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This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s special Emmy stand-alone issue.
Michael Douglas, 68, is sitting in the backseat of a town car whisking him to Hotel du Cap on the French Riviera. He has just finished a Cannes Film Festival press conference where he and co-star Matt Damon were greeted with applause for their performances in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, the HBO film that charts the rocky five-year relationship between Liberace, the flamboyant pianist, and Scott Thorson, a young man he invited into his life then banished amid a whirlwind of sex, drugs and recrimination. For Douglas, an Oscar winner for 1987’s Wall Street, it’s his first starring role since he was diagnosed with and successfully treated for throat cancer in 2010. And he’s savoring the moment.
The Hollywood Reporter: When Steven Soderbergh first asked you — back in 2000 when you were filming Traffic — if you thought you could play Liberace, did the question seem totally off the wall?
Michael Douglas: Having had the experience of working with Oliver Stone, who would throw things at you for performance reasons, I had no idea where Steven was coming from. There was that moment of paranoia. I’m wondering: What is he saying? Am I mincing? Then I realized, as I should have, since Steven is such a lovely man, that he was serious. So I tried an imitation of Liberace, but then I forgot about it. I still don’t know what Steven’s thing about Liberace is; I have no idea.
THR: Were you finished with your cancer treatment when the project finally came together?
Douglas: I’d had my treatment. When [this project] came back to me, it was this beautiful gift. We were getting ready for the film, and all of a sudden Steven and Matt said they had other projects they were going to do. I was scared that this was drifting away. They never fessed up to it — and they did have other projects — but I also think they took a look at me and knew I wasn’t there yet, and they were absolutely right. I was just so happy to have gotten a clean checkup. But, still, strengthwise, weightwise, I was another year away. There was a moment of anxiety there, but then a year went by, and I was stronger and ready to do it.
THR: You actually had a very emotional moment at the press conference as you remembered it all.
Douglas: It totally kind of came over me. It was weird. But it was such an important moment for me. To have this come along when you’re wondering if you have a career — you’ve taken this big hiatus break and don’t know what repercussions cancer has for being hired. When you come out on the other side of that, you attack it with a vengeance, with a new appreciation. So I really worked hard on this part, getting the technical parts down. It gave me something to focus on, much more than in any other time in my life.
THR: Liberace had such an exaggerated way of speaking. Did you have to experiment a lot to decide how far to go with it in the film?
Douglas: Yeah. He camps it up more onstage, but yeah, I did. It’s hard listening to yourself, but I worked on it a lot. I found you couldn’t go too far, but there are levels. When he gets upset, he would drop it a little bit. But looking back at his TV show, which I remember watching as a kid, he was the first person to look into the camera. He had so much fun. It was so contagious. I think that’s why his gayness never entered the picture. People just enjoyed watching how much fun he was having.
THR: You and Matt really show a lot of skin. Did you find you had to drop any inhibitions?
Douglas: Yeah, as Matt says, we both read the script, and we knew, with Steven, this was not going to be about winking at the audience. It was not going to be La Cage aux Folles. This was a relationship between two people who loved each other a lot. I swear after a few minutes of watching it, I forget it’s Matt and myself, and then I literally forget it’s two guys. In their arguments in Richard LaGravenese‘s screenplay, you can hear a married couple having at it. We did have a lot of pages in the hot tub. But Steven is very tasteful, and we had a couple of sections choreographed so as not to embarrass anyone. We just got it on. Look, I so tip my hat to Matt. I know in my prime, I don’t know if I could have done what he does here.
THR: You and Matt also had to spend a lot of time in the makeup chair. Did that affect your working rhythms?
Douglas: I’m usually in and out of the chair as quickly as I can be. But we had days when we had six or seven hours in the chair. Fortunately, we all had a similar kind of rhythm. We are first-take guys if we can. If we have to, we do a couple more. But it wasn’t often when either of us asked for another one.
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