In director Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman, out October 17, Michael Keaton stars as Riggan, a former action star (the film’s named for his career-defining superhero role) who’s attempting to find relevance with a Broadway show based on a Raymond Carver story.
Throughout the film, which walks the line between drama and comedy (and, really, science fiction), an impressive cast of supporting characters appear to tangle with Riggan and the odd circumstances of his life. Chief among them is Sylvia, his even-tempered ex-wife, played with charm and skill by Amy Ryan. Here, Ryan discussed Birdman, her own on-stage antics and what it’s like to try and shake the ghost of a beloved character.
You came to this movie via a theatrical role, right?
I got an offer, which was the fastest way to say yes. But, Alejandro Iñárritu had seen me in a play I did Off-Broadway called Detroit and he invited me to come be apart of the film.
What was it about Sylvia that was interesting to you?
I was really intrigued by how loving and active their relationship still was even though they’re exes. I wouldn’t say they’re holding torches for each other. They agree that they’re not good together, but they’re good at agreeing they’re not good for each other, if that makes sense.
Sylvia seems to be one of the few people who can get through to Riggan.
Yeah, that’s why she’s in the movie. She represents an outside force in this insane theatre world of actors that works in and around the theatre. She’s almost the audience.
And that’s what really struck me about her. She seems to speak to the audience in a way that’s, “stick a pin in that balloon a little bit. Who do you think you are and why do you get to behave like this?”
I know what you mean, but I don’t think she does it out of any spite or revenge; she’s trying to bring them back down to earth, perhaps.
Most of the movie takes place backstage in a theater, which is a place you’re no stranger to.
Well, the backstage of the theatre was a soundstage. It was all recreated, but I had spent a lot of time in a lot of theaters and that was jarring to me that you could open a door and you realize that’s not the door to the stage and that’s not the door to 43rd street, you know? It’s magical being in theatres. They’re pretty unglamorous backstage, as the film shows, but there’s tons of history, and you’re just in and around it all the time. It feels good.
Do you think the film did a good job capturing the way it really is?
Yeah, low ceilings; sink pipes, small, crowded rooms, red carpeting…
And the unpredictable nature of live theater!
I’ve had some experiences myself with quick changes and some articles of clothing that didn’t make it on.
Is that the worst of your mishaps?
I did a play once on Broadway and someone from the adjoining hotel threw a massive grapefruit through the skylight and glass and pulp shattered on us across the stage. No one knew why or how it was possible, or why we were covered in glass and pulp. I guess it’s better than getting a tomato thrown at you from the audience.
So, you’ve got Birdman out shortly and then a live action-CGI hybrid called Monster Trucks, and you’re filming a new Stephen Spielberg film right now. Is there something specific you look for in a part?
No. Quite honestly, the goal is to find something different because, especially if it takes me away from home and family, it has to really pique my interest. Sometimes I succeed in that, sometimes I don’t. But that’s the want.
In your opinion, does Birdman reveal any great truths about what it is to be an actor?
I think there are elements in Birdman that are maybe a heightened reality for entertainment purposes, but I say that I can think of other actors who are like that, who do worry if they’ll ever work again or remain relevant, or certainly people who get caught up in mistaking love for adoration and adoration for love. I think it shows a pretty accurate picture of them.
Birdman’s title character haunts the actor who played him. Do any of your former parts stick with you?
No. I cut them out right away when filming is done. I break up with them. When I’m working on them, I think they’re not in my personal life, but they are. They creep in, whether it’s certain vocabulary or a little bit of an attitude because I’m working and thinking and going about the day. It’s an unconscious process. Like, after Gone Baby Gone, I had to clean up my language a bit. That actually took me a while, to stop cursing like a drunken sailor.