By James Hibberd
Updated January 06, 2013 at 12:00 PM EST

HBO gave TV critics a first look at the trailer for its upcoming Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra. The movie, which stars Michael Douglas as the legendary performer who redefined theatricality and Matt Damon as his young lover Scott Thorson, had critics abuzz at the network’s press tour in Pasadena. Some of the critical chatter partly seemed to be a reaction to seeing Douglas and Damon in such flamboyant roles. At one point Douglas was asked if he felt a “jolt” being in “Liberace-type clothes” and I overheard critics calling the performances “brave” (that standard odd compliment that’s used whenever a straight actor plays a gay character). Indeed, Douglas called Damon courageous just for joining him on the project. “I don’t think I would have had the courage at that point in my career to take this on,” Douglas says.

Some things we learned about Behind the Candelabra, which is based on Thorson’s memoir, during the HBO press tour panel:

Director Steven Soderbergh approached Douglas about playing Liberace 13 years ago on the set of Traffic. “Somewhere early in the shoot, Steven said, ‘You know, have you ever thought about Liberace?'” Douglas recalls. “And I looked at him and thought, ‘Is this guy messing with me, you know?’ That’s how early the idea was going on.” Soderbergh adds, “And [Douglas] immediately launched into an impromptu impression of him that was excellent.”

Damon spent “days and days and days” in meticulous wardrobe fittings. “I’ve always been somebody who goes into the wardrobe fitting and I just try to get out as fast as I can,” Damon says. “But this was a very specific thing. And I probably spent more time in the wardrobe fittings on this thing than I had in the previous 15 projects, literally. And I really enjoyed it, because [the real-life Thorson] really was taken with the glamour of this lifestyle.” Some of Liberace’s actual clothes were used as set dressings, but the actors weren’t allowed to touch them.

Douglas found a certain freedom in playing Liberace. “Characters are normally a little easier to play than people who might be closer to yourself,” Douglas says. “It’s sort of a license of freedom.” Asked about how he refined his performance, Douglas says, “There’s a tremendous amount of clips and films that certainly give you a sense. Basically [it’s a] repetition process of looking at a lot of stuff and finding that balance [and] knowing you’re not an impersonator. You’re not going to ever be exactly like Liberace and [you try] to find the balance that makes you comfortable, makes Steven secure and makes myself attractive to Matt.” A reporter asked Damon if he found Douglas attractive. “Very, very attractive,” Damon says playfully.

Damon says the film presents level of intimacy that we haven’t seen in a gay on-screen relationship. “Whether this was [Liberace and Thorson’s relationship] dynamic or not, I completely believed what he’d written and those aspects of the power dynamic,” Damon says. “If this was a relationship between a man and a woman, you’d feel at moments like, ‘This is too intimate, maybe I shouldn’t be here.’ But it’s between a man and a man, and I’ve never seen that movie before. And so it was fun, but we weren’t giggling about it. We took it very seriously. These were people’s lives and we wanted to get it right and we wanted to get the script right.”