If you looked carefully among the buzz-makers and deal-seekers at the Sundance Film Festival this year, you might have spotted an unlikely first-timer -- Michael Douglas -- in their midst. It’s not uncommon to see Hollywood stars making their way through the Park City, Utah, crowds, but even so, the thought of Gordon Gekko rubbing elbows with the likes of Parker Posey sets the mind reeling.
Douglas made his belated Sundance debut to promote “King of California,” a modestly budgeted two-hander in which he plays Charlie, a bipolar jazz musician who believes he has discovered a map to a long-lost cache of Spanish gold. This wide-eyed dreamer seems a far cry from the button-down establishment men Douglas has played in decades past, but he says the departure is not as great as it might appear.
Leaning back, Douglas points out that his earliest films, both as a producer and an actor, were made outside the system. “ ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ was independently made,” he says. Both “China Syndrome” and “Romancing the Stone” were negative pickups (in which the studios buy a film for a set sum and don’t cover production costs along the way), he adds. “So I come from an independent history and background, as opposed to what people think.”
Even so, Douglas admits that “King of California,” which opens in New York and L.A. on Friday and more widely on Sept. 28, took him into uncharted territory. He’d worked on small-scale productions before but, he says laughing, “not this small-scale.” The roughly $10-million shoot was a brisk 32 days, including five nights after hours in a Costco.
Douglas has to reach back to his days on “The Streets of San Francisco” to find a point of reference for the production’s brisk pace. But the lessons of his days in television came back soon enough and the momentum of a brief shooting schedule provided its own kind of inspiration. “This kind of short schedule makes you trust your first instincts,” he says. “You’re not looking in the playback monitor and all that. You just go, and you’re happy you had the experience.”
At first, Douglas was wary of trusting his performance to first-time director Mike Cahill, not so much because of his inexperience but because Cahill was working from his own script. “You’re more worried, whether it’s a first-time director or a 10-time director, about writer-directors,” he says. “I was worried [he] just has his vision of what he wanted and would not be open. Mike’s been pretty open that he didn’t envision me in this role. I don’t know if I was his first choice, but I got the picture made, so all of a sudden I looked more palatable.”
What attracted Douglas was his emotional connection to Cahill’s script, particularly Charlie’s relationship with his teenage daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), who has been supporting herself during her father’s stint in a mental institution. Their already-tense relationship strains further as Charlie charts a conquistador’s course through a landscape of strip malls, golf courses and chain stores, bringing long-buried resentments to light.
“I always loved ‘Man of La Mancha,’ ‘Dream the Impossible Dream,’ ” Douglas says. “And I guess I identified a bit in terms of people who are consumed with their careers and ambitions and ignore their children.”
In recent years, especially since his 2000 marriage to Catherine Zeta-Jones, Douglas has publicly come to terms with the toll ambition took on his first marriage and the role it played in his parents’ divorce. Although Douglas is bona fide Hollywood royalty, his parents divorced when he was a small child, just as father Kirk’s career was beginning to take off. Douglas was raised on the East Coast by his mother and stepfather.
“I think he was certainly consumed with a career,” Douglas says of his father. “My son, I’m sure, had elements of having to deal with that with his dad.”
With age, and with his second venture into fatherhood, Douglas’ perspective has shifted. “Your priorities change, as my father’s have,” he says. “Career, ambition is not the top of the totem pole anymore.” After his second child with Zeta-Jones was born, Douglas took three years off, reappearing with last year’s “The Sentinel.”
IN NEW DIRECTIONS
Beginning with 2000’s “Wonder Boys,” the last seven years have seen Douglas stepping away from the greed heads and tough guys he played for much of the preceding two decades, with only sporadic success. “Wonder Boys” failed to garner Douglas a hoped-for Oscar nomination, “One Night at McCool’s” tanked, and a remake of “The In-Laws” posted only middling returns. The iconic anger of Douglas’ best-known performances was nowhere to be found, and the actor seemed to be searching for something to replace it with.
The wild-haired eccentric of “King of California” looks more like Kirk Douglas in “Lust for Life” than the Michael Douglas of hits “Basic Instinct” or “The American President.” When Michael Douglas was a young actor trying to establish himself, the family resemblance was a source of much frustration. (“It’s 50% of your genes,” he says. “What the hell are you gonna do?”)
Douglas has long since stepped out of his father’s shadow. But at least one person still gets them confused. “About a month ago, I was talking to Dad,” Douglas recalls, “and he said, ‘You know, son, I was watching one of my old movies on television, and I could not remember what movie it was. It really scared me. And then I watched some more and I said, “Wait a minute. That’s not me. That’s Michael!” ’ So it goes full circle.”