— No one plays charmingly sleazy better than Michael Douglas.
“I’ve had a lot of practice,” the actor says with a laugh while sipping tea in a Manhattan hotel room. “I like the ambivalence (of the characters). I like the fact that you like to hate them but you still kind of accept them.”
The Academy Award winner — he won for playing the monumentally sleazy Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street” — built a career playing corrupt businessmen, womanizers and bad fathers. In Douglas’ new film “Solitary Man,” which opens in select cities May 21, he is all of the above, in the same character.
Through a series of bad decisions, Douglas' Ben Kalmen lost his family and his once-thriving car dealership. He’s desperate to regain his status among Manhattan’s elite, but can’t stop shooting himself in the foot, with such self-destructive acts as sleeping with a soccer mom at his grandson’s school.
He’s the kind of character that should be impossible to like, and easy to hate. But in Douglas’ deft hands, Kalmen is a complex, hopelessly flawed person who somehow gains your empathy. Just as he did in “The Game,” “A Perfect Murder” and “Falling Down,” Douglas toes the fine line between charming and despicable like a gifted dancer.
“It takes an extraordinary actor to play such a thoroughly detestable person,” says veteran entertainment reporter and film critic Lisa Johnson Mandell.
Character actor is emerging
“Solitary Man” marks the latest step in the reinvention of a career that has always been hard to pigeonhole.
Once synonymous with big-budget dramas and slick thrillers like “Black Rain,” Douglas is transforming himself into a character actor in the late stages of his career with a steady balance of supporting parts and independent film work.
It’s quite a change for the man who, after the 1987 one-two punch of “Fatal Attraction” and “Wall Street,” became America’s leading-man scoundrel.
Yes, he was “The American President,” but the enduring image of Michael Douglas for most movie fans lies with his dark, underbellied turns in “Basic Instinct” and “Disclosure.” And he’s fine with that.
“For some people, there’s security and safety in having an image and nurturing it and cultivating it,” he says. “But…I’ve never had to worry about the dark, slick character aspect of some of my parts.”
“The best compliment I get is, ‘when I see your name, I don’t know what the movie’s going to be about, but I know it’s going to be good.’”
Aging out of action flicks
While actresses typically have a much shorter career lifespan, Father Time eventually comes calling for Hollywood’s male contingent, too. Unlike some of his equally long-in-the-tooth contemporaries, when the box-office receipts grew smaller, Douglas saw the writing on the wall.
After the glossy thriller “The Sentinel” was released in 2006, the then-61-year-old Douglas knew that would likely be his last action film because he could barely keep up with co-star Eva Longoria in some of the chase scenes.
“At a certain point, you just start looking silly,” says Yahoo! Movies managing editor Matt McDaniel. “Harrison Ford tried to hang on to being an action star for too long. He passed on good dramatic parts — like the lead role in "Traffic" that went to Michael Douglas.”
So Douglas started acting his age. Instead of chasing more lothario roles, he turned to comedies. He poked fun at his own image with supporting work in “You, Me & Dupree” and “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.” Then he starred as Evan Rachel Wood’s mentally unstable father in the quirky indie comedy “King of California.”
“Thank you for bringing up “King of California.” That’s the kind of picture that’s disheartening because I did that with all my heart, and then it basically goes right to DVD,” Douglas lamented. “You don’t really get a theatrical release or anything. It’s tough out there [for independent movies].”
He found the six-week, barebones shooting schedule of “Solitary Man” exhausting and exhilarating. Despite a stellar cast that includes Susan Sarandon, Mary-Louise Parker, Jesse Eisenberg and his longtime friend Danny DeVito, Douglas is in nearly every scene. Which makes sense, considering writer-directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien wrote the script with Douglas in mind.
“I thought [Ben] was such a funny and interesting guy who was so on top of his game,” Douglas said, “and then to lose your confidence, in this case, a fear of mortality…I just kept reading [the script], not knowing where it’s going.”
Douglas, whose son Cameron was recently sent to prison on drug charges, also found common ground between his character and his real-life family issues. Drawing upon personal experiences, the actor admits, is something he’s always done in his movies.
After "Solitary Man," Douglas makes a detour from the indie movie world and returns to familiar high-concept, big-budget ground. He’s reprising his signature role as disgraced financier Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”
The sequel, just the second of Douglas’ career, debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, and was pushed back to September after an original April release date.
Douglas says he is glad for the extra time, saying it gave director Oliver Stone more time to fine-tune the picture. And with the country in the midst of a recession, just as it was when the original “Wall Street” opened in 1987, Douglas thinks this new film will strike a nerve with audiences.
“It’s the right time for it,” he said.
When asked about his current career renaissance, Douglas, who recently relocated to New York because his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones is performing on Broadway, insists his recent acting choices are not part of some carefully thought-out plan.
“There is no grand scheme,” Douglas says. “I try to do some commercial pictures. I’ve just always gone for the movie, a movie I wanted to see. Like with “Falling Down” or “War of the Roses.”
When asked why, considering his net worth is somewhere north of $200 million, he still wants to grind it out on an low-budget film set, Douglas is reminded of his dad, 93-year-old Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas.
“My dad called me up [recently] to talk about a script he wants to make into a movie, and he’s 93!” Douglas laughs. “It reminded me. We’re lucky to be able to do this.”