Not too long ago, it would have seemed unlikely that someone like Michael Douglas — a man's man known for sexy movies with Glenn Close and Sharon Stone — would play Liberace, the gaudy piano star who somehow tricked the world into thinking he was straight as an arrow. Times have changed, and now Douglas is doing a movie where he makes out and has sex with Matt Damon. (It's still only premiering on HBO this Sunday, not on every multiplex screen. But it's a start.) "Behind the Candelabra," in which he plays the entertainer in the latter part of his life, also reunites him with his "Traffic" director, Steven Soderbergh.
What are your memories of Liberace?
I met him once, briefly, when I was 12. At the time, my father [Kirk Douglas] owned a house in Palm Springs, close to Lee Liberace’s home. One sunny day, this Rolls Royce stopped in front of the house and Lee stepped out. He was wearing lots of gold and the sunlight was reflecting off his jewelry. He was a sort of pre-Elton John. He invited that style. He was a charming man. He loved entertaining and beautiful things.
How did Steven Soderbergh convince you to do the part?
In 2001, when we were filming "Traffic," Steven asked me, "Have you ever thought of doing something about Liberace?" I wondered how that character could possibly make him think of me. I was a bit paranoid at the time, so I tried to thank him and slip away! But then, years later, Steven came across this book, "Behind the Candelabra." Richard LaGravenese, the scriptwriter, showed it to Matt Damon, telling him he would be [Liberace's lover] Scott [Thorson] and I, Liberace. This happened right after my cancer, and offering me this role was a great gift. I will be eternally grateful to Matt and Steven for waiting until I got better.
How did you identify with this role?
I normally play the bad or ambiguous guy. But once you start doing your research on Lee, you realize that he was a generous man. It’s the first time that I play a famous character. I was a bit nervous at first because Lee was a strong Polish guy, much bigger and more built than me. So for me, it was all about getting his voice right. I watched documentaries and as I don’t play the piano, I focused on mimicking his hand gestures.
How did you get the physical look of Liberace?
When we first saw the masks, we were horrified! It was like we had just walked out of a plastic surgery! But it had to look as real as possible and so we spent a lot of time in the makeup chair. And before you know it, everything seems to come together. You put on the right outfit, have the right hairdo and there you go. It was a wonderful experience.