Michael Douglas Was Fascinated by Candelabra's Script

What interested you about this project?

Well, my fascination has to do with, first of all, the script, which was simply one of the best screenplays I had seen in a long time. So you read a really good script, and they’re asking you to play Liberace, which you don’t get a chance to do every day. And then, oh, by the way, Steven Soderbergh, is going to be directing it. Jerry Weintraub is producing it, and your co-star and lover is Matt Damon. So, where do I sign up?

But for me, this is a full circle, because it’s twelve years ago that I’m making the movie Traffic, with Steven Soderbergh directing. And in the middle of shooting, Steven says to me, have you ever thought about playing Liberace? And I look at him and think: is he messing with me? I’m supposed to be the drug czar in Traffic, and I said: well, it hasn’t ever crossed my mind. So that’s how long ago Steven had been thinking about the project. But it really is a combination of a great script, and being fortunate enough to have such a strong team around you.

What was it like, creating such an intimate relationship with Matt Damon?

Well, Liberace was one of the biggest stars in America. He was a kind of a phenomenon. He had a warm personality, and was very astute. And, like a lot of men who like young blonde girls, Lee (Liberace) loved young blonde guys. And so the love affair between Lee and Scott (Thorson, Liberace’s lover) was all written there, in the script. So we knew what we were getting into. And I really have to take my hat off to Matt Damon, because he’s in the prime of his career and takes a lot of chances. It’s fine for me, at my age, to play Liberace, and a wonderful opportunity to play a great character. But I’m not in the prime of my career, and I’ve thought, during the show — wow, would I be as brave as Matt, to take on being my lover?

As far as the sexual intimacy, it’s funny, because it can get very campy, and we wanted to keep this story real, and not poke fun at anybody. And we both quickly found a style together. We knew the script called for us to be attracted. And that’s what acting is all about. And everybody always asks, well, do you kiss Matt Damon? I said, baby, I do a lot more than that. [LAUGHS] And so, we just got into it, and had a great working relationship.

The story is set in the late Seventies, early Eighties. It was a different time, a sort of changing time. Liberace’s public persona was very different from his personal life.

Well, he vehemently protected and defended the fact that he was not gay, and would go after newspapers and magazines, legally. He was very conscious, very smart and astute about his audience. People loved him. So he protected that part. But Behind the Candelabra is about the relationship of Scott and Lee, not a biography of Liberace.

Did you feel transformed when you put on some of those elaborate outfits?

Yes, it was wonderful. We worked closely with Ellen Mirojnick, our fabulous costume designer, who I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a number of times. She did a great job of replicating Lee’s costumes. I studied tape of his performances, and when you watch them enough you start getting a feeling of how to carry the capes, and move them around. And you begin to feel the joy, the fun that he’s having, and his ability to kind of wink with the audience, and have close contact. It was a gas.

Was Liberace ahead of his time, as a performer?

Definitely. I mean, when you put him in perspective, he was completely over the top. The shows became grander and grander. But if you look at what Elton John was doing, and Lady Gaga, and Madonna. I’m sure, without them even realizing, a lot of that came from Lee. He enjoyed it so much, and he enjoyed the audience enjoying it with him.

What is it like collaborating with Steven Soderbergh?

Directing talent is very nebulous. You know, it’s not in front of you like an actor’s performance. Steven casts really well. He likes actors, and he doesn’t say much, if he doesn’t have to. He’s smart. Saying that, you know, he’s also operating the camera. He’s lighting. So, I’ll do anything for him. He never asks very much. So in return, you’re willing to give whatever you can.

Why do you think this is an intriguing story to tell?

Well, it’s a great love story. And people always love a good love story. The fact that it takes place between two men… the issues that they deal with, what happens, are completely universal. What I’m most proud of is that you forget about Matt and me pretty quickly, because the story sucks you in so much that you forget it’s about two guys, and you’re just watching a relationship between two people who really love each other.