‘Gekko was as good a villain as you’re ever going to find’

“I’m very optimistic, I’m determined to lick it,” says Michael Douglas of his current bout of throat cancer. Douglas, dressed in black slacks and black shirt, has lost a considerable amount of weight, and his handsome face seems hardened by the treatments he has been undergoing.

Douglas is in New York for the premiere of his new film Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Directed by Oliver Stone, it is a sequel to the 1987 movie that won Douglas the Best Actor Oscar and made him a household name.

The announcement in August that the actor had a tumour in his throat and would undergo radiotherapy and chemotherapy sent shock waves through Hollywood. “The timing really sucked,” says Douglas. “When I got my biopsy and was told that it would be at least eight weeks of treatment, I realised it would coincide with the opening of our picture.

“Initially I said, ‘I’ll keep this to myself,’ but I really could not, because there was a large foreign tour planned, so I determined to let Fox [the studio that produced the film] know what was going on.”

The original picture – also directed by Stone – made Douglas’s masterly portrayal of the corporate raider Gordon Gekko – and his motto, “greed is good” – part of popular culture. It also featured Charlie Sheen as a young stockbroker hungry for success, and in the new film the equivalent role is played by Shia LaBeouf (better known for the blockbuster Transformers franchise) as Jake Moore, a smart young trader.

Set in 2008, Money Never Sleeps finds Gekko alone, an outsider who has served eight years in prison for securities fraud, money laundering and racketeering. The two men meet when Moore attends a lecture given by Gekko, who is promoting his new book, Is Greed Good? Gekko’s thesis is that “Greed is no longer good; it’s legal”, and he explains how rampant speculation and excessive leverage spell doom for the US economy.

Complications ensue when Gekko finds out that Jake is about to marry his estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan, Oscar-nominated for An Education); she has not talked to him since he went to jail because she blames her brother’s death from a drug overdose on Gekko’s neglectfulness.

For Stone, returning to the world he captured so memorably in the 1980s was not only timely – given the credit crunch – but also, oddly, an opportunity to explore something new. Says Stone: “I don’t think I would have enjoyed working on Money Never Sleeps if it hadn’t been a wholly original story [the screenplay is credited to Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff]. Twenty-three years makes a huge difference. It was very fresh to me.”

The financial landscape has certainly changed. “By 2008, no more Gekkos were possible,” Stone elaborates. “That character, that kind of buccaneer, was gone, replaced by institutions that had once been regulated. In the past, a bank was a bank, and an insurance company was an insurance company. In 2008, all that had changed. The firewalls between these functions were destroyed by the deregulation of the 1980s and 1990s.”

Yet Gekko has proved an enduring archetype. “When the first movie came out, it was not a huge financial hit, but [it] has taken on a complete life of its own,” Douglas says. “Gekko was as good a villain as you’re ever going to find. It just goes to show that moviegoers love a villain, especially a villain who’s decked out and has all the accoutrements.”

To this day, he cannot get over “the number of people who came up to me, telling me, ‘you’re the guy that got me into this’.” Incredibly, for many traders, Gekko was a role model. “And I say, ‘you know, Gordon went to jail’.”

For Douglas, the movie offered “insights into the world of people whose only occupation is to make money. They don’t care how they do it. Nothing else is of value to them. The whole phenomenon was a shock and a surprise.”

He admits that he and Stone were “nervous” about the new movie because of the enduring image of Gekko as a seductive villain. The new film, however, begins as Gekko leaves prison – unshaven, unkempt, with no family, colleagues or friends – and starts to build himself up again from scratch: would audiences accept this storyline?

The movie is personal in some ways, since Douglas himself was swept up in the alluring game of money and power. “I, just like everyone else who was genius [sic] in the 1990s, did play the stock market, when it all looked so easy. I followed it pretty closely and I invested a lot myself, but then I lost a lot of the net worth. It was a humbling experience.

“To be asked to play the role [of Gordon Gekko] again so many years later is a form of redemption for me, as an actor and as a screen character.”

The coincidence of many of the film’s issues with his own personal life doesn’t escape him. In the film, he plays a father who neglected his children, one of whom died of drug abuse. “Sometimes art imitates life,” Douglas admits. His brother died of drug overdose, and his own son, Cameron (from his first wife, Dandra Luker), was sent to prison earlier this year on drugs charges in a much-publicised case.

“I have had a pretty stressful year on a number of fronts, some of which were public and some were not,” Douglas says. One lesson he has learned is to “savour the moment, savour the time as it goes – and time goes fast, especially now that health issues have added importance. I’m 65, you know, so how many good parts are you going to get offered? I was happy to have two solid parts last year.”

In 2009 apart from Money Never Sleeps Douglas starred in Solitary Man, a critically acclaimed indie that few people saw, written and directed by Brian Koppelman. In it he plays a car magnate whose professional and personal lives are unravelling. Douglas favours his “darkly funny” movies such as this one; he also approvingly cites Wonder Boys, War of the Roses and Falling Down, pictures that are not obvious audience-pleasers. He says he’s ”fascinated by grey characters”. “That’s one of the things I love about Money Never Sleeps, in which there is no black and white, only different shades of black. I like the grey area, the mix, the tragic-comedic.”

His next project, however, could hardly be more different: a biopic of the high-camp musical performer Liberace, to be directed by Steven Soderbergh with co-star Matt Damon playing Liberace's lover. Douglas says he is looking forward to the part, despite his current health problems.

“You know, I come from a tough stock. My father [actor Kirk Douglas, now 93] is a pretty tenacious and strong man, and also my mother [Kirk’s first wife, Bermudian actress Diana Dill], who’s had a few bouts with cancer herself.

“The timing stinks,” Douglas says, “I would have liked to enjoy this premiere a little bit more than I am now.” But he’s quick to note with a smile, “I’m looking forward to a good glass of wine as soon as I get my taste back.”

‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’ is released on September 24 in the US and worldwide, and October 6 in the UK

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