6 Acting Tips From Michael Keaton

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Michael Keaton in Birdman

Fox Searchlight

Michael Keaton is an American treasure. We all love Michael Keaton. We may not all love White Noise or Desperate Measure, but no stinker will shatter our fondness for the actor. Keaton is up there with Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner ‐ actors we always expect to deliver, no matter the quality of the films they’re in. They’re great, distinctly American actors.

For the past few years Keaton has been out of the spotlight ‐ and no, that’s not a bad pun referencing his newest film, Spotlight— but he bounced back last year with Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). In Alejandro Iñárritu’s film, Keaton was front and center. Not only was he compelling as a burnt out, egotistical actor, but also as a struggling father trying to connect with his daughter. Keaton brought pain, warmth, and humor to Birdman.

The actor has been able to do it all since the early days of his career. Keaton was a big ball of energy in his breakout film, Night Shift, and years later, he was menacing and tortured as Bruce Wayne/Batman. An actor with such range and a career with its ups and downs is someone to listen to, so here are six acting tips from Michael Keaton.

Let Go

“You’re usually tightening up if you’re fearful. That’s why acting’s such an interesting kind of way to make a living. It’s such an interesting art form, or trade, or craft, or whatever it is. Because when it’s being done well, I think ‐ at least for me ‐ you’re 100 percent present and, at the same time, you just totally let go. I used to compete riding cutting horses. … This is a trained horse trained to do a certain thing, and you have to hope that, at that point, your horse is so well-trained and his or her instincts are so strong that you have to trust the animal. You know, I’m just going to let go, man. I can’t tighten up my legs. I can’t get too locked up in my body. And, at the same time, I’ve got to stay 100 percent present. That’s essentially, for me, what I’m doing [when I’m acting]. I’m locked in solid. And, at the same time, I’m just not in control of it at all. You just kind of let it occur.”

Michael Keaton isn’t a fan of talking about acting, or at least not his own method. The Mr. Mom star often uses horses, baseball, and fishing ‐ all of which he’s a fan of ‐ to explain acting. Letting go and staying in control is not an easy balance to explain. According to Keaton, you just gotta learn how to stay solid but loose. Having a strong foundation, like a fine script, would certainly help.

At the End of the Day, It’s Just Acting

“I always bet on me. What I may lack in talent from time to time, I think I make up for in balls. I’ve never seen the virtue in not being courageous in acting. It’s not like coal-miner bravery or Doctors-Without-Borders-going-into-Ebola-stricken-villages bravery. I mean, what’s gonna happen? People are going to laugh at you and make fun of you? Okay, fine. If that happens, I’ll go on to the next thing.”

“Brave” is a word that’s thrown out a lot. The actor isn’t wearing makeup? Brave. The actor spent a week in a wheelchair to play a paralyzed character? Brave. But, at the end of the day, it is acting. And if you get criticized for a performance, the emotional turmoil doesn’t even begin to compare to what doctors, cops, or fireman go through. Sometimes it’s important to bring yourself back down to earth.

Gotta Have Guts

“So, [on Birdman] the approach was just about discussing everything and every detail. It was tough, in the beginning, to catch on through the rehearsal process, but once we got it, we were good. I knew it, I just didn’t know how I was going to get there. It’s just really fundamental, human stuff. I don’t really have a set process, necessarily, but I was working my way towards something. I knew it was going to be tough, but it was more difficult than I thought it would be. I have a weird job. I show people, warts and all, what the character is. This went really deep. Alejandro said, ‘You’re going to go deeper than you ever have,’ and I said, ‘Okay.’ I thought I got that, but every time, he was right. It was a risky gig, frankly, for all of us, but I never want to look back. To me, courage is the ultimate thing. You’ve gotta have guts. If you don’t, you should just do something else.”

To use a baseball metaphor, as Michael Keaton would, if you’re always going for bunts, you’re never going to hit a home run. You may take some big swings and misses, but if you make contact on a fastball, then hitting it out of the park may make those misses worth it.

Don’t Resist a Hands-On Director

“He’s Quentin, and he’s really high-energy. He really wants to talk about the scenes a couple of times and discuss it. He’s really, really hands-on, a bit like Alejandro, and he’s really specific. He’s so good with language and words. He sits right there, very close, and wants to talk to you a little bit. I thought it was lazy thinking to hear, ‘Once you’ve cast it, you’re pretty much there,’ but I’m starting to believe that’s really true. Once you have the right actor, then you know where to move them or what you want to get out of them.”

If you’re working with Quentin Tarantino, listen to Quentin Tarantino. Let him be hands-on. Let QT put his hands all over you.

Don’t Kill the Messenger

“The director is the captain. He runs the show, he has the vision, and then we all sign on to help present a world and tell a story. The actor’s job is I’m the messenger. I’m the guy who goes out and tells everybody the story. You work with the director and you ask ‘Where do you think this guy is?’ and you have your own opinions and the director will say ‘No, that’s too much’ or ‘I need more out of you’. There’s that ‐ the actor and director working together. The more you’re in the mood and the longer you’re in the movie you go ‘I’m getting it, I’m in the groove’ so you kind of know where you’re going to go that day. Sometimes you show up and you think ‘I know exactly where I should be, he should be this angry or that happy’ and you hit it. Or there was a scene in Birdman where I didn’t realize how little I knew about it until we were just about ready to shoot and I thought, ‘I don’t know understand this scene at all and I totally thought I did.’ It was very nerve-wracking but it ended up being a very powerful scene.”

The best actors are generally team players. Some actors see themselves as stars, others as a small part of a big machine. However an actor looks at themselves, accept the discovery. It’s okay to admit you were wrong about a scene and having to find a new way to approach it. You can’t always be right.

Don’t Deliver A Performance Based on Another Performance Based on Another Performance

“It has to be true. Really true. Real. I had a nose for it as a kid. I still try to. Over the years, I think, people ‐ actors, writers, whatever ‐ lose their frame of reference. Their frame of reference is based on somebody else who did this or did that. Performances. So it just becomes a reflection of what already works. Like a warm-up. And that’s an invitation to be inauthentic. Everything becomes, you know, the work of somebody who did that before. Then somebody becomes a version of a version of a version. My frame of reference ‐ and maybe I’m just lucky I grew up the way I did, when I did ‐ it’s taken from some guy on the street, or some guy I grew up with. I always wanted to be the version. You know, the thing. Well, I mean true. And I’m always on the lookout for truth. Anything works if it’s true.”

It’s hard to give an original performance, but if it’s a true performance, it’ll resonate. Fame can definitely make actors lose touch with reality, losing sight of that true. There are a few movie stars that don’t give the authentic performances that they used to it, before they entered ultra-stardom. Understanding the real world is important.

What We’ve Learned

Michael Keaton is a wise, wise man. He’s been in the business for over 30 years, so he’s probably seen it all. Keaton points out acting is kind of an unreal and unpredictable job at times: again, you have to let go while staying 100% present. How does one do that? Like Keaton, you probably have to work your way to it. He’s an effortless actor, a talent with balls. Keaton always bets on himself, and if you trust your skills, then you should do the same.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.