Sitting in a cabana at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc near Cannes, France, on May 19, Michael Douglas looks out over the Mediterranean and sighs. His raspy voice is more gravelly since his 2010 treatment for stage IV throat cancer, but he’s regained most of his weight and all his vitality. For the first time in a while, the actor, 68, is gaining more attention for his work—earning raves for his transformation into glitz-loving pianist Liberace in Behind the Candelabra, on HBO May 26 – than his personal life. The job was a bright spot after a run of hard times. “I needed some good news,” Douglas says. “I’ve gone through a couple years of cancer, and I’ve got major issues with my older son.” That’s Cameron, 34, who is in the midst of a nine-year federal prison sentence stemming from a 2009 drug bust. “He’s a great person,” says the star, who regularly writes to his son. He’s also been supporting his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, 43, in her ongoing battle with bipolar II disorder. After entering a treatment facility for the second time this April, “she’s home tomorrow,” he says, smiling. “I can’t wait to see her.” Meanwhile he’s revisiting the famed hotel, which still displays a photo of his own dad, Kirk Douglas, 96. After a lifetime of fame, Douglas has learned what matters most. “I’m feeling good,” he says. “I’m still here.”
It’s been three years since your cancer diagnosis. How do you feel now?
I can’t believe how far I’ve come. I got this picture, then Last Vegas, with Robert De Niro, which was a wonderful experience. Next week I start shooting with Rob Reiner and Diane Keaton. Then in the fall I’m producing a thriller. It never ends. I have this new – I don’t want to say false – sense of energy. I’m making up for a couple of years I missed.
You were barely out of the woods when you decided to play Liberace – quite a departure for you. Did you hesitate?
Sure, you go through all kinds of fears and anxieties, but I go on my instincts. The initial fear was that he was a really big, barrel-chested guy. And I was still recovering from cancer. To their credit, both Steven [Soderbergh, the director] and Matt Damon had other pictures to take on, so we postponed for a year. I’ve always thought, “Sure, they had other projects,” but they knew I wasn’t ready. Physically I wasn’t near right. It just gave me a whole chunk of time to get it together.
What was the hardest part about playing the over-the-top pianist?
Having never taken longer than half an hour for hair and makeup, to be sitting there for two and a half hours. And sometimes with two changes, you’d have six hours in the chair. The whole thing with the baldness – I love when he takes his toupee off. We knew it was going to have that kind of startling reaction.
And you have steamy scenes with Matt, who plays Liberace’s longtime lover.
I forgot it was Matt and me after about 10 minutes, and then I forgot it was two guys. The fights, they were like a married couple arguing over the same stuff. Both of us are in long-standing marriages, so that makes it easier. It’s like love scenes with a girl. If you’re an actor, you gotta do it. We read the script; we knew what we had to do. The challenge was making it as real as possible. But I would tease Matt about which flavor lip gloss he’d like for me to use.
You’ve lost a number of old friends to cancer. As a survivor yourself, how has that affected you?
Larry Hagman had the same cancer I had. Nick Ashford from Ashford & Simpson was a dear friend of mine. It makes you humble. Carpe diem! It makes you more thankful, makes you appreciate your kids, because they went through it with you. And of course, your wife. It makes you very grateful.
Catherine has been very open about struggling with bipolar II disorder. How is she doing in treatment?
Things are good. Bipolar is a slippery path, and I think sometimes you don’t think you need any meds, and you get away from them, and all of a sudden, whoa. She’s doing a really good job of getting a 10,000-mile checkup. She’s doing fine and I’m proud of her.