He embodied the Ghost with the Most in Beetlejuice, turned the Caped Crusader into a box-office superstar in Batman, and made stay-at-home dads look cooler than rock stars in Mr. Mom. But at sixty-three years of age Michael Keaton took on the role of his life in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, merging fact with fiction as a former screen superhero determined to turn his life around, and nabbing his first Academy Award nomination in the process. I caught up with the actor on the red carpet of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where he was overflowing with the energy of a man one third his age, clearly overjoyed to be receiving the festival’s Modern Master Award.
When asked what the best part of the Birdman experience had been, he laughed and told me, “Everything. Like tonight — how great is this? It’s all great.”
Keaton smiled when I asked him if he was surprised by reception and recognition Birdman has received. This is not, after all, your typical comedy, set as it is in the theater world and made to appear as one long take.
“Not ‘surprised,'”, he explained, “because ‘surprised’ would indicate that you expect something. I didn’t expect anything. I was just making a movie with one of the best filmmakers out there. And you hope it’s gonna be good and then it gets better and better and better.”
“But what I love most is the response that the public has had. The response from the people inside [of Hollywood] has been crazy good. But the response from just everyday people walking up to you on street is really, really gratifying. They really get it. And they really appreciate it.”
Joining Keaton on the red carpet was Birdman producer John Lesher. When I asked him the point at which he knew he had a hit, Lesher replied, “We always knew we had something unique. And when we were making it, it scared us because we didn’t know how to do it. But as soon as we started showing it to people for the first time, which was basically around June of last year, we thought we had something special. And now we’re standing here today. It’s a great feeling.”
As for Birdman‘s nine Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director), Lesher and Keaton appeared humbled. “You don’t make movies for awards,” said the producer, “but it’s always gratifying to get them. We love the movie, and I think it stands out in the marketplace as such a unique film in the way it’s made. But I’m really happy it’s connecting with people too.”
Lesher — whose next film is the Johnny Depp gangster drama Black Mask — added that it’s doubly gratifying to be recognized for making a film so outside the box of traditional Hollywood storytelling.
“I hope that’s an inspiration to other people who are making movies — to make things that aren’t exactly cookie cutters of other things. That aspire to the go-for-broke filmmaking that Alejandro does in this film. I hope it inspires other people.”
You can see how Birdman fares at this year’s Oscars ceremony when the Academy Awards presentation is telecast live on ABC on Sunday, February 22nd at 7 EST/4 PST. And be sure to check out the 5th Annual Nerdist Movie Awards winners!