Empire (Australasia) - - Contents -

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.


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.

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