One of the biggest thrills of being on the set of Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg’s The Other Guys was having a chance to interview Michael Keaton, having been a fan of much of his earlier work from the ’80s – Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and Batman movies, Night Shift, Mr. Mom, Multiplicity and so many other funny movies. In recent years, Keaton certainly hasn’t been around as much, maybe doing an odd indie movie or two, so this movie certainly seems like it could create a nice resurgence for the actor from the funny he was bringing to the one scene we watched filming.
Q: Have you ever done a role like this where you’ve been allowed to improvise so much or do so much ad-libbing?
Michael Keaton: Well, not this much, no. The first feature film I did, when I did “Night Shift,” I improvised quite a bit because I would improvise at the audition so sometimes I would return to the original lines and then when I was on set I would improvise even more. You’d kind of pick and choose. But not to this degree, and also you have to always remember to… well, you don’t have to I guess… (laughter) but you try to do it within character and also to stay on story. Here we take exits and go off the road a little bit, but I’m sure that Adam will in editing pull back and get it on the road. Because you still have to tell the story. But never to this degree, no.
Q: Did you ever feel like any of this stuff will actually be used?
Keaton: (laughs) Well, you know what? These guys are so good. All these guys are so good. This cast is so unbelievably funny, uniformly funny, that, hell, if you get 11 percent of this stuff, I think that’s great. I would think a good deal of it would be used myself.
Q: You’ve done a lot of ’80s comedies, police comedies and also a lot of your ’80s comedy work. Have you looked back at a lot of that stuff at all recently?
Keaton: No, no, no, I haven’t seen one of my movies for many, many years. No, I don’t really watch them. I work on them.
Q: When they come out?
Keaton: I don’t watch them. Yeah, I don’t watch them. I just kind of do them. Unless I have to watch them for some reason. The one I directed, I obviously had to watch several times. (laughter) And that’s a different thing.
Q: The angry police captain is a character we’ve seen in a lot of movies throughout the years…
Q: …So is there a little bit more to your character than we see today, or is it kind of that archetypal character?
Keaton: Well, today’s a pretty straight ahead scene. In fact, I’m sure we’ll do alts. We’ll riff a little. My personal thing is this is a scene where you have to come in… When I read it this morning, I thought about it again, I thought, “You know, you’ve got to come in, deliver the lines, deliver the information and turn around and leave.” There was a lot of that, and that was one of the discussions early on. One of the obstacles or challenges was this character really in the beginning just really gave information, moved the plot along and kind of served, functioned as, as not exactly that… I’ll get to that in a second… Because we didn’t want to do that. You happen to be seeing a scene where he’s upset. But we decided not to play it like that because it’s been kind of done and we wanted to go in another way. But that’s basically what this is. So we chose not to kind of do that clichéd thing even though that was kind of the idea in the beginning, “Do that cop.” But it wasn’t really playing. So after a few discussions and then getting on set and rolling, other stuff starts to come out in the character.
Q: Can you talk about being cast? Were you just like, “These guys are funny. I’m onboard with anything they do” or did you get plot points or a script?
Keaton: No, no, no, I wasn’t going to do anything. I’m a fan of all these guys. I think they’re genuinely really funny people. And we had talked about other movies in the past and there’d been… So this came along and I read it and it had, there was that thing I was pretty much the general information guy. But once we talked about it, I said, “You know, we need some…” Because the danger of a thing like this is, this is so, this level is so good and so high, one doesn’t ever want to be the dead spot. And when you’re the guy with the responsibility of being kind of, not a straight man because he’s not that, but the information guy, you just want the thing to come to a screeching halt. So that was my main concern and it’s been probably the most fun job I’ve ever had, I would say. To come to work on this thing, this is just like vacation. I mean, today I just sit back, I walk off set and then you sit back and watch Riggle go nuts. I mean, how bad is this job? I go to a nice hotel, I have a little dinner, I wake up and then I come back and do it again. This is ridiculously…
Q: How do you pull things back with the story when you have someone like Rob who comes in and is just making his own movie there?
Keaton: Right, right, right. Well, that’s the trick actually sometimes and you’ll notice like Mark is pretty good at it, Will’s good at it. And I, that’s kind of my job. And even early on when I started working and I would improvise quite a bit, I always knew you had to move the story along and tell the story. And also I always found improvising in character a lot more fun and a lot more challenging than just going off. I mean here, we’ll just go out there. We’ll just go out there. But even if you watch Bob, he’s (laughs) in his own world he’s still within his character. Um, yeah, like that. So you just gotta… and also, I think Adam kind of rides herd on that and looks and watches it, and either on the set says enough things to bring it back so the story’s still moving along. And also he’s cognizant I’m sure of getting into the editing room and saying, ‘Yeah, does this still make sense?’ A lot of very, very funny things I’m sure will have to go because it might be confusing, for pacing…
Q: I liked the quilt ad-lib you did.
Keaton: (laughs) Yeah. Oh yeah, I don’t know, that came to me as I was pulling out the pictures.
Q: When you’re ad-libbing from take to take, how much do you remember each time? A lot of people who improvise just forget what they just did.
Keaton: Oh, let me tell you something. I don’t know if this is what you mean, but the danger of working with these guys is you can very quickly get into the bad habit of not learning your lines because you look at the script the night before and you go, “Well, there ain’t going to be any of this anyway. We’re just going to go write it tomorrow anyway. What am I even looking at this for?” (laughter) And then your mind starts to get soft and doesn’t really do the work to be on top of it. Because we always come in and do a couple of takes real quick of the script, and then variations, and then it builds as you saw here. So it’s tricky, tricky, because you start some very bad habits. I did a thing called “The Company” about the CIA and that was difficult. And the speeches roll along and are very detailed and they were specific. It was real information about events that actually occurred, so you couldn’t really vary from it. So I’d go home, maybe run, come back, have a little food, and then it was just me doing these giant chunks of language and dialogue and stuff like that. And this is the polar opposite of that. And just really fun.
Q: There’s a lot more action in this movie than Adam McKay’s other films. Have you been caught up in any of that?
Keaton: No, no, no, I kind of pop in and pop out. Like I said, I kind of move the story along, but hopefully in an entertaining way. But, no, none of that has happened. I will say that these guys are so psychologically and emotionally about the healthiest group of people I’ve ever worked with and I’ve had 99.9% great experiences, I really have never had bad experiences, so this has been really great. It’s indicative of a new generation. I’ve talked to Adam about this, but I think these guys–and have noticed that some of the other guys, 38 and down–they’re a little more healthy about it. When I was in improv workshops or doing stand-up or writing comedy with others, or just doing comedy I just laughed. Funny was funny, I loved to laugh. I always liked people I found generally funny. But it wasn’t as healthy back then, in my opinion. They’re cooler about it. Today, everyone throws in, helps out, there’s a give-and-take, as opposed to jealousy or neurosis, which never made me feel comfortable.
Case in point, as funny as I think “Johnny Dangerously” is, the original script to “Johnny Dangerously” was actually funnier, and I think Johnny Dangerously is a pretty funny movie. What I tried to create on that set was a lot like this, it was really written well and the jokes are really well-written, but there’s probably more here. Lets get it down here, but then lets go. That didn’t seem to be, except for me and Griffin Dunne who played my brother, and a couple others, but, I don’t know if it was the executives or not, but it just didn’t go that way. I like that movie a lot, and I think there could have been more of that, the atmosphere here which is so f*cking refreshing. I’ll say you gotta be able to hit a curveball when you show up with these guys. I haven’t done this in so long. It was like the first day it was though these guys have a regular three-on-three or five-on-five basketball game they’ve been playing for years, same gym, and one guy didn’t show up once and I was just standing there and they ask me, “Hey you wanna run?” and I went, “Yeah, I’ll run with ya” and then I was like, “Holy sh*t, these guys…” It took me a half day you gotta get back in the cage, learn to hit all those pitches because they’re just coming, they bring it everyday, which was fun. It wakes you up.
Q: Was there a particular scene or moment in the movie that you think is insanely funny and has to make the final cut?
Keaton: Oh boy. I mean, there’s a difference between what’s making us all laugh and I’m looking at this and thinking, “wow, this is going to be way pared down.” Maybe. I guess they look at the movie and go, “yeah this is where we want to be, we want to be at this level.” I tend to play the reality of it… I can’t think of anything off hand, whatever works.
Q: Is the stuff with scaffolding and Vegas, is that in the script?
Keaton: Well those are events, what I said to Adam by the way, how about Mark Wahlberg being funny? Who knew that? Adam and I were talking about that the other day, we were like, “Holy sh*t!” He has this uncanny ear for voices, he does impressions. I think it’s because he’s musical, he has an ear. So anyway, I was thinking, when it was on them, what you do is just throw stuff out. What do you call in batting practice? You keep tossing ’em up and let them hit and swing. You set them up, and kinda move the story, but lay it out there in case they want to do something with it. “But now they’re going to come for me,” so you have to think about that. But Adam said to lay some things out there for them, see what they do about it, and those were the issues. I wasn’t around for hardly any of these scenes. I wasn’t around for the Don Beeman scene, I didn’t know what happened. I knew what happened in the script, but the script never stays the script. And he said what happened, and I could do something with that. And the Vegas thing was something we improvised on the phone. They went to Vegas and then the scaffolding thing was in the script early on… I just kinda laid it out there for them.
Q: You’re going to have a big 2010 between “The Other Guys” and “Toy Story 3.” Can you tell us anything about “Toy Story 3”? I know your character is very highly anticipated.
Keaton: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I gotta be honest with you. I think I’m allowed to… I understand there’s like this level among the Pixar people, who are really great–they’re also fun people to work with–that at first it was kind of a hush-hush deal, and someone leaked that I was… But now they know, I guess it’s out, right? Who I play? Everybody knows that. So I play Ken. I mean, it just makes me laugh. (laughs) It just makes me laugh. Just the whole notion that Ken even is a character in the thing makes me laugh. Yeah, so that was an awful lot of fun. And interestingly when I went in, we did a day. That’s an ongoing process and we did a day. And I kind of had a take on him, based on real brief conversations and just what I thought, my initial gut instinct. And what I learned from doing another film with them was you kind of lay it down, and then they start to watch and then they go to work, and then you come back and they kind of see a little of what you’re doing, and then it’s a mix and match of what they want and then what you’re doing, and finding it. And then it takes several drafts, kind of, to kind of get there. So this time I kind of had it, I thought, and we moved it. They said, “We’re really thinking…” These are really directed films. “And this and this and this.” I thought, “Oh, okay, okay,” and then you go away for days or months at a time, and then you come back and do another day, so I come back and they go, “You know, let’s talk about Ken a bit.” And I thought, “Oh man, I really maybe missed it.” And they said, “We kind of think maybe what you were doing at the beginning was closer.” (laughs) So we went back, which just teaches you, your gut instinct most of the time is right, most of the time. The direction. The needle goes in a direction, it’s gonna be in there somewhere. Not all the time.