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Gold Standard: Michael Keaton on ‘Birdman’: ‘You don’t get something like this again’

Michael Keaton is having a moment. After being more or less absent from the screen for the past decade, the 63-year-old actor is receiving the best reviews of his career for his self-referential turn in Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s “Birdman,” playing Riggan Thomson, a former superhero movie star attempting a legitimizing comeback through staging a Broadway play.

Keaton greeted well-wishers Tuesday night on the 20th Century Fox lot at a reception following a screening of “Birdman.” He was in a good mood, which had less to do with the schmoozing (he’s not a big fan, sheepishly asking the film’s producer, John Lesher, 15 minutes into the event if he’d done his duty) and more with the fact that his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates had clinched a playoff berth earlier that evening.

Asked to choose between the movie’s ecstatic reception at the Venice and Telluride film festivals and the Pirates’ making baseball’s postseason, Keaton, a Pennsylvania native, smiled and gestured to Lesher standing nearby at the bar.

“I don’t know if I can answer that honestly with him in earshot,” Keaton said, smiling, between sips from a generous pour of red wine.

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He let the answer sit for a couple of beats before adding, “I’ve got to tell you: This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of role. You spend your whole career waiting for your pitch, hoping you’ll be ready when it comes because you don’t get something like this again.” Pause. “Let me put it another way: I’ve seen this movie 2½ times. And I never see my movies. That’s how much I admire what Alejandro has done here.”

Keaton then caught sight of another “Birdman” collaborator he appreciates: camera operator Chris Haarhoff. As the film is mostly shot as one single, simulated take inside Broadway’s St. James Theatre, where Keaton’s character is mounting his ambitious adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” Haarhoff did a fair amount of heavy lifting over the 30-day shoot.

“He’d be sweating, backing up, running ahead, going up and down stairs, banging into walls,” Keaton says. “Watching him work, you could never complain about your day.”

Keaton, happily, if briefly, held court on a number of subjects, mostly “Batman"-related, what with “Birdman” prompting a walk (forced march?) down memory lane. Keaton performs a dual role in “Birdman,” appearing as the desperate actor and as Birdman, with the superhero alter ego voicing dark thoughts and doubts and encouraging Riggan to abandon his “pathetic” stab at relevancy and return to the comic book franchise where he belongs.

The Birdman voice Keaton employs is even deeper and gruffer than the one he used for Batman (“Alejandro kept pushing and pushing me on that,” Keaton said), which led him to recall that it was his idea to give Batman a raspy, intimidating voice to differentiate the character from Bruce Wayne. (“Otherwise, he’d open his mouth and people would immediately know it was Bruce Wayne, who was pretty well-known around town, right?” Keaton explained. “He’d need a different voice to protect himself.”)

Keaton also lamented that his pioneering movie superhero days came too early for digital effects. Robert Downey Jr., he noted, “doesn’t even wear the Iron Man costume, right? They just digitally add it.” Pause. Sigh. “That would have been nice.”

Wine emptied, Keaton edged closer to the parking lot, saying his goodbyes before letting loose a (soon-to-be) signature Birdman squawk and heading into the night. It won’t be the last time we hear this war cry.

Twitter: @glennwhipp

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