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Behind the Candelabra – Michael Douglas and Matt Damon on the entertainer Liberace

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Behind the Candelabra - Michael Douglas and Matt Damon
Behind the Candelabra - Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Thorson (Matt Damon) ©2013 HBO, photo by Claudette Barius
Behind the Candelabra - Michael Douglas and Matt Damon
Behind the Candelabra – Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Thorson (Matt Damon) ©2013 HBO, photo by Claudette Barius

Based on the book by Scott Thorson, Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, HBO is premiering their biopic Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas (Wall Street, Traffic) as Liberace and Matt Damon (Promised Land, Ocean’s Eleven) as Thorson, the entertainer’s lover, on May 26th.

Written by Richard LaGravenese (Water for Elephants) and directed by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven) the movie spotlights the pianist, and flamboyant showman’s five year romance with Thorson, which began in the summer of 1977.

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon spoke of their unique movie at the TV Critics tour.

In your long career, had you ever met Liberace?

Behind the Candelabra - Michael Douglas and Matt Damon
Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Thorson (Matt Damon) ©2013 HBO

Michael: I met him briefly two or three times when my father had a house in Palm Springs and Liberace had a house nearby.

I remember seeing him just passing in his car, you couldn’t miss his car. But I never had an evening with him or anything like that.

What process did you use to get into character?

Michael: There’s a tremendous amount of clips and films that certainly give you a sense, an idea, and there’s a lot of repetition involved.

Working from the other end, there’s the great Richard LaGravenese screenplay which set the structure for everything. But it’s basically a repetition process of looking at a lot of stuff and finding that balance between knowing you’re not an impersonator.

I’m not going to ever be exactly like Liberace and I tried to find the balance that made me comfortable, made Steven secure, and made myself attractive to Matt.

Did you find him attractive?

Behind the Candelabra - Matt Damon and Michael Douglas
Thorson (Matt Damon) and Liberace (Michael Douglas) ©2013 HBO, photo by Claudette Barius

Matt: Very, very attractive.

Michael: I just want to commend Matt, because I don’t think I would have had the courage at that point in my career to take this on.

We had a great screenplay, great director, and had a great experience.

Does being in a Liberace-type of set with Liberace-type clothes feel otherworldly?

Matt: Yeah. Certainly. And it does help. There were clothes that were used as set dressing. We weren’t allowed to touch them because they’re from Liberace’s collection.

But even the clothes that we wore around the house, Ellen (Mirojnick), our wardrobe designer, did such an amazing job.

I’ve always been somebody who goes into the wardrobe fitting and I try to get out as fast as I can. I just can’t be bothered with it. I probably spent more time in the wardrobe fittings on this than I had in the previous 15 projects, literally.

I really enjoyed it, because reading [Scott’s] book, he really was taken with the glamour of this lifestyle.

Was Scott’s love for Liberace genuine, or is Behind the Candelabra some sort of euphemism?

Behind the Candelabra - Michael Douglas
Liberace (Michael Douglas) ©2013 HBO

Matt: No. I think that was the serious title of his book. I think his love was genuine, but I think it was complicated. He was somebody who was a foster kid and was looking for a family, and Lee gave that to him.

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 in the end.

Some of the footage in this movie looks like a comedy. Is that how you see it?

Behind the Candelabra - Director Steven Soderbergh with Michael Douglas
Director Steven Soderbergh with Michael Douglas on set ©2013 HBO

Matt: No. There are aspects of their relationship that were absurd, but for me it just pointed out that there are aspects of all of our lives that are absurd. They’re just not absurd to us, because they’re our lives.

What it felt like was if this was a relationship between a man and a woman, you’d feel [some] moments are too intimate. But it’s between a man and a man, and I’ve never seen that movie before.

Michael: Yeah. Going along with what Matt said, it was a great love story. It’s a story of a couple that fell for each other and had a lot of wonderful, funny and joyful moments, but ultimately ended in tragedy.

So to answer your question, there is humor to it. I don’t know if you’d call it a tragedy-comedy, but it ultimately ends up [with] everybody losing out.