Michael Douglas on playing Liberace - the man behind the candelabra
His turn as Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s biopic has the critics raving. Michael Douglas talks about his portrayal of the camp piano man, his own brush with cancer and Hollywood’s continuing problem with gay roles
I wonder whether Douglas would have accepted such a role 20 years ago.
“No, not in the prime of my career,” he says, with admirable frankness. “I wouldn’t have taken this role. I would have been scared in terms of where everything was at in the gay situation 20 years ago. We’ve come a long way. I don’t know. Matt is in the prime of his career and he didn’t even think about it. But there are not a lot of guys who, in Matt’s position, wouldn’t blink when offered that part even now.”
But why, exactly? Is the industry still so blinkered that playing a gay role could rule you out of future romantic leads? It seems absurd.
“It’s an identity that you might still be nervous about,” Douglas shrugs.
The role also presented more than a few technical difficulties. Liberace may have produced the cheesiest music imaginable, but there is little doubt that he knew his way around a keyboard. In the opening sections we see Michael zip through a boogie woogie with astonishing dexterity. It looks as if he’s now a bit of a maestro himself.
“I am not an accomplished piano player,” he laughs. “Steven originally gave me a piano teacher. But I said: ‘Promise me you can use a piece that we have Lee playing on film, so that I can copy it.’ So, I spent hours getting that right. I reckoned if the hands were in the right place only a few people would realise that I wasn’t doing it.”
Though he still looks a little delicate, Douglas seems to regard Behind the Candelabra as his first step on a new journey through life. There have been a few of those. It rather takes one aback to note that he has now been married to Zeta Jones for well over a decade. They have two children.
“I drifted away from acting. I have been married for 13 years, but I still consider myself in a new marriage,” he says, rather quaintly. “I never anticipated starting a new family and I have really enjoyed raising my kids. My priorities are completely different.”
One can’t help but return to that bout with cancer. Such an ordeal must colour every subsequent experience.
“I lost several people I know recently. Larry Hagman died recently from the same cancer,” he says, glancing at the vast carpet of blue behind my shoulder.
“Yeah, yeah. You smell the roses a bit more.”