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21 Minutes With Michael Douglas

The actor talks about greed, playing the bad guy, and his troubled son, Cameron. But really he just wants a vacation.

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Michael Douglas knows you know he had a bad year. Two weeks ago, his 31-year-old son, Cameron, was sentenced to five years in prison for dealing crystal meth and cocaine. Which means the timing couldn’t be worse for Douglas’s whirlwind press tour for Solitary Man, out May 21, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

At Solitary Man’s New York premiere, Douglas is all smiles and handshakes, meeting co-star Jenna Fischer’s mother, posing for photos with Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, and cheerily making his way down the red carpet. Suddenly, an Access Hollywood correspondent breaks the tacit vow of silence among the red-carpet reporters and mentions the C word. The Extra correspondent next in line tenses up: If Douglas decides to head into the theater in a huff, he’ll be left without an interview. But Douglas stays and gives a seemingly unrehearsed answer about how hard it’s been, how he and his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and their children just want to move on.

“The things that are going on with Cameron are done with now,” Douglas told me earlier that day at the Regency Hotel. “He’s gotten sentenced, so the tough part was the year before. But, you know,” he chuckles, “the timing was not great. And he did that stuff. But that part is over with now, and we’re all just getting closer to summer holidays. A chapter has ended, and for our family it’s been rewarding, with certain pain for other members. Um, but hopefully a really good learning experience.”

Douglas’s strategy may be to face the scandal head on—he told the Today show that he bears some responsibility for his son’s troubles because he was an “absentee” father—but there are limits to his willingness to discuss the matter. When I ask if the incident has brought him closer to his son, he says, “I’d rather really not discuss this, okay,” though the “okay” comes out more as a question than a demand. “He’s had more than his fair share of public exposure for a situation that most families would never have to go through. So he’s handled it pretty well, everything considered.” Douglas leans back on the Regency’s plush couch with his legs crossed and his hands stroking his thick puff of gray hair.

What he would much rather talk about is escape—in the form of summer vacation. Douglas and Zeta-Jones moved their family to New York from Bermuda last year so she could star in A Little Night Music, for which she received a Tony nomination, while Douglas worked on Wall Street 2. (Zeta-Jones’s biggest complaint is that she doesn’t get to garden in the nude in New York.) The kids get out of school a few weeks before Zeta-Jones finishes Night Music, and then the whole family is heading to Mallorca. What’s a Douglas-family vacation like? “Boats, swimming, golf, seeing old friends,” he says. And a chance to catch up on his reading. Currently on Douglas’s nightstand: A “pretty esoteric” book about nuclear disarmament; a book about faith that his father Kirk’s rabbi recommended; R. W. Apple Jr.’s collection of essays on eating; and Michael Chabon’s newest book, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. “It’s going to be a really welcome break,” he says.

Douglas’s role in Solitary Man falls neatly into his canon of scumbags. He plays “a man about my age”—65—whose pathological addiction to sex with the most inappropriate of younger women swiftly torpedoes his marriage (to Susan Sarandon), his relationship with his grown daughter (Jenna Fischer), and his career (as a car dealer). Why does he always seem to play characters without a moral center? “I wish I knew,” he says, laughing. He thinks some of it has to do with his father, who played the nice guy in seven films before earning an Oscar nomination for playing an asshole in Champion. Douglas made the same transition in 1987 with Wall Street and Fatal Attraction. “It served me well in those two pictures, and then those are the parts that come to you. It kind of perpetuates itself.” That and “I like the gray area. No black and white.”

Gordon Gekko, he says, is less obviously the bad guy in the sequel. It’s set 22 years later, which is how much real time has passed as well. “A lot of people, it would intimidate,” Douglas says of taking on the role of Gekko again. “I mean, I got an Oscar, so what are you going to do the second time around?”

Douglas doesn’t think the eighties “greed is good” culture has changed much. “It’s bizarre,” he says. “You do feel this steady disconnect between Wall Street and the rest of the world, and you just think that they could deal with it a little. Maybe they need some movie public-relations people to help them.”

Douglas will be honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center on May 24.

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