Birdman: Emma Stone and Amy Ryan

Emma Stone plays Sam, Riggan’s daughter, newly sprung from rehab and working as her father’s assistant. Their relationship is strained – his onetime fame as the super hero Birdman meant that he was absent for much of her youth.

Hiring her as his aide doesn’t do much to improve their situation. Sam has a keen eye and observes her father and the histrionics that come with his play with wry dispassion that is spot on but also a bit of a defense mechanism.

She says: “Because she is fresh out of rehab, I assume she needs to be watched by a family member. So she makes a huge mistake by working for him. It doesn’t help that he can’t connect with her at first and has her doing really menial errands. So it doesn’t begin well but by the end, she starts to see that they are very similar. Sam is one of the few characters in the movie who isn’t an actor, who isn’t in the play. That was kind of nice to play, she’s on the outside and witnesses all that is happening without being in the tornado on stage with all these crazy people,” Stone says.

And while this play has become Riggan’s single focus and his bid for artistic relevance, his daughter has a completely different and modern definition/measurement of what it is to matter.

“We find Riggan at a point of no return, in the midst of mounting a career comeback mostly driven by his desire to be relevant. My character Sam teaches him a lot about social media and the new nature of fame, which is something he is willfully ignorant of. The way actors are accessed now is very different than when Riggan was coming up as Birdman, 20 or 30 years prior. He wants to mean something but he also wants to be well-liked and respected as an artist but there is this sort of a modern day keeping up with the Joneses, this desire for mass appeal – and I think everyone can understand and relate to that,” Stone says.

Fortunately, she had a supportive guide in Iñárritu. “I learned so much. It was so exciting to live and breathe the character for the entire length of the scene. And Alejandro is so tuned in to actors, he knows what is going on your head line by line, sometimes better than you do. There was a day when I knew it just wasn’t working for me and suddenly I could feel it kick in and as I did, he clapped and said, ‘That’s IT!’ It’s amazing. I’ve never met a director who could do that, he feels what you do,” Stone says.

Amy Ryan plays Sylvia, Sam’s mother and Riggan’s ex-wife, who stops by the theater from time to time to check on them both. “Sylvia is the one sound, sane, grounding voice in their lives, I think. She provides the voice of reason and represents real love, whereas everyone else confuses adoration for love to measure their self-worth,” Ryan says.

Unlike many people who are in and have been in Riggan’s life, Sylvia is not an enabler, but, as Ryan points out, a cheerleader. And Riggan doesn’t make that an easy job. “I think the most daunting thing about being a cheerleader for someone is when they don’t hear you. Which is what happens between Riggan and Sylvia – he keeps getting in his own way and can’t see the truth or beauty that she sees. Even after their divorce, she tries to support him and it’s exhausting,” Ryan says.

Like the rest of the cast, Ryan had to get used to the very specific visual aesthetic. She literally had to get her bearings and was grateful that it was a team effort. “The extensive rehearsals helped. It was great to have everyone around and so rare to work on a film where you’re with the entire company. We were all in it together,” she says.

As Laura, one of the actors in Riggan’s play, Andrea Riseborough plays his lover. His apparent ambivalence triggers all sorts of reactions in Laura but unlike Riggan, she is actually pining for real, adult love as opposed to mere adulation. Riseborough got to know Laura intimately during the elaborate rehearsals Iñárritu staged, a process that continued throughout production. As important as the technical aspects of the cinematography were to performance, Iñárritu paid equal meticulous attention to the nuances of the characters and storylines.

“Alejandro has a temperature gauge for each moment; he made every single section real. One of the most fascinating things about working with him was that before we even started filming, during rehearsals, he made sure I felt a sense of who this person was. I felt I knew Laura innately. And during production, every day I discovered more about her through him. He unfolds a character for you by saying very little, which allows you to find the character too. Sometimes, that for me was an amazing and totally unique experience,” Riseborough says.