THE EMPIRE INTERVIEW
MICHAEL DOUGLAS HAS BECOME THE ELDER STATESMAN OF HOLLYWOOD, WITH HALF A CENTURY OF MOVIES UNDER HIS BELT. BUT IT’S A CAREER THAT’S BEEN BUILT ON RISKY ROLES AND LEAPS OF FAITH. CHRIS HEWITT MEETS THE LEGENDARY STAR TO FIND OUT HOW HE’S KEPT HIS EDGE
Hollywood legend Michael Douglas talks us through his career — from The Streets Of San Francisco to the MCU.
MICHAEL DOUGLAS AND I are making post-interview small talk about the World Cup in a fairly crowded elevator when the dudebros make their move. A phone is produced, selfies are taken, pleasantries exchanged. The doors open on the fifth floor of the swanky LA hotel and Douglas makes his exit. The lift doors close. Then a young girl, who’s been standing silently at the back, pipes up. “Was that Kirk Douglas?”
No. It’s Kirk’s kid. It’s an easy mistake to make, though. They look incredibly alike. And ‘kid’ is something of a stretch. Michael Douglas is 73 years old (his dad, wonderfully, is still with us at 101), and having a blast in the fifth decade of a career that may have started out cloaked in his famous father’s shadow, but now rightly sees him afforded equal status. He is Hollywood royalty, par excellence, one of the most dependable movie stars around for just over 30 years.
He’s done so by taking risks, by pushing the envelope. This is the man who, when his acting career was stagnating in the ’70s, decided to produce his first movie, an adaptation of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and ended up winning a Best Picture Oscar for it. He’s continued to produce since, but acting remains his passion, his addiction. And though that took a while longer to coalesce, his choices have remained consistently engaging and surprising.
He’s played good guys, but he’s often been drawn to the darker side, exploring toxic masculinity and sexuality with disarming frankness in the likes of Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Falling Down, and Wall Street, for which he won another Oscar. This one for Best Actor.
These days, following a near-fatal brush with cancer a few years ago, you could forgive him for taking it easy and enjoying life with his wife, Catherine Zeta-jones, and their children. But he’s still taking chances, whether it’s playing Liberace in Behind The Candelabra, or this year’s doublewhammy of Ant-man And The Wasp
(a rare foray into genre movies), where he reprises the role of Quantum Realm explorer Hank Pym, and effervescent Chinese action movie Animal World, in which he shows up, sporting a goatee, to helpfully explain the plot. “I think speaking in a movie is becoming a lost art,” laughs Douglas in that silken voice of his. That “greed, for want of a better word, is good” voice.
It’s a voice which gets one heck of an outing during our 90-minute chat in the pool terrace of that LA hotel. Douglas is a talker. And there’s plenty to talk about.
How did you wind up making an action movie in China?
It’s wild, huh? They came to me relatively suddenly. It wasn’t a large part, and
I got just the sides. They didn’t even have a full translation of the whole script. I read it, and as I expressed an interest it all came together. I treated it as an exciting thing. I’ve made pictures in Morocco and South America and Mexico. I’ve worked with crews around the world. Movies bring us all together. I love it.
When you do a movie like Ant-man
And The Wasp or Animal World, is part of you looking at it with your producer hat on? To see how they do it at Marvel, or over in China?
I go into it with the joy of being a supporting actor, without having either the responsibility as the lead of the movie, or producing the movie, in a world I don’t know anything about. I am happy to contribute if I’m asked. I think I know a fair amount. I’ll throw my two cents’ worth in on structure.
Your first movie as producer was
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Not bad for a first try.
It was just a passion. I had read [the novel] and loved it. Meantime my father, before that, had acquired the rights and adapted it into a play in New York, which did not work out the way he had anticipated. He was having a very difficult time getting it made into a film. Everybody said, “Who wants to see another The Snake Pit [1948 Olivia de Havilland drama set in a mental asylum]?” It took me years to realise that The Snake Pit had been quite successful, thank you very much. This was around the time you were starring in The Streets Of San Francisco.
I had done a couple of movies. I started out in feature films and did a live CBS Playhouse [The Experiment] which came out very well. I was beginning to do episodic television. My father had been trying to sell Cuckoo’s Nest for a little while. I jumped up and said, “I love that book so much. Let me try to run with it and get you the money you’re looking for, and a producing credit. I know you’re trying to play the part.” He said, “Okay.” I’ll be eternally grateful to my father for that, particularly when I failed to get him the part. Which he reminds me of to this day at the drop of a hat.
Did you want him to audition?
No! [Laughs] But I do remind him that as
my silent producing partner he made more money off that movie than any picture he made in his entire life. It was a great piece of material. The lesson for me was that throughout your life you will not get a good piece of material that often.
It won five Oscars, including
Best Picture. How did that impact your career?
All of a sudden I had an office as a producer. As an actor I couldn’t get arrested in the movies. I was still a TV actor and in those days the separation of television and feature films was so big. I worked at making films like The China Syndrome, where there was a secondary part I could play.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is emblematic of a career in which you’ve often taken risky decisions.
I love the excitement of taking a risk.
It’s dangerous. It’s exciting. I like slam dances. To me, the biggest compliment I get is, “When I see your name, I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I know it’s going to be good.” I like the unpredictable quality. I think there’s a bit of larceny in all of us, as well as a bit of humanity. I like that struggle. I like that dilemma.
Gordon Gekko, and Wall Street, still seem incredibly timely. Greed is working for a lot of people. Gekko has been embraced by some as a role model over the years. Did you see that coming?
No! It was one of the better villains I’ve had in my career. The costume designer, Ellen Mirojnick, made the Gekko character a bit of a peacock. People loved the way he dressed. They loved the style, they loved money, what’s not to like? [Laughs] Though if I have one more drunken Wall Street guy say, “You’re the man, you’re the reason I got into this.” I say, “He went to jail, pal!” “It doesn’t matter!” It’s a little scary.
Is it easier for you to get your teeth into someone like Gekko?
It’s easier when it’s good writing. Gekko is beautifully written. It was a great part, man. When the part’s there on the page, it’s all the difference in the world. On Gekko, because it was so verbal, Oliver [Stone, director] really pushed me.
What did he do?
After the first couple of weeks, he came into my trailer and said, “How ya doing?” I said, “Okay.” He said, “You doing drugs?” I said, “No, I’m not doing drugs.” He said, “Because you look like you never acted before in your life.” I never go and look at rushes, because all I see is the bad stuff, but I went into the editing room to look at the seduction scene in the back of the limousine with Charlie Sheen, and the scene at [New York nightclub] 21. So I look and I look and I go back to Oliver and I say, “I thought it was pretty good.” He said, “Yeah it is, isn’t it?’” [Smiles] He wanted a little more of an edge from me. He was not afraid, for the rest of the movie, for me to be pissed off at him.
How do you decide which projects to take? Which risks to pursue?
If I read something and I’m emotionally moved. If I’m laughing, or scared… and this is where the producing part comes in, because I’m looking at it as a movie. I’m not looking at my part. Then you break it down and sometimes you’ve got the great part. Sometimes Sharon Stone’s got the great part and you’re carrying the plotline in Basic Instinct. And then of course, who are the people involved? When they send you a Richard Lagravenese script for Behind The Candelabra with Steven Soderbergh directing, and a pretty impressive co-star with Matt Damon, and Jerry Weintraub as your producer, this is gravy, man. It doesn’t get better than this.
That one was definitely a risk…
I had just come out of remission from my cancer. It was a time when I thought I was never going to work again. This project came to me and I was so excited. Then I went to meet Steven, and he said, “I’ve got another project I’ve got to do. I’m going to postpone this for a year.” Then Matt said, “I got a problem too, schedule-wise.” I was sure it was never going to happen. In reality, I was just so excited I was alive. They took a look at me and I was in no position physically. I was still way under weight. Liberace was a big guy.
Your voice, I presume, wasn’t…
My voice was not there. Rather than putting it on me, they took the hit. I got a year to prepare, a year more practising the piano, a year more to kill it.
Are you feeling good these days? Yeah, thank you. I go in every six months for check-ups. Both head and neck check-ups.
Was there a point when you thought you might not make it this far?
Oh yeah. I was stage four. During the time when I had the cancer, Nick Ashford, of the group Ashford & Simpson, who was a friend of mine, he died. He had the same cancer I did. And Larry Hagman, from Dallas. So there were people I lost, and stage four is not good, man. It went misdiagnosed for almost a year. I brought it to the attention of my doctor and we went through a couple of ear, nose and throat guys, and they didn’t get it.
They didn’t find it.
When you recovered, you didn’t think about retiring? You once said that your father attacks life. And I get the sense you’re the same. That you have to have things to attack, things to achieve.
I like to be enthused. I like to be excited and motivated about stuff. If it’s not this, it would be golf. I attack golf, too. I want to get better at my golf. I just feel so blessed. I love making movies and the fact you can still be doing ’em in your seventies and eighties, and they still have parts for you. My big motto right now is, “No dickheads.” I don’t work with dickheads.
When you were starting out, was there a reluctance for people to take you seriously because you were Kirk Douglas’ son? There was definitely an element. First of all, I probably had a lot of my father’s expressions. You would hear that a lot early on. “That’s just like your dad.” This is the worst business to hear that in.
I was relatively dismissed as an actor. There were many pictures where I was not approved. I produced a show called Starman, which starred Jeff Bridges. He got nominated for an Oscar. That’s a picture I would love to have played in, but I wasn’t approved. Even though I was producing it. On Romancing The Stone, we went through a whole line of other actors who turned it down. It was really based on if they could get the woman they wanted before I played the part. It was the double whammy with Fatal, which was a huge hit, and then the Oscar for Wall Street when finally I got out of the shadows. No longer the sensitive young man.
Even on Fatal Attraction, there were battles. Brian De Palma, the original director, didn’t want you.
Yeah. I will be forever grateful to Sherry Lansing and Stanley Jaffe, our producers. After working on the picture for a while, the only director they could find was Brian. Who immediately said, “I’ll only do it without Michael.” [Adrian Lyne eventually directed it.]
Did you ever ask him why?
I did. Years and years later, at some screening. At a party afterwards he came up to me and blurted something. I said, “Brian, this really is not the appropriate time. Too late. It’s too late.” A trait I inherited from my father was anger. Anger is a false sense of energy. Anger can carry you, it can be very useful, but eventually it becomes debilitating. I think I used anger a lot, earlier in my career, to keep me going. I’m happy to say that it’s something now that I look back at in the past and can smile at.
Basic Instinct was another risk for you. At the time, it was a notorious movie. Remember what the times were like.
I was looking for trouble.
You found it.
Yeah, we did! In Paul Verhoeven,
I found the right guy, man. We knew what we were getting into, kinda. He just couldn’t cast the picture. He was Dutch and would interview the actresses: “Ja, there vill be nudity, a lotta nudity!” The girls were like, “Jesus!”
God bless him. I was away when he found Sharon. He did a test screening with her and she was magnificent. Absolutely magnificent.
There was some controversy that Sharon was fully nude, while you weren’t. Did you think about going the full Monty?
Sharon was never fully… well, the skirt thing. She wasn’t fully nude. I was fully nude in a scene with her partner, her girlfriend. I got accused of a saggy ass.
It’s always the bad reviews that stay with you.
We were full out there, man. That so-called Fuck Of The Century scene, that went on for seven days.
These days, are you still looking for trouble?
No. Well, politically, I’ll maybe see what’s going to go on here. Producing-wise, I’m reverting back to the beginning. We’ll just have one-offs. I’m so passionate, but I’m not going to be developing multiple things. Acting, right now I’m in Sequel City, and I’m quite happy with that.
We’ll see what happens.
Finally, I have to ask about the time you, Kathleen Turner and Danny Devito showed up in the video for Billy Ocean’s ‘When The Going Gets Tough’. Was that the biggest risk of your career?
[Laughs] Oh, you’ve been doing your homework. Yeah, we loved that. Danny [Devito] said, “Get me that bass saxophone that’s as big as I am. I’m going to play it.”[laughs] When the going gets tough…
The tough get going? The tough get going.
ANT-MAN AND THE WASP IS IN CINEMAS NOW
Clockwise from top: Making a return as Dr Hank Pym in Ant-man And The Wasp; Playing Liberace in 2013’s Behind The Candelabra; As the kingpin of a sinister organisation in Animal World; Picking up Oscars for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in fellow March producer 1976, with Saul Zaentz and stars Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher.
From top: As Detective Nick Curran in Basic Instinct’s infamous interrogation scene; Crunching numbers as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street; Dan Gallagher (Douglas) fights off Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction; As Jack Colton in Romancing The Stone alongside Kathleen Turner’s Joan Wilder.