Wednesday 17 January 2018

The Michael Douglas effect

He's played criminals, ladies' men, and ne'er-do-wells. Now, at the age of 70, Michael Douglas is tackling the super-hero genre. Julia Molony finds out why

Family outing: Michael Douglas with his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones and their children Dylan and Cerys at the London premiere of Ant-Man. Photo: Luke McGregor.
Family outing: Michael Douglas with his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones and their children Dylan and Cerys at the London premiere of Ant-Man. Photo: Luke McGregor.

It's just two days after the death of his mother, Diana Dill, from cancer at the age of 92, but Michael Douglas is dressed, washed, smart-looking and ready for promotional duty in a central London hotel.

A lesser man might have called it off. But in Michael's case, he asks for just one small concession. Shortly before he makes his entrance, with smiles and courtesy, a publicist makes a polite request that the subject of his recent bereavement stay off the table "because he doesn't want to bring the tone down".

The subject on the table today is Ant-Man - the unlikeliest superhero in the Marvel universe (the one whose super-power is that he can shrink to the size of an ant) - which has now been given the big-budget, multiplex treatment. Alongside Douglas, it stars an appropriately unlikely superhero actor, Paul Rudd - a man whose career has been dominated by playing beta-males, mostly for laughs.

Like all the recent Marvel movies, the tone of this one is firmly tongue-in-cheek, so Douglas knows that levity is the order of the day. And he pulls it off perfectly, under patently difficult circumstances - cracking jokes and barely letting the strain show. There is a reason why he is Hollywood royalty. And it's not just because he was born into an acting dynasty. The man is a consummate professional - whether pulling off a scene or talking to the press.

Of course, he's had plenty of practice with both. "For a long time," he says, in a revealing anecdote, "I used to have stage fright as a young actor. Because somebody when I was very young, said 'you know the camera can always tell when you're lying.' So, the camera can always tell when I'm lying? Oh my God! I used to look at the camera like an X-ray machine, you know, and I used to act painfully - method acting. And then one day I realised, you know, I just told a white lie, and nothing happened."

It was then he had his epiphany. "Wait a minute . . . Acting is lying! You lie all the time. So for all the things I didn't understand - just lie. That's it. Just do it with authority."

Perhaps this fake-it-till-you-make-it approach is what's getting him through today, in the context of the current emotional upheaval. Though in this case he's talking, specifically, about how he approached the role as Dr Hank Pim, a madcap and brilliant scientist in Ant-Man who invents technology that allows human beings to shrink to the size of an ant. On how to make such an outlandish notion sound convincing, he says, "I've got some pretty big speeches there about a lot of stuff that I couldn't begin to tell you about. But if you do it with enough authority, they wouldn't dare question you."

With a career spanning almost half a century, and a clutch of iconic, era-defining films already behind him,, he's less a star these days than a living piece of Hollywood history. And yet, at 70, he's appearing in his very first big-budget, family-friendly, popcorn movie. What took him so long?

"When my agent called me and said we're sending over (the script) I said 'Yes! Finally!" he says. "I've been . . . a little hurt that nobody had asked me before." After all, "Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, two of my oldest friends" have done it." They appeared as The Joker and Penguin in the Batman franchise. "It's theatrical, it's larger than life and on a different tone . . . I was looking forward to a special-effects movie."

He was not, however a "comic-book kid" growing up. "So it was an eye opener. And you know we talk about comic books like they're superficial. But the reality was when reading the story of Hank Pim - brilliant scientist, incredible warrior, tremendously successful business man, losing his wife. I mean there was more character background than I'd had in any picture before. So I found that very enjoyable."

There was another bonus too, in that this is a film he can watch with his family. When he first received the script his son, Dylan "was 13 or 14 and he said 'you gotta do this.' He was like my agent. He said, 'you don't understand, Dad. There's a whole new audience out there for you. There's another audience out there who doesn't know who you are.'

"Most of my career is R-rated," he says, "so my son hasn't seen a lot of my movies. But he was gung-ho."

Both Dylan and his daughter Carys, he says "are here with Catherine for the premiere, so they're really excited about it."

His marriage to Catherine Zeta-Jones seems to be flourishing. The couple announced a split in 2013 but soon after called off their divorce and reconciled. They've faced various challenges: Zeta-Jones's struggles with bi-polar disorder, Douglas was diagnosed with stage VI oral cancer in 2010, and there's been upheaval within the family too - Douglas's son Cameron, from his previous marriage, is currently serving a jail term for drug-related offences. Yet despite all this, and the 25-year age-gap between them, they're holding firm and their little family unit remains intact.

What kind of father is he? "Pretty good," he says, after a short pause. "I have an older son who is 36, and I've had these children, Dylan and Carys later in my life when my career is already there. And so I've had more time for them. But saying that, I'm probably an old-fashioned kind of father. I'm their father, I'm not their friend. I'm happy we get along well, but I don't make an effort to be their buddy."

He's got plenty on his plate besides, at the moment. "I'm building a hotel on an island in Bermuda. I've just got this prize in Israel, [the Genesis prize, which honours individuals who inspire others through their engagement and dedication to the Jewish community] so I've got some work to do on interfaith marriage. And my work with the United Nations. And a pretty active production company - we have a lot of stuff going on."

Balance is, however, increasingly important to him. He'd like "to have some fun. Try to get some more golf in," he says. He recently turned down a film which would have meant going to Germany for September and October "at the beginning of the school year for the kids." He says overall he's "happy and excited," about what's ahead - "for somebody who is cancer-free," he says, "Who, five years ago, didn't know what laid ahead"

Striking a balance is hard. Especially since, in the last few years, he's enjoyed a bit of a late-career renaissance, due in large part to his critically-lauded starring role as Liberace opposite Matt Damon in the 2013 hit Behind the Candelabra.

So while he knows he's been lucky "to have this wonderful blessing of the Liberace project and this and to have your career and all of that to have a second lease on life," he's aware "at the same time, with your kids at 14 and 12, you know how quickly it goes. Two or three years, they're out of the house. So we cherish that time, and also for Catherine and her career - let her have the options."

In any case, his approach to making movies has drastically changed over the years, since he set up his production company, Furthur Films. As is fitting for a man of his vintage, he's evolved from leading man to movie mogul. "Because I'm a producer, I'm just always thinking about the movie. I care less about the role if it's a good picture. So that's really the issue. So "with my production company I'm actually looking more to television. . . After my experience of Behind the Candelabra, the story of Liberace, which was turned down by every studio, even with Matt Damon and Soderberg on board (eventually it was produced as a made-for-TV-movie) I've seen the writing on the wall," he says.

So short of getting these big Ant-Man or studio-type pictures - then "that is the area I'd like to focus on" he says. Though he''ll be leaving plenty of time in-between, no doubt, for a few rounds of golf.

Ant-Man is in cinemas this Friday.

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