Though he comes from Hollywood royalty, Michael Douglas successfully emerged from the long shadow of his father, Kirk Douglas, to become an iconic figure in his own right. After cutting his teeth on TV's long-running cop show The Streets Of San Francisco from 1972 to 1976, Douglas made an impact by co-producing One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, which won him the first of two Academy Awards. The second came for his role in 1987's Wall Street, one in a string of controversial hits—Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Falling Down, and others—that revealed his savvy for hitting the right cultural buttons. In the early '00s, Douglas reestablished himself with charismatic work in movies like Traffic and Wonder Boys, but his appearances slowed considerably from there, with only a handful of roles in forgettable films like Don't Say A Word, It Runs In The Family, and a remake of The In-Laws.
In his juiciest role since Wonder Boys, Douglas has returned to acting for the low-budget independent film King Of California, which leans heavily on his charisma to carry across the quirky story of a institutionalized crackpot who ropes his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) into a quest to find lost gold in Southern California. Douglas recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the advantages of shooting on the fly, walking around with a scary beard, and his penchant for controversial roles.
The A.V. Club: King of California is one of only a handful of movies you've starred in recently. Does that have to do with your availability? Or the availability of good roles? Or a little of both?
Michael Douglas: Fatherhood! Fatherhood and a good marriage. No, I had a good run there back in 1999 or 2000, but since Catherine [Zeta-Jones] and I got together, I've cut back dramatically. My priorities changed, and I still love acting and all that, but not as much as I love watching my two kids grow up.
AVC: So what does it say that you're coming back to movies now?
MD: Well, it's not coming back; it's that every once in a while, I find something I'd really like to do. King of California was just, I thought, a really great, fresh, original kind of script. I loved the tone, the mix of tragedy, comedy, and drama, and that it was a good part. Kind of a challenge, and I was excited to work on it.
AVC: You generally don't make a habit of appearing in low-budget films by first-time directors. What changed your mind in this case?
MD: Alexander Payne just dropped me a note and included this. [King Of California writer-director] Mike Cahill was a UCLA film-school friend of his from back then, and I just liked it a lot. But historically, I sort of began independent. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The China Syndrome, Romancing The Stone… Those were all independent or so-called "negative" pickups. And now the more interesting parts and roles I see seem to be in the independent area, rather than studio.
AVC: If you're accustomed to starring in big studio productions, what adjustments do you have to make as an actor to shoot an independent film on a small budget with a limited amount of time?
MD: Speed. Speed is the big one, but coming out of television—you know, I did The Streets Of San Francisco for, like, four years, and we were on location in that one. There, you're basically making a 52-minute film in seven shooting days. So 30 days seems fast, but it has good consequences; you get back to really trusting your instincts. You don't have time to look in the monitor to review every take. You just kind of go with it and fly without a net a little bit. It's exciting. That's probably the biggest difference. You still get a trailer. It might not be quite as luxurious as the studio ones, but there's still a film crew and a camera, so it's just a question of speed. There's a lot shorter period of time, with a few less frills.
AVC: Is that stimulating to you as an actor?
MD: It is. It's challenging, and as I say, it makes you go back to being much more instinctual and not overly planning or overly preparing. You do your homework before and just go, but it's really sort of where the pictures lie that you just wanna do. You try to mix it up anyway. You always try to get a commercial picture or so-called "commercial" film in there from time to time, mixed up with an independent or a smaller or a character piece. So yeah, I'm pretty flexible. I enjoy it, I really do. It's something I like and am passionate about.
AVC: You've never seemed all that into Method acting, or terribly Method-y in your performances. Do you do much research to prepare for a role, or do you rely more on your instincts?
MD: A bit. This one, obviously, from all the time I spent when I was producing Cuckoo's Nest, even though it was a long time ago—we spent a whole bunch of time in the Oregon state mental hospital, talked to a couple therapists, read a book… But yeah, you just sort of work it out, get some idea of mania, and you know what you don't want to do, which is just stay at 10,000 rpm for the entire movie, because everyone's going to get tired of that. But I spent a lot of time before the shooting—I guess this is from the producing background—really understanding the structure of the whole movie, knowing what is required in each scene, be it comedic relief, drama, pick up the pace, threatening, whatever it might be. So within those structures, you have some freedom. And on a fast shoot like this, if you're jumping around, you can't remember exactly where you're at, or what level you're trying to reach.
AVC: Have you ever been the sort to, say, spend time with a broker in order to do Wall Street or spend time with a detective in order to do Basic Instinct?
AVC: How far do you usually go?
MD: With Black Rain, I spent a lot of time with homicide detectives, and I spent a lot of time with different brokers on Wall Street. It helps get the rhythm of the piece and the tone, and how overplayed or underplayed it might be. That's also the magic of movies: You get to hang out and live these different lives. I think a certain amount of that helps the verisimilitude.
AVC: You had to grow a big, bushy beard for this movie. What sort of reaction do you get walking around with that thing for months? Did you frighten your children?
MD: My children loved it; my wife hated it. My children loved it, and my wife thought I looked like the Unabomber. So she was happy to see it go, and then in between, it was a great disguise. You put on a pair of sunglasses and a hat, and you get mistaken for Rick Rubin.
AVC: Or someone might try to give you a quarter.
MD: [Laughs.] Right, that too.
AVC: One thing that stands out in your acting career is that you're rarely in a subservient role. You're naturally a leader, even when you're leading characters off a cliff. Why do you think that is?
MD: I don't know. I've just kind of been used to carrying movies. I look back and I'm just used to being in every single scene in a lot of pictures. People seem to want to go along on the trip. I haven't necessarily picked characters that are particularly nice, but they go along for the ride, usually putting them in a precarious, unfathomable situation and then watching them get out of that. But it's true, even when you're acting with a producing hat, when you're in every scene, you're really conscious of trying to make everybody as good as they are, because ultimately you're trying to make the best movie possible. It doesn't benefit you to be good in a bad movie. If the movie's good, it benefits everybody.
AVC: In a movie like King Of California, it's important that you be persuasive, because you have this daughter who isn't really inclined to believe in crackpot schemes, yet she follows you on this.
MD: That was a big challenge. You hit it right on the nose, as far as that was the big challenge, to persuade my daughter and the audience that this fruitcake who's talking about gold in southern California might possibly have some credibility. That was a strong persuasion. That's a perfect example of what I was talking about. You slowly win them over to say, "Well, maybe. It's a possibility."
AVC: Was the film's connection to One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest one of the things that drew you to it? It almost feels like a full circle.
MD: Yeah, I wasn't aware of that. I find you guys, writers, are good at pulling some semblance together of people's careers. No, it was just, I thought, a really good story. I love the Don Quixote metaphor, and the theme that everybody has to have a dream. And I guess it falls into that. I don't know if you want to call it a shaggy-dog story, but it's a little like Wonder Boys and Falling Down in its '70s attitude.
AVC: Is there any connection in your mind between the projects that you produce or the projects you act in? Are there qualities that continue to bring you to certain types of movies?
MD: Not really, except they're all contemporary. I mean, even the ones like Face/Off or The Rainmaker, that's the only thing I've ever seen that ties everything together. Except for one or maybe two exceptions, they're all kind of contemporary.
AVC: Could you see yourself being in a period piece? Would you be out of your comfort zone?
MD: I don't look good in tights. I know that. That would limit that. No, I would've loved to have done a Western somewhere along the line. They just weren't in vogue for most of my career. Again, it's one of those things I'm going to have to find out from somebody why. I guess I'm a current-events guy, I'm a non-fiction reader, and I guess I like to deal in the here and now, and deal with whatever issues, psychological or otherwise, affect modern man.
AVC: For the longest time, you had an uncanny knack for appearing in movies that became instant conversation pieces—Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, Basic Instinct, Disclosure, Falling Down. Do you feel comfortable starring in movies that stir a certain amount of controversy?
MD: I enjoy it, yeah. I definitely enjoy it, because to stir controversy, the movie had to have been executed halfway decently. You really can't present messages; you have to make entertaining movies. But like a good meal, it's nice to have a little food for thought after you walk out of the theater rather than just wiling away a couple of hours. So I enjoy when we get a little discussion.
AVC: Do things ever get out of control for you? Particularly for Basic Instinct and Disclosure, when feminist groups were really up in arms, was it hard being on the other side of the fence, trying to make a case for these movies?
MD: No, not really. The militant gay/lesbian movement on Basic Instinct stopped the day the movie came out. They just saw a good opportunity to push their cause [during production]. But controversy? Bring it on. I think that makes for good, healthy debate.
AVC: Do you prefer to keep your roles as actor and producer separate, if you can?
MD: I do, because the joy of acting is how selfish it is. It really is. It's very self-involved, and you just think about what's directly in front of you and what you're dealing with, whereas producing is really having this 360-degree vision and watching out for everything. They are kind of counterproductive when you do them together, and producing always wins out. And I lose the joy and the fun. Acting is fun, and it should be.
AVC: So much has changed in television since The Streets Of San Francisco. Have you thought about returning to TV, or is that a commitment you wouldn't be able to make?
MD: The quality of television is stunning. We've had just a plethora of really good writers—screenwriters that have moved over into television—and it's really impressive, the level of quality of writing. My production company's developing some things for television, which I enjoy. But I don't personally see myself doing a series or anything, no. That's a work commitment that I'm not prepared to make.