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Michael Douglas: It's a family affair

Michael Douglas has found a new role in life, tending to the kids and supporting the wife

Sheila Johnston meets him

25 June 2004

There is no compelling reason why Michael Douglas should meet me and several strong incentives for him not to face the press. He has no new project to plug. And, over the years, but especially since he got hitched to Catherine Zeta-Jones in November 2000, he has been surrounded by a black swirl of negative media gossip: the various addictions and family spats, the lawsuit against Hello! magazine, the ostentatious, bullet-proof house being built in Zeta Jones' hometown of Mumbles, Wales to the supposed disgruntlement of neighbours. A tour through recent cuttings builds up a profile of a smug, paranoid, greedy, ambitious couple: celebrity divas to cut down to size.

The icing on the cake has been a stalker, Dawnette Knight, who allegedly harassed Zeta-Jones after claiming to have had an affair with Douglas and who was arrested on 24 counts of criminal threats earlier this month. So I was hardly expecting the poor, beleaguered chap to show up at all in Taormina, a small film festival in Sicily whose security measures could kindly be described as on the casual side, let alone to give interviews. But here we are anyway.

Douglas's suite is roughly 30 times larger than the cupboard I've been calling home for the past few days and dotted with half-empty champagne glasses from the night before. He proffers a brisk "Hi. Michael" and a firm handshake, and waves me on to a vast terrace overlooking the sea. He plops himself down on the sofa beside me and orders up a round of espressos.

There's a brief spot of tension when I ask about the Mumbles house and am mildly admonished on behalf of the British media. "I guess because her name is on the deed, they keep saying it's our house, but it's Catherine's mother's and father's house. It's coming along very slowly, but they're going to be in there July, August. It has enough room to allow us, or the kids, to visit. Before that we were always staying in a hotel."

Has adverse publicity been a factor in his withdrawal from the spotlight? "If you're speaking about our lawsuit with Hello!, no. That's over. As for the stalker, it's part of life. But certainly I was well-equipped to deal with it, being second-generation Hollywood. And in Catherine's case, she started out so young, starring in a West End show at 15, 16, then getting creamed after The Darling Buds of May to a point when she had to leave Britain and start afresh. So we've always made our points in terms of setting boundaries."

Smart-casual in a faded black polo T-shirt, cream slacks and black loafers, Douglas is still damp from the shower, which affords an excellent opportunity to inspect his scalp at close quarters - though in vain - for signs of a hair weave. The hair, in fact, is good: thick and of that indeterminate colour between blond and silver. He looks his age, but is not in bad shape altogether for 58. A bit chunky around the waist, perhaps, but his lined, lightly tanned face has a comfortable, lived-in look. "It's nice when you've got nothing to talk about," he says breezily. "One of the advantages of taking a break is that you're not out there schlocking a movie. I haven't done a picture in a year and a half, and it's been great."

Zeta-Jones, on the other hand, is very busy. She's off now, in LA, for the US premiere of her new film, Spielberg's The Terminal, and then Rome where she's filming Ocean's Twelve for Steven Soderbergh. "My wife and Brad Pitt have been kissing their way all through Roma for two weeks now," Douglas sighs. "But Brad's wife Jennifer [Aniston] is very close by too. Early in your career, you think you have to make love to your leading ladies to make it all real. Then you learn about acting. Because, when you make love in real life, have you never pretended?"

Here's the surprising thing: Douglas, who made male lechery quasi-heroic in Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, whose off-screen appetites were legendary, and who reportedly attended a rehabilitation clinic in the early 1990s for "sex addiction", is now assiduously reinventing himself as a devoted husband and family man (the couple have two children, Dylan, three, and Carys, one, as well as Douglas's son Cameron, 25, by his first marriage). When he married Zeta-Jones, he was the senior partner and she was the trophy wife. Now he seems content to take a back seat.

"People go different ways around my point in life. Either you've got so many marriages behind you that you have to work your ass off just to survive. Or you're kind of happy, and you can pick and choose. The only reason to have kids at my age is to enjoy it, and I'm having a ball with them and being able to be around for Catherine. Look, women's careers are pretty finite; it's a bit rough on them. She's 34, and she wants to do some pictures. And I support that."

I ask about reports that Diandra, his first wife of 23 years, is planning a revealing book about their marriage, and he shrugs. "I hadn't heard that. But I know she's in a large custody battle with her boyfriend, so she may, because if that happens, it's going to be expensive for her. But I'm not concerned about it."

Douglas exudes composure. At the "acting masterclass", which is the ostensible purpose of his visit to Taormina, he flatters his hosts with complimentary references to Italian actors or cameramen he has worked with and tells a couple of very funny stories against himself. Yet, for a respected player and two-time Oscar-winner (as producer, for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and as actor, for Wall Street), his conversation is unexpectedly peppered with references to insecurity and rejection.

"I did not begin with a passion for acting. I used to have a waste basket right off stage and, just before I went on, I would be sick. I don't know why I went through the pain. It became like a challenge to overcome. Any son or daughter of a successful father or mother takes longer to find their own identity.

"Then when I started in film and television, I hated that too. Somebody said to me, 'You know, the camera can tell when you're lying.' I was terrified. Then one day, I realised: bullshit. You lie all the time. Acting is about believing, but it's also about lying. Looking somebody right in the eye and lying your brains out. Once I understood that, it freed me up."

Douglas has had some memorable roles, in Black Rain, Falling Down and The Game, but his last two films, It Runs in the Family and The In-Laws, were resounding flops. His last substantial performance was as a washed-up college professor in Wonder Boys (2000). It bombed too. "It was like a punch in the gut and hurt my confidence in terms of understanding what was going on. My father's favourite movie is Lonely are the Brave, which nobody saw when it came out and nobody's seen since. You always like to believe that, 20 years later, a film like that will become a classic. Nada!"

He slipped out from Kirk's shadow by becoming a producer, and had great success with films such as The China Syndrome, Romancing the Stone and, more recently, Face/Off. But it is, he admits, becoming tougher: "Our industry is getting very strange out there. The studios, which I thought were pretty big when I was growing up, are now a tiny, tiny piece of these huge entertainment conglomerates, and so a movie is not good enough if it's just a success. It has to support a franchise. It has to have a video game, a soundtrack. More and more people you go to meet at the studios have no film history, but are just corporate executives."

Meanwhile, Douglas is a noted activist: his official website lists good causes ranging from artists' rights to juvenile diabetes. "I'm a Messenger of Peace for the United Nations and I've produced a documentary in Sierra Leone about child soldiers. I'm going to go and do another one in the Congo on small arms trafficking." Not that he wants to be seen as a knee-jerk leftie. "It was a terrible mistake to invade Iraq; obviously everybody would agree with hindsight. I'm more concerned with the 800lb gorilla mentality and the anti-American residue that our administration has created with its arrogance.

"I haven't seen Fahrenheit 9/11 yet, but there was an article in the International Herald Tribune that said that people on the fence who see it leave definitely not wanting to vote for Bush. At a time when I am very depressed with American cinema in general, wouldn't it be wonderful to have a film affect an election, as opposed to a bomb in Madrid?"

Douglas goes on to talk vaguely about various producing or acting projects he's "really excited" about. But the only title that specifically comes up is a screen version of Arthur Miller's 1991 play The Ride Down Mt Morgan, in which he would play a bigamist whose two wives meet for the first time when he is hospitalised after an accident. And even that is unconfirmed.

Does he plan to work with Zeta-Jones (they both appeared in Soderbergh's Traffic but had no scenes together)? There was talk of a West End production of Noël Coward's Private Lives, and a film, Monkeyface, which Stephen Frears would direct, but which ran into funding difficulties. "The short-term history of husbands and wives, or lovers, doing pictures together is not great. I don't believe audiences get excited about their romantic scenes because there's not that edge. They think, 'Hell, they're going home tonight and doing it.' " He jokes that The War of the Roses (in which he and Kathleen Turner played a bitterly feuding couple) would be ideal. "But it's important for Catherine to have her space."

A couple of hours later, I spot Douglas leaving a local open-air restaurant. He's mobbed, of course, before being swept by the black suits into a limo, but takes a second to stick his head out the car window and plant a kiss on a fan's cheek. During our conversation, he was spinning, for sure. Maybe - who knows? - he was even lying his brains out. But I admired his pragmatism and grace under pressure. His professional future might be uncertain, but he seems genuinely contented.


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