Amid the clatter and bustle of an oceanside Santa Monica restaurant, Michael Keaton shrugs, describing his decision to star in “The Founder” as “really pretty simple.” Even if that simplicity is obvious to no one but the Oscar-nominated actor himself.
The biographical drama — which recently had its release date moved to Dec. 7 for a one-week Oscars-qualifying run ahead of its Jan. 20 wide release — features Keaton as Ray A. Kroc, the brilliant, bullying business executive who built the McDonald’s fast food franchise into a multibillion-dollar Happy Meal juggernaut but also wrested control away from actual “founders” Richard and Maurice McDonald in the mid-1950s.
By appearance and disposition, however, Kroc (who died in 1984) looked nothing like Keaton. And when the actor was offered the part in 2015, he was already nearly a dozen years older than the erstwhile burger king during the period showcased in the film. What’s more, Keaton admits he knew little of the itinerant milkshake machine merchant-turned-CEO’s Machiavellian, prosper-or-die streak and initially greeted the role sight unseen with a “meh.”
“There are things in life you never really pay attention to. They just are,” says Keaton, 65. “McDonald’s is just a thing that is. I’m thinking, ‘So who is Ray Kroc?’”
His acceptance boiled down to three factors: Rob Siegel’s script, which had been ranked on the 2014 Black List of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays, director John Lee Hancock (behind the acclaimed previous biopics “The Blind Side” and “Saving Mr. Banks”) and, not least, the way “The Founder’s” production schedule would impact the star’s assiduously maintained on-duty versus off-duty equilibrium.
“It fit my life,” says Keaton, who splits time between a luxurious home in Pacific Palisades and a 1,500-acre Montana ranch where the star hunts and fishes with Hemingway-esque gusto. “I looked around and said, ‘What do I have to do in life?’ My personal life is important to me. I think John’s work is really good. I thought the script is really good. And it fit where I was at the time.”
The way “The Founder” fits into Keaton’s latest career incarnation is much more obvious. The fact-based drama — which kicks off with Kroc’s eureka discovery of the McDonald brothers’ assembly line system of on-the-go dining and ends with the executive hornswoggling the business for himself through cutthroat corporate maneuvering — rounds out a trio of masterful performances in awards season movies, capping off a career resurgence that might have seemed inconceivable a few years ago.
It started with the 2014 backstage dramedy “Birdman,” which netted Keaton a lead actor Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe. He followed up that performance with a co-starring role as Boston Globe investigative editor Walter “Robbie” Robertson in last year’s “Spotlight,” the ensemble biopic that scored a best picture Oscar. Now, “The Founder” places Keaton in the thick of Hollywood’s annual statuette scrum for the third time in three years — in his fourth go-’round portraying a nonfictional character (including the mini-series “The Company” and the HBO movie “Live from Baghdad”).
“It’s like having answers to the test when you play someone real. It’s a huge advantage because half your work is done for you,” Keaton says, before adding his “Founder” portrayal was largely a work of dramatic invention: “You’d make a big mistake trying to do an impression of Ray Kroc.”
Easy enough to forget, then, that after the actor blazed into popular consciousness with the 1978 comedy “Night Shift,” jumping from comedy to superhero moviedom as the Caped Crusader in a pair of Tim Burton-directed “Batman” movies, and delivering solid dramatic turns for directors including Quentin Tarantino (“Jackie Brown”) and Steven Soderbergh (“Out of Sight”), Keaton experienced something of a wilderness period.
Before Oscar-winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu cast him in “Birdman”— as a washed-up superhero movie star struggling to overcome career doldrums — Keaton was toiling in a similar journeyman’s purgatory, appearing in paycheck films such as “Need for Speed” and “Herbie Fully Loaded” (2005).
It’s like having answers to the test when you play someone real. It’s a huge advantage because half your work is done for you.
“What was I thinking with ‘Herbie’? One hundred percent business decision,” he says. “My thinking was: If I know there’s going to be a check every couple of years, and it’s going to be sizable, I can afford to sit back and wait for that pitch I want to hit. Wait for the Alejandro call. The Tim Burton call. The Tarantino call. Or just wait for the really good script. In my experience, almost every time, this kind of thinking will backfire on you.”
Against all odds, that strategy seems to have worked. And providing a kind of only-in-Hollywood irony upon ironies, one of Keaton’s “Founder” follow-ups finds him portraying a winged villain called the Vulture in this summer’s mega-budget superhero reboot “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Never mind his ignorance surrounding the genre.
“I only know the Batman stuff based on the movies I did. I had to play catch-up all the time,” Keaton says. “Marvel has created such a distinct universe, I would do something based on another character, maybe a really obscure character, who did a certain thing in a certain book that affected Iron Man in a certain movie — Iron Man plays a part in the plot in ‘Spider-Man.’ So I had to be educated, otherwise things didn’t make sense.”
Asked about his previous sweep through Oscar season, and what another awards validation would mean to him after so many professional twists and turns, the actor grew philosophical. “Being nominated meant a lot to me — how could it not?” he says. “Besides that, it is what it is. I still have me and my friends. I’m still a dad. And all those other things, that doesn’t affect that. I balance things, my life and my work, mostly really well.”