From Beetlejuice to Batman to Birdman: the actor on superheroes, surprise roles and his second act
The thick black curls that helped make Michael Keaton look so manic in all those 1980s comedies, and which he then tore at as a tormented Bruce Wayne in Tim Burtons Batman movies, are long gone; but the satyr-like eyes are unchanged. As he walks into a London hotel room on a grey Saturday morning, holding a cup of coffee, he looks strikingly different from the man I have spent four decades watching on screen: he has the trim, spry build of a wiry woodsman rather than a 66-year-old actor, thanks to half a lifetime spent in rural Montana, fishing and hunting. His walk is reminiscent of a roosters strut, with his chest puffed out and a bounce on his toes; that swagger we saw in 2014s Birdman, for which Keaton won a Golden Globe as the eponymous former superhero actor, was not a put on, it turns out.
Hadley, huh? My niece is called Hadley, he says, shaking my hand, and embarks on a winding digression about Ernest Hemingway, whose first wife was called Hadley, and various Hemingway descendants whom Keaton has met over the years, and do I know them (I do not), and how I really ought to meet them. So was his niece named after Hadley Hemingway, I manage to ask.
Huh? Oh no, I just think her mom liked the name, he says, and hes off again, talking about everything from whether or not hes a liberal (he is, mostly) to why climate change shouldnt be politicised. Keaton is not a straight Q&A kind of guy; his approach to conversation is a little like his eyebrows, looping in memorable and unexpected directions.
He has made a career out of taking the unpredictable route: you can never guess his next role, and then he never plays it the way youd expect. In his breakthrough movie, 1983s Mr Mom, Keaton played a stay-at-home father at a time when such a concept was almost unheard of, and he played him as a man who has no idea how to do any of the stereotypically masculine jobs around the house; when asked if hes rewiring the house with 220 volts, Keaton adlibbed, 220, 221, whatever it takes. He was the dazzlingly frenetic lead in Tim Burtons Beetlejuice, a largely improvised performance opposite fellow ghosts Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis. With Burton again, he played Batman as a conflicted nerd, rather than a grinning muscle man. In Birdman, he plays an actor so neurotic, he ends up running through Manhattan in his underwear.