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Awards: 1976 Academy Award for Best Picture, shared with Saul Zaentz for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”; 1988 Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in “Wall Street” Current credit: As Charlie, the bipolar father to Evan Rachel Wood’s Miranda, who decides that a hidden cache of gold is buried under a Costco in First Look Studios’ “King of California” Memberships: Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild of America; Academy Member Since: 1974
The Hollywood Reporter: “King of California” was made for roughly the equivalent of what you earned for 2000’s “Traffic.” So what was that like, working on an small-budget indie, for you?
Michael Douglas: I’m originally out of television. I did “(The) Streets of San Francisco” (1972-77), so we were on location six days a week. You basically shot a 52-minute movie in seven days. So I have that background, and in a lot of ways a tighter budget, a tighter schedule, frees you up because you have to go back to trusting your instincts.
Having said that, as a producer and when I’m acting I always take a few days with the director before we shoot and walk through the picture together so that we’re all on the same path. On a schedule like this — or even most pictures — a director has so much to do there’s not a lot of time for discussion; so I try to get all of that resolved beforehand, try and figure out what the highs and lows are and what the pace is going to be and then it takes on a life of its own.
THR: How calculating are you in terms of selecting projects?
Douglas: Not too much. It’s all emotional for me — it’s reading initially and being moved. Then I analyze the structure and see if I can close my eyes and picture the movie, make sure I wasn’t seduced by the written words. And then I’m pretty clinical about it. I’m getting more savvy in my old age about who I’m working with; I certainly understand more and more (that actors and directors) working together again and again saves so much small talk. I do my homework about the people involved; I don’t like conflict.
THR: You have a facility for both comedy and drama. At heart, which do you prefer?
Douglas: Drama is always easiest — that’s why we cherish our friends who are funny. I never understood why our comedians are not acknowledged — especially at Oscar time. I love the opportunity when I can do these tragicomedies or mixed films. I love pictures like that in general that are unpredictable — “War of the Roses” (1989), “Romancing the Stone” (1984) kinds of action thrillers that have some humor, and I’m proud of the fact that you can go from one genre to the other, but it’s not one that comes naturally to me.
THR: Humor, that is?
Douglas: Comedy. Yeah. I’m not a naturally funny guy. (Laughs) A few of my friends would disagree with me on that.
THR: From whom do you take advice on your career?
Douglas: It’s not that I don’t seek it, but I’ve never been that lucky guy to be a fly on the wall, to hear the other perspective. Because I got into producing earlier in my career, I think a lot of people assumed I had all the answers. I think my father’s given the most free advice, but I wish I’d had more of a mentor. Karl Malden (Douglas’ co-star on “Streets”) was certainly a mentor. This phenomenon of actors having managers now is a big change. I would imagine most actors are benefited by having a manager who gives them advice.
THR: How would your perception of this business — or your role in it — be different if your father hadn’t been a famous actor?
Douglas: I don’t know that I would have been an actor. My mother’s an actress, too. I think, regardless of a career, if you have a successful parent or parents, you tend to be a late bloomer. It tends to take you a little longer to find out (what you’re good at). So saying that, I’m a product of the ’60s. I wasn’t thinking about my career too much back then, it was only when I was a junior in college and (my guidance counselor said), “You have to declare a major”; so I said, “I don’t know, man, okay, I’ll take drama.” I figured I’d know something because my mother was an actress, my dad was an actor.
THR: So, you weren’t bitten by the “acting bug” early in life?
Douglas: I had no burning desire. I just reluctantly started performing and had terrible stage fright. So if my father hadn’t been an actor, I don’t know whether I would have ever pursued that. The fact that he is, I think it’s made it much easier for me as an actor to conduct my life and understand the insecurities, the foibles. Growing up with my father and other movie stars — socializing — you had a much better understanding of the reality of the business rather than the fantasy.
THR: What was it like for you to win your first Oscar as a producer on 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”?
Douglas: The Oscar was for the first movie I ever produced. I remember turning to Milos Forman, saying, “It’s all downhill from here.” (Laughs) It was a pretty important moment because, being second-generation, and having my acting peers acknowledge me with every reason not to, with the assumptions of being second-generation, I really appreciate that they did.
Interview conducted by Randee Dawn
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