A Failed Experiment

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Milton Un

Dinner With Daniel: Michael Keaton

Batman, Beetlejuice, and more in a rare, candid Q&A with one of America's reclusive comic geniuses

What if you mix the mayonnaise in the can, with the tuna fish? Or — hold it! Chuck! I got it! Take live tuna fish, and feed ‘em mayonnaise! Oh, this is great. [Speaking into Dictaphone.] Call StarKist!
— Bill Blazejowski,
Night Shift, 1982

When I show up at Amelia’s Espresso & Panini in Santa Monica at 9:15 a.m. — 15 minutes before our prearranged time — Michael Keaton is already waiting, his New York Times mostly read, two-thirds of his first latte gone. Despite its precious-sounding name, the café has a mom-and-pop quality to it; after I get my cappuccino, the genial owner sees I’m sitting with Keaton and throws me a well-worn: “You’re hanging with this guy? If I’d known that I’d have charged you double … ”

Truth be told, I was actually a little nervous about this interview. Short of an occasional Letterman appearance, Keaton rarely does sit-downs — and is famously a private person. This is why I was also OK with throwing the entire conceit of “Dinner With Daniel” out the window when I heard Michael preferred to meet for coffee rather than a meal. Besides, as much as I enjoy gorging myself on the company dime (and I do), coffee also seemed like it would invariably lend itself to a shorter interview. I was wrong.

Daniel: [fiddling with 99 cent iPhone recording app] I hope this fucking works.1

Michael: Technology, you know. I’m pretty horrible. I use it, but mostly I like to view it from afar. But I’m still fascinated by it.

Daniel: I was pleasantly surprised that you would do this. Seems like you’re not a kind of guy who does a lot of these sorts of interviews.

Michael: [laughing] I’m not. But I say that I actually — I admire all this stuff, too. I read in the New York Times the other day, the article — what’s that game on NPR? “Wait, Wait —

Daniel: … Don’t Tell Me.”

Michael: It’s fantastic. Anyway, there’s an article about these types of shows and blogs and trying to appeal to a younger audience.

Daniel: I read that too.

Michael: I just think it’s fantastic — and yet I’m not usually a participant [in interviews]. Something suffers, I guess — if you call it suffering. You might not get this job or that magazine cover, but what you get is a higher level of normalcy.

Daniel: No, I get that.

Michael: I’m actually getting ready to do a movie with Larry David. It’s funny. He was one of the first guys I met when we were both doing stand-up. He actually remembered the exact month we met standing in line outside of Catch a Rising Star. At the time, I was going back and forth [from Pittsburgh] to New York — driving my ’65 Volkswagen bug — trying to be an actor, or to write, and I’d just started doing improv. So the other day Larry and I were talking about that world and I said, “Do you miss that stuff?” And I didn’t even finish the sentence, and he said, “Yeah. I do. But I like to do it the way I like to do it.” Which I get. So [instead of a traditional interview] every now and then, I may go do a college Q&A. They’re fantastic, especially with college students, people that use their minds — and they’re still really active and fun, and, you know, dangerous …

Daniel: [laughing] Right, you mean as opposed to the old, dead minds the rest of us have.

Michael: [laughing] Yeah.

Daniel: So what’s the Larry David thing you’re doing?

Michael: I’m doing this movie — really an improvised movie — where he sets it all up in the outline and says, “Here’s what happens … “

Daniel: Oh, so like Curb Your Enthusiasm but the movie —

Michael: Yes.

Daniel: That sounds like fun.

Michael: Well, I have no idea what we’re going to do yet.

Daniel: You just said OK, and show up?

Michael: [laughing] Yeah.

Daniel: You know, I actually went online and watched some of your old stand-up. It was from when you were just starting out.

Michael: I’ve never seen it. I’d guess what’s out there is not probably very good.

Daniel: No, it actually held up pretty well. Like, you do this bit where you’re reading a Bazooka Joe comic to the audience — and it’s typically inane. You explain how he’s throwing a clock “to see time fly” — but then you leave their boneheaded world and keep “reading” the comic as if, inexplicably, Bazooka Joe and his doltish friend are suddenly having a deep metaphysical discussion about [space-]time continuum and Einstein and parallel planes. It was funny.

Michael: [laughing] Oh yeah — no, that was actually a really funny piece, I loved that piece. And it was like four and a half minutes …

Daniel: [laughing] Yeah. It was solid. Speaking of the new world — I was kind of surprised to see you were on Twitter. You seemed to have a pretty substantive following …

Michael: Well …

Daniel: But then one day you made an Anthony Weiner joke … and, boom, you were gone. Dust.

Michael: [laughing] Yeah, I was over it. But I think it’s the greatest tool. So ingenious.

Daniel: No, you were funny — I remember you said “Jimmer Fredette of BYU will go down as one of the greatest scorers ever. He also looks like a guy who would own a Nissan dealership.”

Michael: He does, right? I think I have to start doing it again.

Daniel: You went on a pretty big Trump run on Twitter for a while.

Michael: I watch Morning Joe occasionally, I used to watch a lot more than I do now, but I watched it, and all of a sudden, there was this love fest, for crying out loud, this inexplicable love fest one morning, for The Donald. And I thought I was hearing things! Honest to fucking God, I thought I was fucking hearing things. And I was so enraged that of course now I couldn’t go back to sleep, now I’m pissed off.

Daniel: And then — just as suddenly — people were thinking about him as president? I felt the same way. Like, what world are we living in?

Michael: It’s unbelievable! Plus — how come no one called this motherfucker out on “his people”? He’s got people. He always has people. “I got people in Hawaii checking in, too.” And, OK, fine, finally after two years of him talking about his “people,” Bob Schieffer or somebody finally said, “Can you tell me who the people are?” Which is what I’d been saying — I want to know who the people are! Give me some names …

Daniel: Just be transparent …

Michael: Yeah, because maybe you’re onto something. I just can’t stand it — what we give these people. These people gain power and they’re morons.

Daniel: So is your son [Sean, 29 years old] political too?

Michael: Definitely. He’s an observant dude, he listens to NPR, he watches the news. At first it got me mad. He was getting all of his news from Jon Stewart — he and [Stephen] Colbert are unbelievably fantastic — but I’d say to him, “Sean … you’ve got to watch other stuff. You can’t just take your news from them.” And then I started watching more regularly, and I went, “You know what? That’s exactly where you should get your news.”

Daniel: Yeah, those guys are pretty valuable to the dialogue, I think. And at the same time, as many accolades as they receive, probably undersung because they’re comedians.

Michael: Totally, totally 100 percent. Undersung is exactly right. Colbert makes me crazy, he’s so funny. Plus, he seems like an extraordinarily decent dude. I saw recently when Colbert tweeted something about his mom that I thought was so sweet, and I just really admired him for it. I guess his mom got really sick, and he kept that thing very down-low, very cool, but still threw her a little thing to acknowledge her strength.

Daniel: Yeah, I liked that too.

Michael: It was awesome, because I come from a big Catholic family like him, and he seems like a sweet guy.

Daniel: Are you religious now at all?

Michael: I’m not. I can’t lie and say I am. I’m more a meditator/believer now. And I find there are a few places where I like to meditate more than in other places. There’s a little Catholic church that I go to and there’s another temple I go to — there are certain places where I just feel more comfortable.

Daniel: No, I actually meditate too. I see that.

Michael: I worked on a Navajo reservation when I was 21 and that’s where I really got into it. But when I was a younger kid I was very Catholic, and I’m glad that I was. I’m very proud of it, but I’m not a “practicer” — I’m more like a practitioner. But I’m not one of those former Catholics who’s enraged. I’m only enraged by the unbelievable molestation — that I’m pretty fucking enraged about — but I’m not one of those guys who’s like, “God, I’ve got scars … ” I got my knuckles beat, I used to get sent to the corner or whacked on the butt now and then. But I probably deserved to get whacked in the butt. I was a kid getting into trouble.

Daniel: So in preparing for this, there’s all these movies you were in that I wanted to go back and take a look at — but what would you guess would be the one I sought out?

Michael: It depends on how far you went, but if you went back really far, probably Night Shift. If you didn’t go back quite that far, there’s this resurgence of The Paper fans, people love The Paper.

Daniel: The Paper is a great movie, but, yeah, I went back and saw Night Shift. Look, that movie will always hold a great place in my heart — but it’s still really funny. It still totally holds up.

Michael: Does it hold up?

Daniel: Yeah, it totally does. My wife and I watched it and were both laughing throughout. Bill Blazejowski is just one of the great, classic characters.

Michael: Great memory of that one.

Daniel: That was your first —

Michael: Feature, yeah.

Daniel: Did you have to audition for that?

Michael: Yeah, but I was doing this TV show with Lowell Ganz, who was one of the writers —

Daniel: … and Babaloo Mandel, right?

Michael: Yeah, yeah, and he was a premier, a supreme joke writer. Sometimes Babaloo would write a joke that you would just go, “Oh … that was just fantastic.” Joke writing is really a very specific skill. So Lowell was directing an episode of a television show I was doing, and I got to know him, and he liked me and he went to Ron Howard and he said, “You ought to see this kid that I’m working with.”

Daniel: Maybe you’ve discussed this before, but, like many actors, you had to change your name. It was the same as another prominent actor, Michael Douglas … and then there was also the talk show host Mike Douglas out there, and —

Michael: I actually did his show, believe it or not.

Daniel: Did you tell him that that was your name?

Michael: I don’t remember. But I did talk to Michael Douglas [the actor] about it. At the time I didn’t think it would matter. I got the gig, and they said, “You’ve got to have another name.” And I was like, “No I don’t.” And they said, “Yeah, you do. To join the union.” So I was just in the K’s in the alphabet, thought it was inoffensive, and —

Daniel: I read it was because you liked Diane Keaton —

Michael: People keep saying that —

Daniel: So, not true?

Michael: I feel bad! She’s probably badly bugged by that story! The truth is I’m trying to figure out how John Cougar Mellencamp did it, because I like my name, I’m proud of my name. Douglas, you know, it’s my Dad’s name.

Daniel: Do you use it in your regular life?

Michael: Yeah. Everybody knows me as Michael Douglas —

Daniel: So does your passport say Douglas?

Michael: Yeah. Everything says Douglas.

Daniel: And were there other names you were considering besides Keaton?

Michael: Hand to God, I swear this is true: My middle name is John, and where I come from, people throw around nicknames all the time. So they’d call me John or Johnny. And for a long time my brothers would call me Jackson, and I thought, Oh, that makes sense. I’ll just be Michael Jackson.

[Both laugh.]

Daniel: Michael Jackson!

Michael: I’m going to find a way to ease it back into my name.

Daniel: You worked on Mister Rogers back in 1975, right? What was he like?

Michael: Yeah. He was funny, just deceptively funny. So authentic, but also so unusual. I worked on the crew at the local PBS station in Pittsburgh. I was making like $2.25 an hour or something. When you work there, you kind of do everything. And when you did his show, you did everything from pull cable for the cameras, to running the trolley, to dressing up in the black-and-white panda suit for 25 bucks.2

Daniel: Really?

Michael: What people don’t realize is what his crew looked like — they almost all had hair down to their lower backs, one guy just dripped with patchouli and marijuana smoke, worse than Tom Petty. But everyone was really funny and would do these insane things — and Fred just loved them. And they loved him back.

Daniel: So he’d never just lose his shit and scream at a gaffer for getting in the shot?

Michael: No! In fact, one time, my friend Nicky Tallo, who was this really funny, big Italian kid who was his floor manager — and I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school when I say generally Nick was feeling the effects of smoking dope the night before — or maybe even that morning …

Daniel: It was a different era …

Michael: So one day, we were taping, and Fred comes in, and starts singing, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day … ” puts the shoes down here, goes to hang up the sweater in the closet. And he’s singing, and he opens the door — and there’s his floor manager, Nick, this big guy with his long goatee, pierced ears, hair all over the place, totally nude, just standing there naked in the closet. Well, Fred just fell down; it was the most hysterical thing you’ve ever seen. He was totally cool.

[Both laugh.]

Daniel: That’s great. You know, another thing that you read in just about every article about you is how particular you are — there’s story after story of you turning down all these parts, I’m talking classic cinematic roles. I’m just curious; can I ask about some of them?

Michael: Sure.

Daniel: Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean?

Michael: No, that’s not true.

Daniel: Not true at all?

Michael: Absolutely not. I would’ve jumped all over that.

Daniel: How about Ghostbusters?

Michael: Not true.

Daniel: Not offered it?

Michael: Nope.

Daniel: Tom Hanks’s part in Splash?

Michael: Yes.

Daniel: And why —

Michael: Because … Wait a minute, was it Hanks? Or was it Candy’s part? I think it was Candy’s part.

Daniel: Wow, really? The smoking and the racquetball?

Michael: Oh, man, how great was John Candy? You would have loved John. I don’t know a person who didn’t love John Candy. Went to dinner at his house one night. [Adopts voice.] “Light a cigar … have some cognac after … ” He was just fun.

Daniel: And, of course, Canadian, and all Canadians are great.

Michael: Totally, man, totally. But I really can’t remember now whether it was Tom or John’s role. I just remember at the time thinking I wanted to get away from what I’d just done on Night Shift. I thought if I do it again, I might get myself stuck. So then Mr. Mom came along. (And that was John Hughes, by the way — people don’t know that he wrote that.) So I said no [to Splash] so I could set up this framework right away where I could do different things.

Daniel: How about Lost? You were going to be Jack Shephard in Lost. That true?

Michael: Yeah, that one is true. J.J. [Abrams], who I think is fantastic, said “Hey, man, I want to talk to you about something.” So we sat and had coffee or lunch. And he said, “I’m doing this show,” and I said, “Oh, yeah, OK,” and he said, “You probably don’t want to do a television show,” and I said, “No, not really. Honestly, I’m not particularly interested in doing anything right now.” And he said, “Well, let me explain it to you,” and he tells me about the setup, and I go, “Oh wow, that’s really a good idea,” and I’m not revealing anything here now because I’m pretty sure the show’s not even on anymore, is it?

Daniel: No.

Michael: So he explains to me there’s this thing in the jungle and what happens is, we’re watching the show, and here’s our lead guy, and he comes up to this thing — this force — and just when you think he’s going to do this really heroic thing confronting it, he gets killed. So he wanted to fake the audience out and just [snaps] kill the lead character and make the audience go, “Whoa, now what are they going to do?” Which I thought was going to be really gutsy.

Daniel: Amazing. That the show could have been so different …

Michael: I think the network said, “No, no, no, you can’t do that.” So he changed his mind and called and said, “Do you want to do it anyway?” and I said “No, I probably don’t … I don’t really feel like doing an hour-long TV show every week.” When it first started, I thought it was well done.

Daniel: It was a really great show. But it would have had a totally different tenor had you been in it.

Michael: [laughs] Yeah.

Daniel: You also initially turned down Quentin Tarantino for Jackie Brown?

Michael: I said no three times, but I also said no to Beetlejuice three times. And not because, “Oh, no, it’s not good enough.” It was because I didn’t know how to do it, so I just said “no thank you.”

Daniel: Do you go through that a lot?

Michael: Yeah.

Daniel: Self-doubt? Or what is it?

Michael: No, not self-doubt. I’m just really honest. Because a lot of times I’ll say [to a director]: “If you let me do what I wanted to do, you wouldn’t want it.” But in Quentin’s case, I loved his stuff. So I saw the script, and I thought, Yeah, it’s OK, but the [character] seems a little vague. And then Quentin said he thought so too. So I said, “Well, with all due respect, no thanks … but maybe for another thing.” And then they called again and again. I think it was two calls or three calls, and I said, “Hey, what am I, crazy? I should at least go hang out with him. It’s Quentin Tarantino.”

Daniel: Right.

Michael: So we went out. There used to be a place on Sunset where he’d hang out, called Coach & Horses I think …

Daniel: Yeah. Know it well. Left my credit card there a couple times …

Michael: Exactly. So we were hanging out, and he was drinking, and by this time, he was already 40 or something, and he’s drinking Jägermeister, like some kind of frat boy. Who even drinks that? So he’s drinking pretty good, and he’s already pretty much in his — what’s the expression? In his cups? — and he talks nonstop. And all I know is at some point in the evening [Michael stands up and gets his face about as close to mine without actually touching noses]3 — and I don’t mean to invade your space here, but I was like this [backing away a little], and he was like this [moves his face closer to mine] and I remember thinking, He’s too close to my face. How do I get back there? I don’t know how to move my head back.

Daniel: You don’t want to be rude, but …

Michael: Yeah, but at the same time I’m thinking, How do I get out of here? I mean, I don’t even know how we got this close talking, anyway.

Daniel: I can see that. I can also see him using that in a movie — though he probably wasn’t even aware he was doing it.

Michael: Anyway, I can barely drink anything now. I’ll have a glass of red wine every night, and now I find I can hardly do that anymore. But man, that guy can go. So [the next day] I got a phone call at seven o’clock in the morning. We had the same publicist for a period of time, and she said, “Well, is it true?” and I go, “Who is this?!” “It’s Bumble, is it true?” And I go, “I don’t know what … ” “Wait, were you with Quentin last night?” “Yeah.” “Well, did he do that?” And I go, “What? I don’t know what you’re talking about!” And apparently he got into an altercation with a bunch of Korean girls in a bar, and I went, “Oh my God, I’m so glad I left.” What happened was, we went out to a couple of places, we’re walking somewhere in the Village, downtown somewhere, and I went, “I’m going home, man,” and he goes, “Come on. Just hang out for a bit,” and I go, “Nope, I’m going home, I have stuff to do in the morning.” And I went home, and I guess I missed it.

Daniel: Lucky.

Michael: Right, exactly. But we were talking about Jackie Brown, which I love. When I look at that movie —

Daniel: Yeah, totally underrated.

Michael: I loved that movie.

Daniel: But from that movie came one of the coolest cinematic devices of all time: You took that same Elmore Leonard character you did from Jackie Brown, Ray Nicolette, and the next year you reprised the character for Steven Soderbergh in Out of Sight. Your character hopped from one movie right into the other.

Michael: Yeah, I’ve never seen that done — ever. And I hope I’m not getting too esoteric about this, but it was almost like postmodernism.

Daniel: If people are still reading this far into this article, they’re obviously pretty big Michael Keaton fans — I don’t think you can get too esoteric for them.

Michael: What I felt was: It’s like he exists in the world. He might show up in your barbershop, you know what I mean? Different studio, different script, different story, different director. Everything is different, and all of a sudden, this guy shows up again. And I thought, Man, it would be cool — I’d just like to show up again somewhere else.

Daniel: Well, I just read the other day that they’re making [Elmore Leonard's] The Switch into a movie. Maybe they can somehow figure out a way …

Michael: Oh, they’re making The Switch?

Daniel: Yeah. It would be cool to see Ray Nicolette show up in that one, too.

Michael: Yeah. He’s a great character, Elmore Leonard is unbelievable. I was reading an interview with him not long ago. Someone said, “How do you write that?” and he said, “What do you mean?” and he said, “How do you write that dialogue, how do you hear that?” and he just said, “I just sit and I listen. I’ll go somewhere and talk to somebody, and I’ll listen and hear what’s around me.” But obviously it’s easier said than done.

Daniel: He’s got the whole cadence down — but then he also has guys like you and Dennis Farina, people who can just then deliver it in that great, off-the-cuff, spoken way.

Michael: Which is harder than you would think, actually.

Daniel: To capture the cadence?

Michael: Yeah, you know, it’s — he’s a populist, really. If you think about it, it’s very straightforward, still very pulpy — but it’s art, it’s such high art. I’m envious of writers and musicians. I think it must be so difficult. Not just the frustration, but the discipline. And you know, even before I wrote this short story, I wrote this little thing for the Filson catalog about this program called “Freedom to Roam,” which is about keeping wildlife corridors open so that migrating elk herds can move from one region to another — because it’s central to their existence, actually.

Daniel: And you wrote this for the Filson catalog?

Michael: Yeah, I’m working on something else with them right now, actually.

Daniel: Well, that’s a good way to segue into this Astream book, and specifically the story you wrote4 — and why you and I find ourselves talking today. I was really impressed with the story. It actually kind of reminded me of Tobias Wolff …

Michael: Oh man. He’s definitely one of my favorite writers.

Daniel: Well, I meant it sincerely — it just evoked that era, that feeling of youth in ’60s rural America. I also just loved how you talked about the pride you had of making your dad laugh. It’s just little moments like that — and it’s a short story, but it just made me want to read more. You should really write it as a whole book.

Michael: Oh, thanks!

Daniel: I think everyone who reads this book will love it, especially if you have an interest in fly-fishing — but then again, it’s not really even about the fly-fishing.

Michael: No, exactly. That’s what I didn’t want to do. You know, I fish a lot with a lot with guys like [Tom] McGuane5 and Yvon Chouinard [founder of Patagonia] and we talk — and we hate fishing shows. So I started thinking about what I would do, because even though I’m passionate about it, I don’t know how to write about fishing. So I tried to think about what the angle into it was, and I wrote — not around it, but I wrote kind of about the world around it.

Daniel: I know I said I’d drop the Twitter stuff, but since you brought up fishing with McGuane, you also tweet a fair amount about fishing with him and Tom Brokaw. I mean, you’d have to admit that is a pretty heady group to go fishing with …

Michael: Definitely.

Daniel: But it also got me thinking: Because Brokaw’s a Montana guy, and then you’ve got McGuane, who’s a Montana guy, but then you also have Letterman, who’s a Montana guy …

Michael: Yeah, David’s in there.

Daniel: But you don’t invite him fly-fishing with you?

Michael: No, he’s not invited.

[Both laugh.]

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Michael: Well, now it’s become a thing. At first I joked about it years ago, like he’d ask, “Can I come out there with you and your brothers?” And I said, “No.” And he laughed, but of course, I would’ve loved it if he would come, he would be so fun to have. But after a while, you just gave up on him. I’ve invited him to my house, to parties and stuff, but I don’t even bother anymore. But now I understand he kind of goes out. But it got to be a joke, it’s a joke not to invite him.

Daniel: I don’t know, it seems like he might be interested in that, with McGuane and Brokaw and you, that might actually bring him out, I would think.

Michael: Well, we might give him a trial period. He said to me, “You know, I used to fly over places like Montana, and I would think to myself, Who in the world would ever want to live there? and now, when I fly over, I think to myself, Who would not want to live there?” He’s very happy out there, which is nice.

Daniel: Is that how you knew Letterman originally, when you were both starting, doing stand-up? Or did you meet on that Mary Tyler Moore variety show?

Michael: The first time I saw him was at The Comedy Store [in Los Angeles], you know, it was clear — like Larry David — that this guy’s really funny. Kind of that great combination of witty and kind of silly-slash-dumb-slash-smart, like Steve Martin. We got to know each other because I always thought he was good, and I guess he must have thought I was good, then we were both living in the valley, so occasionally we would go out and shoot basketball or play tennis, hang out a little bit.

Daniel: So when you guys were on that Mary Tyler Moore show together, was that just a coincidence?6

Michael: Yeah, that was a coincidence.

Daniel: In my memory you guys both seemed pretty flirty with Mary on the show.

Michael: [laughs] I know that he definitely was. I’m sure I was. Yeah.

Daniel: Let’s talk a little sports. Being a Pittsburgh guy: Steelers, Penguins, Pirates … how many games a year do you watch?

Michael: I’ll probably watch more Pirates games now — they’re actually having a pretty decent season — than I did even 10 years ago, because you can access all these games now.

Daniel: But it’s not like you have to watch every day.

Michael: No, not at all. But I definitely check the box score every day. And the Penguins, I see as many as I can — because you can see them now, too. If you’re a dope like me, you get every sports channel you can get. I’m watching, you know, Netherlands soccer.

Daniel: I guess that could be transfixing, too, in its own little meditative way. I mean, really, if you think about it, all sports can be …

Michael: But how sad is it that at some point, you say, “Hey man, Netherlands look good this year,” and — what? How do I even know that? When did this happen? Actually, this is my favorite Jack Nicholson story. He’s a very big sports fan, and obviously a legitimately knowledgeable basketball fan …

Daniel: Sure.

Michael: So here’s the best Nicholson sports story. So you know we’re in London — we were doing Batman — it wasn’t like it is now. There just wasn’t a lot to watch. But they did televise darts.

Daniel: Oh, yeah, I actually know that.

Michael: So one morning Nicholson comes in, sits in the makeup chair. In his contract, he says, “I don’t show up for makeup until at least 9.” And you know, you’re normally showing up at 6, 6:30, 7, just to get the day started. But he, very wisely, very professionally, said, “I’m just going to tell you. I’ll work later, but I’m not a morning guy.”

[Both laugh.]

Daniel: OK … shocker.

Michael: [laughing] He’d show up in the morning, and you would have no idea what he’d look like that day — I actually would get excited and wait for him — I so looked forward to what he’d look like when he came in. But then he’d come in, sit in his makeup chair, and then just go to sleep. Because for the Joker, it’s a lot of work. And I swear to God, he’s such a sports fan, one morning he comes in and I say “Good morning, Jack” — and he calls me Keats — he goes, [doing a killer Nicholson] “Good morning, Keats,” and sits down like this [lifting both eyebrows] and says, “Pretty damn good darts tournament last night.” And then falls dead asleep.

[Both laugh.]

Daniel: You still see him ever?

Michael: I still see him now and then. I’m talking to him about a project right now, but I don’t really hang out with him. We don’t really lead similar lifestyles …

Daniel: Do you think the project will come together?

Michael: Actually, I don’t. I’m directing this movie, and I shouldn’t say this, but I’m actually being very realistic, I think he’s being very, very, very particular about what he wants to do now. He’s not 29 years old anymore, and he just passed on a Nancy Meyers project. She’s a very successful director, and he just said no to her. This is even a smaller budget project, and my guess is he’s going to say, “I love ya, but I’m not really doing that right now.” Now I could be wrong, but —

Daniel: You know, I wasn’t even going to bring up the Batman stuff, but since you brought it up, I’m going to ask you a question.

Michael: OK.

Daniel: First of all, I think what people don’t realize is that when you were chosen as Batman, people were outraged, right?

Michael: [laughing] I know.

Daniel: Were you aware of that at the time?

Michael: I wasn’t at the beginning, then I was made aware. Why would anyone get this excited about that?

Daniel: Well, comic book geeks are, you know, a different breed of animal.

Michael: I don’t get the importance. I was doing an interview, and the guy was going on and on about it, and finally I said, “Did you read the paper this morning?” And I wasn’t being a smart ass, I was just being real. And he goes, he just said yes or no, I don’t know. I said, “Do you know there are bodies literally, literally like a logjam floating down rivers in Rwanda right now from being hacked up and killed — right now?” and he goes, “Oh, that’s terrible … ” And I’m like, “Who gives a fuck who’s going to be Batman?”

[Both laugh.]

Michael: I was just shocked — not shocked like “I’m above it, what’s the matter with you people?” … I literally don’t get —

Daniel: Yeah, well, does that affect you, what people say? Because then you went on to become the quintessential Batman, and everyone loved it. Or do you go, “Fuck them?”

Michael: It affects me for about 25 minutes then I go “Fuck them” for about the rest of my life.

Daniel: Tim Burton had this sort of interesting response to this whole thing. He said you were “the only person he could think of that had the darkly obsessive personality necessary … ” which seemed to me like the most backhanded compliment ever, no?

[Both laugh.]

Michael: It’s beyond backhanded.

Daniel: I mean, I guess Burton probably felt like he knew you from Beetlejuice.

Michael: Beetlejuice was a romp, man. Beetlejuice was fun. I’ve never had so much fun in my life. He and I used to laugh a lot, when we were on the tour. I think that maybe when I laugh, or I make jokes about things, it’s smart ass or funny or twisted.

Daniel: Well, I guess then I could see “flip,” but “darkly obsessive?”

Michael: Well, he and I also came from really, really different backgrounds, and so —

Daniel: Actually, he seems more the darkly obsessive one.

Michael: Yes, he is darkly obsessive.

Daniel: Definitely more than you. Will you do a movie with him again ever?

Michael: I hope so. He’s a really talented dude. He’s totally original.

Daniel: Well, I definitely feel like I’ve taken up enough of your time … but if it’s OK, I like to close every interview by asking 10 Random Questions. Sort of a Proustian type of thing. All right?

Michael: Sure.

Daniel: OK. (1) Besides “Jackson,” did you ever have a nickname?

Michael: Well, for a while, somebody called me Dougie, because of my last name, Douglas — and where I grew up, I was always known as Doug. We all were. All of my brothers, because my dad’s name was George Douglas, but my mom called me Dougie. My sister-in-law still calls my oldest brother Dougie, and George was called Doug, and my other brother was called Doug, and I was called Doug.

Daniel: Like the George Foreman family, where everyone was named George.

Michael: [laughs] Yeah, that’s right. It was very similar. Our panini machines never took off, though.

Daniel: [laughs] Right. (2) How about the most memorable telephone call of your life?

Michael: Wow. That’s a really good one. Well, there’s one that’s not good, I won’t talk about that one. Most memorable phone call … wow, that is really good. I have to come back to that one because I’m thinking, I’m remembering a lot now. Uh, you can’t say the birth of your kid because I was literally there. Nobody had to call me.

Daniel: Any one life-changing phone call?

Michael: Well, yeah, one, unfortunately, I was informed of somebody really, really close to me, you know, was extremely sick.

Daniel:
That’s sort of the bad part of that question, I guess.

Michael: Yeah, because that’s the truth, though. I guess I’ll just answer you honestly instead of trying to be funny. Unfortunately that didn’t happen all that long ago. That was a life-changer, that was literally a life-changer. That was huge. But there were happy ones — a lot of happy ones.

Daniel: Sure.

Michael: Boy, was that a great question, though. Have you asked that question before?

Daniel: No.

Michael: Boy, you can hang your hat on that one. You ought to ask that one a lot, because that really makes you think. I’ve never been asked that. That’s rare, that there’s a question I’ve never been asked.

Daniel: Well, I’m flattered.

Michael: Hang on to that one.

Daniel: I have a lot of dumb ones coming up soon, so hold on.

Michael: Well, I’m not saying it’s not dumb. Don’t get confused. I said it was a good one.

[Both laugh.]

Daniel: All right. (3) You ever meet a president?

Michael: Clinton and Obama and … uh … didn’t meet Carter. Clinton and Obama.

Daniel: And?

Michael: Yeah, first words out of Obama’s mouth — and again, I was just meeting the man who was about to become the leader of the free world. He’s walking down the hallway, arms outstretched like this to greet me — and his first sentence to me was, “Why don’t you make more movies?”

[Both laugh.]

Michael: And you have to backpedal a bit, like, whoa man, I thought we were going to talk about a whole bunch of other stuff.

Daniel: He probably wants to talk about movies; you want to talk about politics.

Michael: Exactly, exactly. He’s a huge Beetlejuice fan, a huge fan actually. “Man, you’ve got to keep making movies, how come you’re not doing it?” I had to talk about that for a minute and then say, “Hey I want to talk to you about this environmental thing, [laughs] but by that time, he’s thinking, Oh man, that’s a drag, I want to talk about movies.

Daniel: All right, (4) Have you ever dated a famous singer?

Michael: I dated a singer, a really nice woman named Rosie Flores, who’s a country, kind of country pop girl, she’s well-known in certain circles … but no, I’m thinking, no. But then I say these things sometimes, and a lot of people will go, “What are you talking about?” then they’ll remind me of someone —

[Both laugh.]

Daniel: Like, didn’t you and Linda Ronstadt … ?

Michael: Right, yeah, yeah. You and Madonna lived together. Oh, yeah, that’s right, I forgot.

Daniel: (5) You ever cold-call somebody for a date? You know, somebody you saw on TV or a movie or something?

Michael: Oh wow — no, I would be way too shy to do that.

Daniel: Or have somebody call on your behalf to someone you were taken with?

Michael: I don’t think ever. And I always wonder why I never did that.

Daniel: You hear about Nicholson doing that, watching the news and calling up the local news anchor, and —

Michael: Really?

Daniel: Yeah! Well, not sure if that’s true, but I remember hearing that …

Michael: Well, good for him! I should live more like that, you know. I don’t know why I don’t.

Daniel: Do you date, are you dating now?

Michael: Not right now. I was. Somebody for about three or four years. But not right now.

Daniel: You sort of famously went out with Courteney Cox. She’s single now, too. And I read a while back she said, “I will always love that guy, he’s the love of my life.” Do you think you’ll —

Michael: I have no idea. I don’t think about those things.

Daniel: All right. Sorry, I don’t mean to get tabloidy.

Michael: No, no, the people, there were a lot — I was always fascinated why that relationship took precedence in people’s minds. I also went out with Michelle Pfeiffer, Padma Lakshmi, lots of other well-known people, so I don’t know why that one always comes up.

Daniel: A friend of mine told me he knew you back in the day and said you were quite impressive.

[Both laugh.]

Michael: Well, that’s good.

Daniel: But I don’t think anyone knew you went out with those two. I certainly didn’t see it in my research. Have you talked about them before?

Michael: No, probably not. They’re both really kind of private, actually — well, not Padma. Padma’s not afraid of attention. I’ve been out with a lot of women, who are very, very pretty, very, very beautiful — but I would say to everybody that in terms of intelligence, Padma Lakshmi was off the charts. She is so bright.

Daniel: Yeah, she seems it. You could get that vibe from her.

Michael: Yeah, whoof, crazy smart. Crazy smart. I’ll tell you something really, really funny. Not about her, but about me, in that relationship because at the time, she was also very good friends, and then years later, ended up going out with and marrying Salman Rushdie, and —

Daniel: So you dated her before Salman Rushdie?

Michael: Yes, and she would tell me, she would say, “You know there’s a fatwa against Salman … ” And so at the time I remember thinking, Whoa, (laughing) I hope no one mistakes me for Salman!

Daniel: Oh my god … can you imagine a funnier way to go? Michael Keaton mistaken for Salman Rushdie — killed in mistaken-identity fatwa!

Michael: I mean, I look nothing like the man.

[Both laugh.]

Daniel: OK, and I’m guessing there’s no way you’ll answer this, but I’ll ask anyway: (6) Rate the Batmans in order of your favorites — best to worst.

Michael: You’re not going to believe me. I’ve only seen the first one. The one I did. And, well, most of the second one, because you see it while you’re looping. But I’ve never seen any of the other ones.

Daniel: You’ve never seen any of the other ones?

Michael: No, I don’t see many movies. I don’t even see my own movies.

Daniel: Wow.

Michael: I’ve seen bits and pieces of them. Honestly, I’m not just saying this … I really kind of want to see the Chris Nolan one, because he’s so crazy talented, so I’ll keep saying, “I gotta go see that, I gotta go see that,” and then like everything I still want to see, fuck, I just forget. There must be a hundred movies out there. I’ll say, “I gotta go see that.” And then I never get around to seeing them. Or maybe I’ll see it later on television. I’m really bad at that. But I will tell you this: Every time I see clips of his movies, they look awesome. This trailer that’s out now? Fuck, it looks unbelievable. He’s so talented.

Daniel: Yeah, Christopher Nolan.

Michael: And, I will take credit for this, though: The third Batman didn’t happen because I said this is not good, this is just not good.

Daniel: You were right.

Michael: And I said, “So let’s make it good,” and I run up against this resistance, and I said, “OK, I ain’t doing it, man, I just won’t do it.” And they didn’t believe me, but I said, “No, I’m really not doing it … “

Daniel: I know — I heard they backed the truck up. I read the whole story. Fifteen million bucks they offer you, and you just said screw it, no.

Michael: Yeah, that was it. Anyway, so I just said no.

Daniel: Did you talk about Batman with (George) Clooney when you were in Out of Sight?

Michael: No, I don’t. But he does. He brings it up all the time. And I really like George, by the way, he’s a really underappreciated light comedian, I think.

Daniel: But he likes to talk about it?

Michael: No, I’ve only hung out with him twice, I think, in my life. And he occasionally did say things, and I just had no idea what he was talking about. He’d say, “Hey, it’s for the brotherhood,” and I’d go, “Yeah!” and I’d go, [whispering] “What brotherhood?” And he’s done it for years. My hand to God this is true, he’d go, “Boy, that was really something,” and I’d go, “Sure was,” and I’d go, [whispering] “What?” And honest to God, years later, I’d hear him mention it again, and I’d go, “Oh! That’s what he meant.” I didn’t even know he did it. I forgot he did it. But what’s his name, uh, Christian …

Daniel: Christian Bale?

Michael: … who’s awesome. From there on, Val Kilmer … I haven’t seen him do it, but just looking at clips, or I’ll see something on television really quick, or I’ll catch a scene — and what’s interesting is, this is one of those interesting characters on the screen, in terms of pop movies. And I remember saying, we have to go back — forget the direction you’re going, I don’t want to do that. Let’s go back — and even though we kind of knew how he got there, how did we get here, and let’s ramp it back up. We have the chance to make this guy even better. Because the first one — when you consider all the obstacles — was really well done, that Tim (Burton) did. And then now, let’s go, like, up from there. Like the second one was pretty good, OK, and this third one was, like, undoable for me. And that’s exactly what Chris Nolan did. He did exactly what I said we should do —

Daniel: Joel Schumacher went silly on it.

Michael: Man, it’s just so intrinsic, it’s so inherently interesting, actually. And I’m not even like a comic book guy, and I never was as a kid even, but I found potentially that it was really interesting. And the thing I saw, I didn’t see this either, but I saw a couple of scenes, but the thing Heath Ledger did? Dude. Forget about it. That was unbelievable. That’s genius. My mouth hung open.

Daniel: Yeah, he definitely seemed touched in those scenes almost.

Michael: Man, it was awesome, and I didn’t even see all of that.

Daniel: It’s interesting that you’re not even curious.

Michael: I swear to God, I’m not that curious. And sometimes I go, come on, man, what are you doing, you gotta see this. And I’ll say, yeah, I’ll get around to it. And then like I never get around to it.

Daniel: Yeah, but I guess because you’re so immersed in it that you probably want to break from it almost. (7) What are your favorite movies?

Michael: The kinds of movies that I’m intrigued by now are — movies I love — have you ever seen this movie called A Prophet?

Daniel: Oh, yeah. That’s a great movie.

Michael: Brilliant. Or City of God, or —

Daniel: City of God is one of my top five, definitely. That was a life-changing movie, for sure.

Michael: For sure. Or Gomorrah? Have you seen Gomorrah?

Daniel: I have not.

Michael: Dude, rent Gomorrah. It’s awesome. So those kinds of movies where I see people I’ve never seen before, and I get caught up in the story — they’re just like raw and real — that kind of — those Belgian brothers who directed L’Enfant.

Daniel: Which movie?

Michael: That movie called L’Enfant — “The Child” — it’s a really interesting way they do that. The way they direct. That kind of stuff, the way it draws you into worlds — that’s what I find the most exciting kind of cinema to me.

Daniel: (8) When was the last time you caught one of your own movies on TV — and did you watch it?

Michael: Almost never, and unfortunately, last night I came home, and I was really tired, and I was clicking around looking for something specific — I’m a big Veep fan.

Daniel: Yeah, great show. Smart, funny …

Michael: Isn’t it great? Yeah, I love that show. And I thought I might catch a rerun on HBO, and I didn’t, so I was clicking around, I can never seem to catch it. But then I saw The Other Guys was on, and I thought, Oh, man — I really had fun working on that movie, even though I just did a little thing. But I was too tired. I thought, I don’t want to start watching this; I’ve got to go bed.

Daniel: Well, you were saying you were trying to catch Veep, do you know how to work a DVR? Or no, not really?

Michael: No. [Both laugh.] I don’t.

Daniel: Because that would make your life a lot easier, probably.

Michael: I know, my kid says, “Turn on your DVR,” and I go walking around going, “God, I’m embarrassed to ask him how to do it.” He has to come over and show me how to do it.

Daniel: I mean, no offense, but they pretty much create these things for idiots, honestly. You just press the button, and it just goes. But maybe that’s part of the embarrassment of not knowing how to do it, I guess.

Michael: Yeah, I just want a deal with Fisher-Price where they do everything for me. Fisher-Price DVR, Fisher-Price cars.

[Both laugh.]

Daniel: (9) Do you have an irrational pet peeve?

Michael: Blue cheese.

Daniel: That freaks you out?

Michael: Blue should never be associated with cheese. The color blue doesn’t go. The color green could be on it, orange, sure, but blue is weird to me. Also I hate the expression — well, a couple of expressions drive me crazy. One is “no worries” — everyone likes saying “no worries,” which is an old Australian expression that Americans have grabbed onto — “No worries” — and it drives me fucking crazy. It’s like this cute little slang thing, but what I hate worse is, “Thanks so much.” People love to say, “Thanks so much,” “Thanks for everything,” or “Thank you so much.” Because it’s really not them saying “I’m grateful.” It’s them saying, “Look how fabulous I am that I’m so grateful.” “Thanks so much.” “Can I borrow your pen? Thanks so much. Thank you so much.” It’s not a loan. I’m not giving you a loan. I’m giving you a fucking number two pencil. Drives me crazy.

Daniel: OK, the final thing I’ll ask you, and originally, you know, this was going to be a dinner, so I feel I should ask you a food question: (10) What would you have as your last meal?

Michael: [pauses] My friend Harry Colomby would say, “If I was on death row, and they served me my last meal, I would eat consommé with a fork.”

[Both laugh.]

Daniel: You did tweet about food a lot.

Michael: Yeah, I cook a lot. I love to cook. You know what I’d make? Pheasant cacciatore. Like chicken cacciatore, [but] I’d make it with pheasant.

Daniel: Wow. OK.

Michael: That’s probably what it’d be. Or cioppino. And some homemade bread.

Daniel: Great. Perfect. Thanks so much for doing this.

Michael: No, thanks. I enjoyed it. So do you still write stuff?

Daniel: Yeah. But something like this I just do because it’s just fun. Talking with interesting people.

Michael: Well, you’re good at it.

Daniel: Thanks, that’s nice of you to say. It’s not a natural thing. I just like the idea of having a real conversation. I said in the first one, I loved Tom Snyder and the rambling conversations he used to have.

Michael: There’s nobody doing that now. Charlie Rose is awfully good, but it’s Charlie Rose. It’s kind of in that, eh, PBS kind of thing. Which is not terrible, but in that article, they were also talking about how Alec, his isn’t a blog, his is a podcast —

Daniel: Right.

Michael: So yeah, I’m going to go on Alec’s podcast, I’ve heard it’s entertaining.

Daniel: But you know him pretty well, though, no?

Michael: Yeah, well no, I actually don’t. I mean, we did Beetlejuice

Daniel: And you just did 30 Rock with him.

Michael: Yeah, he makes me laugh. He makes me laugh.

Daniel: He’s blustery — but in that good way, you know.

Michael: He’s extremely charismatic, and really bright, and he’s just a lot. I mean, I don’t know him well, but he’s a lot, and you gotta take everything with a personality. There’s a lot with that personality, you know, and there’s a lot of good stuff, too. People get the bad stuff. But I laughed the other day when he punched the photographer. That made me laugh.

Daniel: Yeah, I love a guy who will do that. And it’s funny, we both read the Times in the morning, but I read the [New York] Post also —

Michael: Excuse me, say what you want about the Post, but it’s my guilty pleasure. At a newsstand, I’ll seldom buy it, but I’ll hang and read it. They have some headlines that kill me. I think they’re — sometimes their headlines are stupid, and sometimes I go, “Perfect.” Plus, their sports are pretty good.

Daniel: Oh yeah. I love the old guys like Phil Mushnick, who’s all cranky and blustery too. It’s good. But there’s a picture of Alec Baldwin, yesterday, I think in the Post, walking around the city with a bedsheet over his head. He’s just walking around — and he runs into Bill Clinton, and there’s a picture of him and Bill Clinton and it just gives you an idea of what a day in the life of Alec Baldwin is like. That’s what you don’t see in the Times: You don’t see someone famous in a bedsheet walking the streets. I guess after he punched the photographer, he doesn’t want anyone to take the pictures of him, so he’s walking around in a bedsheet like a fucking ghost.

[Both laughing.]

Michael: He’s gone nuts.

Daniel: I love the guy. He’s hilarious.


Michael Keaton’s book, Astream: American Writers on Fly Fishing, is available on Amazon.com.

Daniel Kellison (@Danielkellison) is a TV producer/writer and co-founder of Jackhole Industries with partners Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla. Among their many shows, he co-created Crank Yankers and The Man Show, and was the original executive producer of Jimmy Kimmel Live. Before that, he spent eight years as a producer for Late Night with David Letterman and The Late Show with David Letterman. Most recently he has been serving on President Obama’s Entertainment Advisory Council — and will soon be announcing a new Comedy channel for Google/YouTube.

Filed Under: Batman, Magazines, Movies, Star

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