The Michael Douglas method: How ‘Fatal Attraction’ changed his acting approach


TORONTO — It wasn’t until “Fatal Attraction” that Michael Douglas found his comfort zone as an actor.

The two-time Oscar winner, who plays an acting coach alongside Alan Arkin as his longtime agent in Chuck Lorre’s new Netflix dramedy series “The Kominsky Method,” says his own start to the craft was rocky.

“I was a terrible auditioner. I was a guy who had stage fright terribly, and for a long time in my career was not comfortable in front of the camera,” Douglas, 74, recalled in a recent phone interview from his office in Northern Westchester County, N.Y.

“Somebody had advised me early in my career that the camera can always tell when you’re lying, and I took that to heart and became a bit of a method actor, just sort of taking me down to the bare skeleton. Acting was painful.”

But while preparing to play a New York lawyer caught up in a dangerous affair with Glenn Close’s character in the 1987 psychological erotic thriller “Fatal Attraction,” he had an epiphany.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute — I tell white lies from time to time, I tell whoppers from time to time. Acting is about lying. Acting is just about being a good liar,'” Douglas said. “I remember having this hysterical, cathartic giggle and then laugh and almost like a switch went off.

“After that, acting became joyful and fun, because it was a game. Whether it was dramatic or funny, it was a game in seduction, of convincing somebody that you were telling the truth.”

The next year, Douglas won a best-actor Oscar for his role as ruthless financier Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street.” It was his second Oscar after the one he got for producing 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

While Douglas’s career continues to thrive, his character in “The Kominsky Method,” launching Friday, is facing a crisis of not landing the parts he wants and trying to remain relevant.

He and Arkin’s character are also facing the harsh realities of getting older. As they comically taunt each other for their ages, they also share tender moments as the ticking of time reminds them of their mortality.

Douglas didn’t know Arkin before doing the series and was heartened when he watched one of their scenes and felt like the characters had “known each other for 40 years,” he said.

Douglas’s character has a cancer scare, which brought to mind the actor’s own battle with throat cancer in 2010. As Douglas has revealed in the past, it was Dr. Saul Frenkiel of Montreal who was instrumental in finding his tumour and advised him on the proper course of treatment.

“I was impressed after having two full go-arounds here in the States with misdiagnosis,” said the New Jersey native, who’s the elder son of legendary actor Kirk Douglas.

“I had a problem and I was nine months into trying to find out with antibiotics and this and that before it was discovered in Canada.”

Douglas said he was a big fan of Lorre, creator and producer of a slew of hit network sitcoms, including “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory.”

“The Big Bang Theory,” he noted, is one of the few series suitable for viewing with his whole family, which includes his wife, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones and their two teenagers.

Douglas was also attracted to the sharp writing and “the nuance and the beauty of going from comedy to tragedy back to comedy again.”

And he got to work with his old pal, Danny DeVito, who plays a proctologist in the series.

“He’s my oldest friend,” Douglas said. “We’ve known each other since 1967, we were roommates together in New York City, 1968, ’69.”

In crafting his character, Douglas channelled his own acting coach from the start of his career, New York City-based Wynn Handman.

“He was a more gentler coach,” Douglas said. “I think he dealt with students who were still struggling with their confidence, as I was, and really trying to build up and bolster your confidence.

“Confidence is half the battle of what anybody does, whether they’re an actor or anything they’re doing in life.”

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press