It's good to be the 'King'

Putting family ahead of filmmaking, Michael Douglas goes the indie route

Posted: September 25, 2007

TORONTO - At the Toronto International Film Festival, even the biggest stars have to work through lunch.

Michael Douglas ("Fatal Attraction," "Romancing the Stone," "Wall Street"), son of actor Kirk Douglas and husband of actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, was snacking on brownies in the lounge of Intercontinental Hotel (he said he liked them, so a waitress brought out a plate of two brownies, two chocolate-nut bars and five cupcakes).

Douglas was at the festival earlier this month to promote "King of California" (opening Friday), a small, independent film in which he plays a quixotic, perhaps crazy, treasure-hunting father opposite Evan Rachel Wood ("Across the Universe").

It's a nice fit for the post-"Wonder Boys" actor, who has been mellowed by a second marriage, two young children and a home life away from Hollywood. In person, in the middle of a day of press, he was not only gracious and friendly, everyone around him was. (Today, by the way, is Douglas' 63rd birthday, and his wife turns 38.)

As a child of the industry and an Oscar-winning producer ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") who's overseen nearly 20 films, Douglas probably knows as much about the movie business as any actor, and he's both laid-back and forthcoming.

The Daily News talked with him about his new movie, independent films, his wife and the arms race.

Q: You've starred in so many big studio films. What drew you to "King of California"?

A: It's always the script, whether I produce in it or act in it, whether I think it's going to be a good movie. I don't see any benefit in having a great part if I think it's a lousy movie. This was fresh, to my mind, original, quirky. I love mixing up comedy with drama . . . And there were certain themes that resonated - reconciliation, urbanization, mental health. It's sort of what you dream about, a picture that can be entertaining and when you leave the theater gives you something to talk about.

Q: Are so many big stars making indies because that's where the meatier roles are?

A: Yeah, very much so. I think you've lost a lot of good writers to television in the last 10 years, just because it's more financially rewarding. Secondly, there's this huge disparity between $50-$60 million movies and $20-$25 million movies because of their cost combined with the big bugaboo, which is marketing costs. People shy away from them. So then you're forced down into independent pictures, and there is a method to the madness - out of passion, you get actors to cut their salaries.

. . . But even within this so-called indie world you have either studio indies - Warner Independent, Focus, all that - which, with all due respect, are just smaller-budgeted pictures that still can suck the mother's breast as far as marketing and distribution. As opposed to a film like "King of California," which is truly independent.

Q: You've worked with so many actresses. What was it like working with Evan Rachel Wood, who was 19 at the time?

A: Just a joy. It's a great moment when you know on the first day of shooting that you're with somebody really, really good. After the script, casting is so important, particularly when you're dealing with a first-time director like Mike Cahill, who also wrote it, who has a lot of things to worry about besides giving actors notes. And so she made it easy. She's a wonderful actress, very professional, and I'd just like to blow her horn in this day and age when so many young actors and actresses are getting such bad press. They should take a lesson from her. She's the real thing.

Q: What kind of work do you do with the U.N.?

A: I've worked with the United Nations as a Messenger of Peace, concerned with the area of nuclear disarmament. And I'm really optimistic for the first time - I've been dealing with this subject matter for 25 years, since "The China Syndrome" - that there's a real opportunity to see a dramatic reduction in nuclear weapons around the world.

. . . Sometimes you get overwhelmed with all these 21st-century issues - global warming, population, poverty, deforestation - but this is one that you can actually do something dramatic about. So I'm working hard, getting that message out there with the upcoming elections.

Q: Do you and your wife try to alternate projects for the sake of the children?

A: I let Catherine call the shots. She's 25 years younger than I am, in the prime of her career, and my priorities have changed. My family comes first - I could never say that before. But we try to have one of us around. It's one of the reasons I love these tight indie schedules. I come out of television [Douglas co-starred in "The Streets of San Francisco" from 1972-75], I'm used to working fast, so it's fine by me. *

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