Emmys Q&A: Michael Douglas

David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 5 issue of AwardsLine.

When word first leaked that square-jawed, macho Michael Douglas would star in a biopic 
of Liberace, the swanning pianist famous for garish costumes and flashy keyboard antics, many feared the worst. But HBO’s Behind the Candelabra—directed by Steven Soderbergh and based on a memoir by Liberace’s lover Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon)—is anything but an exercise in misguided casting. Instead of camping it up, Douglas, who remains best known for his Oscar-winning turn as Wall Street lizard king Gordon Gekko, embraces his inner queen in an audacious and vulnerable performance.

How were you first approached for the role of Liberace—and what appealed to you about the part?
It’s wild. It goes all the way back to 2000, when I was doing Traffic with Steven. One day he says, “Ever thought about playing Liberace?” I thought he was messing with me. But a couple of times on the set I did an imitation, just for fun. Then seven years later, he called and said, “I’m going to be sending you something.” It was the book Behind the Candelabra by Scott Thorson. Jerry Weintraub had acquired it for Steven, Richard LaGravenese had written the screenplay, and Matt Damon wanted to play Scott. It was a great screenplay with a wonderful character for me to eat up the scenery. My whole career has been me playing contemporary characters, so I welcomed the chance to get behind a figure from a different era. It was like painting on a clown face rather than wiping my face raw for a part. It even required appliances and hairpieces and all that.

Did you actually play piano for the film?
I played, but you wouldn’t want to hear it. I told Steven that for any of the musical pieces I have to play, you’ve got to make sure Liberace filmed them. That way I could copy the actions I saw—you know, get your fingers in the right places. Lee (as Liberace was known to his intimates) had a very distinct style. You spend a lot of hours—a whole lot of hours—rehearsing. That probably took the most hours of anything I did for the picture. And it worked out well. I was really happy with it.

Were you ever worried about descending into caricature?
It was a constant struggle. I was always afraid about being over the top. But Lee was over the top. Sometimes I pulled back, and then it didn’t work. It needed that full commitment. But the tone of the picture allows you that breadth. No one was winking at the camera. We really played it pretty straight, for lack of a better word. But it was an issue we were always conscious of.

You are sometimes made to look ridiculous in the film. Did that ever prick your vanity?
One of the things I was happiest about was that pretty soon we lost Michael Douglas and Matt Damon and saw only Lee and Scott. That’s the beauty of playing a character instead of some extension of yourself.

Your sex scenes with Matt Damon are very intimate. Were they hard to shoot, and how did you prepare for them?
Ha! As Matt and I say, we read the same script, and we knew what we had to do. That’s the thrill of acting, the danger of it. Get your Chap-Stick out, and get ready to rumble. You go for it. We’re actors. That’s what we do. I’m not a boxer or fighter, but sometimes I’ve got those scenes to do. We’ve both had our fair share of love scenes to do, so it’s an extension of that. It was tastefully shot. Steven picked the angles well and didn’t linger.

Debbie Reynolds plays Lee’s mother in the film. What was it like working with her?
It was wonderful because she knew Lee really well. She had great stories to tell about him, and both Matt and I cherished the opportunity to hear them. She knew where all the bodies were buried. It was an enjoyable  history lesson.

What was it like working with Steven Soderbergh?
Well, it’s an honor. First of all, he really likes actors, and you can’t say that about every director. Secondly, he’s exceedingly fast, the fastest director I’ve ever worked with. For those of us who like to work fast, that’s good. And he treats you like an adult. He’s a great listener. I just feel really honored to have worked with him a couple of times, and I know a lot of actors who feel that way. He actually shoots his own pictures, so he’s operating the camera as well as the lighting while directing. And he creates this secure, safe world for letting actors do their thing. You feel you can stretch with Steven, rather than withhold or become tighter.

Was there any talk on the set of this being Soderbergh’s last film?
It was talked about in a joking way from time to time. Whenever Matt and I were in a compromised position in the hot tub, we’d say, “This will be great for the final shot of your film career.” Sometimes we’d joke, “We’ll see how long this retirement lasts.” But I think he finished strong with Magic Mike, Contagion and now this. It’s brave filmmaking.

Finding The Right Backdrop Was Key For Promised Land Script

Ari Karpel is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of AwardsLine.

Matt Damon and John Krasinski are well aware that Promised Land is facing what Damon deems “an uphill climb.” The film, about a community confronting the rock-and-hard-place decision of whether to frack or not to frack—that is, whether to allow a major corporation to come in and drill for natural gas in exchange for millions of dollars and, potentially, the townspeople’s physical health—faces a marketing challenge that teeters on the same fine line Damon and Krasinski walked while writing its screenplay.

“It’s a minefield,” says Damon, mindful of the taint that can adhere to a movie thought of as “an issue movie.” “You can’t get too heavy-handed, and it can’t feel like it’s some polemic.”

And yet that hardly compares to the ups and downs he and Krasinski faced in getting the movie off the ground.

It all started with Krasinski, who wanted to write a screenplay about “some sort of abuse of power in…the green energy movement.” The actor, best known as Jim Halpert on The Office, had previously written and directed 2009’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and starred in Away We Go, written by Dave Eggers, who also consulted on the film. “I brought it to Dave because these are issues close to his heart, too,” Krasinski says. They hashed out characters and a story, set against the backdrop of the wind-farming industry. (Eggers has a “story by” credit.)

Krasinski then took the idea to Damon, who had just finished working with Krasinski’s wife, Emily Blunt, on The Adjustment Bureau, and was looking for a movie that would be his directorial debut. They decided to write it together. Damon, who hadn’t written a script since he collaborated with Ben Affleck on Good Will Hunting (he is also credited with writing 2002’s Gerry, a movie Damon says is mostly improvised), says he can never find the time. “It takes a lot of time to write. I’m so busy, and I do need a partner to write,” Damon confesses.

They hired a news reporter to find a story they could fictionalize. The reporter produced “mountains of research,” says Damon, which they used as the basis for the script. When they were done writing, he and Krasinski traveled to upstate New York to scout locations. There they met people who thoroughly debunked the narrative. “It was one of those situations where the reporter came back with the story we wanted to hear,” says Damon, who thought they had reached an impasse. “But after a few horrible days, I read it again, and I called John and said, ‘I love these characters!’ ”

So the cowriters transplanted the characters to a mountain in Alaska, and they set their story amidst salmon fisheries being poisoned by run-off from nearby copper mines.

But that just didn’t work. “To John’s credit, he wouldn’t give up,” says Damon. “I was thinking, ‘This is dead, he just doesn’t know it.’ ”

Krasinski saw a 60 Minutes segment called “The Shaleionaires” and was inspired to do a pass of the script on his own, this time about a community dealing with fracking. He brought the draft to Damon in Vancouver, where the actor was shooting Elysium, a visual-effects-heavy movie set to come out next summer. “I realized we had something much better than wind farming,” says Damon. “Because the stakes are so high. It’s not really a choice—between losing your family farm or not.”

When Damon and his family moved to Malibu to shoot We’ve Got a Zoo, Krasinski went to their house every weekend where they would hammer away at the script, empowered by their new subject matter.

At the end of 2011, Damon was doing press for Zoo and planning to direct Promised Land in the new year—until he had a change of heart. “I was done with all my work for the year and I looked at the reality: I just could not do it,” says Damon, who couldn’t imagine spending so much time away from his family again, this time to direct, which would mean longer hours and weeks in prep and post.

“It was like someone telling you Christmas is not happening this year,” recalls Krasinski.

And then a Christmas miracle occurred. Damon was heading to Florida for a much-needed vacation with his family. “It was that moment on the plane when they’ve told you to turn off your phone, and you’re surreptitiously sending emails,” says Damon, who got one out, with the script attached, to Gus Van Sant, who had directed Damon’s first script, Good Will Hunting.

By the time Damon landed, Van Sant had agreed to direct the film. “I like to joke that as a producer I clearly know what I’m doing: I fired myself and replaced myself with Gus,” Damon says.

The movie went ahead, but not without some measure of caution. In speaking about Promised Land, everyone involved had long stuck to talking points that portrayed the movie as being about a community that comes together in a crisis. “Once it came out that it was anti-fracking,” Krasinski says, “it’s hard to shake that until people see it.”