When he was 3 or 4 years old, Michael Douglas, as he was then known, liked playing cowboy. The youngest of seven siblings, he would amble into his family’s Pittsburgh garden with his guns and hat and chaps, and get himself into an epic gunfight. His brothers and sisters would sneak up to the windows to watch. “He would act out both roles–the hero and the bad guy–all of the dialogue,” says his oldest brother, Robert. The young cowboy even had an alias: he asked to be called Richard McCunion, and his family obliged. Later he would find fame under a third name, Michael Keaton.
Now Keaton has a new good-guy, bad-guy in his sights: Ray Kroc, the subject of his latest film, The Founder. Kroc is widely (and erroneously) believed to be the person who started McDonald’s. But in fact, the first McDonald’s was opened by two small-time California hamburger disrupters, brothers Mac and Dick McDonald, who figured out how to make good food more efficiently. No plates, a nifty burger-assembly system, lots of quality assurance.
Kroc ran across them in 1954, when he was a 50-something traveling milkshake-machine salesman trailing a string of failed businesses like cement balloons. After the first McDonald’s ordered a half-dozen of his otherwise unpopular devices, Kroc persuaded the brothers to be his partners in a franchise. (He told them they should do it “for America.”) But when they proved unwilling to embrace his cost-shaving shortcuts, he destroyed them, using the platform that has propelled so many unlikely characters to power: real estate. Keaton is quick to point out that the movie is not really a biopic about Kroc. It’s a biopic about the U.S. and its economy. “Kroc’s representative of a time and of America and of the free-enterprise system and of capitalism,” he says. “McDonald’s changed how we live.”
Something happened to Keaton during the shooting of The Founder that he’d never experienced. During the scene when Kroc goes to McDonald’s for the first time and is given a wrapped burger at a window–no silverware, nowhere to sit–the actor mind-melded with his character. “As I’m in the scene, I got it as Michael. I got what it was. I thought, Holy moly, this had never happened before.”
There’s a reason that Keaton, 65, has played a lot of salesmen and journalists; he has a certain intensity. “I hadn’t really worked with anybody before who, when he locks on to the laser-beam thread of a scene, it’s like lightning bolts are shooting out of his face,” says Nick Offerman, who plays Dick McDonald. “Our most intense scene together was the first thing we shot. Within half an hour of meeting, we’re staring at each other. The whole time I’m thinking, Jesus God, that’s Michael Keaton and he’s staring right at me.”
Keaton’s kinetic energy–the motormouth, the gyrating eyebrows and the orchestra of emotions playing behind his eyes–which made him such a wild comic force in movies like 1983’s Mr. Mom (Offerman’s favorite) and 1988’s Beetlejuice, has recently catapulted him into a late-career renaissance. He had key roles in the past two films to win the Oscar for Best Picture, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Spotlight, playing older men kicking back at earlier failure. The Weinstein Co., the studio behind The Founder, is hoping for a Keaton threepeat. The movie’s release date was moved from August to Dec. 16 for a limited Oscar-qualifying run before a wide release in January.
The change may be rewarded, as what makes the film particularly timely is that it portrays the all-American “little guys” being gobbled up by an (also all-American) entrepreneur who sharply divides the audience’s loyalty. In the first half, it’s easy to root for the maverick trying to buck the establishment. But when Kroc figures out how to wrest control from the McDonald brothers, it’s no longer fun to be on his side. “It’s Death of a Salesman with a very different last act,” says The Founder’s director, John Lee Hancock, who has made a string of movies about the divisions in America, including The Alamo and The Blind Side. “Willy Loman takes over the world.”
For Keaton, it was important to present Kroc’s dark side. “The thing I’ve never wanted to do, since I started doing what I do for a living, is beg to be loved,” he says. “A, I’m not interested, because it gets boring, and B, It shows no courage. And the thing I admire in actors most is courage.” He cites Joaquin Phoenix, Daniel Day-Lewis and Ralph Fiennes as exemplars. Hancock says Kroc is the role Keaton was made for: “It was as if this were written for Michael. They have some of the same traits. Michael’s a very hard worker, always has a forward lean to him, he’s going after something all the time.”
The director who gave Keaton his first break when he cast him in 1982’s Night Shift, Ron Howard, gets the resemblance. “He could relate to a guy who says, I’m going to make hamburgers better than anybody and make more money at it than anybody ever has,” says Howard. “He can understand somebody who puts the blinders on and says, Nothing else matters, just this. He has that fire.”
In the movie’s telling, what eventually splits the McDonald brothers and Kroc is what brought them together: the milkshake. In a scene that hints at the widespread abandonment of real food for cheaper filler in American diets, Kroc wants to replace ice cream and milk with a more economical powdered concoction. The McDonalds won’t do it, and subsequently lose everything they created. It’s the great struggle of business: quality vs. price. And it’s one of the great struggles of art: authenticity vs. iteration.
In that latter struggle at least, Keaton is on the side of real milk in his shake. Just as the McDonald brothers reinvented the burger only to have it homogenized, Keaton is partially responsible for another global franchise: the superhero movie. Such films existed before 1989’s Batman, but they always had a protagonist who was all super and hardly human, so square-jawed and uncomplicated that it was hard for anybody over the age of 12 to find him compelling. Then director Tim Burton took on the genre and appointed his Beetlejuice star as the caped crusader.
Any skepticism about the wisdom of this casting changed as soon as viewers met the new Bruce Wayne: a Gotham City playboy billionaire, with–and this may sound familiar–an eponymous company, a signature plane and mysterious motives to fix what the system won’t. In Keaton’s hands, Batman was conflicted about what he did, and violent. “Michael’s not deciding if his characters are a good guy or a bad guy,” says Laura Dern, who plays Kroc’s first wife, who is quickly abandoned when the golden arches turn into actual gold. “I think that’s why his Batman is so memorable. We’re watching a superhero and we’re not sure if this is the best guy to trust.”
Burton’s Batman whetted a cultural appetite for superhero movies that Hollywood has been catering to ever since. Yet after two lucrative laps in the Batmobile, Keaton declined to strap in for another. It wasn’t that he was sick of the suit–the Bruce Wayne character interested him more anyway, he says–it’s just that he thought the idea had been diluted.
Plenty of movies came Keaton’s way in the late ’90s and early aughts. Many of them, including 1994’s The Paper and 2010’s The Other Guys were hits, but few found a way to harness the mercurial spark that Keaton brings to cutups and heroes and regular working guys. He moved out of the limelight. In 2013, Keaton’s thriller Penthouse North did not even get a U.S. theatrical release. “It would have been harder to cast Michael in this role five years ago,” says Hancock. “That has nothing to do with Michael and his talent. It’s the crazy way we gauge whether someone is a movie star.”
It may seem fitting that Birdman was the movie that changed everything, since it’s the story of an actor, Riggan, who is haunted by his past role as a superhero. In one darkly comic scene, Keaton’s character has to trudge through a crowded Times Square in his underpants, which is a pretty good metaphor for faded fame. “That’s about as vulnerable as you get,” says the actor. Yet Keaton hardly identifies with Riggan. He doesn’t feel haunted by Batman and has agreed to be the villain in a Spider-Man sequel. He claims that he hasn’t watched any of the Batman movies all the way through, though he caught parts of Christopher Nolan’s versions. (Birdman, on the other hand, he says he could watch again and again.)
In this way, Keaton is very unlike Kroc, who listens to motivational speeches every morning to keep him going. The actor barely acknowledges that he had a career slump. Showbiz is just one of the many things that interest him. He has a ranch in Montana. He dabbled in rodeos. He has gotten pretty good at fly-fishing. He’s a sports nut. He has hunting dogs and likes guns (and gun control). Keaton says that if he weren’t an actor, he would have been a landscape designer. (He laid out the garden at his California home that abuts the local golf course.) He invests in real estate.
“I’m probably, possibly, almost annoyingly or pathologically curious,” he says. “I don’t know any other way. I once tried to just see what it was like to not be a curious person. It’s kind of impossible.” He has so many questions that trying to follow his thoughts is like trying to follow a bag of spilled marbles. Here he is talking about where his sense of humor comes from: “So my mom’s–but my dad’s side were just–I don’t say humorless, but I wouldn’t throw–I don’t think the word mirth applied. And my dad’s a handsome dude, and his dad–and a great dresser, and he was a country boy.”
Keaton’s own family is small. He was married just once, in the 1980s, to a TV actor six years older. The union produced a son, Sean Douglas, now a singer-songwriter, who co-wrote the Jason Derulo hit “Talk Dirty,” which features the classic line “Our conversations ain’t long, but you know what is.” Keaton beams when he talks about him. “What Sean writes is mostly pop. It’s not Bach, it isn’t jazz, it isn’t Miles Davis. But it’s really fun and really good.” Keaton turned down roles, he says, because it was more fun to hang out with Sean. He grew more interested in The Founder when Hancock begged off a couple of meeting times because the director wanted to be around for his kids’ sports games.
There’s a video on the Internet of Keaton competing in a cutting competition, in which a horse and a rider have to separate a calf from the herd. The calf lunges one way and another to try to rejoin the group, but Keaton’s horse, Smart Royalena, cuts it off. The horse mirrors each of the calf’s moves until the calf gives up. Keaton isn’t even holding the reins. He’s just letting the horse do its thing.
If there’s a theme that runs through Keaton’s work and life, it’s instinct. It informs the way he likes to work: figuring out the key points of a scene and then seeing where he can go with it. It’s the reason he loves hunting and says he would love to switch places with his hunting dogs: “They’re pure, pure, pure, pure gut instinct. Tuned in. Coming out of the place that ‘This is what’s in me to do.’ We never get that. Ever.” Occasionally, “one time in 500,000,” he feels it while acting, when he has truly locked into a role. If he happens to catch that performance on TV, “it’s like watching another person.”
The only way a person can really become somebody else–at least somebody more complicated than a superhero–is to suspend judgment, to decline to choose whether that person is a good guy or a bad one. So it makes sense that, just as when he was 3 years old, Keaton wants to play both sides.
This appears in the December 12, 2016 issue of TIME.