Michael Douglas plays the bad guy in the western thriller Beyond the Reach. It’s the sort of role he’s grown comfortable with ever since he won the Oscar for playing Gordon Gekko in Wall Street: “I do like playing the heavies, I can’t say I don’t,” he admits.
In this indie, which is based on Robb White’s 1972 novel and opens in theaters and VOD on April 17, Douglas stars as a corporate big shot who rolls into New Mexico and hires a local guide (Jeremy Irvine) to hunt bighorn sheep in the sweltering Mojave desert. But when the city slicker accidentally shoots a local out in the wilderness, the relationship between the two men grows tense and dangerous after it becomes clear that the big shot has no intention of letting the tragic news reach civilization.
Douglas produced the film, which is directed by Jean-Baptiste Leonetti and written by Stephen Susco (The Grudge). (Click above to see its exclusive poster.) For the 70-year-old Oscar winner, the movie provides the perfect moment to reflect on a career full of highlights—including the 40th anniversary of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which he produced. Douglas spoke to EW about his new movie, the sad state of young American acting, and the potential return of sex to Hollywood films with Fifty Shades of Grey.
EW: It’s been years, but I read Robb White’s novel Deathwatch and always thought it would make a great movie. Has it been on your mind for a long while?
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: Yeah, I was kind of haunted by it. I read it really early on, like first year of college. I remember it as being really scary and kind of liked it a lot. I identified with the young man’s part, and just the kind of struggle against somebody who was all-powerful, you know, and the feeling of helplessness and how to overcome this incredible challenge. Then when I got involved in some literary projects, it just popped up. I thought it would be a great psychological thriller. I’m one of those meat-and-potatoes guys, and all the movies I make aren’t much for special effects or anything like that. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to make something exciting and thrilling, just a mano e mano, that type of situation. I do like playing the heavies, I can’t say I don’t.
Since you mention that, I think your character is described as a high-rolling corporate shark, not completely unlike someone like a Gordon Gekko from Wall Street. And that character became such a lightning rod beyond the movie itself when you won the Oscar for it. How did that role affect your career in terms of how the industry perceived you?
I’d played a couple of rascals, but up until then, to a certain degree, I was sort of more immersed in the sensitive young man roles. I actually kind of felt parallel to my father’s career, because it wasn’t until he did a movie called The Champion where he played a nasty-ass prize fighter—and he got an Oscar nomination for that—that he received attention. I’d already won an Oscar as a producer [for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest] before Wall Street—but the combination that year of the Fatal Attraction and Wall Street characters, which were very different than anything I’d done before, sort of created an archetype for me.
After that, the problem became all the number of corporate-raider parts that I got offered—nasty villain kind of roles. So I think that that had an instrumental part in me being able to play the villains, and the fact that I hear a lot of confirmation from fans that they really get a kick out of it. They enjoy my villainy. So yes, it’s sort of in my back pocket to a degree, and in a little film like this, you bring it up from time to time. Obviously, you try to make a mix in the roles that you play, but [Gekko] is one that you’re happy to have in your back pocket.
Jeremy Irvine plays the local hunting guide who crosses paths with your character. I’ve really liked his work in other films, and he’s another one of these talented Brits who can easily play an American. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of Selma and Unbroken and 12 Years a Slave, which also star Brits in very American roles. You’ve worked with so many actors from all continents; do you have any theories why the Brits seem to have a current advantage in winning many coveted American roles?
I’m really glad you raised that point, because I think we have a little crisis going on amongst our young actors at this point. As you say, here we have a picture with a young man out of New Mexico, where he’s spent his entire life, and graduating-of-high-school age—and once again [we] end up with a British actor. The issue I hear from casting agents is that young American actors now are very self-conscious of their image. So rather than playing truthful and themselves—it might be because of so much cable, so much stuff on the internet—they’re almost kind of capturing an image of what they think they should be, rather than playing it.
Another example I have: Wall Street II and Solitary Man, each of which called for a “New York City sophisticated 17-19 year old, somewhat spoiled, wealthy girl.” Once again, we ended up with Imogen Poots and Carey Mulligan, two British actresses playing pretty American roles. So it is an issue, and I speak about it a lot. It’s certainly commendable to what’s going on in the U.K., and I think a lot of that has to do with how London works both—you can jump fairly easily from television to movies to theater. And also, as young British actors, they know American films are still your worldwide platform, that they have to learn an American accent. So it’s relatively effortless for them. And then they happen to be pretty well-trained, disciplined actors, not concerned about their images as to just playing the role and the part. That’s the best I’ve come up with.
Another big change has been the practical extinction of the modest-budgeted adult drama. I can’t imagine a movie like Fatal Attraction being made today with A-list movie stars. Those films have disappeared and been replaced by an industry heavily dependent on superheroes and franchises. What do you make of it?
Well, I think those middle-budget films are extremely difficult. But you have to remember, ABC was only the third network that existed on television when I did the Streets of San Francisco. It was a very new network, and I did a television show with 22 million people a week watching it. [That giant audience] doesn’t even exist today.
Basically what I’m saying is that with the advent of cable and all of these channels, you have an ability—especially in the cable area in terms of [relatively miniscule] ratings—to have a pretty large amount of freedom to make the projects that are lovefests. You don’t have to worry necessarily about exhibition and distribution and marketing costs. So TV’s eaten up a lot of those projects, and a lot of the really good screenwriters have moved from feature films into cable television, because they can also be producers there, which is financially rewarding as well as having creative input. So I think that’s the big difference. But I think Fatal Attraction, which would’ve been a low-budget film today, was really well made. It was beautifully directed, great screenplay, and good performances. And you know, we’ve got 50 Shades of Grey coming out this weekend, so we’ll see. But we handled the eroticism to a point that became sort of a bellwether for everybody making Fatal Attraction-like movies.
I’m glad you mentioned 50 Shades, because with Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and Disclosure, there was a time when there was sex and eroticism in studio films. And I feel like it totally vanished. I don’t know if that’s because people decided they can get that from the Internet. I have no clue. But 50 Shades feels like the first big film in a long time to really try that. Any theories why sex disappeared in the first place?
You might be right, just in terms of music videos and/or the internet. Even the cable areas, it hasn’t been exposed that much. But I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it a lot, but you’re right, eroticism kind of disappeared there for a good length of time.
You’ve also joined the Marvel behemoth, co-starring in the upcoming Ant-Man. You’ve been a star since the original Superman blockbusters, so I imagine you’re been called once or twice over the years to join one of these franchises before. Had you ever flirted with another?
No. I can’t say I was really offered anything in those vein. I certainly enjoy it now. For me, it reaches another audience, people who maybe aren’t familiar with me. It’s fun to do a big-budgeted movie after scraping and scratching along with a lot of these indies, these labors of love. To be in a picture that’s got a built-in audience and has the tide going with you. I’m ready for it, after struggling and fighting for pictures that you believed in, that are maybe off the beaten path.
And I imagine your youngest kids are excited about it too.
Oh, it’s like I haven’t done anything in my life before Ant-Man. There are so few movies that I could show them when they were growing, because all my pictures were R rated. For years, they thought their mom was the actress and I made pancakes.
I think when you signed on, it was Edgar Wright’s film, but then of course, Peyton Reed came on. Did that change anything for you?
Not really. I wasn’t directly involved with the script. As far as Hank Pym, that was pretty established from the comic books. For me personally it didn’t [change]. I’m sure tonally and everything for Paul [Rudd]—it’s never pleasant and never easy when those changes happen. Though I think they made it as smooth as possible.
You’ve produced a lot of great films—including Cuckoo’s Nest, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. But I think you’ve only directed once—an episode of The Streets of San Francisco.
Boy, you did your homework.
Every tempted to direct a feature?
Several times. But I’ve been fortunate as a producer. First of all, having two hats—producing and acting—has taken up a fair amount of time. And as a producer, I’ve normally almost always been able to share my final cut with the director, so I never felt excluded or frustrated. I always felt a part of what the final cut of the movie was going to be. And I think there’s a degree of laziness—I don’t know if it’s laziness or just the fear of loneliness. It’s lonely being a director. You’re on early and you’re there until the very end. Whereas as producing and even acting in a role is a shorter timeframe that allows you to do a few different things. You look at being a director, he’s tied on to a project for a long time. So I’ve gone back and forth and I still do it, from time to time, and feel good about directing. But not good enough to actually take it on.
I know you’ve been asked about it forever, but with Cuckoo’s Nest now celebrating 40, what’s the first thought that comes to mind?
Well, we just did it right. [Fellow producer] Saul Zaentz and I were innocent. There was an innocence and a passion and a desire to do it right, which has kind of stayed with me in terms of trusting your first instincts. They’re normally right if you’re fortunate to have pretty decent instincts. The classic issues which were just reaffirmed early on: you want the best script, the best talent, and the best director. You want to be firing on all cylinders and be able to trust your instinct and know that if there’s a problem [during filming], you got a problem. Don’t imagine that you can necessarily fix it in post.
That project had been around for a long time and your father, Kirk, had portrayed McMurphy—
On stage. It took years to get it done.
Obviously, everything worked out for the best, but how long did it take him to forgive you for not casting him in the role that won Jack Nicholson the Oscar?
[Laughs] I still don’t think he has. All of a sudden I was like, “Dad, when does the producer have final casting approval? I thought that was the director’s choice.” Now all of a sudden [it was my fault]. Look, I understand, it was a great part. They don’t come along that often, and he recognized that. And that hurts. But his life and career had changed by that time. He’d gotten older. I’m just happy and he is too—he’s proud of how well it turned out. It would’ve been terrible with a valuable piece of material like that not to turn out great. But he still likes to raise it, just to get my hackles up.
Another potential great role could be Ronald Reagan. It sounds like it’s still in the early stages but there’s some mention that you might be playing him in a film about the 1986 Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev.
It’s a subject matter that’s very close to me. Nuclear disarmament has been an issue that I’ve been very involved with for about 40 years. It was quite a moment in time that Reykjavik summit between Gorbachev and Reagan, so there’s been a screenplay and I’ve been actively kind of pursuing it, working on the screenplay a little more, trying to find the balance. And I hope to do it, give my best Reagan imitation to balance out my Liberace.