In the new Robocop, Joel Kinnaman steps inside an updated version of the metal suit that Peter Weller donned in director Paul Verhoeven’s original, and by his account, endured a significant amount of discomfort to bring the character to life. But even if you won’t take Kinnaman’s word for it, costar Michael Keaton said the young actor deserves more credit than he will probably get for pulling off a complex and nuanced performance inside a suit that can make an actor fell, well, like a robot.
“Joel’s job is particularly difficult, because people don’t know how hard that is,” Keaton said Thursday during a press conference in Los Angeles. “Because your natural instinct, or unnatural instinct might be, to say, let’s face it, I’m in this suit – which out of context is kind of ridiculous. So your inclination or desperation might make you want to “go out” [with your performance], and what he didn’t do was that. What he did do was kind of suck back and go inside.”
Keaton complimented Kinnaman for being able to communicate so many different emotions, and shifting between them so smoothly and effectively. “He makes these unbelievable transitions, too, I noticed. He’s human, then he’s robot, but then he’s robot and human, and that’s really, really hard to do when you’re wearing a big, black suit,” he observed. I was really knocked out by it … I kept watching him in it, and it’s really extraordinary, what he did. And he probably won’t get credit for degree of difficulty that was required.”
As effectively the first actor to play a modern-age superhero, Keaton recalled his own challenges in a difficult suit. “A long time ago when they were asking me when I did the first Batman, I made a joke but I was actually serious, you know, I just worked the suit, man,” he remembered. “I’m very claustrophobic, and we didn’t even know that the suit was going to work at all until literally like I think hours before we were about to start shooting the suit.”
Keaton explained that playing Batman’s alter ego first gave him a bead on how to use his discomfort in the suit to his – and the movie’s – advantage. “We had shot a lot of the Bruce Wayne stuff – which was the key, by the way,” he explained. “The way in was Bruce Wayne, that was it for me. The Batman thing, I didn’t know what I was going to do with that.”
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“So when we got in it, I went, oh, I’m in trouble – I’ve got to really face this thing. Because you couldn’t get out of it,” he recalled. “The second [Bat-suit], you could kind of get out of, but this thing was wrapped [around me] and it didn’t totally work.
This whole thing [where I moved very stiffly] came out of – I mean, I’ll take some credit for it, but really it was practical.”
In fact, Keaton said that it was only after he failed to assess the suit’s pliability that it dawned on him that the confinement he felt could help drive the character. “It really came out of the first time I had to react to something and this thing was stuck to my face,” he said. “Somebody says something to Batman and I [turn my head] and the whole thing [rips off my face]! There was a big fucking hole over here.”
“So I go, ‘you know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”
Despite the fact that the suit exacerbated his own neuroses, Keaton said that it all ultimately fed into the psychology of Bruce Wayne. “I’m very, very claustrophobic and I’m in this thing… I drink a ton of coffee, I eat a ton of vitamins and I drink a lot of water, and I couldn’t do none of that because I couldn’t get out of it to go to the bathroom,” Keaton said. “And inside, honestly, I started having panic attacks – literally panic attacks. I have a little bit of history with them.”
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“And I’m feeling really scared, and then it hit me,” he continued. “I thought, oh, this is perfect! I mean, this is like designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that’s really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed.”
“You just take all of that stuff, that suit, all of that stuff that suit was giving me, and I said, oh, I got it – I know how to do this now.”
Keaton added that this process is usually intuitive. “It’s odd how those things happen to actors,” he said. “That thing you think, I have no idea how to do this, something will happen in your life, or something, that comes up and you just kind of get it. I don’t know how you get it, but actors are kind of pretty extraordinary in that regard – I think it’s fear,” he said with a laugh.
Costar Gary Oldman chimed in saying he went through the same thing during his time working on a superhero movie. “I had all of that in The Dark Knight and I wasn’t wearing the suit,” he laughed.
Meanwhile, Kinnaman said his costars weren’t especially sympathetic during the shoot itself. “I got no sympathy from Michael Keaton while I was in the suit,” he pointed out. “He was like, shut the fuck up!”
“I enjoyed every minute of watching him,” Keaton admitted. “I’d just sit there in my little suit and watch him.”
Robocop opens nationwide February 12, 2014.
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