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The kinetic Keaton returns

Times Staff Writer

Michael Keaton comes bounding into his office in Santa Monica with the same frenetic energy and intensity that he has brought to his movie roles for the last 20 years. “I’ve got to roll,” he tells everyone as he briskly walks into his personal office and starts opening the mail piled up on his desk.

“You can start any time you want,” Keaton tells a reporter as he opens an envelope containing a script.

The 51-year-old actor, who was the best of the three “Batmans” and who has enthralled critics and audiences alike with his ability to effortlessly move from comedic roles in such films as “Night Shift” to dramatic turns in “Clean and Sober” and “Pacific Heights,” has been off the radar for a while.

But now he’s back in a new HBO movie, “Live From Baghdad,” premiering Saturday on the cable outlet. The film is based on the memoir of the same name by Robert Wiener, a former CNN senior executive producer, and revolves around the cable news network reporters who attempted to broadcast live from behind enemy lines during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Keaton plays the kinetic Wiener in the drama, which also stars Helena Bonham Carter and David Suchet.

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Director Mick Jackson thought Keaton was a wonderful choice to play Wiener because the role gives the actor the opportunity to be both comedic and dramatic, energetic and compassionate.

“It showcases all of his strengths as an actor,” Jackson says. “He is a movie star. Movie stars are movie stars, and they are a special kind of human being. What I loved about Michael is he dedicated all the intensity and passion to the role. The thing I admired and found most useful was his physical energy. Sometimes, he looks like a hyperkinetic kid. And the comedy timing was great. It was a great resource to draw on.”

Keaton, who is friendly and chatty in an intense, stream-of-consciousness way, says there are several reasons why he hasn’t done a lot of projects in the last few years.

“I don’t think with anything it is usually one thing,” he explains, staring at the ocean view from the window of his office.

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“I just made certain decisions that I only wanted to do something I hadn’t done before. I am not saying that is the end of that story, because it isn’t, because inevitably, you will do something you have done before. Also, I didn’t want to do what I didn’t want to do anymore. I wanted to like it. I wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to live life. I wanted to do things I wanted to do. That said, had I been offered something I had absolutely loved, and it was a really good role, and I was up to work again ....”

He also wanted to make sure his son, Sean, got into a good college. “I didn’t want to bail on him,” Keaton says. “There was some tough stuff in my family this year and I wanted to ride herd on that and be attentive to that and do things I wanted to do -- you know, go to Europe and build houses.”

“Live From Baghdad” was just the type of project to bring him back to a film set. He had loved Wiener’s book when he read it several years ago.

“I am a news junkie anyway,” says Keaton, who also played a journalist in Ron Howard’s movie “The Paper.” “I find [journalists] endlessly interesting, and I thought this was so timely.”

Not only did Keaton talk with Wiener about his experiences, but the two also have become friends.

“He is a lot of things,” Keaton says. “In his heart, he’s a pacifist. But he is also realistic.”

Wiener is also blessed with patience, something Keaton says he himself lacks: “That is something I have to constantly remind myself to continually get better at. Hopefully, I am.”

With “Live From Baghdad” under his belt, Keaton is eager to get back to work. He’s sold an idea to a film company and is weighing two projects.

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The one thing he’s realized is that acting doesn’t get any easier with age. “I am not sure why it is,” he says. “The only reason I feel any comfort is that two really good actors, Sean Penn and [Tom] Hanks, told me separately that they felt the same way. I don’t know if it is harder to live up to my own expectations.”


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