Casting The Cast
The lynchpin of BIRDMAN is Michael Keaton, cast as Riggan Thomson. Keaton, who
has played a wide range of roles in all sorts of genres, famously starred in Tim
Burton's two seminal BATMAN movies, films that really began the comic book
superhero tent pole genre. A la Riggan, he did not continue with the franchise
and others assumed the role of the Dark Knight in subsequent films.
"Michael is a very talented, impressive actor who dominates the craft of drama
and comedy unlike anybody I have seen or worked with before. At the same time,
he is one of the few guys who have truly worn that cape - actually I think he
was one of the first global movie star superheroes and he resurrected one of the
biggest icons, Batman. He is the grandfather of that overwhelming kind of comic
book franchise world we are now living in, so he was the perfect choice. When he
said yes, I knew then that the film would be exactly what I wanted because he
would not only reflect and project a much stronger reality because of his
background and authority but also because of his incredible depth of talent,"
He also notes that Keaton's unflinching commitment to depicting Riggan's foibles
and triumphs without judgment was critical to the role.
"Michael played him with absolute truth and honesty. Because of the way I shot
it, it demanded of him not only an absolute physical precision in pace and
rhythm but an extraordinary ability to transition to different territories
without a grain of irony. He went to very deep places. I don't know how he did
it but it was magnificent to observe," Inarritu says.
In the span of those takes, a kaleidoscope of emotions played out; Riggan's
enthusiasm, doubts, regret, ambition, rage, kindness, hopes and fears are all on
full kinetic display, not to mention he is visited by a larger than life figment
of his imagination Birdman character.
Keaton himself matched Inarritu's take on the character beat for beat. He says,
"I think the heart of the character is his contradictions. He feels like a comet
one moment and two seconds later, completely deflated. And all that and more
would happen within one scene. I have never been in a movie or play where in one
to two minutes it went from really funny, to really twisted, back to funny, then
really sad, and finally kind of crazy within such a short space of time. The
contradictions are what are really cool about it."
"In terms of the parallels, I've never related less to a character than
Riggan but I did understand him on a lot of levels because he was so visceral
and true and heartbreakingly human," Keaton says.
"You know, I think casting is one of the biggest decisions as a director. I
tried to cast actors who would not make a caricature of these characters but who
would understand their humanity and give them depth even when the circumstances
are absurd. I knew that our entire cast consisted of great actors but I also
knew they had impeccable awareness and were really capable of being in the
moment, to commit to the narrative of the film," Inarritu says.
Naomi Watts, who plays Lesley, an actress who makes her Broadway debut in
Riggan's play, has an easy rapport with Inarritu, having worked with him
previously on 21 GRAMS. She says that because of his exacting visual approach to
the material, "... it was the hardest thing I have ever done because it is one
unbroken shot, continuous scenes, several actors, room to room, and 15 pages of
dialogue. You cannot mess up. Usually, you shoot several different angles in
coverage and you get to repeat lines if you didn't like the way you said it. You
have a lot of freedom to save or improve
yourself. Not in this case. Because of the way he shot it, it's everybody's
moment all the time. And not just the actors, by the way. There were so many
people standing on the cliff edge with us - props, stunts and especially the
camera crew. It's like a relay race and you don't want to let anyone down
because they could be doing their best work. You're constantly aware of the
whole team," Watts says.
Nevertheless, Watts found the experience to be exhilarating.
"It was like a master class. Although it was excruciating, it was a great
challenge and I was thrilled to experience something new. It was much harder on
Alejandro. There were a couple times when we were an hour away from wrapping and
he still hadn't gotten the shot and then suddenly we'd get into a zone where we
were all synchronized. It had to work on the day because he couldn't cut into it
or edit it later but at the end of the take, if he liked what he was seeing,
there was this massive cheer. We all wanted to please him. It was like winning
an Olympic race," Watts says.
For her character Lesley, the opportunity to appear on Broadway is tantamount to
going to the Olympics also and it informs everything she does. Her
single-mindedness leads to the casting of the ultimate bad boy artist, Mike
Shiner, played by Edward Norton.
"Performing on Broadway is her childhood dream and it's finally here. She's so
focused on it; she wants nothing to get in the way. What I love about it is that
actors can be very complex people who are absolutely worth poking some fun at
from time to time. Lesley in particular is just so desperate for her big break
on Broadway. So when they lose one of the actors right before previews, she is
worried that it all might fall apart. So at risk to herself, she puts forward
the name of her boyfriend who she knows will bring trouble, but she does it
anyway," Watts says.
Norton, known for his work on stage as well as in movies, was impressed at how
accurately BIRDMAN captured the New York theater world.
"When I read the script, I found myself wondering how Alejandro and his writing
partners got so inside some of the hilarious and poignant nuances of not just
the lives of actors but specifically the particular experiences and vicissitudes
of New York theater actors. Having come up in the New York theater world early
in my career and still being involved in it, I was impressed at how spot on the
script was," Norton says.
Norton admits that this world offers a delicious opportunity to investigate and
occasionally harpoon the "idiosyncrasies" of Theater People and Mike Shiner is
an entertaining specimen.
"I think any time you dig into the life of actors, inevitably you've got some
blend of authentic artistry and a real passion for storytelling - and then
you've also got narcissism, ego, self-regard, all of it. The appealing thing to
me about Shiner is that he is paradoxically a cad with an enormous ego and is
supremely vain, covetous, a little sneaky, but he is
also extremely talented. He knows what he is talking about, he is committed to
the craft, he works hard, and he is very sensitive. He is able to perceive
people's essence through their own kind of protective veils. I feel like
Riggan's relationship to him is similar to what the audience's might be," Norton
Norton adds that while BIRDMAN is specific to actors, it was the project's
universal themes that intrigued him. "Alejandro said to me in the beginning that
he didn't want this to be just about actors or even artists per se. He wanted it
to be about something that anybody would relate to. I think what he was really
in interested in was the idea of those moments in life when you feel you've
gotten far away from the noble idea that you had of yourself at some earlier
place in your life. Alejandro has such a soulful view. It can be a deeply
existentially terrifying kind of moment as you approach a certain age and you
start thinking about your own mortality and have to confront the idea of being
less than you had somehow envisioned you would be. I think that the story hinges
on Riggan taking an audacious shot at recovering a sense of himself that he can
be proud of - he just happens to be an actor. How he does it, to me, is poignant
and often hilarious because of the lengths he is willing to go to achieve it,"
Some of the dynamics between Riggan and his troupe of actors, Norton adds, are
also archetypal. "My character is the younger guy who threatens Riggan, makes
him feel insecure, the generational tension between the Young Turk and the guy
fighting to maintain his relevance and sense of his own strength. There are love
affairs, issues with children and an ex-wife, stuff that anyone can relate to,"
Trying to keep all of this together is the play's producer and Riggan's best
friend Jake, played by Zach Galifianakis. He has his work cut out for him on
every level. Of all the characters, Jake is probably the sanest - which was a
welcome change for Galifianakis, who certainly knows his way around crazy.
"I was a big fan of Alejandro's movies. I liked him even before I knew him and
when we met for coffee, he told me he wanted me to play something a little bit
more real and subtle as opposed to a caricature, which was a refreshing thing
for me to try," Galifianakis says.
He comments further on his character: "Riggan and Jake have been working
together for a while. I think they probably had some good days in the past, when
Riggan was at the top of his game. And now they are trying to figure out their
next movie which means going to Broadway to legitimize their careers a little
bit. Jake's a little bit of an archetypal character for me. Jake is a little bit
of a hot head and loses it from time to time, which is also fun to play,"
Emma Stone plays Sam, Riggan's daughter, newly sprung from rehab and working
as her father's assistant. Their relationship is strained - his onetime fame as
the super hero Birdman meant that he was absent for much of her youth.
Hiring her as his aide doesn't do much to improve their situation. Sam has a
keen eye and observes her father and the histrionics that come with his play
with wry dispassion that is spot on but also a bit of a defense mechanism.
She says: "Because she is fresh out of rehab, I assume she needs to be watched
by a family member. So she makes a huge mistake by working for him. It doesn't
help that he can't connect with her at first and has her doing really menial
errands. So it doesn't begin well but by the end, she starts to see that they
are very similar. Sam is one of the few characters in the movie who isn't an
actor, who isn't in the play. That was kind of nice to play, she's on the
outside and witnesses all that is happening without being in the tornado on
stage with all these crazy people," Stone says.
And while this play has become Riggan's single focus and his bid for artistic
relevance, his daughter has a completely different and modern
definition/measurement of what it is to matter.
"We find Riggan at a point of no return, in the midst of mounting a career
comeback mostly driven by his desire to be relevant. My character Sam teaches
him a lot about social media and the new nature of fame, which is something he
is willfully ignorant of. The way actors are accessed now is very different than
when Riggan was coming up as Birdman, 20 or 30 years prior. He wants to mean
something but he also wants to be well-liked and respected as an artist but
there is this sort of a modern day keeping up with the Joneses, this desire for
mass appeal - and I think everyone can understand and relate to that," Stone
Fortunately, she had a supportive guide in Inarritu. "I learned so much. It was
so exciting to live and breathe the character for the entire length of the
scene. And Alejandro is so tuned in to actors, he knows what is going on your
head line by line, sometimes better than you do. There was a day when I knew it
just wasn't working for me and suddenly I could feel it kick in and as I did, he
clapped and said, 'That's IT!' It's amazing. I've never met a director who could
do that, he feels what you do," Stone says.
Amy Ryan plays Sylvia, Sam's mother and Riggan's ex-wife, who stops by the
theater from time to time to check on them both. "Sylvia is the one sound, sane,
grounding voice in their lives, I think. She provides the voice of reason and
represents real love, whereas everyone else confuses adoration for love to
measure their self-worth," Ryan says.
Unlike many people who are in and have been in Riggan's life, Sylvia is not an
enabler, but, as Ryan points out, a cheerleader. And Riggan doesn't make that an
easy job. "I think the most daunting thing about being a cheerleader for someone
is when they don't hear you. Which is what happens between Riggan and Sylvia -
he keeps getting in his own way and can't see the truth or beauty that she sees.
Even after their divorce, she tries to support him and it's exhausting," Ryan
Like the rest of the cast, Ryan had to get used to the very specific visual
aesthetic. She literally had to get her bearings and was grateful that it was a
team effort. "The extensive rehearsals helped. It was great to have everyone
around and so rare to work on a film where you're with the entire company. We
were all in it together," she says.
As Laura, one of the actors in Riggan's play, Andrea Riseborough plays his
lover. His apparent ambivalence triggers all sorts of reactions in Laura but
unlike Riggan, she is actually pining for real, adult love as opposed to mere
adulation. Riseborough got to know Laura intimately during the elaborate
rehearsals Inarritu staged, a process that continued throughout production. As
important as the technical aspects of the cinematography were to performance,
Inarritu paid equal meticulous attention to the nuances of the characters and
"Alejandro has a temperature gauge for each moment; he made every single section
real. One of the most fascinating things about working with him was that before
we even started filming, during rehearsals, he made sure I felt a sense of who
this person was. I felt I knew Laura innately. And during production, every day
I discovered more about her through him. He unfolds a character for you by
saying very little, which allows you to find the character too. Sometimes, that
for me was an amazing and totally unique experience," Riseborough says.
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