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We're getting two chances this summer to see Michael Keaton being funny, and the circumstances couldn't be more different. First up he'll be voicing the plastic and preening Ken doll in Toy Story 3-- if you haven't watched Groovin' With Ken, now is the time--and then he'll show up to boss everyone around in The Other Guys, playing the stern boss to Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg's completely incompetent detective characters.
Yes, Keaton is kind of doing the straight man thing here, moving the plot forward and scolding everyone, but as I quickly learned spending the day on The Other Guys set, no role in an Adam McKay movie is a strictly serious one. You've already read about Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans Jr.'s cop bromance and McKay's attitude toward encouraging improv; now hear Keaton on how he inserts a little insanity into a pretty straightforward character, a guy who shows up to fire his underlings and winds up showing off quilting patterns instead.
Keaton isn't known for his comedy skills these days, but had a stand-up and improv career early on, and says it was a blast to get back to those roots with McKay and company, who he calls "psychologically and emotionally about the healthiest group of people I’ve ever worked with." Check out the rest of what he had to say below, and look for The Other Guys in theaters August 6. Have you ever done a role like this where you’ve been allowed to improvise so much or do so much ad-libbing?
Well, not this much, no. When I did Night Shift I improvised quite a bit, but not to this degree. 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.
Did you ever feel like any of this stuff will actually be used?
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.
The angry police captain is a character we’ve seen in a lot of movies throughout the years…
So is there a little bit more to your character than we see today, or is it kind of that archetypal...
Well, today’s a pretty straight ahead scene. In fact, I’m sure we’ll do alts. We’ll riff a little. 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.’ One of the obstacles or challenges was this character really in the beginning just really gave information, moved the plot along. 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.
Can you talk about being cast? Were you just, ‘These guys are funny. I’m onboard with anything they do.’ Or did you get plot points or script…
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. So this came along and I read it. The danger of a thing like this is,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 don't 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.
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?
Right, right, right. Well, that’s the trick actually sometimes. You’ll notice like Mark is pretty good at it, Will’s good at it. And that’s kind of my job. 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 Rob, he’s [laughs] in his own world he’s still within his character. 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…
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.
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?’ [laughs] 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.
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.
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. 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. 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, O.K., O.K.’ And then you go away for days or months at a time, and then you come back and do another day, and then you go – I’m sure you guys have heard this before -- then you go away. 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 [laughs] was closer.’ 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.
Has there ever been a moment where you’ve gone against your instincts and you found it actually did work.
Yes, yes, but it’s not so much that you go against your instincts, so much as someone, a director, hopefully – as opposed to some guy on the street saying who says, ‘you know, I was watching and I thought you f*cked up that one scene terribly’ – that will show you something, or tell you something that opens up, and that’s the most fun.
Are there any examples you can give of that?
Keaton: Well to some degree, to a large degree I would say Much Ado About Nothing, where [Kenneth Branagh] would see – things for me always work best when someone says, ‘OK, yes, if that’s what you want to do then, how about this? And how about here? And come back to this thing.’ It turns out a lot of the actors, not just the Americans, had to learn, literally because it was Shakespeare, what does it really mean. What is the interpretation? What is he trying to say? And because I took a rather unusual take on the character, Kenneth would occasionally go – so you had to know, ‘what does it mean?’ This guy knew it inside out, and he’d give you that plus more. Sometimes in Clean and Sober, [director] Glenn Caron did a few things where I thought I just knew, and I was right on, and he would say, ‘no, nuh uh.’ And I always want to be the guy who can do the job, I find that a challenge. He was right in several scenes, and I’m sure it’s happened other times.
There’s a lot more action in this movie than Adam McKay’s other films. Have you been caught up in any of that?
No, no, no, I kind of pop in and pop out. In and out of this thing. I will say this has been – these guys are so psychologically and emotionally about the healthiest group of people I’ve ever worked with. 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 was a laugher. 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 throw 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. But 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. 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 fucking refreshing. I’ll say you gotta be able to hit a curveball, you know, when you show up with these guys.