PASADENA, Calif. -- Whenever an actor takes on the role of someone famous, there's a fine line to walk between impersonating the real person's traits and offering a performance that's believable but also captures something about the person's spirit or soul. That was the challenge for Michael Douglas in taking on the role of Liberace in HBO's "Behind the Candelabra" (9 tonight).
"It's basically a repetition process of looking at a lot of stuff and finding that balance between knowing you're not an impersonator, you're not going to ever be exactly like Liberace, and trying to find the balance that makes you comfortable, makes [director] Steven [Soderbergh] secure, and makes myself attractive to [co-star] Matt Damon," said Mr. Douglas, garnering laughs, during a January HBO press conference.
The idea of Mr. Douglas as Liberace came about 12 years ago when Mr. Douglas starred in Mr. Soderbergh's movie "Traffic."
"Somewhere early in the shoot, Steven said, 'You know, have you ever thought about Liberace?' And I looked at him, and I thought, 'Is this guy messing with me?' " Mr. Douglas recalled.
"I don't know why that popped into my head, but I remember the day it did. And you," Mr. Soderbergh said, gesturing toward Mr. Douglas, "immediately launched into an impromptu impression of him that was excellent."
But Mr. Soderbergh was stumped on how to approach a movie about Liberace until a friend suggested he read the book "Behind the Candelabra" written by Scott Thorson, who had what was at the time a secret love affair with Liberace, who was not openly gay. Mr. Damon plays Mr. Thorson in the film.
"I read the book and I thought: Now I know how to get in. It's got a sort of finite period of time that we're dealing with," Mr. Soderbergh said. "And this was six, seven years ago initially, so it's taken a while to get it off the ground."
The film presents Mr. Thorson as a young man who perhaps gets in over his head once he meets Liberace, who is known to his friends as Lee.
"[Scott] was somebody who was a foster kid and was looking for a family, and Lee gave that to him," Mr. Damon said. "And I think they had a profound love for each other and it ended badly, but there were a lot of wonderful moments and a lot of ups and downs and a lot of things that everybody goes through in long-term relationships. But I don't think Scott had an angle the whole time. I think he genuinely fell for him, which is why he was hurt ultimately at the end."
Whether Liberace was taking advantage of Mr. Thorson's naivete or Mr. Thorson was taking advantage of Liberace's wealth and life of luxury is not something Mr. Soderbergh would address.
"One of the aspects of the book and the story that appealed to me was that at a certain point in the film, the discussions that they're having are discussions that every couple has at a certain point," he said. "And what's unusual about it, obviously, is the environment in which these conversations are taking place. But we take the relationship seriously, because my feeling, based on some of the research we did, indicated that it was a real relationship and it was, up to that point, the longest relationship Liberace had had. I was very anxious that we not make a caricature of either of their characters or of the relationship. There's no question that it's unfortunate to see the movie through a contemporary lens and know that they weren't allowed to be as open back then as people are today and that that definitely exerted pressure on the two of them and the relationship."
Mr. Damon acknowledged the flamboyance of the clothing and homes in which Liberace and Mr. Thorson lived, but he said those should not distract from the story of their relationship.
"There are aspects of their relationship that were absurd, right? But there are aspects of all of our lives that are absurd, and they're just not absurd to us because they're our lives," Mr. Damon said. "It was so complex, their relationship. [Screenwriter] Richard [LaGravenese] so got this dynamic. Whether this was the actual dynamic or not, I completely believed what he'd written and those aspects of the power dynamic. What it felt like was if this was a relationship between a man and a woman, you'd feel at moments like this is too intimate, maybe I shouldn't be here. But it's between a man and a man, and I've never seen that movie before."
Because of the importance of getting the look right, Mr. Damon said he took a greater interest in his wardrobe than usual.
"I've always been somebody who goes into the wardrobe fitting and I just try to get out, I try to get out as fast as I can," he said. "But this was a very specific thing. And I probably spent more time in the wardrobe fittings on this thing than I had in the previous 15 projects, literally. Also, reading the book that the character that I play wrote, he really was taken with the glamour of this lifestyle. Even when writing the book, he talked about how impressed he was and how exciting it was to be involved in that kind of glamour."
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.