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Michael Douglas: The Other Lion King

While he was in South Africa to film The Ghost And The Darkness, superstar Michael Douglas had an encounter with a lion that still gives him sleepless nights…

Michael Douglas, in a black polo neck shirt and mottled grey suit, strolls into a suite at London’s Dorchester Hotel for an afternoon chat. I remind him that it was at this same hotel that we met just over a year ago, “I never left!” he quips.

Actually, he did. He went to South Africa and had the time of his life co-starring with real-life lions – which made a pleasant change from the sex kittens he usually acts opposite.

In The Ghost And The Darkness, Michael plays a game hunter (with a lot of beard) who does battle with a pair of man-eating lions. During the making of the movie, Michael, like many before him, lost his heart to South Africa.

“It was my first time in Africa and I know it’s a cliché because everyone says ‘you’ve got to go to Africa’ – but it really is so wonderful and so hard to explain how I felt being there,” says a clean-shaven Douglas. While his co-star Val Kilmer has been on safari to Africa numerous times, Michael’s previous experience of wildlife was limited to seeing “a deer in the woods that looks at you frozen in fear and then runs. In Africa they look at you and they accept you. I was really struck by that.”

Michael Douglas
“All those stories about my ‘sex-addiction’ were a total fabrication.”

The Ghost And The Darkness (presently doing good box-office on the SA circuit) is the true story of the two man-eating lions of Tsavo which, in 1896, wreaked havoc on a British bridge-building project in East Africa by killing more than 130 people. Although the events took place in Kenya, the movie was filmed in the Ngala private game reserve in South Arica because of the country’s good infrastructure, strong film-making history and great co-operation.”

The only opposition the film-makers met was from some disgruntled holiday-makers. “We were staying in a Government time-share unit near Badplaas and were preventing them from taking up their allotted time, but the Government said the film was more important because we hired so many people.”

There were a few things about filming in South Africa that made it a unique experience for even a seasoned pro like Michael Douglas – the high car accident rate (five members of the crew were killed in car crashes) and the unpredictable weather.

“The area went from being like a desert after a seven-year drought to suffering torrential rains.”

The floods complicated filming by destroying props and making it nearly impossible at times for the cast to travel to the location. But Douglas isn’t complaining. He was fascinated watching “the people and animals who were so in sync with it all.”

He was less enthusiastic when confronted by a lion one night. “At Christmas my family came down and we went out in a Land-Rover with a tracker who sat in front with a torch. The lights picked up the reflection from some eyes and we tracked down this lion who’s just got a wildebeest kill.

“Now people on the safari had recognized who I was a knew I was here playing a big game hunter. So the guy pulls up in the Land-Rover and I’m sitting there and this lion is two meters away eating the wildebeest.”

Douglas recalls this with genuine fear in his voice. “The blood is all over the place and he’s looking up in our eyes and he gets this kind of sound going. I said nervously: ‘Excuse me, should we be this close?’ And of course everyone teased me with: ‘Oh sure, you’re meant to be a big white hunter!”

Filming with the five “actor” lions, who collectively represented the two lions in the film, was far less hair-raising. “Our animal co-ordinator went around the world like a casting agent looking for suitable lions. We ended up with two Canadian lions, one American lion and two French lions – who were the most ferocious. During their scenes, the camera people had to hide under a cage thing.” Computer graphics and animatronics were also used to portray the two lions – Ghost and Darkness – who killed humans for the sheer hell of it.

The film is based on fact with a little bit of fiction added to spice things up. In reality, British engineer John Patterson (Kilmer) killed both lions, but in the film American hunter Remington (Douglas) kills one.

“There were actually a number of hunters who tried to kill the lions, not just once, so the idea of this white hunter being American, though incorrect, was plausible. As we were telling a British story set in Africa, we had to add an American element to attract and American audience.”

Michael Douglas in The Ghost And The Darkness
Michael as the big-game hunter in The Ghost And The Darkness

Michael was originally involved in the jaws-with-claws drama as a producer, but as he researched the story he became so fascinated with it that he decided to “jump in.”

“Usually I’m in these movies where I’m in every single scene and feel tremendous responsibility. So I thought it would be great to play this character and have some fun and be reminded of the joy of movie-making.”

The burden of responsibility in this case fell on the broad shoulders of Batman hero and notorious bad boy Val Kilmer. Kilmer has a reputation for prima donna tendencies in arriving late on set and throwing tantrums. So how did Douglas get along with him?

“Hey, that’s a loaded question!” Douglas laughs, throwing his grey haired head back for a hearty chuckle. Then he pauses to carefully select his words.

“Um, we got a long fine, we really did. I arrived a few weeks after production started. Meanwhile he’s had to carry a heavy load. He was in the middle of a divorce and he’d done two or three pictures back-to-back. When he was late on set, we had a talk about the responsibilities of carrying a movie. I told him my philosophy was if you’re carrying a movie, you’re setting the tone.”

Michael Douglas is on of the easiest stars to interview because he talks candidly. He’s not ashamed to admit he has no desire to be a director like Mel Gibson ‘et al’ because he couldn’t bear the “loneliness” of the job. He’s also willing to acknowledge that he’s nothing like his Remington character.

“I’d fare pretty badly against a lion in the wild because I don’t hunt,” he says. “I respect people’s right to hunt if it’s legal, but I’m actually a strong advocate of gun control. I”m involved in a group called Ceasefire, which I joined right after John Lennon was murdered. But I do like to fish, and I do like to eat meat.”

He’s also willing to discuss the state of his marriage, though saddened that his fictitious “sex addiction” and crumbling marriage are all that people are interested in.

“It’s become this yoke that I carry around. I went to rehab for alcohol abuse soon after doing Basic Instinct, but because that wasn’t enough of a story, somebody made up this sex addiction thing. Like a fever, it then got picked up by everyone.

“There are things I love to talk about, such as politics, culture and history, rather than a lie somebody came up with late one night. My family know who i am, my son knows who I am – I’m sure it’s uncomfortable for him because of what other people and his friends say.

“Diandra and I are separated. We still love each other a lot but we haven’t decided what we’re going to do – contrary to something I read yesterday.” He reflects on how distressing it is that the journalist who wrote that Douglas’s divorce had been finalized actually knew the truth but had lied to make a more interesting story.

“I used to love doing these interviews because as an actor I live an isolated life and I really love to talk to people. But I understand now why more actors are only doing television interviews. Then people can see what you really say. It makes you wonder whether it’s worth promoting movies when your personal life gets dragged through it so much. But hey, I’ll live.”

Douglas attributes the sex-addiction tales to the roles he’s played in Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Disclosure.

“Let’s put this in perspective – if those films weren’t such huge successes we wouldn’tbe having this conversation. I guess that’s the price you pay for successful films.”

“Still, I think I’ve done my trilogy and now I’ll keep my pants up for a while… although I did enjoy it while they were down!”

PERSONALITY April 4 1997

Michael Douglas Interview Page 1
Michael Douglas Interview Page

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