A look at Michael Keton's soon to be Best Actor performance in Birdman with tons of behind the scenes material
In BIRDMAN, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s black comedy, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) hopes that by spearheading an ambitious new Broadway play he will, among other things, revive his moribund career. In many ways, it is a deeply foolhardy move – but the former cinema superhero has high hopes that this creative gambit will legitimize him as an artist and prove to everyone – and himself – that he is not just a Hollywood has-been. With the play’s opening night looming, Riggan’s lead actor is injured by a freak accident during rehearsals and needs to be replaced quickly. At the suggestion of lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) and the urging of his best friend and producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan reluctantly hires Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) – a loose cannon who is guaranteed to sell tickets and get the play a rave review. As he preps for the stage debut, he must deal with his girlfriend and co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), his fresh-from-rehab daughter and personal assistant Sam (Emma Stone), as well as his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), who appears every so often to check-in with the intent to stabilize things. Iñárritu notes that elements of Riggan’s story resonated with him, particularly the ephemeral nature of success and the question of relevance. “I was interested in exploring the battles with the ego, the idea that no matter how successful you are, whether in money or recognition, it’s always an illusion. It’s temporary. When you are chasing the things you 4 think you want and empower the people to validate you, when you finally get them, you soon find an impermanence in that joy.” “Riggan is profoundly human,” Iñárritu says. “I saw him as a kind of Don Quixote, where the humor comes from the disparity and permanent dislocation of his solemn ambitions and the ignoble reality that surrounds him. Basically, it’s the story of all of us.” “I love characters that are flawed, uncertain, driven by doubts and contradictions…which means everybody I know. Riggan’s choices have been poor and this one has affected the people around him.
Throughout his life, Riggan has confused love for admiration. And it’s until he realized the irrelevance of the second one that he has to painfully start learning how to love himself and the others”. Keaton says of his character: “I just looked at Riggan as a person. However, being an actor – that’s a job that requires a specific type of personality. It’s already subject to extreme self-consciousness, ego, all that. And in this case, here’s a guy who has all those qualities run amok, to say the least.” For Riggan’s tortured ego, the line between reality and illusion is paper thin – and often not there at all. The shadow of Birdman - a constant, nagging companion – is always there, whether he likes it or not. “He embarks on a journey of validation. So it is a ‘me’ journey, the ego journey. And as he fights against his mediocrity, his ego – faithful friend and tormentor – repeat the patterns Riggan would like to leave behind and confronts him with his multiple limitations and delusional possibilities. There is something tragic, and something funny, and something very real, and also something very surreal about it,” Iñárritu explains. “Birdman is Riggan’s super ego, and from Birdman’s perspective, Riggan has lost his mind by doing this play that is clearly beneath them.
From Riggan’s perspective, it’s Birdman that has lost his mind. From the perspective of the era, both are irrelevant.” Like all of Iñárritu’s films, BIRDMAN takes an acute look at the human existence as seen through the characters, anchored by Riggan, but it walks a tonal tightrope between comedy and pathos, illusion and reality, allowing for multiple interpretations. “I always said that after you turn 40, anything that doesn’t really scare you isn’t worth doing. And this scared me in a good way. It was new territory and I was definitely out of my comfort zone,” Iñárritu says. “It is a character based piece and an intense character drama with comedic elements. It’s a new type of film for Alejandro,” says producer John Lesher. “He is very skilled at the terrain that is the human condition.” “It’s always about the project, about the movie, about the story, about the people, about it being really heartfelt and really meaning something. This is as good as it gets from that perspective,” says Keaton.5 While the movie centers on the trials and tribulations of actors, Iñárritu sees their quest for gratification as a universal longing. “The modern definition of accomplishment - people want to be famous immediately, not from a body of work developed over years. In one second, people have 800,000 likes or followers and for some that is achievement in itself – but it’s delusional. The immediacy of social media can easily distort the reality of one person, especially Riggan, who has to fulfill expectations of what it is to be famous. And all this is new to him, that crossover is difficult. This is the story of a man trying to prove that he is more than that, more than the popular ‘liked’ guy. But in today’s world, where irony is king, anybody who wants to be earnest or honest is crucified. It is an absurd, surreal world,” Iñárritu explains. “In the end, I just tried to recount in a funny way the disasters of our human nature to reconcile, if not with the defects or faults of the world and our nature, with the way we approach and live them.” The play that Riggan mounts at the historic St. James Theater is based on Raymond Carver’s short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and of course the mercurial search for love and acceptance is a thread woven throughout BIRDMAN. “Since adolescence I have been a big fan of Raymond Carver and this story is a classic. I chose it for Birdman because it was actually a very bad idea. I mean, I always try to think as the character and for somebody like Riggan, who does not belong to the theater, to mount a play based on a short story of Raymond Carver is extremely challenging and almost absurd. I needed to have a play taking place and there was this incredible coincidence in terms of the themes of this short story. And Riggan looking to be loved and trying to figure out where that love comes from. I wanted to play with the idea that he was trying to project some of the elements of the play on to his own New York life. And little by little he becomes the character he is playing, that desperate guy, going into the motel room, asking to be loved. I was so lucky that Tess Gallagher, his widow, was generous enough to trust me to give me the rights to the story for this. I am very grateful,” Iñárritu explains.