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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," Inarritu notes.

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 says.

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," Norton explains.

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," Norton says.

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," Galifianakis says.

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 says.

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 says.

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 storylines.

"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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