Michael Keaton: Ireland ahead of the curve on abuse issue

Keaton returns to cinemas in Spotlight. He is an Oscar frontrunner, but has a keen eye on Brooklyn

Michael Keaton: "I’m too far gone to even describe myself as a lapsed Catholic; but Irish-Catholic is my tribe. And that was true of a bunch of us who worked on this movie.”  (Photo by Vera Anderson/WireImage)

Michael Keaton: "I’m too far gone to even describe myself as a lapsed Catholic; but Irish-Catholic is my tribe. And that was true of a bunch of us who worked on this movie.” (Photo by Vera Anderson/WireImage)

 

So Michael Keaton is back. Again. Arriving hot on the heels of last year’s Academy Award sweeper Birdman, the well-preserved 64-year-old is back on the Oscar trail with Spotlight, a riveting dramatisation of the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation into a cover-up of sexual abuse by the Roman Catholic Church.

Today, however, as he picks over some fruit, he’s just as happy to talk about Brooklyn, one of Spotlight’s primary award season rivals. “Oh my God,” he gushes. “I just met Saoirse and her mom. They are just the nicest people. How good is that movie? How beautiful is that scene when he stands up and sings that song in Gaelic? That killed me. It hits you on a really primitive level with that sense of loss that comes from leaving home. And I love that it’s unabashedly what it is. It’s not coy or apologetic about its sentimentality. It’s weirdly bold in that way.”

Michael Keaton doesn’t do many interviews, which is a shame, as he talks in wonderful tangents and has that terrific laugh: an excited wheeze that comes with a slap of the thighs or comical side faint.

Even if you didn’t know he was of Irish stock, you might surmise as much from the banter. He suddenly remembers a project house his oldest sister Diane had years ago: “She was raising five kids there when she was 25; at the same age, I was still a baby.” There are random details from his journeys to Cork, the southwest and Belfast.

His maternal grandfather probably “came from Mayo”: his mother’s maiden name was Loftus and his father’s family emigrated from Scotland. Thus, the former Batman’s real name is Michael Douglas, a name that was already taken by the time he came to his profession.

You get the hand-me-downs

Growing up in Robinson County, Pennsylvania, he was the youngest of seven children: “I was originally the youngest of nine,” he says. “My mom lost two babies. That wasn’t uncommon at the time. People assume I was spoiled. Sometimes I nod because it’s easier to say: yeah, I was spoiled. But that’s a whole discussion. As the youngest, you don’t get a lot of stuff. You get the hand-me-downs. And the others complain because they have to wash you or look after you or take you with them. Because by that time your parents are over it.”

His career in showbusiness was hard-won: he had worked for more than a decade around the fringes: behind the scenes on the children’s television programme Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in small roles on shows such as The Mary Tyler Moore Hour and doing stand-up comedy, until 1982 when Ron Howard’s cult comedy Night Shift brought Keaton to the attention of critic Pauline Kael for one, who was most taken with his “human whirligig” energy.

He traces that motor-mouth quality back to childhood, when his father, an engineer, first brought home a black and white television.

“It’s weird,” he says. “Everyone assumes I’m urban. But I grew up in the country between working-class mill towns. I remember seeing movies on our TV and thinking: ‘Wow, they talk so fast. I want to go live with those people. So I can talk fast too.’ ” From bio-exorcist to bat Keaton’s effervescence became a keystone for director Tim Burton who cast the actor as the manic bio-exorcist Beetlejuice in 1988 and then as Batman. More than 50,000 letters were written to Warner Brothers in protest but Keaton and the films did terrific trade. And then he walked away from the franchise.

Much has been written about the films that pointedly don’t star Michael Keaton: he turned down $15 million to star in Batman Forever, not to mention leading roles in Splash, JFK, Kingpin, The Fly and TV’s Lost. These days, he lives in Montana, does a lot of fishing and works only when the project really piques his interest. Projects such as Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, in which Keaton essays veteran newspaper-man Walter “Robby” Robinson.

For a former altar-boy and an alumnus of the St Malachy Catholic School in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, it was a challenging, maddening role to take.

“My mom was a devout Catholic. She went to Mass every day. I went to Catholic school. And I actually liked going to Catholic school. Some of my oldest friends – guys I’ve known since I was six – we were altar boys together. Those are good memories for me. It was a tough school. We got whacked. We got spanked. But I don’t know. It wasn’t that big a deal for us. It’s not that I would ever send my own kid to a school that did anything like that. But even though I’m not full-blown Irish, and I’m not one of those guys who goes around saying ‘I’m Irish’, and I’m too far gone to even describe myself as a lapsed Catholic; but Irish-Catholic is my tribe. And that was true of a bunch of us who worked on this movie.”

He insists, accordingly, that Spotlight is not in any way anti-Catholic.

“This is about the institution and the hold it had on Boston. The Irish Catholic community is so tight there and it’s enmeshed at all levels of society. In politics. In culture. So this is about taking on an institution, one that goes all the way up to the Vatican. It’s not about being disrespectful about anyone’s faith.”

As we meet, he has just returned from Spotlight’s French premiere and has formulated a theory. “I’m so curious to see how the film is received in Ireland. My feeling – and I’ve read so many accounts about this – is that Ireland is ahead of the curve on this issue.

“I know they’re still uncovering abuse that happened in Ireland and I know that’s a tiny country so that’s intense. But I think this will not be shocking for the Irish. It’s already part of a discussion.”

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