Michael Keaton’s movie career has been rather low-key throughout the last twelve years, Herbie Fully Loaded and Cars notwithstanding, but he’s on an upswing lately. On top of his hilarious vocal appearance as Ken in Toy Story 3, he also has a supporting role as the crusty sergeant in the new Will Ferrell-Mark Wahlberg buddy cop comedy The Other Guys. The thrust of this story is that Manhattan’s two top cops (Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson) go missing, so “the other guys” (desk jockey Ferrell and inept detective Wahlberg) have to fill in for them, and they do a subpar job. Keaton’s Captain Mauch has to deal with the fallout. The film also features Eva Mendes, Rob Riggle and Damon
Wayans Jr., with a cameo from Derek Jeter.
I caught up with Keaton during a press day/set visit last December for Fandango. The rest of that chat is found below. Keaton was enjoying his time on the shoot, and he seemed amused when I told him that I still use the faux curse words from Johnny Dangerously.
Have you ever done a movie that has allowed you to do so much improvising?
No, not this much. On the first feature film I did, Night Shift, I improvised quite a bit in the audition, and sometimes I would turn to the actual lines. When I would get on set I would improvise even more, and then you can pick and choose, but not to this degree. But you try to do it within character and stay on story. Here we take exits and go off the road a little bit, but I’m sure that in editing [director] Adam [McKay] will pull back and get it on the road because you still have to tell the story. It’s fun.
Adam was saying how they looked at a lot of ’80s buddy movies. Have you looked at any of your ’80s work recently at all?
No. I haven’t seen one of my movies for many, many years. I don’t really watch them. I just do them. The one I directed [The Merry Gentlemen] I obviously had to watch several times. That’s a different thing.
The angry police captain is a character we’ve seen a lot over the years. Is there more to your character than what we’re seeing today?
Today is a pretty straight ahead scene; I’m sure we’ll do alts and riff a little. This is a scene where you’ve got to come in, deliver the lines and information, then turn around and leave. One of the discussions early on was that one of the obstacles is this character in the beginning just gave information and moved the plot along. We chose not to do that clichéd thing, even though that was kind of the idea at the beginning, but after a few discussions and getting on the set, other stuff started to come out for the character.
As you’re ad libbing from take to take, how much do you remember each time?
The danger of working with these guys is that you can very quickly get into the bad habit of not learning your lines because you look at the script the night before and go, “There isn’t going to be any of this anyway.” Then your mind gets soft and doesn’t really do the work to be on top of it. We always come in and do a couple quick takes of the script, then variations, and it builds as you saw here. It’s tricky because you start to develop some really bad habits. I did a thing called The Company about the CIA, and that was difficult. Those speeches were very long and detailed, and it was real information on events that actually occurred, so you couldn’t really vary from it. I would go home, maybe run, come back and have a little food, then do these giant chunks of language and dialogue. This is the polar opposite of that and just really fun.
“The danger of working with these guys is that you can very quickly get into the bad habit of not learning your lines because you look at the script the night before and go, ‘There isn’t going to be any of this anyway.'”
Has there ever been a moment where you have gone against your instincts and found that it actually worked?
Yes, there have been times where it was not so much going against your instincts so much as someone, a director hopefully, telling you or showing you something that opens you up. That’s the most fun, and it seldom happens.
Are there any examples you can give of that?
To a large extent I would say much Ado About Nothing. Things have always worked best where someone saw something I was doing and said, “If that’s what you want to do, how about this? And how about going here? Or going there.” They have you come back to something and roll with what you’re doing. That happened with Kenneth Branagh on much Ado About Nothing, but what also happened is that I and other actors had to learn the interpretations and what the lines really meant, and then [put] whatever spin you want to put on it. Sometimes on Clean And Sober, Glenn Caron did a few on things where I thought I was doing something right, and he was like, “No.” I always try to be the guy who can do the job, and I find that a challenge. He was right on several scenes, and I’m sure it’s happened at other times.
It seems that your character is not in the action scenes but pops in and pops out of a lot of scenes.
I haven’t done this [improv] in so long. As I told them on the first day, it’s like these guys have had a regular three on three or five on five basketball game that they have been playing for years in the same playground or the same gym, and one guy didn’t show up once. I was standing there, and they asked me if I wanted to run. You’ve got to learn to get back in the cage and learn to hit all those pitches because they’re coming. These guys bring it every day, which is fun and wakes up a part of your brain that’s been lying dormant. By the way, how about Mark Wahlberg being funny? Who knew that? Adam and I were talking about that the other day. He’s got this uncanny ear for voices. He does impressions and voices that are unbelievable. I think it’s because he is musical and has an ear.