Michael Keaton on playing McDonald's mogul Kroc in The Founder: 'The burgers were cold and damp and I had to go mmm, this is tasty'
Michael Keaton plays McDonald's mogul Ray Kroc in his latest movie The Founder. He tells Jeananne Craig why the role was rather difficult to stomach at times
Sinking your teeth into a stack of hamburgers - and getting paid to do it - sounds like a pretty sweet deal, but a few takes into a scene for his new film, and Michael Keaton had definitely had his fill.
"We just had to keep doing it over and over again," the star says with a groan.
In The Founder, he plays entrepreneur Ray Kroc, who took a small fast food business in Fifties California and supersized it into the McDonald's empire.
The trim 65-year-old, who hadn't had a Big Mac in years, had to summon all his acting skills for the scene in which Kroc delightedly tucks into a juicy burger.
"I would have been fine with it if they had been freshly made," he says.
"But they had them all stacked up and we had to go again and they were cold, damp, kind of disgusting, and I had to go, 'mmm! This is tasty'."
These days, such chains are as ubiquitous as "leaves on a tree or dust in the air" (indeed, since 1955, McDonald's have opened in more than 36,000 locations globally). But as a child, Keaton was a fully fledged McDonald's fan, and he recalls how a trip to his local Pennsylvania branch had a sense of occasion.
"There were these big arches with a glow off them, and in the summertime, there would be all these little bugs flying through the warm air, attracted by these golden lights," he says, a wistful look washing over his face.
"Now, if we left here, there'd be a Starbucks within 48 seconds and then 15 seconds after that, there'd be another Starbucks. These things are just there. But you had to drive to it then, and the reason you drove to it was it was kind of an event - 15 cents for a hamburger, and pretty damn good, and these really great French fries. And you went to it. It's not like you'd go, 'well, I happen to be passing it ...'"
The film itself leaves a slightly bad taste in the mouth as we learn of Kroc's passionate but ruthless acquisition of the firm, which was set up in 1940 by brothers Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman).
We watch as the travelling salesman spots franchise potential in the burger operation, with its innovative and efficient methods of food preparation and service, and eventually outmanoeuvres the brothers to create a billion-dollar enterprise.
Keaton was keen not to sugarcoat the tale, and to depict all aspects of Kroc's character - from the admirable to the morally questionable.
One of his favourite scenes in The Founder shows Kroc alone, tidying up the front of a McDonald's after closing time.
"He's sweeping up, cleaning up and making the place look presentable, because he's got everything riding on it," says Keaton.
"Ray Kroc is an admirable guy, up to a point. And if the audiences can't take the other half? Well, they should go watch Cinderella."
He insists he has no issue with capitalism as a concept - and used his own brother, businessman Robert, as inspiration when trying to convey Kroc's drive.
"Sometimes I'd go, 'what am I doing in this scene?' and ..." says the star, clicking his fingers before continuing, "remember how Robert used to work, how hard he used to work, and I'd go, 'now I have that inside me to use'."
Keaton could also relate to the repeated knock-backs Kroc is experiencing when the film begins, as he travels the country trying to sell multi-mixers.
"Rejection is part of the deal as an actor. There's nothing to take personally. That's how I imagine it is for salesmen," says the star, who admits there was "one point early on" in his career when he considered jacking it all in. I just thought, 'this is hard. Is the pay off good enough for what I do with a couple jobs here and there?' And then I decided, 'keep going, just keep going'."
He came to prominence for many cinema-goers in 1988, when Tim Burton cast him as the lead in his comedy Beetlejuice.
A turn as Batman in 1989 (and a reprisal in 1992's Batman Returns) remained his best-known role until 2014, when he played a troubled star on the cusp of a breakdown in Birdman, which earned him an Oscar nomination.
The critical acclaim he received for that movie, and for 2015 Oscar-winner Spotlight, about the Boston Globe's investigation into child abuse by Catholic clergymen, have opened doors for him again as an actor.
Keaton admits: "That's always going to change things, the simple economics of things."
But, he insists: "I'm basically doing what I always do. I work hard, I try to get better. So in that regard, I hope I'm better."
A keen fisherman and landscape designer, there are still moments when he daydreams "about trying something else for a living".
"I'm not saying I'm going to do that," he adds. "But I think that would be really fun and interesting and kind of scary to see whether I could be successful at this other thing."
- The Founder is in cinemas now