As Gordon Gekko with Charlie Sheen in the original Wall Street (1987)
With Shia LaBeouf in this year's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
At Spago's Restaurant, Hollywood (1983)
With his father, Kirk Douglas, at the 14th Annual People's Choice Awards, 20th Century Fox Studios (1988)
At the 60th Annual Academy Awards (1988)
At the Golden Laurel Awards, Beverly Wilshire Hotel (1994)
At Mann's Chinese Theatre (1997)
With Catherine Zeta-Jones at the LA premiere of The Muse (1999)
By Laurie Brookins | November 2, 2010 | People
There’s a line in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps that most succinctly captures the seismic shift that has occurred since we all drank the Kool-Aid of Oliver Stone’s “greed is good” mantra back in 1987: “I’m small-time compared to these crooks,” Gordon Gekko remarks, with more than a little bitterness, to his estranged daughter’s fiancé, played by Shia LaBeouf.
Michael Douglas knows such a line was integral to the evolution in his best-known film role. “Sure, the whole world has changed since then, hasn’t it?” he says. Indeed, two decades have passed when we pick up Gekko’s story at the start of the much-anticipated sequel, which opened in late September, and both the film’s characters and its real-life audience are surveying a decidedly altered landscape: The barons of Wall Street aren’t the cocksure kings of even five years ago.
Now, when it comes to our mortgages and Tmoney-market accounts, America as a whole most definitely has trust issues. Douglas’ life has undergone a wealth of change as well—though at the time of our conversation in early August, it was yet to be revealed just how much. On the day we sat down in the Upper West Side apartment Douglas shares with his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and their two children, the 66-year-old actor was affable, breezy even, eager to talk about Wall Street, as well as a smaller independent film he starred in that was released earlier in the year, the Steven Soderbergh-produced Solitary Man.
“In our business sometimes you have to get out there and be a salesman,” he says of his enthusiasm for the latter, which enjoyed solid reviews amid a limited release. Yet Douglas was also in New York that week to see physicians and undergo tests that would ultimately determine that the sore throat plaguing him throughout the summer was actually cancer. He began treatment in late summer, and he was optimistic, telling David Letterman his chances of recovery were roughly 80 percent.
Douglas’ Aspen Ties
But those were headlines for another day; on this Tuesday afternoon, Douglas is open to all other questions, including talk of Aspen. “A very important place for us,” he calls it. “You know, I proposed to Catherine there, on New Year’s Eve 1999, right on the millennium. We were both sick as dogs; she could barely pronounce yes through the sniffles.” (November 18 marks the couple’s 10th anniversary.)
Ask Douglas about Aspen, and his thoughts turn to “decades of memories and dear friends, and a lot of great Christmases.” A self-avowed “intermediate, fair-weather” Snowmass [http://www.aspensnowmass.com/] skier (troubled by knee problems in recent years, he underwent knee-replacement surgery in 2009), Douglas has been an Aspen regular since 1974.
Looking Back on Michael Douglas
“Back then you couldn’t tell the players without a program,” he says. “No one really asked too much. You lived in the present, in the moment, and there wasn’t a lot of schmoozing, business or otherwise. Has it changed? Sure, but I like to think it’s kept its soul.”
Most prominently an Aspen resident in the 1990s while codeveloping Wildcat Ranch, a 6,500-acre retreat of 14 homesteads, Douglas has been based in Bermuda with Zeta-Jones since 2001, making quick trips to Colorado difficult. “I wish we could get there more, but especially with the kids, the logistics were just becoming too difficult,” he says. “It remains one of our favorite places, and I still like to get to the Aspen Institute when I can, [and] when Teddy Forstmann is doing programs. But having young children in school and being on the East Coast can change your focus.”
For now he and Zeta-Jones have opted for New York as their home base, presumably for his treatment, but also because of the schooling chosen for the couple’s two children, Dylan, 10, and Carys, 7. But it’s clear there’s still a bit of the Wildcat in Michael Douglas: “[New York] is a fabulous city; I grew up here. But I must say, be it Aspen or Bermuda, I like a backyard. I like going outside.”
Considering that he loves Aspen and his father excelled at westerns, it seems curious that Douglas has spent zero time on a horse during his career. “I think I’ve only done one period film in my life, so I guess I’m fascinated by contemporary angst,” he says. “I like to embrace the flaws. When you’re dealing in contemporary times and not using much in the way of special effects, darkness is your friend. And I’ve played some dark guys.”
Gordon Gekko Redux
Gordon Gekko, of course, is a prime example. While films these days tend to get bogged down in a development process that can last years,
was the exception, coming together relatively quickly. Producer Edward Pressman and Twentieth Century Fox approached Douglas in 2008 about reprising the role, right around the moment the economic downturn was truly taking hold. “Originally Oliver [Stone] wasn’t sure at all about the idea, and then they got the script from [cowriters] Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff,” Douglas remembers.
“Oliver felt the material was strong enough, and he certainly added a lot to it in the way that he does, focusing in on the detail.” Filming took place in the second half of 2009, with principal shooting wrapping right before Christmas, Douglas says.
What was it like to return to a character like Gekko? Douglas points to the opening shot: Just released from prison, Gekko is stripped not only of his wealth and his family, but also the accoutrements that marked his baron persona—except, that is, for the hefty, late-’80s cell phone and a money clip returned to him upon his release, a comic touch added by Stone. When we see Douglas’ face for the first time, it is bare, dismal, a little ravaged by time and the disappointment of years away from the proverbial mountaintop.
“[Gekko] doesn’t have any of his defenses of the first film,” Douglas explains of that moment. “He doesn’t have the slicked-back hair, the suits that help the characterization, so it was a little nerve-wracking in terms of feeling very exposed.”
And little chance that the director would coddle him through the experience. “I’m so fond of Oliver, but we definitely have an adversarial relationship—we certainly test each other,” Douglas says with a laugh. “He’s not a father figure [on set]; he treats you like he can trust you in the trench, so I can’t say it’s a warm and fuzzy feeling. But you do some of your best work with him.”
From the Big Screen to Broadway
Douglas is equally proud of Solitary Man, which was released on DVD just before Wall Street’s opening. Douglas plays Ben Kalmen, a former auto dealer who’s on the skids after being caught cooking the books. Divorced with a grown daughter, Kalmen is driven by the dual desires to be back on top and stave off old age, causing him to make questionable choices in work and women as he attempts to rebuild his life—in other words, he’s another dark guy.
“He’s this full-steam-ahead car dealer who figures if he just keeps talking, he’ll be all right,” Douglas says. “It was a little indie picture, and sometimes those just need all the help they can get, especially because great material isn’t everywhere these days. So I like to sort of wedge it in there and say, ‘Please check this out, too.’”
Set for 2011 release is Haywire, the Soderbergh directed action film about a female black-ops soldier (played by martial-arts star Gina Carano) seeking revenge after she’s set up and betrayed on a mission. When we spoke, Douglas also expressed enthusiasm for starting the Liberace project that’s scheduled to begin shooting late next spring. “I met him a couple of times; he was a trip,” Douglas says. “It’s a very good script by Richard LaGravenese. And I love trying different things.”
Perhaps that’s the thought that feeds another item on Douglas’ wish list: Inspired by Zeta-Jones’ Tony award-winning stint in A Little Night Music, Douglas says he’d like to explore taking a role on Broadway. “I’d like to do something charming and nice, and hopefully humorous—perhaps get away from the darkness for a while.”
Such plans are all now contingent on the progress of Douglas’ treatment. But on that day in that wood-paneled Upper West Side apartment, surrounded by framed photos of friends and families, one only gets the sense that Michael Douglas, unlike Gordon Gekko and all those dark guys, is nothing if not an eternal optimist. “At a certain point in your life, you realize that you must choose how to spend your time, and that you’re responsible to your family,” he said when I asked about how he approaches work these days. “So right now I’m going to take a little time to figure it all out.”
ABOVE: Photograph by Platon. Hair by Kerrie Smith. Makeup by Todd Kleitsch. PHOTOGRAPHS BY BARRY WETCHER (WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS); PHOTOGRAPH BY PLATON. BLAZER, EMPORIO ARMANI. TURTLENECK, PERRY ELLIS (2010) SLIDESHOW: Photographs courtesy of Corbis and WireImage.com