Breaking the Mold
Actor and producer Michael Douglas defies leading-man expectations with bold creative choices.
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98
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"Everybody thought I was pretty crazy to leave the series after four years because it was such a hot show, but I left to produce this picture," recalls Douglas. "I felt really passionate about it. I really loved the project. I had no idea or intention that it would win five [major] Academy Awards and all that kind of stuff, and then it became like a springboard. There I was, an Academy Award-winning producer at 31 years of age. My career as a producer gave me an opportunity to do more acting jobs, like China Syndrome and Romancing the Stone.
"The first few years, everybody just spoke in terms of, 'Why do you even bother acting?' I said, 'I just love acting.'"
His producer's résumé is equally impressive, balancing box-office success and critical acclaim with social relevance. In 1984 Douglas produced the hit of the Christmas season, Starman, which earned lead actor Jeff Bridges an Oscar nomination. In 1986, Douglas created a television series based on the film. Two years later, he formed Stonebridge Entertainment Inc., which produced Flatliners, directed by Joel Schumacher, and Radio Flyer, directed by Richard Donner. In 1993, he produced Whoopi Goldberg's comedy Made in America, and in 1996, Douglas formed a production company with Steven Ruether and produced and starred in The Ghost and the Darkness. In 1997, they gave us the summer action hit Face/Off and John Grisham's The Rainmaker. Recently, the pair went their separate ways, and Douglas now has a production deal with Universal Studios.
During several productions throughout his career, Douglas served as producer and actor, but he found that doing both jobs on the same project was a bad mix. "I don't enjoy acting [when producing] because when you're producing a film that you're acting in, you're looking around at everything else. The joy of acting is being able to have tunnel vision, to have blinders on and enjoy the moment. To have no responsibility for anything else other than for creating that moment on film. To be a producer is to be responsible for everything that is going on around us. Everything. So I used to do it, and I was successful at it, but I wasn't necessarily enjoying it. So I realized that I'd rather go focus on being an actor."
Unlike many movie stars who use their box office clout to control the creative process, often to the detriment of the film, Douglas says he consciously works against this tendency, using his knowledge as a producer to temper his own actor's ego.
"Sure, I like producing. I like the development process and control and being involved in it. I'll do it once in a while. But I'm very different than a lot of guys. A lot of the guys love the control factor. They want the whole thing. I think that's presumptuous. I welcome and I try to encourage everybody else to do their best work and I try to keep my ego in line. I try not to bury everybody that's around me, and I try not to throw my weight around. I want to make everybody else as good as they can be.
"There are some actor-so-called-slash-stars who are in a position to control the production. And they make a mistake of confusing their stardom with good film making," Douglas says. "And they think that because they are a star, they can get directors whose vision they can control and therefore feel that the movie will make a better vehicle for them as an actor. Because of my career as a producer, all I want to create is the best movie possible. I want to work with the best director possible, and usually that person couldn't give a shit about my ego or what I want to a certain degree. They have a very strong vision of their own, and that vision is what I'm betting on."
With acting his true love, the lesson that Douglas would like to learn at this phase of his career has to do with allowing himself to be "creatively selfish," to think a little bit more like an actor and a little bit less like a producer.
"I tend to think in terms of the movie as a whole, first. I want to make good movies, which, as an actor, I'll be a part of. But sometimes I cut myself short as far an as actor is concerned. I don't get a chance to be as selfish as I want to be because I'm always trying to make it work for everybody else. Part of what I'm working on right now is learning how to be creatively selfish and just acting for the joy of it without having to be responsible for the whole picture."
Douglas's love for the business is apparent, as is his gratitude and his awe. "The process of making a movie continues to amaze me. There is a certain magic that happens. And you never know when it's going to be. But while a writer is alone with their word processor, or a painter is alone in a studio, or a musician is working on a song, movie making is a big kind of collaborative family. Certainly it starts with the written word, but then it becomes a collaborative art and that process never ceases to amaze me. It's almost mystical. It's something that is really alive and fresh.
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