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Michael Keaton Playboy Magazine Interview (July 1992)

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    Michael Keaton was interviewed by Playboy Magazine for their July 1992 issue.  This took place after "Batman" (1989) and before "Batman Returns" (1992) was released.  Here are excerpts from the interview concerning his Batman work.

    [The opening words from "Playboy"]:  Hollywood insiders figured it had to be a joke.  After all, cinematic superheroes had to be as muscled as Schwarzenegger, as square-jawed as Stallone, as sensitive as Costner.  What was Warner Bros. thinking when it cast a five-foot-ten, 160-pound goofball as the Caped Crusader?  To make matters worse, even before the 1989 release of "Batman," film critics and fans of the beloved comic book cast their votes:  There was no way Michael Keaton could convincingly play the title role.  First of all, he had never offed a bad guy in his movies; furthermore, he was just a comedian.

    But Keaton got the last laugh when "Batman" earned more than $400,000,000 worldwide, becoming the sixth-highest-grossing film in history.  As a result, Keaton was catapulted into the ranks of Hollywood's heaviest hitters.  It was only a matter of time before a sequel showed up in movie theaters, and that time has arrived.  Opening nationwide this month, "Batman Returns"- starring Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Danny DeVito as the Penguin- is expected to become another box-office bonanza.

    There was no blatantly obvious reason for the success of "Batman."  Despite the fiendishly comic capers of Jack Nicholson as the Joker and the drop-dead beauty of Keaton's leading lady, Kim Basinger, the film was dark and forbidding.  And it was often depressing:  Keaton chose to portray Batman- or, rather, multimillionaire Bruce Wayne- as a brooding eccentric in need of psychotherapy.  Such characterizations usually don't make for a runaway hit, but moviegoers ate up Keaton's offbeat interpretation and so did most reviewers.

    Amid the fanfare, Keaton's checkered film career was all but forgotten, which may have been to his advantage.  Things were off to a good enough start in 1982, when Keaton played the world's strangest morgue attendant in Ron Howard's "Night Shift," co-starring Henry Winkler.  Then, in 1983, he again won praise- and genuine stardom- with his deft and funny portrayal of an unemployed executive-turned-househusband (to Teri Garr) in "Mr. Mom."  But the well went dry:  For five years, Keaton got bogged down in a series of undistinguished comedies.  He also had trouble mastering the script-selection process that Hollywood reserves for proven box-office stars (he turned down the Tom Hanks role in "Splash").  He was even fired from Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo."  But in 1988, director Tim Burton cast Keaton as the satanically smarmy spook in his stylized horror-comedy "Beetlejuice," and the actor and director hit it off.  Burton had intrigued movie-goers with his equally bizarre "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" (he would later direct "Edward Scissorhands"), and his unique style behind the camera seemed to blend perfectly with Keaton's singular manner in front of it.  "Beetlejuice" was a hit, and Keaton was back on track.

    Soon came "Clean and Sober."  In his first dramatic role- Keaton played a cocaine abuser- he not only showcased his range as an actor but also reestablished himself as a bankable Hollywood headliner.  The next year, Keaton and Burton were reunited with "Batman," and the actor hit superstardom.  As Keaton himself might say (and did say in "Night Shift"):  Is this a great country, or what?

[There are more opening words to the interview, but not pertinent to "Batman" fans.  If you want to read the entire thing, buy the magazine.  Below are selected questions and answers from the interview.]

Playboy:  You have defined yourself as an actor who has a side job of Batman.  What do you mean by that?

Keaton:  It's just that the productions are so huge and the experience is so unlike making other movies that Batman actually feels like a different job.  One day on "Batman Returns," I started working on a scene, then we broke- and it wasn't until a month later that I was asked to come back and finish it.  The scene consisted of me walking around the Batmobile and looking down into an abyss where the Penguin- Danny DeVito- is supposed to be.  Danny, meanwhile, was wandering around somewhere, wondering when he'd be coming back.  All movies have a stop-start quality to them, but no movies are stop-start like this- with all the special effects required, all the technical intricacies.  As an actor, I'm always trying to hang on to my character, and by now, that's become second nature- but I can't do it on a Batman movie.

    On the first one, I had to learn really fast how to fit into what feels like an enormous painting.  That's kind of difficult when you come into it cold.  Michelle Pfeiffer told me, "This is the hardest thing I've ever done."  In fact, when I first met with Danny and Michelle, I warned both of them to be ready for something a little different.  I could see the look of confusion and fear in their eyes.  They reminded me of Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis when they did "Beetlejuice."  It was tough for them because they never quite knew what [director] Tim Burton was going to have them do, or when.  I didn't have that problem.


Playboy:  "Batman Returns" is your third film collaboration with Burton.  Do you anticipate others?

Keaton:  Yeah.  Some actor-director combinations work really well.  Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack made several movies together.  I think Tim and I are the twisted version of Pollack and Redford.  I really feel best when I'm working with him.  Tim looked rested and relaxed at the beginning of Batman Returns, and that made me a little nervous.  But as we neared our deadline, he got totally pale, his hair stood out like electricity was shooting through it and his arms were flailing.  He was pacing around, trying to explain what he wanted.  Other people might have looked at him and worried.  I figured I had him just where I wanted him.  I thought, Here we go, now we're in the groove.  This is the Tim I know and trust.

Playboy:  After working with you in "Beetlejuice," Burton approached you to star in "Batman," but you were reluctant about doing the movie.  Why?

Keaton:  I was dumbfounded when he first called me.  I think I tapped the receiver a few times and said, "You sure you have the right number?"  But that didn't last long because it was Tim, so I knew there must be something to it.  I said, "Yeah, of course I'll read it," thinking no way would I do it.  I pictured Batman as one of these arms-akimbo superheroes.  If he'd been written that way, I would have been first to admit I was the wrong guy.  I was also really tired.  I had done a few movies back to back and didn't want to be away from my son for four months.  [Keaton is single with a son from a previous marriage.- Ed.]  And one other thing:  I had always wanted to work with Jack Nicholson, and I thought, Damn, if this is going to be my only shot, I don't know if I want to take it.  I felt that it would be better to work with Jack where we're two people dressed in some sort of normal garb.

    But when I read the script, it made sense to me- it was pretty damn good.  When I talked to Tim again, I said, "I don't think you're going to agree with this, but here's my take on Bruce Wayne:  He's essentially depressed and a little nuts, real dark and a couple of steps off.  Yet, at the same time, he's not off at all.  And he's focused."

Playboy:  Focused on what?

Keaton:  Bruce Wayne gets real focused when he sees a woman he's interested in.  In the first movie it was Kim Basinger- Vicki Vale- and in this one it's Michelle, who plays Selina Kyle, the Catwoman.  That focus doesn't always last because Bruce Wayne has a lot of other things on his plate, which is why he's always a little absentminded and preoccupied.  Tim agreed with my take on Bruce Wayne.  I saw that Batman had the potential to become a franchise, but the risk was that it might look really stupid, and I'm sure that Jack felt the same way.

Playboy:  Didn't you wait until after Nicholson signed to play the Joker before you agreed to become Batman?

Keaton:  It was kind of simultaneous.  I was holding out to see what he was doing.  If Jack is doing the part, then it's a whole other movie.

Playboy:  Was that reassuring to you?

Keaton:  Yeah.  When Jack and I talked about the movie, I felt even better.  You could see that he was thinking, formulating.  Playing the Joker wasn't a casual choice on his part.

    I'd met Jack only once before, years ago, real fast somewhere.  He's probably the only person I've ever seen who literally knows how to sidle.  I was at a party and he saw me looking at him.  He kind of backed up to me on an angle, faked left, went right, threw me a compliment and then continued the conversation he was having.

Playboy:  Are any of Nicholson's acting choices casual?

Keaton:  I'd bet you anything that they're not.  Jack is so intelligent.  I once heard him asking himself questions about the Joker:  "How far does he go?  What is he going to look like?"  Jack knows so much about moviemaking that I figured he'd be a real important force in "Batman."  And he was.  He added a lot to the mix.  For every four things I added, Jack probably added eight.  He was a big help, especially given the time, the budget and the insanity of that movie.  Things were often very tense.  People were risking their careers on "Batman."  We were in London and executives were flying back and forth and making big deals.  We worked under a lot of pressure.

Playboy:  A good deal of that pressure was on you.  After Warner Bros. announced that you were going to play Batman, approximately fifty thousand fans of the comic strip wrote letters of protest--

Keaton:  Do you know how I found out about that?  We were probably halfway through shooting "Batman" when I took the Concorde from London back to Los Angeles for a quick visit.  On the plane, I started reading the Wall Street Journal, and there on the front page was my picture- I still wonder how those little drawings are done- and an article about how Batman fans wanted somebody like Sylvester Stallone or Clint Eastwood to play the character.  The fact was, a lot rode on this choice.  After that, I went back and finished the movie knowing it was out there.  I just kind of dug in.

Playboy:  When it was released, "Batman" pulled in a quarter-billion dollars in the U.S. and Canada alone.  Were you surprised by its success?

Keaton:  I didn't know because I couldn't tell what kind of movie it was.  I was almost as surprised as anyone else when I first saw it.  I had no idea about some of the things that were in there.  There are scenes in "Batman Returns" that I haven't seen, either.  While we're working, the second unit is off filming Batmobile shots, special effects and explosions.  There will be a ton of things in "Batman Returns" that I won't know about until I see the first cut.  So in that sense, I feel disconnected.  Working on these movies is like being in the middle of some huge machine.

Playboy:  Did the success of "Batman" change your life?

Keaton:  I'm going to say something that I've never said in an interview before:  I'm so tired of this fucking question, I can't stand it.  [Laughs]  Look, anytime you're in a hit, it changes your life in the sense that people who don't necessarily have any taste become aware of the amount of money the movie made.  They associate a lot of that with you.  Consequently, their desire to work with you goes up proportionately.  Dig it?  If it made a hundred million, they like me a lot.  Two fifty?  Well, if I said, "Come and hold up my house for a week on your shoulders," they would figure out a way to do it.  So you have to know that.

Playboy:  Why did "Batman" work?

Keaton:  Well, first of all, the character- Bruce Wayne- is powerful.  He has power because he has money and because he saw his parents killed, which sent him into serious introspection and illness.  But he still functions as a major force in society.  You have to be powerful from that.  It finally comes down to the whole look of the picture, especially the look of the damn Batsuit.  It just emanates power.

Playboy:  According to various press reports, working in that suit wasn't a picnic for you.  True?

Keaton:  It was difficult.  I'm bolted, pasted, glued, strapped and tied all through the Batsuit.  It's made out of neoprene, latex and rubber, and it also has some metal parts.  Mostly, it's like being on the inside of a rubber band:  It gives, but there's this constant pulling.  If I get too thin, I rattle around in it.  If I put on a few pounds, it becomes too tight and everything takes twice the exertion.  I also sweat a lot in it.  And I can't drink any coffee when I'm in it- and I truly have a caffeine addiction- because they didn't build it with a fly and zipper.  They put what amounts to a portable bathroom in there.  But it's a safe suit.  When I'm wearing it, I feel like I'm the poster boy for safe sex.  It also makes me feel isolated, which is perfect for the character.

Playboy:  Are you worried that by playing Batman you might get identified with the character in the same way that Christopher Reeve became identified with Superman?

Keaton:  Well, to start with, I didn't sign a sequel deal, and I don't know if Reeve did, either.  I think the real problem Reeve had is that he hadn't done many other things people had seen, so they knew him only as Superman.  I say that in his defense.  However, I remember Reeve being interviewed on the set of the fourth Superman movie, and he made a big point of saying, "I'm tired of being identified as Superman."  I thought, Really?  You know what, Chris?  Unless you signed a sequel deal, you never had to make four of them.

Playboy:  Are you saying you won't make four Batman movies?

Keaton:  I don't know what I'll do.  The way I'm feeling right now, if somebody says, "Hey, by the way, Tim and I are going to do another one in two or three years and you've got to tell us if you're going to do it," I'd say, "Yeah, I'll be there."  But two years down the road, if I look at a script and it's awful, or if Tim's not around, or if some key elements aren't in it, I'm going to say I'm out.  From a business standpoint, sequels make absolute sense, but so many movies are being made with sequels in mind that the whole thing's getting stupid.  "Gandhi 2" would have been in big trouble:  "We put him on intravenous- and he's back!"

    In any case, there's hope for us sequel folks:  Harrison Ford did the Star Wars films without hurting himself, and now he's going to make movies based on Tom Clancy's novels.

Playboy:  One more item about "Batman Returns":  You originally wanted Annette Bening to play Catwoman.  Why?

Keaton:  She has this really great off-center quality, and I'd just seen her in "The Grifters."  So when Tim said to me, "We've got to think about Catwoman," I mentioned Annette and he said, "What a good idea."  It was that simple.  No one else was discussed.  But then Annette became pregnant and had to drop out.

Playboy:  From what we've heard, the hunt for her replacement didn't exactly rival David O. Selznick's search for Scarlett O'Hara, but it certainly had its dramatic moments.

Keaton:  Oh, boy, talk about really knowing you're in Hollywood.  One day after Annette was out of the running, I was talking to Mark Canton, who was then in charge at Warner Bros. and heading up the Batman project.  We were in his office and he said, "I'm getting calls about Catwoman from every actress you can name."  He began going down the list for me when his phone rang.  He picked it up and said, "Yes, fine, but no, I can't right now.  I'm busy."  Just as we started talking again, there was another phone call.  "Please do me a favor," he said.  "Tell her I can't see her now.  I'm in a meeting."  About thirty seconds later, the door flew open and in walked Sean Young, who was a woman on a mission- but on a level the likes of which I'd never seen before.

Playboy:  What did she do?

Keaton:  Sean came in and said, "How could I not be Catwoman?  It's so obvious that I'm supposed to be Catwoman."  It was so strange and bizarre.  Sean was dressed catlike.  No actual fur was involved, but I recall her hair being tied up with a ribbon that kind of picked her hair up.  At a fast glance, it looked like she had ears on the back of her head.  She was dressed in all black- big high boots, leotard and shorts.

Playboy:  And she made her pitch for the role right then?

Keaton:  Yeah, on the move.  She went on for about two and a half minutes with what seemed like one sentence.  It was a lot like Bob Dylan's book "Tarantula."  While Sean was talking, I noticed that she had a metallic object in her hand.  I flashed on it for a second and prayed to God it wasn't a gun.  I wasn't alone in that- Mark had the same feeling.  But it wasn't a gun, it was a walkie-talkie.  I thought I would diffuse the situation by bringing her back to earth.  I said, "Hey, first of all, how you doing?  I haven't seen you for a long time, and you look great"- which was true.  That threw her for a couple seconds, and then she went on again.  I asked her what she was doing with the walkie-talkie.  She said- nicely, she wasn't mean- "I'm talking to somebody."  The walkie-talkie was crackling, and I heard things like "Roger."  I said, "Why don't you shut if off?  Let's have a conversation."  And I think she did shut it off.  For a moment, I felt that might straighten her up.  I said, "Hey, do me a favor.  I'm talking to Mark about something.  Let me finish up here- we're just about done- and then I'll leave and you guys can have your meeting."  Sean talked for another minute  and then went out and waited.  I left and she came back in and talked with Mark.  I don't know what happened after that.  But it was wild and totally eccentric and great fun.  I'll tell you something:  If the woman could bottle that drive with a sense of humor, she'd be unstoppable.

Playboy:  Is the sense of humor missing?

Keaton:  For the most part, yes.  She's talented, but talent notwithstanding, I laughed very hard after that.  It was one of those great Hollywood moments.

Playboy:  Young's campaign to become Catwoman- she dressed the part on Joan Rivers' TV show- received a good deal of attention.  Did she do anything beyond that?

Keaton:  Lots, yes, but I didn't really see it, so I'm not gonna say what it was.

Playboy:  How did Michelle Pfeiffer feel when finally asked to do the role?

Keaton:  At the time, she was preparing to do a movie.  I'm sure that's what happened- I haven't actually asked her- was that Michelle said, "OK, send me the script," read it and felt it was not to be passed up.  Her name could have popped up just as easily and just as fast as Annette Bening's.  In a weird way, she was the most obvious choice, if you think of it.  I think it's going to end up being one of those cases where Michelle turns out to be the only actress who could have played Catwoman.  She's so good.

Playboy:  It's difficult to recognize you beneath all the makeup and costuming in "Batman" and "Beetlejuice."  Do you like being unrecognizable?

Keaton:  No, not consciously, but there's great fun in that.  On a very primary level, dressing up wild is kind of where it all starts.  When I was five or six, I began doing things like putting on silly hats, making faces, combing my hair crazy and walking in ways that looked stupid.  I cut out Hershey-bar wrappers because they were just the right tone for Elvis sideburns.  I used to lick them and stick them on and perform for the family.


Playboy:  Ever since the cameras started rolling on "Batman Returns," Hollywood observers have been predicting that it will be the biggest movie of the summer and maybe of the year.  Do you agree?

Keaton:  Well, I can't tell you that there's a lot more of everything in this one than there was in "Batman" and that the Penguin is far more evil than the Joker was.  But other than that, I really don't know.  One of the reasons I hesitate to talk a lot about what I do and the medium in which I work is that I honestly don't know much about them.  And I'm not being humble here, because there are things I do know a lot about and don't feel at all constrained to discuss.  But I just don't know that much about acting and movies.  Most people who've done the amount of work I've done think they know a lot about it.  Usually, when I read what they have to say, I find them totally pretentious and incorrect, so I hesitate to say anything because I think I'm still figuring out a lot of things.