Michael Keaton: Dr. Michael and Mr. Keaton
He’s Batman. Or he was, anyway. He was also Beetlejuice. But by 1997, Michael Keaton’s batting average at the box office was down. He was coming off a string of disappointments and flops. His next movie, Desperate Measures, wouldn’t make its scheduled summer release date. Instead, it got pushed back to the dumping grounds of January. Keaton’s career was entering its “What the Hell Happened?” stage. In this interview from the August ’97 issue of Movieline magazine, Keaton discusses the roles he turned down, how he almost named himself Michael Jackson and why he believes he sometimes achieves greatness.
Michael Keaton enters his immaculately clean house in Pacific Palisades dressed in sweatpants and a T-shirt, takes a cold leftover steak out of the refrigerator, breaks off pieces and eats it. “I’ve changed my diet a few times,” he says, his lean body showing no signs of excess bulge. “Now I’m trying to eat more protein. I eat little meals throughout the day. I love food, so I still give myself great meals. Also, when I’m busy it’s easy to lose weight.”
Lately, he’s been busy. He’s got a movie out this summer, Desperate Measures, in which he plays a homicidal sociopath who escapes from prison, and he’s taken on a small part in his friend Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, based on Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch.
Keaton burst onto the scene in his first movie, Night Shift, which he stole from Henry Winkler. Next came the huge comedy hit Mr. Mom, which made him a star. No one remembers most of the few next films–Johnny Dangerously, Touch and Go or The Squeeze–but Gung Ho had its following, and Beetlejuice was a comic phenomenon. Keaton surprised critics and fans with a stunning performance as a coke addict in the drama Clean and Sober, and alternated between comedy and drama in his next few films, to mixed results.
Then came Batman. Tim Burton’s blockbuster was an unexpectedly appropriate vehicle for Keaton’s onscreen mix of dark and light. Some feel that the brooding, troubled Bruce Wayne/Batman he played came close to touching the dichotomy of his own character. After appearing in the sequel, Batman Returns, though, Keaton couldn’t come to terms with continuing the role. Since then he’s made a ton of money, doing films like Much Ado About Nothing, My Life, The Paper, Speechless and Multiplicity, but he hasn’t really knocked the ball out of the park.
Keaton has the reputation of being not an easy guy to know, but there’s something about his keen intensity that makes you want to at least try.
LARRY GROBEL: You changed your name because “Michael Douglas” was already in use, right? Was it Diane Keaton who inspired you to use “Keaton”?
MICHAEL KEATON: Kind of. I got a job and needed to change my name for the union. That morning there was an article in the paper about Diane Keaton. I thought it was a nice, easy, dear name. I used it to fill out this form, thinking I’d find another name later. I experimented with Keats–how pretentious is that? My middle name is John. My brother used to call me Jackson. And there was a point where I was thinking of calling myself “Michael Jackson”. Swear to God. That was when Michael Jackson kind of disappeared, after leaving the Jackson 5. Imagine if I’d done that.
Q: Do you see yourself as Michael Keaton or Michael Douglas?
A: I went through a period of thinking, This is too weird. But then I thought, This is kind of handy. I have the advantage of a handle, of being able to say, I know why people are reacting to me, because I’m Michael Keaton. Then going home knowing what my real name is and who I am.
Q: You’re currently working on Quentin Tarantino’s movie Jackie Brown. How did you come to do it?
A: I’m doing it because I’m a friend of Quentin’s. As for what I’m doing, I still have to figure that out. He’s an interesting cat to work with. My part is not a big deal. It’s this big [spreads an inch between his thumb and forefinger]. But there’s a lot to learn from Tarantino. He’s open and real dear about what he wants, but is legitimately OK when you come up with something you want to do.
Q: In Barbet Schroeder’s Desperate Measures you play a homicidal sociopath. Do you ever go to prisons to research characters like this?
A: I avoided talking to prisoners because it felt cold and manipulative. You don’t hang out with these guys. You meet them and then you go back to living at the Four Seasons Hotel doing a movie and they’re still in mental institutions. It doesn’t sit right with me.
Q: When you play a villain, do you take the part home with you?
A: I would like to say, Absolutely not. But I can’t honestly say that I always walk away from it. If you’ve done any amount of work whatsoever, you have to be affected. I can’t just go and do my work and walk away. It doesn’t mean you’re necessarily the world’s most miserable human being to be around. For Desperate Measures, in rehearsal and for the first week, I needed to create a zone that I had to live in, until I felt good about it. I knew that people were looking at me thinking, Maybe he’s not friendly, or he’s a loner, or he’s shy–but I couldn’t afford to care.
Q: You’ve said that you’re not doing what you really want to do often enough.
A: I understand it and accept it–you’ve got to be a grown-up and understand how and why the business is the way it is. My last two movies Speechless, Multiplicity did not make money. That’s a fact. I could rationalize, but it doesn’t matter. One was actually quite good, the other not that great. The business is driven by money, now more than ever. Therefore the opportunities to do the things you really want to do start to diminish. It ain’t no mystery. It’s frustrating at times, because I can do so much. It’s just a fact. I just can. And I can do a lot really well. I actually achieve greatness from time to time. I’m fully confident with that statement. And I’m extremely proud of it. I really love myself for it. I realize that sometimes I’m less than good, and I also know what I can’t do. But I have surprised myself a few times when I didn’t think I could pull something off and I did.
Q: For instance?
A: I think I pulled off My Life. With a director of more experience and skill I would have pulled off even more.
Q: What about Clean and Sober?
A: Oh, I totally pulled it off.
Q: And Batman?
A: I pretty much guessed where the target was and I said, “I know what I’m doing.” And I did it and I dug it.
Q: In which moments do you think you’ve achieved greatness on film?
A: There’s times in Clean and Sober when I’m great. There’s times in Beetlejuice where I’m really great. There’s times in Batman where I’m great. There’s times in Much Ado when I’m great. There’s times in Pacific Heights when I’m pretty great. There’s times in Night Shift and Mr. Mom when I’m great.There’s times in this movie now when I’m great. And the reason this doesn’t feel remotely egotistical is because I’m not saying I’m great in every moment; there are moments that I missed. And some movies I’ve done are really average, and some are not good at all. I’m pretty realistic. And I see people who do things that are so much better than what I do.
Q: Does it happen often that you’re not happy with something you’ve done?
A: In Multiplicity there’s a moment when I tell my wife in the end that I love her. What I thought I had going in the performance was showing real anger, real hilarity, real gentleness, real insanity, real worry, real freedom–because people aren’t one or two things, they’re a lot of things. I wanted to take them all out. I was extremely emotional and it was coming from deep inside me. Truthfully, when I look back, it wasn’t the kind of movie that should have been like that. So I feel stupid for doing it, even though I know why I felt like that.
Q: It’s been said that your performances in Beetlejuice and Much Ado About Nothing seemed to come from a universe other than the one inhabited by the other characters.
A: They’re full of shit! They’re about as wrong as you can get.
Q: Do you still aspire to the kind of grace you’ve said Jeremy Irons showed in Reversal of Fortune?
A: I aspire to any kind of grace I can take. He was great in that performance. Anthony Hopkins is great. I don’t think there’s anybody better than Leonardo DiCaprio, and I’ve been saying that since before anyone knew who he was.
Q: Is acting a lot in the eyes?
A: Oh boy, I don’t know. It’s mostly in the heart.
Q: Soon after two early successes with Night Shift and Mr. Mom you were offered Splash, which Tom Hanks has you to thank for turning down. Did that film’s success give you second thoughts?
A: No. It would have been fine, because success always helps. But I went and established very different kinds of performances in a row. The downside of that is that most people don’t look at the variety. Showing I can be an average hitter who occasionally hits for power, knocks in some RBIs, is a good fielder, can play the infield and the outfield–that’s anything but the thinking in the Industry. The thinking is: we have X-amount of money invested and we need him to do that.
Q: Was that the thinking when you were chosen to play Batman?
A: I remember flying across from London, after doing Batman and reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about how concerned everyone was that I was going to play that role. That was a little disconcerting. Everybody was saying, “How could they? What are they thinking?”
Q: According to the book Hit & Sun, it wasn’t Tim Burton who first wanted you, but Jon Peters. True?
A: I’ve heard various things. It was Guber and Peters and Tim all agreeing. Regardless, they deserve a lot of credit. It was a gutsy move.
Q: Burton called the making of Batman torture–the worst period of his life. Did you feel that way?
A: Yeah, and he had a hard time with the second one, too.
Q: According to Hit & Sun, after Sean Young broke her arm in a riding accident, Burton wanted to replace her with Michelle Pfeiffer as Vicki Vale, but I you’d just broken off a romance with her and thought it would be awkward for you to work together. Is that accurate?
A: Semi. But it wasn’t that dear-cut. I didn’t feel like, ‘Oh no, absolutely not’. I just wanted to forewarn them that it might make things slightly uncomfortable, and was it worth it?
Q: Was it uncomfortable with her as Catwoman in Batman Returns?
A: Not at all. She’s a great actress.
Q: How uncomfortable was it for you when Woody Allen fired you from The Purple Rose of Cairo?
A: It sat with me for awhile.
Q: Was Allen any kind of icon to you before you met him?
A: Absolutely, and I still think he’s one of the really great filmmakers. [But] I was seduced and he was seduced, and we both knew that we were doing something that wasn’t meant to happen. I knew that there was no way I was ever going to be good in that role.
Q: As the youngest of seven children were you spoiled or beat up on as a kid?
A: I got my ass kicked for many years. Want to hear a great story? I was doing a movie for this very famous producer who has a reputation for intimidation and being a maniac–I’d heard all the stories. Something happened between us over the phone–he blew off what I had to say and got real abusive. I said to him, “Where are you now?” and we were going to leave our hotels and meet, like two maniacs in the middle of the night. He had pissed me off, really got to me on an emotional level.
Next day he came down the hall and I said, “C’mere for a second, would you?” We went into my dressing room and I sat real close to him and looked at him and said, “I’m the youngest of seven kids, and for years I would get in fights with my brothers and kids in school and I would get my ass kicked, so I’m used to it. Now, I know you think you’re a tough guy and you might be able to kick my ass. Maybe you can. But you know what? You’re going to have to take my teeth out of your neck to stop me, because I will never, ever quit. If you want to talk about it some more, let’s talk about it.” I could see he wanted to smile but didn’t know if he should–he was wondering whether I was threatening him, which I wasn’t. I knew I fucking had him. Nobody ever told him that before. I think we had a mutual respect after that. And I like the guy.
Q: Sounds to me you’re talking about Batman producer Jon Peters.
A: I ain’t talking.
Q: Off the record?
A: [Laughs] I ain’t saying.
Q: OK, so let’s return to childhood stories. What was your father’s profession?
A: Rabbi. [Laughs] No, he was an engineer and surveyor. Taught himself through a correspondence course.
Q: Did your parents also raise chickens?
A: We lived in the country between industrial towns and everything grew up around us. To make extra money my parents would sell eggs and chickens. I was very little. I remember a chicken’s head being chopped off with the chicken running around. I wasn’t sure if my imagination was running away with me or if it really happened. It really happened.
Q: How large was your imagination?
A: When I was a kid I played by myself and created stories. Once on a day trip in the car my dad pointed out the state prison. That’s all I had to hear. I loved any breaking out [stories]. One of my two favorite books is Great Escape Stones, which is about guys who escaped from Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. It was just the coolest.
Q: Did you perform for your family when you were a kid?
A: I was pretty funny and I had funny friends. I wanted to be funny because it got me attention. My first day in grade school I was plain scared. I left the comfort of my run-down house which I loved and went to school where it was cold, it smelled, the lighting was bad. So I went for humor to show I wasn’t afraid.
Q: Who made you laugh?
A: I used to watch the sitcoms like Get Smart and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Then, later on, Richard Pryor, Robert Klein, Albert Brooks. Then Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. Then I got interested in doing it. I was in college and I started reading National Lampoon and thought that was hysterical. Being funny is also very attractive to women. It just is. If you’re funny, you’re in line.
Q: You weren’t laughing much in high school, apparently. I read that you said you felt cheated because your teachers were a joke.
A: That probably was not exactly what I said. Maybe I did. I honestly didn’t have many good teachers. And that’s always been a disappointment to me. That, and whatever responsibility I didn’t take myself for being a better student has always bothered me. I did well in grade school because I was scared–the nuns made me get good grades.
Q: The nuns were scary?
A: Very. They were angry and mean-spirited because they were frightened. Unfortunately a lot of religions are based on fear.
Q: What happened in high school?
A: That changed when I went to public school at 14. There were now girls and a wider variety of friends. I was more rambunctious. Anxiety started to creep in. High school wasn’t bad but I wouldn’t want those days back. I was on probation the first week for throwing an apple into a garbage can in the cafeteria. It was an amazing shot, the length of the cafeteria. I was so psyched that I threw both my arms up in the air and that’s how I got caught. Everybody cheered and laughed. From that time on I wasn’t a great student. Most of the time I was bored out of my mind.
Q: Where do you come from now? Architectural Digest put you on its cover showcasing your house in the Northwest. You’ve got this house in L.A….
A: I live here and I want to live there more. I’ve gone out of my way not to publicize where I live. The deal with Architectural Digest was they couldn’t mention the state. Somewhere in the West is enough. There’s a reason: you work this hard to get something, then people with cameras come into your driveway, or they send you mail–fuck that. I also have another house somewhere else in California. There are four different places that I hang.
Q: You’ve got what, a thousand acres?
A: Yeah. The first time I relaxed into that kind of physical space was when I worked on an Indian reservation [when I was 20]. I was doing this goofy little show in Pittsburgh, and there was a girl singer and she had this cheesy book on Indian sign language. Now, there hasn’t been Native American sign language for maybe ever, you know what I mean? But she told me about her friend out on a reservation in Arizona. Don’t ask me what made my 20-year-old brain go, Phew, but my life had just made a shift. All of a sudden I’m on the phone talking to these Navajos long distance, asking them what the deal is. Two weeks later I quit the show and I’m on a plane. When we landed I got picked up by this big, big Navajo who spoke more English, I learned, than most anybody else there, but it sounded like he wasn’t communicating at all. I’m in this Jeep and I can’t talk to this guy and we’re driving, driving, driving and the sky is on fire.
It was intense. I’d never seen a sunset like that. I’d never seen landscape like that. I’m thinking, “I’m outta here in two days. I’ll go insane.” But there was another thing happening inside me. So I stuck it out. Started to help out around the school. I ended up doing everything–cleaning sheep ranches, helping other teachers teach class, put on little plays. It was a life-changing experience for me.
Q: Do you still suffer from guilt from your religious-school upbringing, or have you liberated yourself to feel, as Brando says he does, that guilt is a useless emotion?
A: He’s right. But yes, I still deal with it. I come from a background where you have a tendency to be pretty hard on yourself. But I probably have less guilt than the average Catholic. I’m relearning a lot of stuff about myself now.
Q: Do you go to church?
A: From time to time, but seldom Mass. One or two days a week I have certain places where I seek refuge and do what I do. I’ve got my own set of beliefs that I’m very comfortable with. As far as organized religion, no. But there are rituals and fundamental things from early on being a Catholic that I like.
Q: Do you have any rituals you go through?
A: I have rituals that involve morning, day, evening. Way back in the early 70s I was doing yoga, meditating. I blew through everything, kind of half-did things. Now it’s all making a comeback.
Q: Ever do EST?
A: No. I retain just enough skepticism that I resist being a joiner. But I have nothing but respect for people who have strong faith. I don’t care if you’re praying to an old Rawlings baseball mitt–that’s as legitimate as anything else.
Q: What gets you into a meditative mind-set?
A: I hike a lot into the mountains. I miss going into the woods for two or three days by myself.
Q: You started that early. Didn’t you hunt by yourself at 13?
A: Yeah. But I quit hunting when I was 14 because I didn’t like it. I lost my taste for it early. On a practical level I still understand it and I miss it. I’ll go out for a few days each year hunting birds with my brothers on the ranch, shooting days. We’re not like suede jacket types, we’re like redneck shoot-’em-from-the-back-of-the-four-wheeler kind of guys. We’re our own dogs. There’s nothing better than walking through the brush in the woods when it’s cold in the morning with a shotgun. I love the weight of a shotgun, the way it smells. That part I miss. But there’s nothing I want to kill.
Q: Have you ever talked with Kurt Russell about hunting?
A: Oh yeah, Kurt is a hunter. He loves the hunt and loves to kill. Loves it. And I don’t judge him because I understand that. I used to do it–and I’m friends with guys who still like to hunt. But I don’t. I’ll be honest with you, there’s a lot of guys hunting now in controlled situations who are total pussies. Total bullshit, that I hate.
Q: Do you have any great fishing stories?
A: One of the best times in my life was fishing with someone I was madly in love with. I didn’t care if I caught any fish, I was just very happy. Another time was being with my kid, carrying him across the river–I had my rod in my hand, my kid on my back, thigh-high in the water, the sun was real beautiful in the late afternoon. I thought, This is it.
Q: Ever give anyone a fishing rod as a gift?
A: I bought Andy Garcia a nice fishing rod for his wrap gift [on Desperate Measures].
Q: How many rods do you have?
A: I don’t like to have too many things, I have a thing about excess. My favorite rod is one I’ve had a long time, it’s the perfect weight with a beat-up reel. But I do have a top-of-the-line saltwater rod. I own eight rods, three of them were gifts. I tried to trade one to my friend for his .20-gauge Belgian-made shotgun but he didn’t want to do it.
Q: Do you have many friends?
A: Yeah, I actually do. It’s weird. I see them infrequently. I have a wide variety of friends from fishing guys to novelists, doctors, actors, directors, insurance salesmen. There are people who are my friends that I never really hang out with. Quentin, Tim Burton, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Billy Bob Thornton are friends. Then there are women actress friends. I like to have 10 or 12 people over to hang out, cook some dinner.
Q: Would you rather hang out with men or women?
A: Great question. Both. I was fortunate enough to come from a family with three girls and three other boys. Mostly my experience has been with men, but I got to feel pretty comfortable around women as well. I have more women friends now than I’ve ever had. I’m lucky and spoiled at the same time. I love hanging out with women. But it can reach a point where they’re into the region of Womanness and I become a fucking foreigner. Just an alien. I don’t understand it, I don’t want to understand it, and I need to be around men. Men who always tell you about how much they love women–I would tell those women to be very, very careful of them. Keep going on about anything, you’ve got a problem.
Q: Can you have sex with a woman and still be her friend?
A: Yeah, I think I could, but it’s pretty hard. With most women I call my friends, I hang with them, I like them. There have been times when I find myself pulling back because I don’t want them to be confused. If you pass through that and they get it, then it gets comfortable again.
Q: Is it true that your unpredictability doesn’t make living with you easy?
A: Probably doesn’t. I surprise myself sometimes. But I work on being more consistent. I sympathize with somebody who needs real predictability. But in terms of living with me as my wife, man, I’m so confident how good I will be. I’d love to be married to me. [Marriage] is what I want, and it’s something I want to be really good at. I’d be extremely consistent in my commitment and devotion. But it’s true, I’m probably an unpredictable personality… though I’m not going to go off and join the Canadian mounties.
Larry Grobel interviewed Harrison Ford for the July issue of Movieline.