With a recent Emmy win for his role as Liberace in HBO's Behind the Candelabra and a brand-new comedy (Last Vegas) in which he tears up the Strip with fellow legends Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, and Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas has emerged as 2013's unofficial king of Sin City—at least on screen. We caught up with the 69-year-old star right in the heart of Las Vegas, where he freely discussed his battle with tongue cancer, his movie-star batting average, his father's crazy old days on the Strip, the value of a good spray tan, and his daily De Niro kiss.
DETAILS: There are a lot of "lasts" popping up in your career right now. Behind the Candelabra was Steven Soderbergh's last film, and now we have Last Vegas. But you don't seem like a guy who's ready for "lasts." You seem like someone who's ready for "nexts."
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: Well, yes. I had a little break with stage IV cancer for about three years. It's a point where you think you're never going to work again. Then, lo and behold, I'm getting some of the best material I've ever been handed in my life, between Candelabra and Last Vegas. I just finished another picture, with Rob Reiner directing and Diane Keaton costarring, called Shadow of Your Smile. And I'm producing a little picture called The Reach. I'm very tired and sleepy, so it may be the last! [Laughs] I don't even want to think about working for a little while. But it's the magic of our business that, on this movie, the four of us, between the ages of 66 and 76, can still work and enjoy it.
DETAILS: There's something even more invigorating about seeing you on the screen now, partly because of the knowledge that you've overcome cancer and are going strong. Do you feel more inspired in your work these days, or do you approach things as you always have?
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: I feel much freer. I know I'm acting better just because I have nothing to hide. And I'm enjoying it much more. For a long time, I can't say I was one who really enjoyed acting. I was always censoring it, or editing it, or analyzing it, rather than just going with it.
DETAILS: Behind the Candelabra and Last Vegas are obviously defined by their shared setting. What's your craziest Las Vegas memory?
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: I could go all the way back to the fifties, when I was visiting my father, who was very good friends with Sinatra and Dean Martin. I remember going to some of those shows. One time, at a Sinatra show, my father surprised my stepmother on her birthday here, and this big cake was ushered in. My father had been filming in Germany, but suddenly he popped out of the cake and completely surprised my stepmother. I also have a great Kerry Packer story. Kerry Packer was a larger-than-life Australian multimedia guy who was sort of the competitor of Rupert Murdoch. I watched him win about $3 million in less than 45 minutes. He gave his cocktail waitress, who'd given him a Diet Coke, a $45,000 tip.
DETAILS: You once mentioned that one of the greatest things about Vegas, which too few people know about, is its great food. What are some of your eating habits or healthy tips you swear by?
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: I try to keep it down to a dull roar at night, cutting down my alcohol content and trying to keep the carbs out at night. [But] I'll eat anything at breakfast. We're known in the business for our breakfast burritos, which are humongous and stuffed with eggs and anything else you want. So I always have avocado and cheese and tomato and bacon.
DETAILS: You said you're cutting back on the alcohol, but what's your favorite cocktail when you allow yourself one?
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: Either vodka or martinis. But the caloric content of so many things is just astounding. And as you get older, it's a little more difficult to lose weight, so you just want to kind of maintain, burning more calories than you take in. That's basically the crux of my training.
DETAILS: Well, you're looking fantastic. No spray tan required, unlike your alter ego, Billy, in Last Vegas. Didn't I read that that was your idea—the orange tan and the "hazelnut" hair?
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: We worked on it together—the costume designer, [director] Jon Turtletaub, and I. I think Jon and I both know that guy in Beverly Hills. I did a little movie not too long ago called Solitary Man, and that was like the East Coast version of the same kind of guy—dressing in black all the time, going out with younger girls.
DETAILS: Do you ever spray tan outside of your work?
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: When I go on a holiday to a tropical place, I'll spray tan before I go. I'm not walking down the street with these white sticks [motions to his legs] sticking out. No, no, no. I wanna walk up looking like I've been there all the time. It only lasts about three days, but what the hell?
DETAILS: One of the best things about Behind the Candelabra was the way Soderbergh embedded the glitz of Vegas into his aesthetic, from the cars to your wardrobe. What was it like to wear all of that stuff?
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: It was a two-and-a-half hour job each time we put it on, and then there were all of the [costume] changes. I tried on a couple of Liberace's original robes, and I don't know how he did it. The guy was much bigger than I am, but those things were, like, 60 pounds. All those Swarovski-studded robes. And you can actually see some of them here in the Liberace museum, which just reopened. That was nice to hear.
DETAILS: Through the course of your career, you've become a style icon through your roles alone. Wall Street's Gordon Gekko defined eighties business chic, Basic Instinct's Nick Curran was a figure of nineties slickness, and Last Vegas' Billy is a sharp dresser. Which outfits and designers do you love to wear these days?
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: Although she did win the Emmy this year [for Behind the Candelabra], someone who's gone unacknowledged for way too long is costume designer Ellen Mirojnick. Ellen and I go all the way back to Fatal Attraction and Wall Street. She's just excellent, and I rely tremendously on her. In terms of designers, the Canalis are a family that have been very good to me—generous and reciprocal. Tod's is another company I like. But I've never done a lot of deals with anybody, and I'm not an overt stylist. My clothes, basically, come from costume fittings and clothes we didn't use. So it's like, "Okay, we're not using that? I'll take it."
DETAILS: Did the Last Vegas actors kept the "Asshole" and "Prick" cuff links they wear in the film—that nod to a joke from their characters' youth?
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: Oh yes, absolutely. We kept them. Good things to hang on to.
DETAILS: You were the first guy attached to the film. Who among your castmates were you closest to prior to shooting, and who did you bond with most during the course of production?
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: I was closest with Morgan Freeman, and I bonded with Bobby [De Niro] the most while doing the picture. I've known him for a long time, but only in a one-sentence, how-ya-doin' kind of way. We never really spent much time together. And then suddenly I found this guy who gives you a hug and a kiss in the morning and who's very different from what one would think. And Morgan's also very different from his persona. He's a real rascal, a major flirt, and loves to have a good time.
DETAILS: When you look back on your filmography, what do you see? What do you think about when you consider all the work that you've done?
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: A good batting average. I speak in terms of movies. Just movies. I like the level of quality. Jon and I talked about this in regard to all of the actors in our movie. We all share a pretty good batting average. There are always a few clunkers, and I don't know if I have the muscular strength to bat clean-up, but I'd be up there in the top four. I'd be batting third, probably. I've got a high average. Singles, doubles. I don't ever do those kind of epic, huge, green-screen movies. But there are a lot of pictures in there. I like my average.
—R. Kurt Osenlund is an arts and entertainment writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him at @AddisonDeTwitt.