PARK CITY, Utah -- It happened faster than you can say Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice.
Just like that, Michael Keaton, mercurial actor and movie star, disappeared from the spotlight.
Even now, Keaton, cocking one of his cupid's-arrow eyebrows, isn't sure what motivated him to turn his back on Hollywood after such box-office successes as Batman and Beetlejuice. The simple answer may be that he just felt like it.
"I don't know if it was a conscious decision. I don't know if I ever thought, 'I'm going to do that.' But I did do that. And I do that now," says the 56-year-old actor who famously rejected a $35-million payday to make Batman Forever. "I wasn't getting offered anything a) I hadn't done before or b) a really a great role. I thought, 'I'm boring myself,' quite frankly -- and maybe I'm not as interested as I should be."
So rather than continue on with leading roles in bankable hits, he sought out directors he wanted to learn from -- thus his cameo in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight and his role in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown.
In recent years, Keaton has been seen in supporting roles and sleeper hits: As Lindsay Lohan's father in Herbie Fully Loaded or as a widower in the supernatural hit White Noise. Lost fans may recall producer J.J. Abrams wanted to cast Keaton as Jack Shepherd on the series. But when the role evolved into the lead -- Abrams had originally intended to kill the character off in the pilot -- Keaton dropped out and Matthew Fox stepped in.
Still, Keaton says, "I don't live in regret."
He's at this year's Sundance promoting his directorial debut, The Merry Gentleman, in which he also stars. It's a modest, meditative drama about a sullen hitman (Keaton) whose chance encounter with an abused wife (Kelly MacDonald) has repercussions for both their lives. For Keaton it's yet another dark, brooding role -- a marked contrast to how he is in person: Kinetic, talkative and gregarious.
"I'm half-Irish so I can definitely talk," he says. "But the other half of me doesn't like to talk at all. I'm no good before 11:30 in the morning."
In fact, he was attracted to the script -- first as an actor, then as the director -- by the fact his character didn't speak until page 12. "I get tired of talking and I get tired of hearing myself talk. ... When he spoke in the script, I was actually disappointed. But then I liked how spare he was, how economical he was in everything he did."
The same could be said of Keaton, who is currently mulling other independent projects. However, unlike other performers who grumble about the state of Hollywood, Keaton doesn't begrudge the studios their bottom-line mentality.
"They're giant corporations. I've been saying this for years. It's not evil or non-evil. It is what it is and if it makes you unhappy, you should really do something else. They're like a box store in the mall.
"The problem is, you've got to leave the mall to find Joe's Repair Shop, which is my movie and a lot of the movies here (at Sundance), which I'm always going to love doing."