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Morgan Freeman's diva tantrum

Michael Keaton remembers the veteran actor's on-set strop, an unlikely source of inspiration for his role in Birdman

What to do when God completely loses his shit with you? It’s a question Michael Keaton was forced to ponder when Morgan Freeman, two-time impersonator of the Man Upstairs (in Bruce Almighty and its sequel, Evan Almighty), threw a strop on the set of Glenn Gordon Caron’s 1988 drama Clean and Sober.

“We were in between setups for a scene,” Keaton told Dazed in an interview ahead of the release of his new film, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman. “The cast were all laughing and joking together and enjoying themselves, when all of a sudden Morgan gets loud and upset about something. He throws this tantrum and its like ‘Whoa, Jesus’.”

“He was sitting there by himself in his chair a bit later on, so I went up to him and said, ‘Hey are you all right, are you upset about anything?’ And he was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ So I just said, ‘You know, the thing earlier?’, and he goes ‘Nahh! I just did it on purpose.’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’, and he just said he thought everybody was getting too comfortable, which you don’t want on a movie like this, you need to have a little bit of edge. So he threw a fake tantrum, which is really cool.”

“I went up to him and said, ‘Hey are you upset about anything?’ And he goes ‘Nahh! I just did it on purpose.’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’, and he just said he thought everybody was getting too comfortable. So he threw a fake tantrum” – Michael Keaton

Perhaps Keaton was able to draw on Freeman’s faux-diva hysterics for a scene in Birdman. In his most acclaimed performance in years, the former Batman star plays a washed-up Hollywood A-lister, Riggan Thomson, who risks it all to direct a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. But Thomson is plagued by visions of himself in his career-defining role, a superhero called Birdman whose powers he intermittently seems to possess. Witness one scene where, with the play on the brink of disaster, Thomson throws a supernatural strop in his dressing room, using telekinesis to hurl objects around the room before his lawyer, Zach Galifianakis, shows up mid-tantrum. It’s a funny moment in a film that finds playful echoes with Keaton’s own career as a recovering superhero, repeatedly exploding the fourth wall in a witty, restless exploration of ego.

“I like Riggan, I just wouldn’t wanna hang out with him,” Keaton says of his character. “He’s too much work, too needy, too pathetic. But he’s an admirable dude – it’s a huge risk he takes (staging the play), and God bless him for that.

“I enjoyed playing that (tantrum) scene, though, because I didn’t know if I was gonna be able to pull off the comedy at the end of it. I had to make that transition from being totally mad to then being funny when Zach (Galifianakis) comes in the room, and being pathetic right towards the end of the scene. (Morgan Freeman aside), I’ve seen two big veteran names throw tantrums on set – not giant ones, but they were impressive, the room came to quite a standstill. I think they just felt they had to lay down the law. It was somewhat uncomfortable.”

Another hilarious scene in Iñárritu’s film, which heaps various humiliations on Keaton’s character including having him run through Times Square in his pants, pits Thomson in a fight with his leading man Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who is sporting a tiny pair of swimming trunks.

“Ed in his Speedos! That was funny,” laughs Keaton. “Actually the only film I’ve seen where guys fight and it made me laugh was Starsky & Hutch, where Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are in these short little towels, it was hysterical stuff.”

Did he ever come to blows with a cast member on set? “No, I’ve been blessed. I did have to straighten out a guy who mistakenly thought he detected a weak spot in me one time early on in my career, so I had to show him very quickly he was wrong… and he literally cried. And then I apologised, I was like, ‘Hey man I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you like that,’ and like a pussy he never acknowledged it… Is that too much information? Is that gonna be the title of the piece?”

Birdman is out in cinemas on January 1