Michael Keaton, Newly Relevant, Soars Into the Spotlight in ‘Birdman’

The Batman and Beetlejuice star is back, this time with one of the best performances of his career, in Birdman. So where has Keaton been the last two decades?

10.12.14 9:45 AM ET

“Why don’t you make more movies?”

It was 2008 and Michael Keaton had just met soon-to-be-president Barack Obama. At the time, the actor was hoping to discuss environmental issues. But Obama was interested in something else: Why Keaton had disappeared from the spotlight.

“You have to backpedal a bit, like, whoa man, I thought we were going to talk about a whole bunch of other stuff,” recalled Keaton in a 2012 interview with Grantland. “[Obama] is a huge Beetlejuice fan, [and he says] ‘Man, you’ve got to keep making movies, how come you’re not doing it?’”

The question might have been unexpected for Keaton, but it was worth asking. Where had the star of Batman, Beetlejuice, and Mr. Mom gone?

Well, nowhere really; he just transitioned into another phase of his career. In the years since his most famous roles, Keaton has shown up as supporting characters in movies like Herbie: Fully Loaded, Need for Speed, and Robocop; done voiceover parts in Cars and Toy Story 3; and taken on the occasional lead in little-seen indie flicks such as Game 6 and The Merry Gentleman (which he also directed). He’s also appeared on TV, in Larry David’s HBO movie Clear History, and as a janitor on 30 Rock. All in all, it’s a clear change of pace from the type of characters and films he was associated with in the first half of his career—and that is by design.

“I just decided that I won't do a lot of things,” Keaton said in a 2013 Esquire profile, on why he turned down roles that were similar to ones he became famous for, particularly his “glib young man” schtick from the ‘80s. “Financially there were probably parts where I could have done quite well, and I thought: That's not what I am. It's bullshit. I'm lying. I won't do it. And you pay a price financially. And I go: That's okay. I'm gonna put that on me.”

If earlier accounts are any indication, Keaton is sure to succeed in his next project. On Friday, audiences will see the actor return to the spotlight in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, arguably his biggest and most-publicized film since…Multiplicity, I guess? The movie has already been hailed by critics as one of Keaton’s finest.

Birdman, which closed this year's New York Film Festival, plays with Keaton’s public perception by placing him in the role of Riggan Thomson, an actor best known for playing a feathered superhero. After starring in two more Birdman sequels, Thompson is ready for a new challenge, so he decides to write, adapt, and act in a Broadway production of a Raymond Carver story. The film is a partial commentary on our current blockbuster culture and how studios have become obsessed with superhero franchises. But it also tackles an actor’s struggle of trying to be taken seriously in a materialistic world, where they’re often viewed as a product.

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The majority of the movie—which Innaritu made to look like it was filmed in one shot—takes place in the claustrophobic St. James Theater. Riggan spends most of his time pacing back and forth throughout the building, attempting not to destroy anything or anyone in his path, all while fighting off the evil Birdman voice in his head telling him he's a phony. Keaton's performance is brilliantly unhinged—he's playing a man who finds himself on the edge, ready to bleed, fight, scrape, and shatter his way through his first Broadway production, or to die trying.

Keaton has already distanced himself from the role, saying that while his character is a callback to his Batman days, he is certainly not Riggan Thomson: “I related less to him than almost every other character I’ve played, in terms of the desperation. There were times in my life when I felt desperate, but it was never about this. It’s a fear-based industry, and if you buy into it, you’re pretty fucked.”

Keaton now lives in Montana, and, according to what little press he does these days, seems content with the way things have turned out—far from the desperation and depressive nature of his Birdman character. Keaton also values his privacy. As he told Tom Junod in the Esquire feature, “Please don't name [the mountain ranges near me]. I don't want anyone to triangulate.” Thankfully, Keaton has left enough breadcrumbs for us to at least understand the path he’s taken.

There’s of course the aforementioned preference of not being typecast, which is why he turned down Splash, “because it was basically the same formula [from before]—two guys, one guy's the wild guy, one guy's the other guy.”  He has also been looking for something more challenging—his reason for turning down Batman Forever, which had a script he didn’t think was any good. He came close to accepting the lead role in J.J. Abrams’s Lost, but only because of what Abrams’s initially planned to do with the character of Jack Shephard: kill him at the end of the first episode. “I think the network said, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that,’” Keaton told Grantland. “So [Abrams] changed his mind and called and said, ‘Do you want to do it anyway?’ and I said ‘No, I probably don’t … I don’t really feel like doing an hour-long TV show every week.’”

Luckily, Keaton doesn’t always follow his initial instinct, otherwise we would have missed out on his role as Beetlejuice, which he turned down three times, as well as Ray Nicolette in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (he would go on to reprise the character in a separate movie, Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight). He might not have done Birdman either, a film that Keaton now adores.

“I don't know how many movies I've made, but I don't see them,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “I like making them. But [Birdman], I love watching the movie so much. I've seen it three times, which is a lot for me. And I'm watching it—‘Man I really like this movie!’—and then I go, ‘Wait a minute, I'm in this movie!’”

Keaton is already receiving a hefty amount of Oscar buzz for his performance. An Academy nomination would be a first for him. But the notoriously press-shy Keaton isn’t looking forward to the potential awards onslaught. “I get a little spooked,” he tells THR.

Keaton’s Birdman performance shows that the 63-year-old actor has more than enough juice left in the tank for challenging, high-profile work, so let’s make sure we don’t scare him off.