Michael Douglas on Bad Guys, Stage Fright, and Ant-Man

Michael Douglas. Photo: Getty

Michael Douglas was up at the Toronto Film Festival this week touting The Reach, where he stars as an avaricious big-game hunter who commits an accidental murder in the desert, then chases the innocent tracker (Jeremy Irvine) who happens to witness it. Douglas has played a lot of villains over the course of his career, but his Reach baddie is perhaps the most cut-and-dry of any of them, an out-and-out monster who drives an ultra-jacked SUV, barks evil orders into a satellite phone, and screams at our poor hero, "Why don't you just DIE!" What made Douglas go so far to the dark side? He sat down with Vulture a few days ago to explain, as well as to chat about his next project, the Marvel movie Ant-Man.

At the premiere, you said you took this archvillain role because, "Culturally, we're back to good guys and bad guys." Tell me about that.
I mean, I think that with ISIS in particular and Putin’s move in Ukraine, that we have a consensus that these guys are bad guys, black hats. Back in my father's time, with John Wayne movies and World War II, we had good guys and bad guys, but I'm a product of the Vietnam War. Most of my career’s been in that grey area.

Do you think that's why superhero movies are so popular right now, because we're more drawn to clear-cut good guys and bad guys?
That’s a very good point, but I don’t know. Every time I get involved with a picture, it's always from an emotional point of view, not an analytical one. I've never done a picture, per se, because I was second-guessing the audience — it's because I felt passionate about it.

The Reach is an unusual movie. It's got an art-house vibe, but at the same time, it's a total exploitation B-movie thriller.
Yeah, we’re definitely on the periphery as far as a film festival is concerned. You know, we snuck in there. But it’s more, the story itself is, in its thriller aspects, is much more commercially in line. It’s not too subtle.

Do you think people will be surprised to see you in a film like this?
I don’t think so. I’ve been pretty lucky — although everyone tries to stereotype me for my Gordon Gekko Wall Street character, I think I’ve had a pretty diversified career in terms of types of characters. The only thing is, my entire career has been contemporary roles, you know? That was not planned. But I always hear from people, "When I see your name, I don’t know what I’m going to see, but I know it’s going to be good." And I say, "I’ll take that any time."

Since The Reach takes place in the hot, expansive desert, it can't have been an easy movie for you to shoot.
It wasn’t. We were out there for real, but at the same time, there were no surprises. It’s not like when we did Black Rain and went to Japan and all of a sudden realized that they don’t treat filmmaking quite the same way that they do in the States. You don’t get the cooperation — that’s why in Japanese movies here, they’re always set in the countryside, because in the cities, there is no cooperation. So my point is, you know what you’re getting into on a movie, and then you rise to the challenge and do the best that you can. For me, that’s still the exciting part of it. I enjoy working under pressure and flying without a net.

You've been acting for decades. Do you still learn new things about yourself as a performer, even now?
Yeah, I would say that after my cancer bout, I’m much freer as an actor. Maybe it’s a question of not having anything to prove, but I’m more comfortable with myself and enjoy acting more after that whole experience. Part of it may just be because I'm alive and functioning, but I find I have more confidence and more desire to try different things.

Was there ever a time when you didn't enjoy acting?
For a long time I had a lot of stage fright, and I was very intimidated by the camera. Early on, someone made the mistake of telling me that the camera can always tell when you’re lying, and I was like, Oh my God! So I turned into a method actor for a while, and then one day I realized, Wait a minute, I lie every day, and there's no thunder or lightning coming down and striking me. Acting is about lying. That’s all acting is. And that eureka moment changed things around a lot for me.

You looked like you were enjoying your time at Comic-Con this year, where you were touting Ant-Man.
Well, I brought my 14-year-old son along, and I sort of lived it through him. The bizarre thing, he was the youngest kid there! Most of it is these weird geeky, 40-, 50-year-olds, guys who were comics addicts when they were kids. I remember reading a few comics when I was a kid, but not like these people! I don’t know where these people come from. They kind of remind me of Ken Kesey up in Oregon, macrobiotic freaks coming out of the mountains bare-footed. Who are these people? It was an education.

How's Peyton Reed, who took over Ant-Man after Edgar Wright left?
He’s good. I haven’t started yet, actually — I go down tomorrow, and it’s my first day. So I’ve met him a couple times, but he seems to be in control of this beast, this wild beast. Marvel has got it down to a science, pretty much, and they've got kind of a phenomenal track record. I love this picture they did this summer, Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s really good! I think that's given Marvel the confidence to step out in this whole new area, so I’m looking forward to adding to it.