Michael Keaton: birdman turned action man

After his remarkable return to Hollywood’s A-list, which culminated in the first Oscar nomination of his career, Michael Keaton’s next move is a CIA thriller that is far from formulaic

Michael Keaton poses for a portrait during press day for "Spotlight" at The Four Seasons on Wednesday, November 4, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Casey Curry/Invision/AP)
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If an actor's career is a series of peaks and troughs, then Michael Keaton is surfing the highest summit right now.

It began building in 2014, when he wowed audiences as a washed-up actor in Alejandro G Iñárritu's too-close-to-the-bone Birdman, a film that won Keaton a Golden Globe for Best Actor, alongside the first Oscar nomination of his career.

He followed it with juicy roles in Catholic church scandal drama Spotlight, as well as The Founder, playing the Machiavellian Ray Kroc, the man who turned McDonald's into a fast-food empire.

This year, to cap it all off, he scored the plum role of the villainous Vulture in blockbuster Spider-Man: Homecoming. After a lean few years, it has been a remarkable turnaround in fortunes.

"The truth is, I like winning, and I was never going to lie down," he explains. "So even when things weren't as good or productive or I wasn't working so much, I wasn't about to lose. I thought: 'If this is a fight or a game, I'm going to end up winning.' I knew I would. The question is, how am I going to win it? You've got to be mentally tough – if you want to be."

Keaton is a little jet-lagged when we meet in London, but his thoughts are crystal clear. He sounds like a motivational speaker, talking about grasping opportunities when they come.

"It comes down to: do you get the shot? Now when you get the shot, you better be ready to score on the shot. There is something to creating that world, and that I did consciously do."

Even before Birdman, he was reminding Hollywood of his presence – whether it was voicing Ken in Toy Story 3 or playing the corporate villain in the remake of RoboCop.

This return to cinema's upper echelons recalls the late 1980s, when he and director Tim Burton went from ghoulish cult comedy Beetlejuice to huge hit Batman, with Keaton starring as the Caped Crusader.

So it is something of a surprise to learn that his new film is an action movie called American Assassin. Even he admits he had some qualms when he heard that generic-sounding title.

"I totally get that," he exclaims. "I just get it. Even when I heard the title, I thought: 'Would I do a movie called American Assassin?'"

However, the film is not quite as formulaic as it may sound, as Keaton discovered when he started reading the script.

"Once you see it, you realise it isn't one of those films," he says. "When I read it, I thought: 'Oh, there's a lot in here.'"

Based on the novel by Vince Flynn, the drama is set in the world of counter-terrorism and sees Keaton play Stan Hurley, a veteran military officer who is brought in by the CIA to train a young man (Dylan O'Brien) who is seeking revenge after terrorists killed his fiancée.

Amid a flurry of fists and fights, it raises interesting questions about the United States' place in the geo-political landscape.

It is not hard to see why Keaton was drawn to the robust, no-nonsense Hurley.

With a nuclear subplot bubbling underneath, it also feels uncannily resonant, given the US and North Korea's current jostling.

"At the end of the day, it's really an action movie," Keaton admits.

Yet it is not entirely black and white in its portrayal of the US and its enemies, and Hurley is not just a blind patriot.

"He has seen so much of this world that you get more realistic about how things work," says Keaton, who – at the age of 66 – got himself in remarkable shape for the role. Physically, it wasn't easy. "I started to slide a little bit," he admits.

Being in Birdman and Spotlight, two Best Picture Oscar-winners in a row, meant conducting endless interviews sandwiched between making movies.

"So I was pretty tired and not taking the best care of myself when this came up, and I thought: 'Oh man.' And then I jammed Spider-Man into three weeks."

In the end, he was learning fight scenes for American Assassin with the help of the Spider-Man stunt-team.

"I could've done better, but I think for the short amount of time I had to get ready, I think I got in pretty good shape."

Born in Pennsylvania, Keaton comes from a large Roman Catholic family. The youngest of seven, it was a natural environment for him to develop his voice; in a family that large, whoever shouts loudest gets heard.

"People say that all the time and I think that's probably it,' he concedes. "But also I had a built-in audience. I was pretty funny, lively. Most of my family are funny. So I think that's probably it. When someone donates my brain to a mad scientist somewhere, and they break it open, they'll go: 'Oh that's why he did it.'"

He began in stand-up, then television, before films such as Ron Howard's Night Shift turned him into a movie star in the early 1980s.

He bought a ranch in Montana, where he still lives, and married actress Caroline McWilliams (they divorced in 1990; she passed away in 2010). They had one son, Sean Douglas, who is now a successful songwriter for artists ranging from Demi Lovato to Madonna.

"From the time he was little, his mom and I knew he could write," Keaton says. "And my really good friend predicted it. He saw him as a baby and said: 'Writer.'"

Keaton has enjoyed his own creative spells outside of acting, notably directing 2008 film The Merry Gentleman, in which he also played a suicidal hit-man who befriends a woman on the run from an abusive relationship.

He says he borrowed from all the greats he has worked with – including Kenneth Branagh (on Much Ado About Nothing) and directors John Schlesinger (yuppie thriller Pacific Heights) and Quentin Tarantino (Elmore Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown). "All those guys, from the get-go, I have observed and watched and learnt from, almost by osmosis."

After this recent prolonged peak that he has been riding, Keaton wanted to take a break, but then he met up with his old friend Burton, who was preparing a live-action version of classic Disney cartoon Dumbo. Keaton had emailed him, they hung out, had coffee and caught up.

"Then I got this script and they said: 'He wants to talk to you about this movie he's doing.' Honestly, I didn't think I was going to do any movies. I was like: 'God, I wish it wasn't him.' Then I thought: 'What? Am I crazy? This guy is great, man. He's fun to hang around.'"

Judging by Burton's other family-friendly films, such as Alice In Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it is liable to be another mega-hit for Keaton. He can't hide his delight.

"I wasn't even sure if I would do this for this long," he says. "I thought: 'This is great, I'm having a ball, I'm having fun, I'm blessed that I get to do this. I'm fine if this is over. But I'm not ready for this to be over.' The truth is, I'm not done seeing how much better I can get. There's more there to learn and more to do. I haven't quite hit that point where I go: 'I'm pretty good at this now.'"


American Assassin opens in cinemas across the UAE on Thursday


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