'll - you know, down the road - but I got some cables, I'll do it for you, you know? That was my fear more than the - and standing on the edge of nine stories is not pleasant. And also you need - you know, I thought more than anything, I really want to be locked into the guy here. He's really fragile, and, once again, it worked. You know, the fear - I think I just thought - and I picked a spot far on the horizon to focus on to - so I wouldn't - 'cause you were - I didn't want to teeter and go in and out of focus when the camera came up so it would get the shot. But also, you know, I had to remember lines, had to be on cue and be convincing, but then say, but, you know, what's my state right now? So I focused across the way, never realizing as the camera would come up inches from my face, your depth of field changes, and you get disoriented. And the -remarkable job by the focus puller. I mean this guy just nailed it. Some of those things could be 20 takes, and we nailed it the first time, really, and then we just did two more just to have it.

GROSS: Well, what you're describing is perfect 'cause your character at that point is kind of wobbling between...

KEATON: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...This super hero image that he still has and being at the most vulnerable point of his life.

KEATON: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. And just - that's right. He's really now entering that really, really dark - he's gone. He's kind of - I think this is the beginning of him being liberated, you know? This is the beginning...


KEATON: ...Where he just says, you know, [expletive] with it, man.

GROSS: You say - you use the word liberated. And everyone I know who's seen the movie has the discussion about what does the ending mean. Do you want to say anything about what it means to you, or would you prefer not?

KEATON: I can only say what Ale - I can say what Alejandro says which I really agree with which is, it has as many interpretations as there are seats in the theater - as there are people in seats in the theater, which some people get - most people really like it. I mean like not knowing - like the ambiguity or knowing that they've got their own take on it or like the discussion. Some people seem a little frustrated by it, but I would wonder why one would be frustrated by it.

But for me, I don't know. I don't think about it much, actually. I kind of have it in the back of my head - what I like. But I - what's kind of cool is I just thought, I don't really care one way or another. And I think - I don't know. How do I know it won't change in 10 days or how do I know I'll look at it again and go, oh, you know what I think or you know what I want to feel here - you know what I choose to think or choose not knowing kind of, you know? You know, I think the not knowing is the best option.

GROSS: Well, Michael Keaton, thank you so much for this interview, and thank you for your performance in "Birdman."

KEATON: Thank you for having me. It's great.

GROSS: I really enjoyed it.

KEATON: Me too, thanks.

GROSS: So good luck at the Oscars.

KEATON: Yeah, it would mean a lot to me. I'm really excited.

GROSS: Michael Keaton is nominated for an Oscar for his starring performance in the film "Birdman," which is nominated for eight other Oscars including best picture and best director. If you haven't tried listening to our podcast yet, this would be a great time. We've made some improvements that we're very happy about. You can subscribe through iTunes or your mobile app. It's easy, it's free, and it's available to listen to whenever you want to hear it. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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