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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 3)

"I have been fortunate that throughout my career, all of my decisions have been based upon what I want to do. And what I like seems to be a barometer for what audiences like," he says. "What it always comes down to is that acting is a passion for me. And all of my decisions are made with my heart. Either the choices are made emotionally or passionately, and I tend to make a lot of dangerous choices. And those dangerous choices have nothing to do with being calculated. They have to do with knowing what I wanted to do at that moment. I'm pretty good about being true to myself about where I'm at creatively. And the truth is, I haven't made that many movies as an actor. I hope my body of work will speak for itself; there just aren't a lot of dips."

Being in the same business with a successful father posed a unique set of problems for Michael Douglas. Even though he had two facets of his career in full swing, it took a while for him to feel like a legitimate success.

"When you are a second-generation success, you are provided for," he says. "And that certainly was a big opportunity. But you don't have that 'rags-to-riches story,' which is always a much more dramatic story to plot. Your success is not one that is as easily accepted by the people outside. Or they don't really have an appreciation of what you have accomplished.

"As a producer, my successes came fairly early in my career; as an actor, they came much later. Winning the Academy Award for Wall Street really helped me to finally overcome that 'second generation' thing. It's hard for people, no matter how generous and gracious they are, to really allow you any slack. They say, 'Oh it must have been hard to be Kirk Douglas's son,' but they don't really want to accept it. You grow up in this business and all that means is that you don't get the joy of succeeding. If you succeed, it's expected." He considers his words carefully, and continues. "If you look around you can see that there are hardly any second-generation people that have succeeded at all. It's a minefield of disasters, of broken careers and self-destruction out there. The public's perception is that you didn't have to do anything. So if you succeed, it's just assumed. If you don't get success, you're an asshole like everybody else.

"I think for me, my success was in two very distinct phases. One was obviously Cuckoo's Nest, and winning an Oscar at 31, which led to my producing career." His success as an actor, he says, eluded him until 1987, when he starred in the financially successful Fatal Attraction and won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Wall Street.

"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.

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