What if you mix the mayonnaise in the can, with the tuna fish? Or — hold it! Chuck! I got it! Take live tuna fish, and feed 'em mayonnaise! Oh, this is great. [Speaking into Dictaphone.] Call StarKist!
— Bill Blazejowski, Night Shift, 1982
When I show up at Amelia's Espresso & Panini in Santa Monica at 9:15 a.m. — 15 minutes before our prearranged time — Michael Keaton is already waiting, his New York Times mostly read, two-thirds of his first latte gone. Despite its precious-sounding name, the café has a mom-and-pop quality to it; after I get my cappuccino, the genial owner sees I'm sitting with Keaton and throws me a well-worn: "You're hanging with this guy? If I'd known that I'd have charged you double … "
Truth be told, I was actually a little nervous about this interview. Short of an occasional Letterman appearance, Keaton rarely does sit-downs — and is famously a private person. This is why I was also OK with throwing the entire conceit of "Dinner With Daniel" out the window when I heard Michael preferred to meet for coffee rather than a meal. Besides, as much as I enjoy gorging myself on the company dime (and I do), coffee also seemed like it would invariably lend itself to a shorter interview. I was wrong.
Daniel: [fiddling with 99 cent iPhone recording app] I hope this fucking works.1
Michael: Technology, you know. I'm pretty horrible. I use it, but mostly I like to view it from afar. But I'm still fascinated by it.
Daniel: I was pleasantly surprised that you would do this. Seems like you're not a kind of guy who does a lot of these sorts of interviews.
Michael: [laughing] I'm not. But I say that I actually — I admire all this stuff, too. I read in the New York Times the other day, the article — what's that game on NPR? "Wait, Wait —
Daniel: … Don't Tell Me."
Michael: It's fantastic. Anyway, there's an article about these types of shows and blogs and trying to appeal to a younger audience.
Daniel: I read that too.
Michael: I just think it's fantastic — and yet I'm not usually a participant [in interviews]. Something suffers, I guess — if you call it suffering. You might not get this job or that magazine cover, but what you get is a higher level of normalcy.
Daniel: No, I get that.
Michael: I'm actually getting ready to do a movie with Larry David. It's funny. He was one of the first guys I met when we were both doing stand-up. He actually remembered the exact month we met standing in line outside of Catch a Rising Star. At the time, I was going back and forth [from Pittsburgh] to New York — driving my '65 Volkswagen bug — trying to be an actor, or to write, and I'd just started doing improv. So the other day Larry and I were talking about that world and I said, "Do you miss that stuff?" And I didn't even finish the sentence, and he said, "Yeah. I do. But I like to do it the way I like to do it." Which I get. So [instead of a traditional interview] every now and then, I may go do a college Q&A. They're fantastic, especially with college students, people that use their minds — and they're still really active and fun, and, you know, dangerous …
Daniel: [laughing] Right, you mean as opposed to the old, dead minds the rest of us have.
Michael: [laughing] Yeah.
Daniel: So what's the Larry David thing you're doing?
Michael: I'm doing this movie — really an improvised movie — where he sets it all up in the outline and says, "Here's what happens … "
Daniel: Oh, so like Curb Your Enthusiasm but the movie —
Daniel: That sounds like fun.
Michael: Well, I have no idea what we're going to do yet.
Daniel: You just said OK, and show up?
Michael: [laughing] Yeah.
Daniel: You know, I actually went online and watched some of your old stand-up. It was from when you were just starting out.
Michael: I've never seen it. I'd guess what's out there is not probably very good.
Daniel: No, it actually held up pretty well. Like, you do this bit where you're reading a Bazooka Joe comic to the audience — and it's typically inane. You explain how he's throwing a clock "to see time fly" — but then you leave their boneheaded world and keep "reading" the comic as if, inexplicably, Bazooka Joe and his doltish friend are suddenly having a deep metaphysical discussion about [space-]time continuum and Einstein and parallel planes. It was funny.
Michael: [laughing] Oh yeah — no, that was actually a really funny piece, I loved that piece. And it was like four and a half minutes …
Daniel: [laughing] Yeah. It was solid. Speaking of the new world — I was kind of surprised to see you were on Twitter. You seemed to have a pretty substantive following …
Michael: Well …
Daniel: But then one day you made an Anthony Weiner joke … and, boom, you were gone. Dust.
Michael: [laughing] Yeah, I was over it. But I think it's the greatest tool. So ingenious.
Daniel: No, you were funny — I remember you said "Jimmer Fredette of BYU will go down as one of the greatest scorers ever. He also looks like a guy who would own a Nissan dealership."
Michael: He does, right? I think I have to start doing it again.
Daniel: You went on a pretty big Trump run on Twitter for a while.
Michael: I watch Morning Joe occasionally, I used to watch a lot more than I do now, but I watched it, and all of a sudden, there was this love fest, for crying out loud, this inexplicable love fest one morning, for The Donald. And I thought I was hearing things! Honest to fucking God, I thought I was fucking hearing things. And I was so enraged that of course now I couldn't go back to sleep, now I'm pissed off.
Daniel: And then — just as suddenly — people were thinking about him as president? I felt the same way. Like, what world are we living in?
Michael: It's unbelievable! Plus — how come no one called this motherfucker out on "his people"? He's got people. He always has people. "I got people in Hawaii checking in, too." And, OK, fine, finally after two years of him talking about his "people," Bob Schieffer or somebody finally said, "Can you tell me who the people are?" Which is what I'd been saying — I want to know who the people are! Give me some names …
Daniel: Just be transparent …
Michael: Yeah, because maybe you're onto something. I just can't stand it — what we give these people. These people gain power and they're morons.
Daniel: So is your son [Sean, 29 years old] political too?
Michael: Definitely. He's an observant dude, he listens to NPR, he watches the news. At first it got me mad. He was getting all of his news from Jon Stewart — he and [Stephen] Colbert are unbelievably fantastic — but I'd say to him, "Sean … you've got to watch other stuff. You can't just take your news from them." And then I started watching more regularly, and I went, "You know what? That's exactly where you should get your news."
Daniel: Yeah, those guys are pretty valuable to the dialogue, I think. And at the same time, as many accolades as they receive, probably undersung because they're comedians.
Michael: Totally, totally 100 percent. Undersung is exactly right. Colbert makes me crazy, he's so funny. Plus, he seems like an extraordinarily decent dude. I saw recently when Colbert tweeted something about his mom that I thought was so sweet, and I just really admired him for it. I guess his mom got really sick, and he kept that thing very down-low, very cool, but still threw her a little thing to acknowledge her strength.
Daniel: Yeah, I liked that too.
Michael: It was awesome, because I come from a big Catholic family like him, and he seems like a sweet guy.
Daniel: Are you religious now at all?
Michael: I'm not. I can't lie and say I am. I'm more a meditator/believer now. And I find there are a few places where I like to meditate more than in other places. There's a little Catholic church that I go to and there's another temple I go to — there are certain places where I just feel more comfortable.
Daniel: No, I actually meditate too. I see that.
Michael: I worked on a Navajo reservation when I was 21 and that's where I really got into it. But when I was a younger kid I was very Catholic, and I'm glad that I was. I'm very proud of it, but I'm not a "practicer" — I'm more like a practitioner. But I'm not one of those former Catholics who's enraged. I'm only enraged by the unbelievable molestation — that I'm pretty fucking enraged about — but I'm not one of those guys who's like, "God, I've got scars … " I got my knuckles beat, I used to get sent to the corner or whacked on the butt now and then. But I probably deserved to get whacked in the butt. I was a kid getting into trouble.
Daniel: So in preparing for this, there's all these movies you were in that I wanted to go back and take a look at — but what would you guess would be the one I sought out?
Michael: It depends on how far you went, but if you went back really far, probably Night Shift. If you didn't go back quite that far, there's this resurgence of The Paper fans, people love The Paper.
Daniel: The Paper is a great movie, but, yeah, I went back and saw Night Shift. Look, that movie will always hold a great place in my heart — but it's still really funny. It still totally holds up.
Michael: Does it hold up?
Daniel: Yeah, it totally does. My wife and I watched it and were both laughing throughout. Bill Blazejowski is just one of the great, classic characters.
Michael: Great memory of that one.
Daniel: That was your first —
Michael: Feature, yeah.
Daniel: Did you have to audition for that?
Michael: Yeah, but I was doing this TV show with Lowell Ganz, who was one of the writers —
Daniel: … and Babaloo Mandel, right?
Michael: Yeah, yeah, and he was a premier, a supreme joke writer. Sometimes Babaloo would write a joke that you would just go, "Oh … that was just fantastic." Joke writing is really a very specific skill. So Lowell was directing an episode of a television show I was doing, and I got to know him, and he liked me and he went to Ron Howard and he said, "You ought to see this kid that I'm working with."
Daniel: Maybe you've discussed this before, but, like many actors, you had to change your name. It was the same as another prominent actor, Michael Douglas … and then there was also the talk show host Mike Douglas out there, and —
Michael: I actually did his show, believe it or not.
Daniel: Did you tell him that that was your name?
Michael: I don't remember. But I did talk to Michael Douglas [the actor] about it. At the time I didn't think it would matter. I got the gig, and they said, "You've got to have another name." And I was like, "No I don't." And they said, "Yeah, you do. To join the union." So I was just in the K's in the alphabet, thought it was inoffensive, and —
Daniel: I read it was because you liked Diane Keaton —
Michael: People keep saying that —
Daniel: So, not true?
Michael: I feel bad! She's probably badly bugged by that story! The truth is I'm trying to figure out how John Cougar Mellencamp did it, because I like my name, I'm proud of my name. Douglas, you know, it's my Dad's name.
Daniel: Do you use it in your regular life?
Michael: Yeah. Everybody knows me as Michael Douglas —
Daniel: So does your passport say Douglas?
Michael: Yeah. Everything says Douglas.
Daniel: And were there other names you were considering besides Keaton?
Michael: Hand to God, I swear this is true: My middle name is John, and where I come from, people throw around nicknames all the time. So they'd call me John or Johnny. And for a long time my brothers would call me Jackson, and I thought, Oh, that makes sense. I'll just be Michael Jackson.
Daniel: Michael Jackson!
Michael: I'm going to find a way to ease it back into my name.
Daniel: You worked on Mister Rogers back in 1975, right? What was he like?
Michael: Yeah. He was funny, just deceptively funny. So authentic, but also so unusual. I worked on the crew at the local PBS station in Pittsburgh. I was making like $2.25 an hour or something. When you work there, you kind of do everything. And when you did his show, you did everything from pull cable for the cameras, to running the trolley, to dressing up in the black-and-white panda suit for 25 bucks.2
Michael: What people don't realize is what his crew looked like — they almost all had hair down to their lower backs, one guy just dripped with patchouli and marijuana smoke, worse than Tom Petty. But everyone was really funny and would do these insane things — and Fred just loved them. And they loved him back.
Daniel: So he'd never just lose his shit and scream at a gaffer for getting in the shot?
Michael: No! In fact, one time, my friend Nicky Tallo, who was this really funny, big Italian kid who was his floor manager — and I don't think I'm telling tales out of school when I say generally Nick was feeling the effects of smoking dope the night before — or maybe even that morning …
Daniel: It was a different era …
Michael: So one day, we were taping, and Fred comes in, and starts singing, "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day … " puts the shoes down here, goes to hang up the sweater in the closet. And he's singing, and he opens the door — and there's his floor manager, Nick, this big guy with his long goatee, pierced ears, hair all over the place, totally nude, just standing there naked in the closet. Well, Fred just fell down; it was the most hysterical thing you've ever seen. He was totally cool.
Daniel: That's great. You know, another thing that you read in just about every article about you is how particular you are — there's story after story of you turning down all these parts, I'm talking classic cinematic roles. I'm just curious; can I ask about some of them?
Daniel: Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean?
Michael: No, that's not true.
Daniel: Not true at all?
Michael: Absolutely not. I would've jumped all over that.
Daniel: How about Ghostbusters?
Michael: Not true.
Daniel: Not offered it?
Daniel: Tom Hanks's part in Splash?
Daniel: And why —
Michael: Because … Wait a minute, was it Hanks? Or was it Candy's part? I think it was Candy's part.
Daniel: Wow, really? The smoking and the racquetball?
Michael: Oh, man, how great was John Candy? You would have loved John. I don't know a person who didn't love John Candy. Went to dinner at his house one night. [Adopts voice.] "Light a cigar … have some cognac after … " He was just fun.
Daniel: And, of course, Canadian, and all Canadians are great.
Michael: Totally, man, totally. But I really can't remember now whether it was Tom or John's role. I just remember at the time thinking I wanted to get away from what I'd just done on Night Shift. I thought if I do it again, I might get myself stuck. So then Mr. Mom came along. (And that was John Hughes, by the way — people don't know that he wrote that.) So I said no [to Splash] so I could set up this framework right away where I could do different things.
Daniel: How about Lost? You were going to be Jack Shephard in Lost. That true?
Michael: Yeah, that one is true. J.J. [Abrams], who I think is fantastic, said "Hey, man, I want to talk to you about something." So we sat and had coffee or lunch. And he said, "I'm doing this show," and I said, "Oh, yeah, OK," and he said, "You probably don't want to do a television show," and I said, "No, not really. Honestly, I'm not particularly interested in doing anything right now." And he said, "Well, let me explain it to you," and he tells me about the setup, and I go, "Oh wow, that's really a good idea," and I'm not revealing anything here now because I'm pretty sure the show's not even on anymore, is it?
Michael: So he explains to me there's this thing in the jungle and what happens is, we're watching the show, and here's our lead guy, and he comes up to this thing — this force — and just when you think he's going to do this really heroic thing confronting it, he gets killed. So he wanted to fake the audience out and just [snaps] kill the lead character and make the audience go, "Whoa, now what are they going to do?" Which I thought was going to be really gutsy.
Daniel: Amazing. That the show could have been so different …
Michael: I think the network said, "No, no, no, you can't do that." So he changed his mind and called and said, "Do you want to do it anyway?" and I said "No, I probably don't … I don't really feel like doing an hour-long TV show every week." When it first started, I thought it was well done.
Daniel: It was a really great show. But it would have had a totally different tenor had you been in it.
Michael: [laughs] Yeah.
Daniel: You also initially turned down Quentin Tarantino for Jackie Brown?
Michael: I said no three times, but I also said no to Beetlejuice three times. And not because, "Oh, no, it's not good enough." It was because I didn't know how to do it, so I just said "no thank you."
Daniel: Do you go through that a lot?
Daniel: Self-doubt? Or what is it?
Michael: No, not self-doubt. I'm just really honest. Because a lot of times I'll say [to a director]: "If you let me do what I wanted to do, you wouldn't want it." But in Quentin's case, I loved his stuff. So I saw the script, and I thought, Yeah, it's OK, but the [character] seems a little vague. And then Quentin said he thought so too. So I said, "Well, with all due respect, no thanks … but maybe for another thing." And then they called again and again. I think it was two calls or three calls, and I said, "Hey, what am I, crazy? I should at least go hang out with him. It's Quentin Tarantino."
Michael: So we went out. There used to be a place on Sunset where he'd hang out, called Coach & Horses I think
Daniel: Yeah. Know it well. Left my credit card there a couple times
Michael: Exactly. So we were hanging out, and he was drinking, and by this time, he was already 40 or something, and he's drinking Jägermeister, like some kind of frat boy. Who even drinks that? So he's drinking pretty good, and he's already pretty much in his — what's the expression? In his cups? — and he talks nonstop. And all I know is at some point in the evening [Michael stands up and gets his face about as close to mine without actually touching noses]3 — and I don't mean to invade your space here, but I was like this [backing away a little], and he was like this [moves his face closer to mine] and I remember thinking, He's too close to my face. How do I get back there? I don't know how to move my head back.
Daniel: You don't want to be rude, but …
Michael: Yeah, but at the same time I'm thinking, How do I get out of here? I mean, I don't even know how we got this close talking, anyway.
Daniel: I can see that. I can also see him using that in a movie — though he probably wasn't even aware he was doing it.
Michael: Anyway, I can barely drink anything now. I'll have a glass of red wine every night, and now I find I can hardly do that anymore. But man, that guy can go. So [the next day] I got a phone call at seven o'clock in the morning. We had the same publicist for a period of time, and she said, "Well, is it true?" and I go, "Who is this?!" "It's Bumble, is it true?" And I go, "I don't know what … " "Wait, were you with Quentin last night?" "Yeah." "Well, did he do that?" And I go, "What? I don't know what you're talking about!" And apparently he got into an altercation with a bunch of Korean girls in a bar, and I went, "Oh my God, I'm so glad I left." What happened was, we went out to a couple of places, we're walking somewhere in the Village, downtown somewhere, and I went, "I'm going home, man," and he goes, "Come on. Just hang out for a bit," and I go, "Nope, I'm going home, I have stuff to do in the morning." And I went home, and I guess I missed it.
Michael: Right, exactly. But we were talking about Jackie Brown, which I love. When I look at that movie —
Daniel: Yeah, totally underrated.
Michael: I loved that movie.
Daniel: But from that movie came one of the coolest cinematic devices of all time: You took that same Elmore Leonard character you did from Jackie Brown, Ray Nicolette, and the next year you reprised the character for Steven Soderbergh in Out of Sight. Your character hopped from one movie right into the other.
Michael: Yeah, I've never seen that done — ever. And I hope I'm not getting too esoteric about this, but it was almost like postmodernism.
Daniel: If people are still reading this far into this article, they're obviously pretty big Michael Keaton fans — I don't think you can get too esoteric for them.
Michael: What I felt was: It's like he exists in the world. He might show up in your barbershop, you know what I mean? Different studio, different script, different story, different director. Everything is different, and all of a sudden, this guy shows up again. And I thought, Man, it would be cool — I'd just like to show up again somewhere else.
Daniel: Well, I just read the other day that they're making [Elmore Leonard's] The Switch into a movie. Maybe they can somehow figure out a way …
Michael: Oh, they're making The Switch?
Daniel: Yeah. It would be cool to see Ray Nicolette show up in that one, too.
Michael: Yeah. He's a great character, Elmore Leonard is unbelievable. I was reading an interview with him not long ago. Someone said, "How do you write that?" and he said, "What do you mean?" and he said, "How do you write that dialogue, how do you hear that?" and he just said, "I just sit and I listen. I'll go somewhere and talk to somebody, and I'll listen and hear what's around me." But obviously it's easier said than done.
Daniel: He's got the whole cadence down — but then he also has guys like you and Dennis Farina, people who can just then deliver it in that great, off-the-cuff, spoken way.
Michael: Which is harder than you would think, actually.
Daniel: To capture the cadence?
Michael: Yeah, you know, it's — he's a populist, really. If you think about it, it's very straightforward, still very pulpy — but it's art, it's such high art. I'm envious of writers and musicians. I think it must be so difficult. Not just the frustration, but the discipline. And you know, even before I wrote this short story, I wrote this little thing for the Filson catalog about this program called "Freedom to Roam," which is about keeping wildlife corridors open so that migrating elk herds can move from one region to another — because it's central to their existence, actually.
Daniel: And you wrote this for the Filson catalog?
Michael: Yeah, I'm working on something else with them right now, actually.
Daniel: Well, that's a good way to segue into this Astream book, and specifically the story you wrote4 — and why you and I find ourselves talking today. I was really impressed with the story. It actually kind of reminded me of Tobias Wolff …
Michael: Oh man. He's definitely one of my favorite writers.
Daniel: Well, I meant it sincerely — it just evoked that era, that feeling of youth in '60s rural America. I also just loved how you talked about the pride you had of making your dad laugh. It's just little moments like that — and it's a short story, but it just made me want to read more. You should really write it as a whole book.
Michael: Oh, thanks!
Daniel: I think everyone who reads this book will love it, especially if you have an interest in fly-fishing — but then again, it's not really even about the fly-fishing.
Michael: No, exactly. That's what I didn't want to do. You know, I fish a lot with a lot with guys like [Tom] McGuane5 and Yvon Chouinard [founder of Patagonia] and we talk — and we hate fishing shows. So I started thinking about what I would do, because even though I'm passionate about it, I don't know how to write about fishing. So I tried to think about what the angle into it was, and I wrote — not around it, but I wrote kind of about the world around it.
Daniel: I know I said I'd drop the Twitter stuff, but since you brought up fishing with McGuane, you also tweet a fair amount about fishing with him and Tom Brokaw. I mean, you'd have to admit that is a pretty heady group to go fishing with …
Daniel: But it also got me thinking: Because Brokaw's a Montana guy, and then you've got McGuane, who's a Montana guy, but then you also have Letterman, who's a Montana guy …
Michael: Yeah, David's in there.
Daniel: But you don't invite him fly-fishing with you?
Michael: No, he's not invited.