“Oh God,” says Michael Douglas. “Oh Jesus.” He can’t quite believe what is happening to him. “This is terrible!”
The American actor, 73, has scaled the heights of Hollywood and descended to the depths of despair in his long and eventful career. But it seems nothing – not surviving cancer; not seeing his son Cameron incarcerated for drug offences; not even coming up against Sharon Stone’s murderess in Basic Instinct or Glenn Close’s bunny boiler in Fatal Attraction – has prepared him for the glass of green juice that has just been placed in front of him.
“Oh Jesus,” he says again. “This is punishment.”
I personally found the kale-ginger-apple concoction to be quite pleasant. Douglas disagrees: “Nothing that tastes that bad can be good for you,” he says with a sly smile. And I suppose he’d know.
We’ve convened at a London hotel to discuss Douglas’s latest role: Dr Hank Pym in Ant-Man and the Wasp, the follow-up to Ant-Man (2015), which introduced the tiniest superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (played by Paul Rudd).
I know what you’re thinking: what’s an actor of Douglas’s Academy Award-winning, era-defining calibre, doing wasting his time with this hokum? Isn’t it a bit depressing to see the man who played Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko reduced – boom boom – to this?
I was thinking along those lines when I picked up my 3D glasses at Cineworld Imax in Leicester Square. But for two hours, I laughed like a tickled child with Douglas increasingly reminiscent of the late Robin Williams.
“It’s truly a family picture,” says Douglas. “There was a lot of humour in the first one and that gave us the confidence to go more in that direction with this one.”
Douglas saw this as an opportunity to impress his children. “At last I have some movies on my resumé that they can see,” he says. “I remember after the first Ant-Man, my son looked at me very philosophically and said, ‘Dad. This could be very good for your career. You should think about doing a sequel.’ He was right!”
As a clincher, most of the movie’s filming was done in Atlanta and there happened to be a direct commuter flight between Atlanta and Westchester County Airport north of New York, which is ten minutes from the home he shares with Catherine Zeta-Jones and their two children, Dylan, 18, and Carys, 15. “So I said, ‘Why the hell not? Let’s go!’”
It’s hard to tell how serious Douglas is being at any given moment, which is of course one of the reasons he is so watchable.
Douglas with wife Catherine Zeta-Jones (Getty)
Today, he’s wearing a short-sleeved linen shirt, chinos and brown leather sandals. With his hair a silvery sweep and his face a weathered tan, he looks like he’s just come down to sniff the breakfast buffet at a well-heeled yachting resort.
But there’s a certain cramped crabbiness to his bearing, as if he’s spent too much time laughing or wincing and his muscles have congealed that way. He has an Andy Warhol way of saying how wonderful everything is, all delivered in a voice that somehow embodies “Hollywood” more than any other: colourful but understated, wonderstruck but streetwise, one-part New York hustle, one-part groovy California.
The film also has the improbable distinction of being the first Marvel movie to give equal billing to a female superhero – Hope van Dyne, Dr Hank’s daughter, who’s played by Evangeline Lilly.
About time, too, says Douglas. “I must say, with this #MeToo political and social movement, there has been a groundswell of female employment. All power! There’s been an opening of the floodgates.
“Although I was disappointed to see the attacks on Matt Damon for basically saying there’s a difference between jaywalking and first-degree murder. There is a difference between saying something in a flirtatious way and raping someone. I think, now, people understand that there is some disparity in that area. It’s been a really constructive movement.”
Was it something he discussed with Zeta-Jones? “She doesn’t seem to have had any major issues. She did a movie [Chicago] with Harvey Weinstein – she won an Oscar for it – and she had no issues with him.”
These days, where the talk in Hollywood doesn’t concern sexual harassment or Donald Trump, it centres on Silicon Valley’s power play. Recently, the sorts of grown-up dramas Douglas used to make are more likely to be found on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and Facebook Watch.
“It’s changed everything,” Douglas says. “They all have deep pockets. Even my wife is doing a comedy for Facebook!” (Queen America, in which the former Darling Bud of May stars as a ruthless beauty-pageant coach.)
Some people are critical of the switch to streaming, says Douglas. “But that’s the medium that allows you to see the sort of pictures I was doing in the 70s and 80s. The reality is that the marketing costs are so prohibitive that to try to release a smaller movie is just so difficult these days.
“I got turned off as I had a couple of little pictures – Solitary Man, King of California – that we worked so hard on and they ended up playing one week in a movie theatre.”
Douglas himself has made ten episodes of a half-hour, single-camera comedy for Netflix called The Kominsky Method. He plays an actor-turned-acting coach, with Alan Arkin co-starring as his agent, and seems to have had a blast.
“There’s no commercials. You can make the episodes longer or shorter if you want. There’s no restrictions on language. There’s a built-in audience of 110 million people. This is the future!”
He sensed that the wind was blowing that way after starring as the flamboyant, secretive, Aids-suffering pianist Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra (2013) – a wonderful performance, but one that came close never to being realised.
“It was turned down by every studio. We tried to do it as a feature. It wasn’t expensive. It had Matt Damon and myself as stars. But we could not get a studio to do it. HBO picked it up like that and it was a joy.”
It was a role that arrived at a crucial time for Douglas – in 2010, he revealed that he had been diagnosed with stage-4 throat cancer. Many feared the worst.
A long fight ensued. “That to me was the most valuable part I ever got offered. It was a time where I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll never act again.’”
Shooting was delayed as it became clear that Douglas needed more time to recuperate and regain his fighting weight – and that, he says, was crucial to the film’s success. “They gave me a little extra time, and that allowed me to rehearse and rehearse in a way I never had before.”
Douglas has suggested in interviews that his cancer was brought on by stress after his first son Cameron’s incarceration for drug offences. He ended up spending seven years in prison.
“My son’s struggle was a nightmare. It was stressful for all involved, very painful and difficult. I’m happy to say he’s in wonderful shape now. He’s been out of federal prison a year and a half and he’s actively pursuing his career.”
He found the experience of visiting his son eye-opening. America incarcerates a higher proportion of its population than any other country in the world.
“There are a lot of private prisons: these great profitmaking centres. But if you take the pharmaceutical industry, too, there are a lot of industries that are not taking our physical and mental health as their number one priority.”
Douglas’s family life is looking a lot rosier now. His legendary father Kirk is still going strong at 101 – apparently he has just discovered FaceTime: “You never know when he’s going to call! But God bless him, he’s doing well. He’s going to be 102 in December. It gives me a lot of optimism for the future.”
Cameron recently became a father, too. And Douglas’s two children from his current marriage regularly update their Instagram pages with warm tributes to both parents. The family don’t come back to Zeta-Jones’s native south Wales as much as they used to.
“But Catherine feels it’s very important for the kids to maintain that half of their roots and to know who they are.”
He describes the Gower Peninsula as one of the most beautiful locations in the world. “But I’m suffering for my Swans!” he laments – meaning Swansea City, who were relegated to the Championship last season. “They’re out of the Premiership, which is really sad.”
Is there anything he would still like to achieve? “I’d like a good balance in life. Right now, my health is good. I’m enjoying my career. It’s my 18th year of marriage to Catherine and it couldn’t be better. All my kids are doing well. So I have very few complaints and that doesn’t happen very often in life. I’m a happy camper.”
The only real ant in the ointment would seem to be America’s political situation. Douglas is a lifelong Democrat, anti-gun campaigner and UN peace ambassador. He also once played the American president.
How does he think the current one is doing? “One of the joys about movies is that I don’t really have to get into this,” he laughs. “Our president has a way of consuming all the air in the room. We’re talking the day after a very disheartening meeting in Helsinki with President Putin that’s left a lot of us feeling… really lost.
“Maybe this is part of the success of Ant-Man and the Wasp and these superhero movies. It’s a couple of hours of pure escapism and laughter. Maybe that’s why we need so many superheroes; we all feel the need for someone to come and save us.”
Ant-Man and the Wasp is in UK cinemas from 2 August
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