"Two things have changed for me dramatically as an actor," says Michael Douglas, sounding very much like the Gordon Gekko of thespians. "One: Early in my career, someone advised me, 'The camera can always tell when you're lying.' Whooo. So my acting used to be much more method and painful. … And then one day, I said, 'What kind of bull is this? I lie every day. Nobody knows when I'm lying. What is this bull?' I realized, you can lie. Acting is lying. So that freed me up.
"And then I must say, this cancer bout - once you get the all-clear signal, nothing really matters (too much) anymore. You've looked at Stage IV, you've gotten through it. There's a freedom in your acting. Certainly in 'Candelabra,' that helped me a lot. And just generally, I'm much more comfortable, not feeling like you've got to do something."
The 69-year-old two-time Oscar winner, in remission from tongue cancer, has reached that rarefied status from which he not only can say whatever he wants, but also choose his projects and collaborators. So how should he follow the award-winning "Behind the Candelabra," his Liberace biopic with Steven Soderbergh and Matt Damon?
How about "Last Vegas," a sexagenarian buddy comedy about four lifelong friends gathered for an unlikely bachelor party? The other three pals are played by Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline, with Mary Steenburgen along for the ride and Jon Turteltaub of "National Treasure" directing.
"Once Michael was in, it really legitimized the project to everybody else," Turteltaub says, sharing a phone call with Douglas. "I just sort of sat back and let all the other talented people do my work for me. I still had to go to meetings and audition a little bit, but I somehow pulled it off."
Turteltaub laughs about having to "audition" for the actors, especially De Niro:
"I flew to New York and sat down with Bob and had a lovely conversation. … It's like going on a first date. It really is. You're trying to put your best foot forward and pretend you're not nervous when you find out how pretty the girl is."
Douglas says the others weren't quite so hard to get: "Morgan didn't even bother to look at the script; he just said, 'Michael and Bobby and Jon are in; I'm there.' And then Kevin came in, and the coup de grace was finding Mary. She brought so much heart to it. Five Oscar winners."
"I really wish we had six, to tell you the truth," Turteltaub cracks. "I was reminded every day I was the one without the Oscar."
It seems odd that none of the four leads had starred together previously, but "Last Vegas" was, in fact, their first time.
"With Bobby, I was completely surprised by what a pussycat he is," Douglas says. "Here's a guy, he gives you a hug and a kiss on the cheek in the morning. He has probably evolved and changed his life, with the number of children and grandchildren he has and where he is, but he's just a lovely, easy guy.
"Morgan, I knew. We're golfers, we've done fundraising, charity stuff together. I know his style and his effortlessness. Kevin, I didn't know. He brought a theatricality and an amazing wit and a mind that wouldn't stop.
"But the bottom line, I think, was four guys who didn't have to prove anything; four guys who looked at their fellow actors not as competition, but as a great, warm blanket of a support system. We've reached the point where you realize the most important thing is for everybody to be good."
When asked who enjoyed being in Sin City the most, Turteltaub doesn't hesitate: "I did. I'm the only one who doesn't get stopped for autographs or having my picture taken everywhere you go. And remember, these guys are close to 100 years old; they were in bed by 9:30 every night."
"It's true," Douglas says, with what might be a hint of resignation. "It's a long day, and I don't enjoy coming to work tired from a long night before. Besides," he adds roguishly, "there's enough candy to look at on set."
So much for resignation.
Eye on the clock
Douglas won his first Oscar for producing "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
"Every time I'd look up at Michael," Turteltaub recalls, "I was expecting I'd get a sympathetic face, like, 'Hey, how's it going?' And instead, he'd point to his watch. Because, with his producing background, he'd look in the morning at what the work was for the day. He'd be walking by on his way on to makeup and say, 'You're not going to finish today. You're not going to make it. The scene's too big.' Ay yi yi."
Douglas doesn't deny a word of it.
"I think I got it from 'Streets of San Francisco,' " he says. "We shot a 52-minute movie in seven days, 26 episodes a year, 81/2 months, six days a week, on location there. So I like to work fast. I've done my homework, I know what my responsibility to the team is, to the script; to pick up the pace, get a laugh. So I like to move along. Morgan does, too, Morgan's like me.
"Bobby, with this digital format, he can do four or five takes in one take. He doesn't play around with the dialogue. He does the words in different ways, so he can do several without stopping.
"Now Kevin ... Kevin improvises until the cows come home. There is no stopping him. He's really good; you can't believe he keeps coming up with something different. But Jon had to watch one time when the other actors' eyes were rolling in the back of their heads and I was tapping my watch."