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Michael Keaton opens his heart: "Relationships are complicated"

ShortList talks love with the mercurial actor

Michael Keaton opens his heart: "Relationships are complicated"
09 February 2017

A series of fascinating roles has given Michael Keaton a welcome on-screen renaissance. But where does he stand on matters of romance?

Los Angeles is famous for not being close to London. But, 11 minutes into my interview with Michael Keaton, after I have travelled 5,000 miles to meet him, after our interview starts half an hour late, a PR raises her hand. “One more question,” she says. I’ve only asked two.

Following some grumbling on my part, she slips out. Keaton and I had been talking about the arc of his career and his latest role in The Founder, in which he brings back to life Ray Kroc, the man who used determination and deception to turn McDonald’s from a modest California burger joint into the second largest private employer on Earth. I have read dozens of interviews with Keaton and can hear him treading the same ground. So I change tack. I ask him about romance.

Instantly, something about his demeanour tangibly changes. He is surprised. He finds his energy. He gives answers that aren’t logged in the autocue of his mind. He laughs without planning to and calls me ‘man’ for the first time. And, later on, when there is a knock on the door, Keaton silences it with an index finger: “Give him a little more time.” Michael Keaton doesn’t want to be interrupted. He’s talking about love. 


He is 65 now, and Keaton’s still a peculiar kind of good-looking. Bouncy. Slim. Attractive. Eyebrows like the Devil. He’s one among a handful of men who can look good in what he’s wearing today: dad jeans, a navy T-shirt and a black puffa jacket. Up close, face lined and tanned, he looks as though he is wearing eyeliner. Earlier in the day, when he bounded into the room to talk to a round table of journalists, I noticed that he had brought two pairs of sunglasses.

I ask him how he thinks his attitude to love and sex has changed as he’s got older. “Some things have changed,” he says, “while others have stayed the same. In my case, you go, well, I know where my sexual appetite is.” He chuckles. I chuckle too, only half-sure I get what he’s on about. “That’s kinda simpler in a lot of ways. But where’s the love part? It’s always so much better when you love someone. It’s impossible not to at least like somebody and be intimate with them. That just – you just can’t – I can’t do it.”

In a more marked way than many of his peers, Michael Keaton has made a living out of transformation. I wonder if there is something about actors, about their vulnerability and their charisma, that gives them a romantic advantage over us mortals. When trying to keep an audience interested, does he reach into the same toolbox as when he is trying to seduce women?

“Maybe I do and I don’t know it,” he says. You can hear the cogs turning as he tries to articulate his thoughts. “There’s that thing that you can never put your finger on – and I don’t really even wanna put my finger on – when you’re just flat-out attracted to someone. You can go, OK, I’m attracted to her or him based on this, this, this, this and this. That’s clear. But there’s that other thing that you don’t know – and that’s the goal, man, that really cool little spot you can’t put your finger on. So if you’re conscious of that it’s not as much fun, and I’m not sure it would happen. And if you’re conscious of that on screen – eurgh, that’s kinda disgusting.”


In a quest for wealth and power, Ray Kroc takes the vision and the integrity of the McDonald brothers and all but robs them of their company. While you could admire his ambition, he isn’t a man who could be accused of being overly kind. But to Keaton, it is kindness that, above and beyond all other qualities, is the most attractive. He says that his own romantic relationships have failed to last because kindness has been lacking.

But when it’s there in a relationship, he says, “Boy, that’s extraordinarily… that’s big to me. If you’re doing it right, you get better and you become a nicer person – in my case, a more patient person. I had to work on being patient.”

If impatience is partly to thank for Keaton’s pursuit of a career that has consistently kept monotony at bay, without it we might not have been treated to esoteric and seminal performances in Batman and Birdman. By comparison, his role in The Founder is a safe one. But it is still mesmerising.

What makes Kroc fascinating – all the more so because he is a real figure in history – is that he goes from being the underdog hero – the inspirational embodiment of the American Dream – to being a contemptible tycoon. Director John Lee Hancock knew that Keaton would be perfect for this moral ambiguity: “Sometimes there are movies where you put the movie on the back of an actor and you say, ‘We derive our energy from you.’ And this was one of those movies.”

It’s currently impossible to interview any American without Donald Trump rearing his orange head. And, in their merciless pursuit of power, Kroc and the US president invite comparison. But Keaton makes a point of highlighting their differences, partly because he retains a sense of admiration for Kroc and harbours nothing but contempt for Trump. To Keaton, what was so admirable about Obama was that he remained a gentleman for the entirety of his term, including the moments in which he needed to refute slurs about his nationality.

Being a gentleman is essential not only in a president, believes Keaton, but also in a man. It’s a trait he thinks is in short supply at the moment. “Being a gentleman with a woman is really… I guarantee you, even with women who like the bad boy thing, being a gentleman’s very attractive.”

As far as words of wisdom go, this is all Keaton feels qualified to offer. “I’m not one to give out advice,” he says. “Relationships are complicated. But if you’re authentic and you seek out authenticity, things will work out.”

The Founder is at cinemas nationwide from 17 February

(Images: Rex)