'We are giving hope'

Sunday Interview The actor Michael Douglas tells Philippa Kennedy about his career and his charity involvement.

DUBAI - OCTOBER 5,2008 - Actor Michael Douglas gesture during interview at Atlantis hotel. ( Paulo Vecina/The National ) *** Local Caption ***  PV Douglas 6.JPG
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"With any luck I'll have the good fortune to be able to give something back but that is yet to be defined." The words are those of the actor Michael Douglas, expressed in a rare and revealing interview in a niche magazine for cigar lovers. A perceptive interviewer caught him in reflective mood, between marriages, after a painful divorce, trying to make sense of his life, probably thinking out loud and putting down markers. The year was 1998, when he won a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes. Yet he had hardly begun. His portrayal of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street was already a decade in the past, alongside the swashbuckling hero of Romancing the Stone, Jack Colton. But the darker, edgier roles were yet to come. Ten years later it is clear that his words came from the heart. A more mature, thoughtful and socially committed person than had previously been revealed was beginning to emerge and the days of the heartthrob screen Lothario were numbered. In tandem with a movie career that has more than matched that of his legendary father, Kirk, Michael has carved out a niche as a committed lobbyist and campaigner in the field of nuclear disarmament, sharing the podium with world leaders such as Bill Clinton. And last week he travelled to Dubai with his wife, the actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, to accept a Dh7 million donation from the property giant Nakheel on behalf of the Free the Children charity. The money is to be spent on water sanitation projects in Third World countries. It was a conspicuous effort from a busy man whose movies have provided the backdrop for the lives of the baby boomer generation. He transitioned from "son of Kirk" in the television series The Streets of San Francisco, into high adventure romps with Kathleen Turner via the soppy but wonderful A Chorus Line, and to the darker days of Fatal Attraction (where boomers forgave him his infidelity with the Glen Close character), and on to the difficult, politically correct Disclosure. Boomers fell in love with him again as The American President, hated and feared him in The Perfect Murder and allowed him to squeeze ­every ounce of compassion out of their hearts as he tried to save his addict daughter in Traffic. They even believed he was the King of California, despite knowing he was fresh out of a mental institution. Michael Douglas just sweeps viewers along. Every time they think they have him pegged he changes direction, puts on 13kg and turns up looking like he just fell out of bed, like in Wonder Boys. He is fearless about his choices of roles. I first met him in 1989 at the Berlin Film Festival, where he was promoting the tragicomedy The War of the Roses. In those days, he appeared sleek, arrogant and self-aware. He had been voted the World's Sexiest Man and appeared to believe his own publicity. And why wouldn't he? I asked him what he thought when he looked at himself in his shaving mirror in the morning. Before he could answer, his co-star and cigar-smoking chum Danny deVito butted in: "Boy oh boy, are you going to be all right this evening." Douglas just grinned his wolfish grin. Nearly 20 years later in the conference room of the Atlantis Hotel in Dubai, an entirely different person stood up politely to greet me. "Hello, I'm Michael Douglas," he said, as if one of the most famous faces in the movie world needed an introduction. The handshake was firm, the expression friendly and direct, and the distinctively dimpled chin no less impressive close up. He must have shed about 15kg since I last saw him. If he has had a nip and tuck around the eyes, as has been suggested in the press, his surgeon is a genius. Douglas is 64 but doesn't look it. Casually dressed in an open-necked shirt and slimline trousers, he is smaller and more slender in real life than he is on the screen, but the steady aquamarine stare has the same potency. It just seems less random, more focused. When his face breaks into a smile, the magic that has bewitched several generations of female fans is still in evidence. He's been through the mill in many ways. His personal life and divorce from his first wife, Diandra, was publicly dissected amid stories about sexual addiction. Yet Douglas managed to get through it all, remaining friends with Diandra and subsequently meeting, falling in love with and marrying the Welsh-born Zeta-Jones. A United Nations Messenger of Peace, he is deeply impressed by the young man from Toronto, Canada, he was here to support. Craig Kielberger was just 12 years old when he founded Free the Children after reading the heart-rending story of a Pakistani boy called Iqbar who was sold by his father to a carpet weaver at the age of four and shot dead at 12 when he told his story to the press. Kielberger was only 18 when he approached Douglas at a Nuclear Age Peace Foundation conference in Santa Barbara to enlist the actor's support. There was something about the young man's intensity and commitment that intrigued Douglas. "I'm a big fan of Craig's. It's a phenomenal story. He started this charity when he was 12 and now he's an old man of 24. His contagious spirit, energy and organisational skills are incredible. I've read his book and followed his story with great interest. What is unique is that this is all about children helping other children. More than 50 per cent of their contributions are from children. When I first met Craig he was going through a bit of a chaotic time and there was a degree of intensity about him. My focus was more on disarmament but there was a bit of a crossover in Sierra Leone on Freetown post conflict work with young soldiers." Douglas travelled to the Kono district of Sierra Leone in 2003 to make a documentary about child soldiers and learnt firsthand how something as simple as a supply of fresh water can change the lives of thousands of people. "Many diseases are spread through contaminated water and children in these countries often become too sick to go to school," he said. "This just isn't fair for any child. It's something we want to see stopped. Water is the lifeblood for these children. In helping to provide it, the charity also helps to improve education. When children, especially girls, don't have to make long walks to collect water they can go to school." Free the Children now operates in 45 countries and has attracted support from Queen Noor of Jordan, Constantine of Greece, Sir Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey, who has featured the charity on her show six times. A portion of the donation received last week will be used to fund a trip for 40 school children from Dubai to visit Free the Children projects in Sri Lanka. "They will roll up their sleeves and work on the projects and when they come back here they will inspire others to become involved," Douglas said. "If you change a child's perspective you can change the world. We welcome the young people of the UAE into the charity with great pleasure. Together we will improve standards of living and break the cycle of poverty for thousands of families. More than just giving money, we are giving hope." He is aware of the power of celebrity to draw attention to a cause and says he is happy to lend his clout to Free the Children because he knows that if he turns up for a press conference, the television cameras and newspaper reporters will be there, too. "I'm in a unique situation because people do know me around the world and it allows me access and more press awareness." He sticks determinedly to his game plan to shine a light on the efforts of the teams of young Free the Children volunteers working on projects helping children around the world. "You've got your agenda, which is to write a profile of me, and I've got mine, which is to talk about this," he said good humouredly, deftly switching the focus when the conversation veered too close to the personal. He did, however, confirm that he and Zeta-Jones were bringing their children up to be as socially conscious as they are. The Douglases married in November, 2000, and have two children, Dylan, eight, and Carys, five. "We try and bring the children up as good citizens of the planet, yes. We are trying to bring them up that way and making them aware of their perspective. "We travel a fair amount and they know how fortunate they are. I don't think it's a question of guilt. It's a question of awareness." He was brought up in much the same way, and although his parents divorced when he was seven and he lived with his mother, the actress ­Diana Dill, they remained friends and took an active interest in helping the less fortunate. He says he inherited a strong social conscience from his parents. "I've been involved in philanthropy my whole life. I was fortunate enough to inherit that from my own family who were actively involved on both sides with so many different causes. My father was largely involved with the Motion Picture and Television Fund taking care of people in our industry who fall upon hard times. I'm not talking about actors, more construction people. My father has also fixed up 400 playgrounds in poor areas of Los Angeles. You do it when you can." When his father suffered a debilitating stroke in 1996, their bond became even stronger, and in December this year, Kirk will celebrate his 92nd birthday surrounded by his family. Since Douglas and Zeta-Jones ­arrived in Dubai they have managed to keep a low profile. "We've been out sightseeing. We hit the malls and, no, I'm not going to tell you what I bought but you can be sure that I will declare it. It's a joy for Catherine and I to be visiting here in this extraordinary city. You can't help but marvel at the dreams of Sheikh Mohammed and what has been accomplished. The construction is even more overwhelming than people had told us about, but you can't comprehend the scope and size of it all till you get here. We were taken on a great helicopter tour of the coast and you can really see the construction from the air. I'm fascinated by construction. It amazes me what can be accomplished when you think of how long projects in my own country can take. To see a metro spring to life in three years is extraordinary." Before flying back to their main home in Bermuda, the Douglases made sure that Craig Kielberger and Free the Children were the focus of attention, as he accepted the Dh7m cheque from Nakheel. He was right, of course. The media was there in force. Zeta-Jones, wearing a yellow and white summer dress and fashionably vertiginous opened-toed heels, looked ravishing. She is every bit the superstar, with hardly any make-up and flashing her full beam smile. "And does she look like that first thing in the morning?" I ask ­Douglas quietly. For once he allows himself to be diverted. "Yes she does," he smiles.

pkennedy@thenational.ae