Friday, 31 July 2015

Michael the Marvel

From heart-throb to ruthless villain and playing Liberace, at 70 years old, Michael Douglas tells Susan Griffin why he is now embracing fatherhood and comic-book heroes

Written by Susan Griffin
MichaelDouglas-Jul24-03-176Douglas in new film, Ant-man Michael Douglas has worked in the industry for more than 40 years, but it was his 14-yearold son Dylan who advised him to accept his latest role. ‘He was like my agent. He said, “You don’t understand, Dad, there’s a whole audience out there who doesn’t know who you are”,’ says the 70-year-old and two-time Oscar-winner, laughing.

Douglas is referring to Ant-Man, the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which he plays Dr Hank Pym, the inventor of a substance that enables people to shrink in scale but possess super-human strength. Realising its potential to be exploited by baddies, he hides the technology, until circumstances call for it to be unearthed, and Hank finds an unlikely protégé in ex-con Scott Lang, played by This Is 40’s Paul Rudd.

Douglas candidly admits he had to Google the 46-year-old actor, whose CV almost entirely features comedy movies. ‘But Marvel has the same casting woman for all of their pictures [which includes the Avengers franchise] and they make some interesting choices. Now I see what they were trying to do, and Paul’s the perfect choice.’

Michael Douglas might seem an unexpected addition to the Marvel family, too. While some have suggested the change in direction is to do with a new outlook on life following his cancer diagnosis in 2010, the actor insists, ‘It’s nothing to do with my health, I’m fine. It’s just about trying a different role. I’ve never done a special- effects movie before.’

In fact, he was beginning to doubt whether he’d ever be asked. ‘Danny DeVito and Jack Nicholson are old friends of mine, and I got jealous of their experiences playing the Penguin and Joker [in the Batman movies], so I was very happy when they asked me.’

A coffee arrives, and Douglas, looking a little gaunt in a cream suit and pale-green shirt, jokes that he needs the caffeine to stay awake following a flight from Los Angeles. It’s also mere days since his mother, the actress Diana Douglas, passed away on 3 July, aged 92.

It’ll be a little while before he can really catch up on sleep, though; he’s in the middle of a busy promotional trail, and the day after our interview, appears at the movie’s London prethe miere, with Dylan, his daughter Carys, 12, and their mother Catherine Zeta- Jones, 45.

She and Douglas married in 2000, and appear back on track following what the actor (who also has a 36-yearold son Cameron, from a previous marriage) has previously described as ‘a little bump in the road’.

The red-carpet experience has changed dramatically over the years, he notes. Where once the fans queued for hours to get an autograph, now they want to take ‘selfies’ with the stars. ‘Well, you know, it’s faster than an autograph,’ remarks Douglas, who considers himself ‘a dinosaur’ as far as social media’s concerned.

‘I can’t keep up with it, I’m just able to do my little one-finger texting,’ he admits. ‘But it’s everywhere. My heart goes out to younger kids in the business. It’s very difficult to have any privacy, or to make a mistake and not have it exposed everywhere.’

Asked whether he ever misses his anonymity, he replies: ‘I think that was one of the benefits of being secondgeneration and watching my dad [Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas, who’s now 98], but it’s getting harder and harder to lay low.

‘Nowadays, you think you’ve found somewhere that’s private, and you look up and realise somebody is there, and of course everyone’s got video, they download it, and the next thing you know, you’re still on the beach and there are headlines.’

Born in New Jersey, Douglas attended Choate Rosemary Hall, an elite private school, and spent his summers with his father on movie sets. After studying drama at the University of California, he moved to New York to continue his training, eventually landing his first big break in the 1969 TV drama The Experiment.

Over the next few years, he appeared in off-Broadway productions and on screen, primarily on TV, with an Emmy-winning performance as the sidekick in police series The Streets Of San Francisco, which ran from 1972 to 1976.

During the annual breaks in the series’ shooting schedule, Douglas devoted most of his time to developing his film production company. He produced 1975’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest starring Jack Nicholson, followed by 1979’s The China Syndrome, where he worked with Jack Lemmon.

Douglas recalls he had one favour to ask of the legendary star. ‘I admired his acting, but he had to play a Navy Commander so had to get rid of that wonderful, nervous gesture,’ he says, mimicking the tic.

‘And then Jack teased me, saying, “The one thing with Michael as a producer is, he hits you with a thousand powder puffs. He says it nicely but a thousand times”.’

MichaelDouglas-Jul24-02-590Michael and wife Catherine Zeta-Jones with their children, Dylan and Carys

As a producer, the projects came thick and fast, but at the time, Douglas was finding it ‘very difficult’ to get steady work as an actor. He uses 1984’s Starman, which he produced, as an example. ‘Jeff Bridges was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor, and the reason I wasn’t in the movie was because I was not an approved actor by the studio. I’d only done a television series before, and back then it was very separate from film and very hard to make the transition.’

He did, of course, eventually make a very successful transition, and produced and starred in romantic adventure Romancing The Stone, alongside Kathleen Turner. The movie’s success proved a turning point for Douglas, and career-defining roles in 1987’s Fatal Attraction and Wall Street soon followed. The latter performance, as ruthless corporate raider Gordon Gekko, earned him the Academy Award for Best Actor.

‘Villainy brings tremendous success to careers,’ Douglas muses. ‘When you look at the Oscars, it’s pretty much every year [that somebody playing a villain wins], except for people [playing a character] with some kind of health issue. My father’s career; he did six or seven pictures as the sensitive young man before he did Champion and he got an Oscar nomination. I think I learned the same thing.’

In the ensuing years, Douglas appeared in the likes of Basic Instinct, Falling Down and Traffic, while behind the scenes, worked on Flatliners, Face/Off and The Rainmaker.

In 2013, he returned to his roots with the TV movie Behind The Candelabra, based on the life of Liberace and his partner Scott Thorson, played by Matt Damon. It went on to achieve wide critical acclaim, an experience Douglas says was an ‘eye opener’, given the project was turned down by every film studio.

‘I’ve made some little independent pictures, like King Of California and Solitary Man, pictures I really like but no one’s seen, and it became a little depressing. This showed me you can still get an audience,’ says Douglas, who says he approaches every role by looking at the bigger picture.

‘I’m not as concerned with my role as much as I am with the movie,’ he notes. ‘I would rather have a smaller role in a good movie, than star in a bad one.’

Ant-Man is on general release.

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