In Birdman, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a veteran film actor who is desperate to change the public’s perception of who he is and what he can do. Like Keaton, Riggan is best remembered for playing a superhero 25 years ago. And like Keaton, he has, ever since, been patiently fielding questions about why he left that role — Riggan walked away from Birdman 4, Keaton didn’t want to do, or be, Batman Forever. Riggan, like Keaton, lives in a contemporary cultural universe that’s all too easy to recognize, in which the caffeinated chirping of celebrity-news shows about ”Robert Downey Jr.’s billion-dollar Iron Man franchise!” is constant is constant background noise, and in which anxious stars measure their own waxing and waning fame by their retweet stats and YouTube hits. And like Riggan, Keaton finds it all a bit alien.
Birdman, which is subtitled The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, was thunderously received when it played the Venice and Telluride film festivals in August. The movie opens Oct. 17, and the closer you look, the longer, deeper, and darker its hall of mirrors becomes. It’s a chance to see a director who has never gone near the superhero genre tell a story about what it can do to an actor by assembling a cast that’s been there and lived to tell the tale. Edward Norton — veteran of The Incredible Hulk! — plays Mike Shiner, the deranged costar of the Broadway play on which Riggan is trying to rebuild his reputation; he’s the guy they get because Woody Harrelson, Michael Fassbender, and Jeremy Renner are all embroiled in their own billion-dollar franchises and unavailable. Emma Stone — veteran of The Amazing Spider-Man! — plays Riggan’s petulant daughter, who threatens to demolish his fragile stability by sneering, ”You had a career, Dad, before the third time you put on that costume.” And while Batman himself does not make an appearance in the movie, we do see Birdman — an ebony-feathered crusader with a deep Gotham growl and a mask that covers the top half of his face — as he haunts Riggan with words of either egomaniacal encouragement or ego-shattering contempt. Sometimes the shadowy superhero stands right over the actor’s shoulder, a taunting doppelgänger who symbolizes both the apex of Riggan’s career and its ruin. We are watching a movie star’s soul laid bare. But which movie star?
Keaton and Birdman are already very much a part of this year’s awards conversation (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, its director and co-writer, has been there before, for Babel; Keaton has not). And the noise is only going to get louder once the film, which closes the New York Film Festival this week, reaches theaters. Aside from its strong reviews, Birdman hits Hollywood where it lives (and sometimes wishes it doesn’t); its references — and, more to the point, Riggan’s dilemma — feel timely and acute. It’s a remarkable moment for an actor who is now well into his fourth decade before the cameras. ”Riggan is the part I’ve been waiting my whole life to play,” says Keaton. ”The second I read the script, I thought, I am this man. I have lived this life. I can fill this role with every bit of pain and insecurity I have ever felt as an actor. Finally, I thought. This is my chance for redemption.” And —
Michael Keaton did not say any of those things. He does not actually feel any of those things. He is not filled with pain. He does not believe himself to be in need of redeeming. What he actually said — and he said it right in Birdman’s press notes, so you know he really wants to be understood on this point — is the following:
”In terms of the parallels, I’ve never related less to a character than Riggan.”
And he means it. The sweaty, demon-driven, down-on-his-luck movie star he plays, who looks like he wants to throw up when someone encouragingly tells him ”60 is the new 30,” is not the clear-eyed, even-keeled actor sitting here in a Santa Monica café, who is completely credible when he explains that he goes from job to job for all kinds of reasons and hasn’t given much thought to his most famous role since the last time he took off the cowl in 1992. Holy Ruined Oscar Narrative!
”I know there are a lot of interviews coming up, and maybe I should just get lazy and do that, say, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly it!”’ Keaton says, laughing. He understands that his refusal to play out that story line ”is gonna sound like ‘Thou doth protest too much.’ But the truth is that I was playing a person,” he continues, ”just a person, 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. When we were making the movie and I’d say to Alejandro that something was going to be hard, he’d say, ‘Good, cabrón! It’s only going to be good if it’s hard!’ So that’s what I’ll stick with.”