It’s tempting to assume that the character Michael Keaton plays in Birdman is a thinly fictionalized version of himself. He plays Riggan Thomson, a veteran actor who became a superstar when he donned a cape and cowl to become the winged creature of the film’s title. He fought bad guys and saved the world…until he grew tired of being a cog in the Hollywood blockbuster machine and walked away from it all. Sound familiar? Keaton, of course, helped create the modern-day superhero genre 25 years ago when he starred as the original Dark Knight in Tim Burton’s Batman (and then its sequel, Batman Returns). He too hung up the rubber suit when he no longer felt creatively fulfilled. Surely, then, Keaton related to Riggan like no other character from his entire 40-year career, right?
Wrong. “The truth is that I was playing a person, just a person,” he tells EW in this week’s cover story. “And I was both as connected to Riggan and as disconnected from him as you can possibly be. And I have to tell the truth about that.”
Here’s another truth about Birdman: It was a beast to make. The movie unfolds almost entirely in the claustrophobic confines of New York’s St. James Theater, where Keaton’s character, desperate to rebuild his reputation, is literally staging a comeback by directing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The high-stress behind-the-proscenium action unfolds over several weeks, but thanks to the ingenuity of director Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Babel) and cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (Gravity), Birdman appears to be shot in one continuous take. This meant that Keaton and his costars (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, and Zach Galifianakis among them) spent most of the month-long shoot doing complex unbroken shots that lasted as long as 10 minutes—an eternity in moviemaking. “You’d go home, and have dinner, and then you’d start to think about the next day’s work,” says Keaton. “And that’s when the panic would set in. These were all really good, accomplished actors. And everybody showed up every morning frightened. The crew too. I think we were all thinking, I don’t want to be the guy who lets everybody down.”
In our exclusive interview with Keaton, the actor, 63, also talks about the current state of the Caped Crusader and his ilk: “Chris Nolan is great, but I’ve never seen any of the Batman movies all the way through. I know they’re good. I just have zero interest in those kinds of movies. I mean, people are asking me, ‘Is Ben Affleck going to be any good?’ And my attitude is, First of all, why would you ask me? Second, he’s probably going to be very good, and third, frankly, it’s all set up now so that you’re weirdly kind of safe. Once you get in those suits, they really know what to do with you. It was hard then; it ain’t that hard now.”
For more on Birdman and Keaton—including his memories of being Burton’s Batman and whether he would ever suit up again—check out this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday, Oct. 10.