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Breaking the Mold

Actor and producer Michael Douglas defies leading-man expectations with bold creative choices.
Alysse Minkoff
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

(continued from page 1)

"Unlike your average profession, acting usually comes in concentrated doses. When you're an actor, it's anywhere from two and a half to five months of intense work and then it's done. That's the hardest part of film acting. There is no audience response, so you really don't get any immediate satisfaction," says Douglas. "What I really love is the feeling of nailing something. You nail the scene. Most of the time you don't shoot movies in continuity, you only do things in parts, so nailing a scene is really a rewarding sensation."

Douglas feels that his most important work is done prior to stepping in front of the camera. "I do most of my preparation before the filming process starts. Your principal choices are done beforehand and then if you feel like you've nailed it, and you have adequate time, then you get to try something else. One of the biggest lessons I have learned as an actor is that it's all just celluloid, it's all disposable. They only use a little bit and you try to remind yourself of that so that you can take chances and burn film if you've got to. Make a fool of yourself. Do something that's not right. And that's the biggest risk and opportunity."

Douglas tries to find different ways into the psyches of the various characters he has created. "For The American President I watched documentary footage, different presidents' speeches, newsreel footage. For Wall Street I met a few of the big players and watched their behavior. With some characters you just say, well, I can be me. But one of the greatest things about being an outright villain, which I play in my new film, A Perfect Murder, is that it entitles you to do anything, just anything. So that, in itself, is a great freedom. There are no social boundaries; you just get to lay it out there. So in truth, you don't have to research that much. You just get to play around in your dark side without ever having to be responsible for it."

He considers that for a moment. "I think many actors have had bigger successes playing bad guys. Looking back at my father with The Champion or Paul Newman with Cool Hand Luke. Villains are a lot of fun because there is no ambivalence about them whatsoever. Sometimes it's just a whole lot of fun to be bad."

In 1996, Kirk Douglas suffered a debilitating stroke after being injured in a helicopter crash. An already close father/son bond was further strengthened by this adversity, and Michael speaks with obvious pride about the latest lessons that he is learning from his father's evolution.

"I find it really inspirational that at this point in his life he continues to grow. He's somebody who doesn't look to retirement," Michael says. "For him retirement would be dying, and he has a need to continue to grow and to live his life. I'm just so proud of him. Some people just kind of switch it off as they get older, and he has almost an obsession with keeping alive by being active. He's a very cool man. A full and complete man. He's at peace with himself and that peace is admirable to watch evolve. Over his lifetime he has developed all the other parts of his life and now, at 81, he is nurturing his spirituality.

"My own success gives my father nachas [happiness], pride," Michael adds, "and gives him an additional sense of immortality. And, just as I have been able to learn from his mistakes, I hope to learn from his successes. The thing that impresses me the most about my dad, is here is a man who has had a stroke. Part of his therapy is speech therapy, so he practices reading the Torah, which enhances who he is as a person. Then, he studies the Talmud with a rabbi, to have a better understanding of who he is as a Jew. And then he writes a book about the whole experience, so other people can benefit from his journey. It's like killing three birds with one stone. And of all my father's books, Climbing the Mountain is really my favorite. It's about rediscovering spirituality, and it is that part of my father that continually impresses me. He is an inspiration because he continues to grow. And my mother is the same way. It's beautiful to see people in their 70s and 80s who are still looking for their next job. They love what they are doing."

This past year, Michael Douglas's divorce from his wife of 19 years, Diandra, became final, ending one phase of his life and beginning another. It is obvious that he has closely examined the factors that led to the dissolution of his marriage.

"For me, having a famous and successful father and having entered the same field, I identified success in my work. I had two careers, which I pursued strongly and actively. Once you've achieved a certain amount of success, you are used to a certain level of control in other areas of your life. And that doesn't always work well in an intimate relationship," he admits. "My work took first priority, even beyond my marriage, when I was working. The difference is that when I wasn't working, I could focus on my family; but when I was working there was no way to balance them. Most people have an eight-hour job and they go home, and their family and their life are the most important part of their world. I got comfortable working. I got acknowledgment and approval from working. And in relationships you don't get a medal for being a good partner each week. So my definition of success at this point in my life is much different than it was 20 years ago."

It is clear that the end of his marriage was a painful, if inevitable, passage for Douglas, and that he isn't going to let an opportunity for growth slip past him. "Divorce is a process. I think whenever you go through the loss of a relationship, there is a certain amount of self-analysis involved. I'm fortunate to say that there is still a lot of love with Diandra. We are on very good terms. I would have hated to think that 20 years would go down together and we'd never see or talk with each other.

"I was very lucky growing up; my mother and father divorced amicably and were good friends and still are good friends. My stepfather and mother and father and stepmother used to get together every couple of weeks for dinner, preferably without the kids. They just enjoyed each others' company. That is a very positive image of what a divorce can be, and we were all very lucky.

"In truth, divorce is not about children. What you're talking about is the relationship with your spouse. Therefore, children, at whatever their age, as long as they can see their parents speaking amicably to each other, they're fine. I have no patience for the selfishness of wives and husbands who put their own interests ahead and use their children as weapons. I mean we all know people who do it, and kids are irreparably damaged by this kind of behavior. No matter how old they are."

With this life change comes a new set of priorities. "For me it's a question now of the cultivation of my soul and developing new habits and interests. Now that my marriage is over and my son, Cameron, is an adult, I find this is a really exciting time for me. I don't know where it's going; I'm just part of the excitement. It's a fun time because I don't have anywhere near the personal responsibilities and obligations that I have had the last 20 years. It makes me be more responsible for myself than to others. Sometimes you can hide out behind others and being involved with others."

The obvious question is, will this handsome eligible bachelor ever remarry? "I would love the opportunity to get married again, and we'll see if it comes up. I think ladies make certain assumptions about me, so they get kind of cool, blasé. It's certainly an adjustment learning to be alone over a long period of time, although I'm enjoying it. It's giving me a chance to work on myself. To work on my golf game. To do a lot of skiing. And I'm not really looking for a relationship. That's the nice thing about getting older; you learn to make decisions without desperation. I'm enjoying this time. I'm more comfortable with myself than I have ever been before. With any luck, I'll have the good fortune to be able to give something back, but that's yet to be defined.

"What I see right now for me is a new moment in my life, a new start," Douglas says. "I have an interest now in using my ability of being recognized all over the world to do some things besides simply going out and promoting a movie." He is already involved in several causes that he holds very dear to his heart: the United Nations, nuclear nonproliferation and handgun control.

"The reason why I think that the United Nations is so important is that we are very close to the entire planet having the same form of government: constitutional, elective, parliamentary. We have a ways to go--there are pockets on the globe where this doesn't exist. But I think that the United Nations is my hope for the millennium, that we can have an organization that would, in effect, allow all governments to act as members of a world congress. And as a result, I make a plea to Jesse Helms to free up the money for our United Nations debt so that we will have the opportunity for this organization to make a difference in the world. I hate to see us as deadbeats as far as the United Nations is concerned. It has taken me a while to define where I want to work and what I want to do, and that's the area that captures my imagination the most."

His involvement in nuclear nonproliferation dates back to the late 1970s. "I have always had an interest in the power and the range of plutonium, both as a bomb and as an energy source. I made a movie called The China Syndrome that gave me a deeper understanding of the dangers of all of this. I am worried about nuclear proliferation. I am very concerned about the disarray of the Russian military. I am concerned about the elements of a nuclear device being stolen and used as blackmail. The elements needed to make a bomb are very small and easy to hide, and ultimately can create damage that we cannot even comprehend. I think that as a planet we have been extremely lucky and I don't want to see luck continue to play a part in this. The end of the Cold War made us think that this threat went away, but the reality is that there are still about 4,400 warheads pointed at all of us. So I think you can see why the issue of nuclear nonproliferation is important to all of us."

Douglas is also a tireless spokesman for handgun control. "I am part of an organization called Cease Fire, which was started by Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone after the death of John Lennon. Our country has more handgun deaths each year than the rest of the world combined. It's a staggering amount of people and it is clear that some kind of control is needed. Most handgun deaths are from people who know each other. So I'm actively involved doing commercials and voice-overs for them to bring public awareness to this problem."

It isn't all hard work and introspection for Michael Douglas. He's an avid, perhaps slightly obsessed, golfer. "My friend Jack Nicholson got me into the whole golf thing," he recalls. "He started a little before I did. I had knee surgery from a bad skiing accident and I couldn't play tennis. It was a quality of life issue and I thought golf would be a good outlet. Golf is a healthy escape for me. And I kind of dove into it six years ago with a vengeance, like I do most everything that I commit to. It's an addiction and a rush. Then I spend a lot of time trying to figure out whatever the hell the rush is all about." He laughs at himself while he considers the appeal of 18 holes of psychological torture. "The closest thing I can think of is that it feels like you are sneaking out of school. Driving to a golf course in the middle of the day just feels like something that you shouldn't be doing. And you can't believe that you are, especially during the week.

"I don't play as much as I'd like to, but I just love it. I love being able to go to different places in the world and finding new golf courses to play. It's a wonderfully neutralizing sport because it doesn't matter who you are playing with because the real game is with yourself. And then you get on a roll, you start hitting really well and then you fall in a tank and you don't know why. It's head and it's rhythm. And I tend to rush in everything that I do. So golf really helps me with my tempo. In life and in acting, it really helps me to slow down.

"And here is an interesting irony: I can act with 300 people watching me behind a camera and I don't see anybody or feel any different. If there is more than a foursome watching me play golf, it makes me a little bit crazy. I was thinking before the Phoenix Open, 'This is supposed to be fun. Why do you put yourself in a sport where there is a pressure situation?' But I do believe that if I continue to play in tournaments that it will make me a better golfer. I think an important part of the game is kind of a controlled relaxation. And you come in and get pissed off at yourself because you have a bunch of bad shots and it's all part of not blowing up and screwing up your whole round. I'm learning to take it one hole at a time, as the saying goes. There could be an epilogue to this story. I'll let you know."

While a good cigar can sometimes neutralize the effects of a bad round of golf, Douglas began cigar smoking on the golf course for more practical reasons. "I originally started smoking cigars to help me quit smoking cigarettes, which they did, with varying degrees of success. But what I really like about cigars is that they are easy to find when you put them down on the golf course and you are concentrating on your game. When I was smoking cigarettes, I'd hit the ball and then wander around looking for my cigarette for hours because I didn't want to pollute the golf course. But with a cigar, it's pretty easy to find it after you putt."

A zealous wine collector, Douglas enjoys cigars the way he enjoys fine wine: as an adjunct to a great meal and a great experience. "I like cigars because it gives people a chance for pause. It's a ritual. It gives you a chance to prepare your thoughts and to think a little bit. I really enjoy smoking with other people because the feeling of camaraderie is so nice. It's a sign of a certain quality of life, an opportunity to take a moment to enjoy not only the cigar, but to celebrate."

Recently, Douglas was given one of his favorite cigars, which he decided to savor solo. "Somebody gave me an Upmann and I smoked it alone. At the end of the day, I sat out on my balcony and enjoyed it and it was an interesting feeling. Most of the time I enjoy sharing the experience with other people. But cigar smoking by its very nature is much more reflective than interactive. A cigar gives you time to be philosophical and a time to reflect. I like it because it gives you something to do with your hands without inhaling a bunch of nicotine. And the whole process when you're smoking a cigar takes a long period of time, so it extends the moment for me."

Douglas uses his frequent trips abroad as opportunities to explore and expand his tastes. "I try to travel as light as possible, so not bringing cigars with me allows me to try new things," he says. "I just find that there are a lot of great cigars to be sampled out there in the world. I have not, as opposed to wines, experimented as much or remembered when I did experiment. I haven't been good at keeping the bands of more eccentric or esoteric cigars I have tried. But I'm working on discovering what I enjoy. I like the Dominican Cohibas. I like Romeo y Julietas a lot. And of course, the Monte No. 2, which is everybody's favorite."

Walking to the beach at the Ariel Sands Beach Club, where his cousin Seward Johnson's sculpture of Ariel rises out of the waves, a soft-spoken, contemplative Douglas emerges as he explains why he has chosen to invest in the resort.

"I used to come to Bermuda when I was growing up, and I have a whole book full of memories and characters and family members down here. Ariel Sands was this cottage colony owned by the family. All the family were shareholders and it just chugged along that way since the 1950s. It paid dividends, and I took it for granted.

"Then in the late '70s, the world changed. The Caribbean got more popular and the airfares got cheaper and Bermuda changed dramatically. It became a bit of a burden for the family and as a result they hadn't really done the work they needed to do to this place. They gave me a call and I looked at it, and basically what I saw was an opportunity. At the same time I saw a lot of family members who were lost last year; and this relatively large family was going through the throes of generational changes. So it was a combination of elements, really.

"Given my selfish side, I see this place as something that could really be kind of fun. It is the right size--the kind of place I could bring friends and hang out. On the other side, I saw an opportunity where myself and my other two cousins, Seward Johnson and Elaine Wald, could give something back to the family and at the same time keep the family together. So these board meetings, which for the last five or 10 years have been sort of a pain in the ass, could now be a kind of family reunion. With an insurgence of money we could fix the place up, bring a little spin to it and have some fun. So it is something that has revived the family and brings us all a little closer. And of course, you can get Cuban cigars in Bermuda, and I've got a nice cigar bar at Ariel Sands."

One of the pitfalls of celebrity is an insatiable and intrusive tabloid press. Recently, Douglas's private life has been its target. "I try to protect myself a little bit from a certain amount of public scrutiny. And when you protect yourself, you pay a price, particularly from the tabloids. We have a phenomenon today that did not exist in my father's generation. They had polite gossip columnists, nothing like what goes on now. There was a civilized quality rather than this 'take no prisoners' attitude, and I'm disturbed by it. I certainly support the First Amendment, but when you look in our trade papers the largest classified ad is an ad that says, 'We pay for information.' Tabloids will pay cash to anybody who has any piece of information about a celebrity. And I find that incredibly disturbing. Now mind you, I might be more likely to buy it if they want to split half the money with me so that I could give it to my favorite charity, but they don't want to do that. They want to follow me around, stalk me with 600-millimeter lenses. They even have people who will go through my trash, just so they can sell a piece of toilet paper at the checkout lines once a week to prove, once again, that I have foibles just like everybody else."

Another drawback of fame is that it insulates a celebrity from making new friends. Most of Michael Douglas's friends have been close to him for more than 30 years, which speaks well of him; but he grapples with wanting to forge some new alliances.

"It's hard in my business to find new friends because you're always suspect of what their [motives] might be. And while I don't like that about myself, I tend to get a little more cautious about making new friends. The people that you knew either when you were starting out in your career or in college didn't take your success as part of the equation of your friendship. They are the ones you love and trust. I would like to be more open about meeting people, but it's hard."

Douglas shares a passion for cigars with his friend and collaborator, actor and director Danny DeVito, who proudly credits himself with Douglas's initiation into cigars.

"Michael and I have pretty much known each other since 1963 or 1964, so we're really what you'd call old friends," DeVito says. "And I think just about everything that I have done in my life, Michael has imitated. One of the most incredible things that he has ever done is when he started smoking cigars. He may not admit it, but I introduced Michael to smoking cigars," he says. "And Michael, you know, travels in really good circles where he can get all the good cigars. So whenever I need a good stogie, I know where to go."

DeVito takes the opportunity to throw in a little reminder. "I want Michael to know how much I rely on him to have good, fresh stogies whenever I arrive at his house."


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