Acclaimed actor Michael Douglas focusing on his family since recovering from tongue cancer

Actor Michael Douglas, who stars in And So It Goes (above), on his life after he has been given the all-clear from tongue cancer. -- PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION
Actor Michael Douglas, who stars in And So It Goes (above), on his life after he has been given the all-clear from tongue cancer. -- PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATIONPHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

Michael Douglas could have retired a long time ago.

When the actor won a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute in 2009, he had already enjoyed a distinguished career for more than two decades - first as a successful television actor on the police drama The Streets Of San Francisco (1972 to 1976), then as one of Hollywood's most sought-after film stars, appearing in zeitgeisty films such as Wall Street (1987), a tale of financial greed that won him the Best Actor Oscar, and the sexual thriller Fatal Attraction (1987).

But instead, he kept making bold moves late into his career, going completely against type to play what many felt was the role of a lifetime as the gay pianist Liberace in director Steven Soderbergh's Behind The Candelabra (2013), an arthouse favourite that earned him a Best Actor Emmy.

At 69, he will now appear in another atypical love story, And So It Goes, a romantic comedy about 60somethings.

Opening in Singapore next week, the movie sees Douglas as a curmudgeonly estate agent who falls in love with his neighbour, played by Annie Hall (1977) actress Diane Keaton, 68.

Speaking to Life! and other reporters in Los Angeles last month, the affable actor says he never expected to still be working this much. "I didn't anticipate it. You hear all these stories as you get older, but I'm working more than I ever have."

Douglas - who also won an Oscar as a producer on the 1975 Best Picture winner One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - says it is even more astonishing given his battle with Stage VI tongue cancer, which he was diagnosed with in 2010.

Doctors have since given him the all-clear, but at one point, he thought it would be the end of him professionally too - and was advised to say it was a less severe-sounding cancer of the throat in a bid to protect his career.

"For me, surgery would've been the end - they'd take out the jaw and all," says the actor.

The experience has given him an extra jolt of motivation. "I really feel good. When you go through that whole bout and you come out on the other side and get a clean bill of health, there's this energy - you kind of make up for lost time. I don't know what it is, but psychologically or physically, there's this tremendous energy."

While he was still recovering, some great opportunities came his way, notably the chance to play Liberace.

"It was a gift from God, I was so grateful. It was this beautifully written piece," he says of the film, a nuanced portrayal of the life and loves of the closeted performer, including his secret affair with a much younger man, played by Matt Damon.

Douglas and Damon stuck with the project even as film studios refused to finance it, telling Soderbergh that it was "too gay".

The film was eventually aired on the HBO pay-cable network in the United States where, Douglas proudly points out, "we won every award there was to have", including 11 Emmys, among them Best Actor and Best Miniseries or TV Movie.

"So f*** 'em,'' he says amiably.

He is just as plain-speaking when it comes to discussions of his craft and technique, which the acclaimed actor and four-time Golden Globe winner downplays.

"Somebody said to me earlier in my career, 'You know, the camera can tell when you're lying.' So I would rip the skin off my face trying to find the honesty, terrified that I wasn't being truthful," says Douglas, who has shown his range in everything from thrillers such as The Game (1997) to comedies such as Wonder Boys (2000).

"Then one day I said, 'Wait a minute: People lie. I lie every day. And they don't know. Acting is just telling a good lie. And what it did was it took all this technique stuff off my back... I mean, I try to be as believable as I can but I just lie."

When it comes to real honesty, nothing could beat the professional assessment of his own father, the Hollywood legend and Spartacus (1960) star Kirk Douglas, 97. "He saw me perform in the very beginning and said, 'Michael, you're terrible, you're really bad,'" he remembers with a smile. "But he was the first one, by the fifth or sixth play I did, to go, 'You were really good.'"

Even though his father's longevity gives him hope for his own, he admits that at his age, "you can't help but check the obituaries".

"I'm much more conscious of how I choose to spend my time."

Many of those choices involve his wife, Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, 44, and their daughter Carys, 11, and son Dylan, 13. Douglas also has a 35-year-old son, Cameron, with his first wife, Diandra Luker.

He tells Life! he has a rather different approach to family and relationships now that he is older. "I'm not worried about what people think of me. A lot of people make a big effort with strangers, to give a good impression of themselves. And they take for granted the person closest to them, whether it is their wife or whoever.

"And that's completely changed. So my focus now is on my family and making the most effort I can for the people closest to me and not caring or worrying about strangers," he says, a clear reference to Zeta-Jones, with whom he appears to have reconciled since their decision to separate last year, with the actor announcing in May this year that everything was "going great".

He says Zeta-Jones' effect on his life has been nothing short of transformative. "I was just bedazzled by Catherine. And she turned out to be just an extraordinary partner. And just something to protect and cherish and nurture. And not take for granted."

As a happily married man, Douglas is therefore nothing like the child-hating misanthrope he plays in And So It Goes, which was directed by Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally, 1989) and penned by the same screenwriter behind the Oscar- winning As Good As It Gets (1997).

"I love kids. I'm in this rare position, thankfully, because of my young wife - I don't know anybody else my age who's got a 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter," he says with pride.

Asked whether he believes it is possible for people in their 60s to find love, as the new movie suggests, he cracks a joke: "Well, I hope I'm not going to have to find out", before nodding emphatically and saying that love knows no age limits.

"We physically change and everything drops. But inside your soul, your spirit is as young as you want to be. Or as dead."

stlife@sph.com.sg

And So It Goes opens in Singapore on July 30.

Register here to get free digital access to The Straits Times until Aug 9, 2015.
Comments