Michael Keaton on returning to the Hollywood limelight – and avoiding attention

Birdman supersized the former Batman’s career – and now he’s starring as the man who sold the world a billion Big Macs

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Most actors get nervous if they have no work in the offing. Not Michael Keaton. The actor is delighted at the idea of having nothing to do for a while.

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“It’s a great luxury and a wonderful life,” he says with a smile when we talk in a suite at the London West Hollywood Hotel in Beverly Hills. “I have no idea what I’m going to do next or where I’m going. I might take a vacation because I haven’t had a break for a long time.”

The 65-year-old, looking fit and trim in a tight fitting T-shirt and jeans, is currently on a roll, having starred in a succession of critically acclaimed and vastly different films. He was Oscar-nominated for Birdman, and many thought he should have received nominations for Spotlight and his latest film, The Founder.

In his new role, Keaton (born Michael Douglas – he adopted a stage name to register with Equity) portrays Ray Kroc, a smooth-talking salesman from Illinois who stumbled upon the McDonald brothers’ burger operation in 1950s Southern California and pulled the company away from them, even appropriating their name, to create a multibillion dollar empire.

It’s a story that feels more and more apt for our time – a man with determination and drive, who appropriates someone else’s idea with unstoppable megalomania and ambition.

“It’s a classic, capitalist American story. I didn’t know the real story of how McDonald’s began until I read the script and I don’t think most other people know either,” he says.

“My first thought was ‘Why has no one told this story before?’ It’s not just a hamburger – McDonald’s was the biggest shift in popular culture and fast food that there will ever be. It changed everything. It was really the first instance of branding.

“Ray Kroc certainly wasn’t a likeable person but I have nothing but respect for his work ethic. You have to admire his drive and persistence.”

Keaton believes they are two traits he shares with Kroc. “Without persistence you won’t succeed,” he says. “I don’t know if I have the vision that Kroc did, but I have good instincts.”

Keaton’s instincts have seldom steered him awry in his career, which really took off thanks to Tim Burton with Beetle Juice and Batman in the 1980s. But when he was first offered The Founder, he hesitated.

“I had been going pretty hard and I wasn’t really looking to do a movie, but I thought, ‘Well, I don’t know… if something is good, I suppose I will do it.’

“I liked this, and there was room and time in my personal life so I thought, ‘Yeah, I should go do this.’ There’s a limited amount of really good stuff and you want to pick the best so I think I am fortunate in the way things have turned out, and I’ve been ready and available when some really good things have come along.”  

Keaton has gone for periods without working because he did not like the scripts he was offered and also because he was attempting to raise his son Sean by himself.

He separated from his wife, the actress Caroline McWilliams, in 1990 after an eight-year marriage, and she died from complications from multiple myeloma in 2010. Sean is now a successful songwriter, married and living in Los Angeles.

Never one to avoid a challenge, Keaton has tackled gritty dramas and big-budget action movies as well as small, low-budget independent films because the scripts appealed to him.

“I’ve done stuff that people never saw and I’ve done stuff that everyone in the world saw,” he says, reflecting on his varied career. “I just trust my own instincts most of the time and I’ve always sought out things that were original or interesting or exciting.

“I like things that are hard. I like the challenge and I like to at least strive for something artful. I’m sure I’ve fallen short at times but I think I’ve been close at times, too.”

His recent performances have propelled him back into the Hollywood limelight, although he is a man who keeps a low profile and prefers fly-fishing and horse riding on his ranch in Montana to premieres and parties.

“It’s not that I hate being famous,” he says. “I don’t. Being famous is fun and has a lot of perks. I just don’t like attention.”

After The Founder arrives in cinemas on Friday 17th February, he has two more movies coming up: Spider-Man: Homecoming, in which he plays the villainous Vulture; and American Assassin, for which he spent weeks getting into shape to portray the mentor of a counter-terrorism agent.

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And although he is now looking forward to a holiday, he may not get it. As I’m ushered out of his suite, a worried publicist rushes in mumbling: “His agent has been trying to get hold of him all afternoon!”