NEW YORK — He was always the guy who didn’t like to be wedged in. Even in the suit.
“I’m claustrophobic,” Michael Keaton says. “So, the first time I put on the Batman suit, I honestly thought, ‘I’m in trouble here, man.’ I also thought, ‘I really gotta face this thing.’ ”
That was in 1989 for “Batman.”
Funny, but 25 years later, Keaton is facing another thing in another suit: his comeback.
His role as a former superhero actor in “Birdman” (opening Friday in Chicago) is being dubbed as an Oscar lock for best actor, news Keaton takes in stride.
“A lot of people are asking, ‘How does it feel? How does it feel to have people saying all of these nice things?’ ” Keaton offered. “It sounds simple, but my answer remains the same: It feels really good.”
In “Birdman,” he plays tortured artist Riggan Thomson, a burned-out film actor known for playing a big-screen superhero who desperately wants to reinvent himself after walking away from “Birdman 4.” His winged creature actually speaks to him in his head as he tries to revamp his creative life by directing and starring in a risky Broadway play.
“Honestly, I’m going through exactly what the character is going through in this movie. I go, ‘Oh, you think you’re the greatest.’ Then someone says, ‘You’re the greatest. You’re wonderful.’ Then 20 minutes later, I’m going, ‘No, you’re not any of those things. You’re just plain Michael Keaton,’ ” he said.
The character must face a tough New York critic who insists she will lambaste the play before seeing it because of what he represents: a film actor looking for some artistic cred. “Originally in my career, I did believe you should be courageous and read everything written about you,” Keaton said. “Then I read a few and thought, ‘I’ll never do that again.’ ”
He does have an exception.
“If someone says, ‘Hey, you got a really nice review,’ then I’ll read it. I’m willing to make myself feel better.
“Overall, unless I’m being really stupid here — and that could be true — I do feel like I have been treated pretty fairly,” he added.
The Pittsburgh native who dropped out of Kent State originally planned on becoming a stand-up comedian. Early movies — “Mr. Mom” (1983), “Gung Ho” (1986) and “Beetlejuice” (1988) along with the drama “Clean and Sober” (1988) changed that plan. The franchise films “Batman” and “Batman Returns” (1992) made him an international superstar.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said of playing the Caped Crusader. “I did that old Hollywood thing where they used an actual wooden board. It was a leaning board because I couldn’t take the costume off. When I needed a rest, I’d lean on the board.
“Meanwhile, I like to drink coffee and water and take vitamins, and I couldn’t do any of those things as Batman, as that would lead to unwanted bathroom trips,” he said. “So, all in all, I started to have a few panic attacks over the whole thing and not knowing how to do it.
“I was really scared until the day it dawned on me, ‘This is perfect! This real-life situation is designed to play an unusual dude with odd things going on. What could be stranger than this situation? Use it.’ It was a great acting lesson that I carry with me.”
Putting on the Birdman costume didn’t cause any panic. “I totally dug it,” Keaton said. “No more fear. It’s a little treat for both the audience and me, although I hope young guys don’t expect a regular superhero movie. I can see some people seeing this movie about a theater production and going, ‘It’s called “Birdman.” What the hell is this?’ ”
Press-shy Keaton isn’t worried about the heat that will follow “Birdman.”
“I think everybody is kind of a celebrity now,” he said. “Anybody can be anything thanks to the Internet. All of a sudden, the dog running into a wall is a huge celebrity with millions of hits. It’s everybody’s turn.”