Michael Keaton: The “White Noise” Interview

Michael Keaton: The “White Noise” Interview
Michael Keaton returns to the big screen with a big scream in White Noise.
Updated: 01-10-2005

Michael Keaton, an actor well-known for a variety of roles — everything from a stay-at-home daddy in 1983’s Mr. Mom, to a pin-headed ghost in Beetle Juice, to a war journalist in HBO’s critically acclaimed Live From Baghdad in 2002 — returns to the screen with a scream in White Noise. White Noise is the story of man haunted by his dead wife, who’s brought along a few deadly friends from the Other Side.



Staci Wilson, HORROR.COM: Have you ever had a ghostly experience?




Q: Do you have any interest in the supernatural?


MK: Yes, yes I do. I’m very curious about a lot of things. I know people who I find to be extremely stable, claiming to have had experiences. I don’t find them beyond normal… whatever ‘beyond normal’ is! [laughs]


There comes a point in your life when you realize how quickly time goes by, and how quickly it has gone. Then it really speeds up exponentially. With that, I think you start to put a lot of things into context; you start to see how huge the world is, and really, the universe. You start to ask yourself — as this movie does, without hitting you over the head — big questions, you know, White Noise really is a huge ‘What if?’ It has to do with life after death, possible other dimensions, and then a lot of sub-textural issues. It begs the question… it almost makes it seem like there are other things out there. Other possibilities.


There are a lot of possibilities. Someone told me the other day that quantum physics is, as portrayed in the movie What The Bleep Do We Know?, the science of potential. That meeting philosophical and religious concepts just opens up a whole lot of possibilities. So, I’m not a believer but I can’t say I’m a nonbeliever because I don’t have enough information to say, ‘Well, this is 100% false.’ I don’t know.


Q: What are the challenges for an actor in this movie, because a lot of it is you alone, responding to fuzzy monitors.


MK: It was a big challenge. They warned me about this, this technical stuff. The 10 days of shooting that [stuff] would be tedious. And it was tedious, to say the least. I really don’t like doing things like that.


I do enjoy, like… green-screen… Multiplicity was probably the hardest all-around film I’ve ever made, but I enjoyed all of it. It requires another kind of discipline. It requires getting into a place where you have to have real mental and artistic discipline. Beetle Juice was the same thing. But both of those are proactive and funny. High energy creates more energy, more energy, more energy. It kicks off synapses, I guess. It opens up your brain and you think of one thing after another thing, after another. You can really open yourself up comedically, which is fun.


White Noise was not that, because you know, you’re shooting out of sequence, you’re trying to remember, ‘No, wait… have I seen this or that yet? Do I think I’ve seen her?’ And you might do a scene after a scene to the same monitor, but in different points in the story. It’s various stages of emotion and distress, so… I hated it, to be honest with you. There’s not enough proactive stuff in it — you know, ‘How many different ways can I make this face?’ I had a new respect for Harrison Ford. [laughs]


Q: It seemed like you were working a lot for awhile there, and you were in every magazine…


MK: Oh, god. I hate that. That’s why you don’t see me [too much these days], because I had an overreaction to being around and having people get bored with me, or knowing too much about me.


Q: Until Live From Baghdad, it seems like you kind of went missing for awhile.


MK: I was living life. There are a lot of things to do in life. I was just living life and doing the things I wanted to do. But I haven’t really made that many movies. Honestly, if you compare me to guys who started out at around the same time, I’ve done about 1/3 of what they’ve done. I didn’t say, ‘I quit,’ I didn’t say, ‘I’m done,’ I didn’t say, ‘I need a break,’ … I just kind of felt it out, and even before then, I decided that I should be trying to move from one thing to another [and change it up] to make myself happy. It’s not that big a deal, really. I wish I could make some really interesting story up.


I looked at what I’d done [as an actor] and saw what I was being offered and thought, ‘I’ve either done a version of it, or I wouldn’t do it very well, there are 10 guys who can do it better.’ But that’s not to say I didn’t have some undeniably great scripts come along, and I’m sure I would have done a movie here or there [if there was nothing else to do]. I was spending time in Europe and I actually went over and did a little film with Robert Duvall that was well worth it, because he and the director are friends of mine. They asked me if I would do this small thing and go to Scotland, which is a place I love. I’ve acted with Robert twice, he’s a friend, and going to Scotland… that’s getting paid to go to school as far as I’m concerned.


Q: What else did you do?


MK: Well, I’ve always enjoyed spending time with my horses and my dogs, so I did that. I had a relationship with a woman who lived in Europe, so I spent half my time there. I built a couple of houses, I fished in New Zealand and South America, you know. My mother was getting older and not feeling well, and since my family is so important to me, I spend a lot of time with them. My kid was in his late-teen years, and you know, that’s a time when a lot of parents think they can check out and in fact, I don’t think you ever check out. He can be 50, you know, and I still will be around. There were just a lot of things I wanted to do. It’s not like I went off and joined a monastery or I did something really extreme. I wish I did, I wish there was a great story.


And also, you know, there are so few good roles around, and those good roles will go to the people whose last movie made 100 million dollars. It’s really that simple: If you weren’t in one of those, you didn’t get a shot. The rest of [the roles] were very unlikely for me to do because, in my mind, creatively the chances got slimmer. Maybe I should have used that time more creatively, to be honest with you. After doing [Jay] Leno [“The Tonight Show”] last night, you know, and thinking about a lot of things — and he said it’s been eight years, I don’t know if it’s been that long — but it reminded me of how much I like live performance and I like a lot of… uh, I don’t know.


There are a lot of things I’m interested in. I’m interested in photography, and I’m real interested in a lot of other things. Truthfully, I might just do it again. I don’t know. I don’t have a plan.


Q: Does taking time off make you a better actor?


MK: If you ask me, I say yes: Absolutely.


My kid is a really good musician. He’s got this band called The Hatch and they’re really good. They rock, and they rock hard. They’re really smart writers, very talented guys. So, I always tell him, if I see him reading too many trade magazines, or reading too much about the music business, or who’s doing what, I say to him, ‘Don’t read too much of that stuff. You don’t want to know what anyone else is doing.’


You’re always going to take from other people. I’m sure along the way, I’ve lifted from everybody I’ve admired. Maybe subconsciously, or probably consciously [laughs], I’ve said, ‘Oh, that guy is really great; I’ve got to remember that.’ But I’ve always wanted to avoid knowing. I don’t want to know too about it… I don’t read the trades. I don’t know when the last time I read them [was], probably when I first started. And I wasn’t really interested in them then. I think all that stuff is poisonous. And, the more you know, it kind of like goes away when you’re onscreen. A lot of actors’ frames of reference are, to my mind, very small. Your world is tiny. The more you know about life, and the more people you meet, you get a chance to go and — if nobody’s noticing you, you can sit in a restaurant and watch people for hours and learn something. And somewhere, that’s going to come up in a character.


Plus, if you’re onscreen, on television, and in magazines all the time, people know who you’re out with, what you’re doing, where you’re going… it’s a) really fucking annoying, and b) not really real life, and c) people know too much about you, so when they see you onscreen they’re not watching the character. They’re watching you. There’s going to come a point, and that’s probably rapidly approaching, where that’s all I’m going to have. I’ve turned the volume up, I like work, I feel good, I’ve got three films coming out… and the truth is, you run out of [anonymity].


Dustin Hoffman and I were talking about this one time, about a year ago, and he said, ‘You and I can never do the roles now, that we have gotten to do because you can’t do that many characters.’ You know, Paul Newman was kind of a character actor really early on. He did real specific characters. He happened to also be ridiculously good-looking and have enough power onscreen to be a really great leading man, but also, you know, people [typecast] him. It actually had to go that way for him. That’s really what 99% of actors do: They do the one thing they do, which is great. But I always thought it was kind of neat to do what Dustin did… Dustin can’t do that many different kind of guys anymore [because he’s too famous]. There are no chances, there are no opportunities. I’m not even bitching about it; there’s nothing to bitch about because that’s the way it is.


Q: Since you admit lifting from other actors, it must be amusing for you to see younger actors lifting from you.


MK: Yeah, they admit it from the get-go though. I just got done doing Herbie: Fully Loaded, and the kid actors were so great. They are so talented. It’s amazing what they all know, how much they know of me and what I’ve done. They know way more than me — I haven’t seen a final cut of my last six or seven movies. I like making them. And I do like seeing them, if it’s to see where my work is. It’s nice to have all this respect and admiration from everybody. I like that. I do like it. But honestly, sometimes I look at what I do and I go, ‘That seems really great.’ I don’t mind admitting that I may have a scene in a movie where I’m great. It doesn’t bother me at all, because if I think it, I probably am. But I sure know when I’ve sucked it up, too. I’ve sucked it up a lot of times.


But it’s amazing what these kids know not just about me, but about show business. I never really knew anything, because I didn’t care that much about it. I knew the guys I loved. I knew who was funny, what was funny, but I was interested in a lot of different things. And now I’m interested in even more things.


That’s why a movie like this makes me go, a) I feel like working again, and also I hadn’t been in this genre. Well, Pacific Heights. But I was the scarer in that one, not the scaree. In this movie, my character turns very, very proactive and heroic, actually. Ultimately, he does something for somebody else. I just hadn’t seen a script in this genre that was offered to me, with this kind of character. It’s an interesting subject. I particularly like this, at this moment: This movie called White Noise.


Q: Do you keep in touch with Tim Burton? [They did the movies Beetle Juice, Batman, and Batman Returns together]


MK: Yeah, I saw him on the set of Live From Baghdad because his wife [Helena Bonham Carter] was in the movie with me. Tim is like… Who’s that original? Almost nobody. He is so original and he is a true artist. You don’t get that too often.


Q: What do you think Batman Begins will be like?


MK: I have no idea, but my prediction is that it will be good. Probably really good, because of the people involved. Christian Bale is a very good actor, and Christopher Nolan is a good director. They’re doing what I thought the third one should have been, if I was going to do the third one. I just didn’t think it was very good [as presented], so I chose not to do it. What I wanted to do was, somewhat of a prequel so you know how he got there. Potentially, Bruce Wayne / Batman is one of the great cinematic characters — potentially.


Q: If you don’t read the trades, how do you keep up with the business?


MK: Well, I’m something of a pragmatist. I’ve become a business man. You’ve got to wear a lot of hats, if you want to stay in it. You’ve got to show up every once in awhile and be in a movie [laughs].


Q: Where did this belief in yourself come from?


MK: I don’t know. I will admit that it’s not a 7-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day confidence, because I think that’s impossible. I think it comes from my upbringing; I was the youngest of seven kids. We lived on the edge of these little mill towns, out in the country, and there was a lot of time alone to read and play by myself. There is an independence in my family, and I’m not quite sure where that comes from. I just always have had that, and I think early on I must have trained myself in some sort of existential moment of clarity and gone, ‘Well, you know, this is interesting: At the end of the day, it’s pretty much just you.’ [laughs]


I’ve met a lot of people who have this kind of sense of… especially now, kids just seem to have this innate intelligence about things. I would have moments of that [as a kid] but I can’t honestly tell you what it was. It’s not like I don’t occasionally feel really uncomfortable about a couple of things, like, ‘How come I’m not better at this, or why don’t I…?’ I don’t have a lot of that, though.


If you want to be happy in the business that I’m in, [you have to figure out that it’s a fear-based industry]. So once you figure that out, and you see the trap, then it’s up to you to do the work. Interior work, to say, ‘That can make a person miserable. Why would I want to be miserable?’ Therefore, you have to do whatever you can do, however you have to do it.


People have different ways of dealing with it. I’m fortunate that my way wasn’t drugs and alcohol. Whatever it is you need to do to fortify yourself, so that you’re not a victim or a reactor, that’s what you’ve got to do. You have to do the work to be happy and successful, otherwise, don’t bitch about things.


Q: Do you approach acting differently now than you used to?


MK: I’m trying to just relax and just make it easier. People have told me over the years that I have a tendency to work so hard at it. I think sometimes that’s good, but sometimes I think that’s me just not wanting to screw up. Also, I’m just learning. I’m just trying to figure how to do this. This little kid in White Noise, Nicholas Elia, he gave me one of the best acting lessons I’d ever seen: He was so easy, anything you told him, he would just go, ‘OK.’ He’d just go and do it. It didn’t matter what you told him to do, he would just go, ‘OK.’ That’s what I’ve got to fucking do, right there! That’s it, what am I doing all this work for? [laughs] I’m serious, I think about it a lot: ‘OK.’


This movie called Game 6 that I did has a character who’s way more like me than anyone I’ve ever played. And in some ways, he not at all like me. But I just let it come out and I knew the answers to where the scene would go; I trusted it, and let it take me there.


Q: You started in the business before the technology really took off…


MK: Yeah. Even Beetle Juice, in a way, is primitive. It is, compared to how it would be done now. That’s a movie I would like to do again. I really would like to make another Beetle Juice, because it’s totally, 100% original.


There were such talented people involved — everybody forgets about how good that cast is, because the Beetle Juice character was so huge that you don’t think about Alec [Baldwin], and Gina [Davis], and Catherine [O’Hara]. The trick to doing it again, I think, is not to over-tech it.


Q: Have you seen the Beetle Juice DVD?


MK: No, I’m really bad about this. I don’t think this is a good thing, but I don’t have [a lot of my own memorabilia]. I have things, like letters from people that wrote me — you know, other actors — or I’ve saved little, funny memorabilia that I’ve got in boxes. I’m really bad about collecting stuff — I don’t even know that I have all my films on tape or DVD. I know that I’ve ever done a commentary for a DVD. I don’t think I have.


Q: First Daughter is coming out next month on DVD…


MK: I didn’t even know it came out at all. I think it was out for about 19 minutes [laughs]. But Katie Holmes is so great. That girl is fantastic. Not only have they not discovered her talent, but she’s such a good girl. She’s just great — I am a huge Katie Holmes fan.


Q: How do feel about the use of effects today?


MK: The thing about White Noise is, it has a lot of effects in it but they don’t get in the way. It still has a basic, old-fashioned tension to it that makes you uncomfortable, yet involved. In my opinion, for the genre it’s more of a thinking-man’s movie. I think it has a lot of levels and layers to it. But at the same time, it’s just fun. It’s a fun movie to go and enjoy. That was really fun to do something like this, for people to just show up and have a good time.


Q: What are some of your favorite horror movies?

MK: Rosemary’s Baby is up there. Poltergeist is scary. Poltergeist is really scary… and of course, Pacific Heights! [laughs]


Staci Wilson, HORROR.COM: Thank you, Michael.


MK: Thanks!



-- Staci Layne Wilson

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