The Hollywood icon comes back to the big screen for the thriller

Michael Douglas has been one of the classiest actors in Hollywood for the past 30-40 years. But, he's been out of the limelight for the last three - and that was very much his choice.

It was his decision to spend time with his family, including wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, and their two children. But now, he's back - and he's back in a big way starting with his latest film, The Sentinel, also starring Kiefer Sutherland, Kim Basinger and Eva Longoria.

Michael plays Pete Garrison, a Secret Service agent who's accused of attempting to assassinate the President - the very man who his job it is to protect. We had the chance to sit down with the legendary actor about the role, and why he came back to the big screen.

He walked in the room with a full beard and mustache - very much unlike the hunk we're used to seeing him as; it's for his new movie The King of California.

Our chat started with the talk about his new look. Here's what else we talked about, including a phone call in the middle of the interview with Catherine:

Is the beard for a movie?

Michael Douglas: Yeah, a movie called The King of California, produced by Alexander Payne and Michael London, and directed and written by Alexander's best friend, a guy named Mike Cahill, who is his first time directing.

What's the story?

Michael Douglas: I kind of call it a bipolar dark comedy. I play a southern California jazz musician of no real repute, who's had a pretty ragged life and a breakdown, and the picture kind of starts with me coming out of a nut house, and my daughter, Evan Rachel Wood is playing my daughter, and my time in there I think I've discovered there's a Spanish treasure here. Of course, she's looking at me like, 'I guess that time in there did you a lot of good.' But persuade her and convince her that there may be enough truth to it, and it's our pursuit of this treasure.

As you get older, and the longer you've been in the business, does it get harder or easier to find interesting roles that maybe you haven't done before?

Michael Douglas: I would say probably harder, but a lot of that I think has to do with how much the business has changed, you know, the studios per se are small divisions of large media companies, so the mainline studio stuff you're not going to see that much stuff, you therefore have to, even if you're not sure you want to, keep your production company going and developing things that you like. Saying that, I've got another movie coming out in July called "You, Me and Dupree" which is with Owen Wilson and it's a mainline Universal comedy that I think should be pretty funny.

His phone rings - he says into the phone, 'Honey, you got me again, Honey. Anything you want to say to everybody here? Any questions for Catherine? They all say hi. Alright sweetie, I can't believe it. I love you, I'll call you back.'

You seemed drawn to stories about accomplished, often powerful men whose lives and careers are destabilized.

Michael Douglas: I don't know if they are all powerful, you know Wonder Boys or Falling Down, but I get what you're saying. My whole resume is contemporary, I don't have any sci fi movies, I've got no period pictures, when you're forced and have to look you look you go, and I don't really know about many heroes in life, so I kind of like to take flawed characters who have had acts of indiscretion, hopefully have a great structural story around, watch them sink into the abyss and then when audiences go, 'There's no way you're going to get out of here,' and then get him out of it. I know that's sort of the area that I like, when I'm not trying to do a comedy, and that's it. With The Sentinel, it was a book - I've been gone about three years, I haven't done anything for three years except enjoy being home, and so you kind of evaluate what they're offering you on the outside versus your own production company and developing things there, and you decide you want to go back to work, and I thought with The Sentinel we could do certainly a milieu that has been done before, but by doing the detail of the Secret Service like its never been done before, really researching it with the kind of cast you could put together, we could possibly make a picture where you couldn't guess the ending and possibly know who the bad guy was right off the top.

You've got six or seven projects coming up.

Michael Douglas: I've got a number of pictures that you would never know, but right now - I did this picture last summer, You, Me and Dupree, I'm going to do the King of California picture and that's it for the time being. Catherine is going to go do another movie in England this summer and I'll be hanging out. It was time to get out of the house, it was an extraordinary bonding period with my kids, I've got a five year old, and our daughter Carys is turning three next week, and just had a great time any dad would cherish to be able to just hang out with your children and wake them up in the morning, put them to bed at night, and put your daughter to take her nap and have meals, and I got no other reason to leave. And the twenty-five year difference with my wife who's in her prime allows me to comfortably say, 'Honey, go for it. Go do what you want to go do,' and I think that's one of the advantages of having age - I've been there, done it, I like working, but my priorities have changed, whereas earlier in your career ambition is what you lead with first, your career is first, your family is second, I think for me now the family is first, probably my work with the United Nations comes second and then career.

You've kept separate tracks in terms of your careers, you haven't tried to produce her stuff?

Michael Douglas: Oh no, I certainly throw in my two cents and my advice, but she's quite astute, and she works with her brother in her production company. We're actually going to form sort of an umbrella situation to kind of maybe help her a little more in development, but I would not want to get that directly involved. We've got one picture we're thinking kind of the spirit of Romancing the Stone we might all do together, but we wouldn't be lovers, I'd be the adversarial part, she'd have her love interest and I'd be there kind of stirring the pot.

What about Smoke and Mirrors?

Michael Douglas: No, that was something we tried a long time ago, that's dead. No, the project is in India called Racing the Monsoon.

During the movie you're on the run and you're gathering all these supplies, was that kind of a McGyver moment?

Michael Douglas: Yeah, that was one of those procedural - has George Nolfi been in here yet? Talk to George about that, but we were trying to figuring out all the elements, it's sort of a carry over of - inter-cut against Kiefer's whole speech to the troops, 'This guy knows more than you do,' and this was a chance to see a little stuff he's going to use to pursue this line of work.

Were you disappointed that you weren't as good of a shot as Eva?

Michael Douglas: That was the most - I was humiliated. It was just so funny, because Kiefer, 24, he takes the guns apart and puts them back, I've done my police shows and all of this, and Gerry Cavis has been in here too, so you've got all the secret service and the FBI agents up there and all of that, I'm 'Mr. Producer,' so I'm trying to be nice to Eva, 'Honey, it makes a loud noise,' and all of this, and lo and behold, Gerry's gotten permission for the whole thing, we're using live ammunition, which I've never done this sort of thing before. That whole thing where you're behind the door like this (pretends to hold gun up) and you're going, 'Jesus, this has got live bullets.' And we're standing there near targets, kneeling, this and that, and Kiefer and I are sitting there going, 'Damn,' The police officers all conferred, and said, 'You know, she probably shoots better than 90 percent of the police officers in the country.' I didn't think you had to know, say we cast you - So that was tough enough, but then you get into the running. I've got a bad knee, hamstring, so I'm trying to find - someone was commenting, 'It's so good to see somebody realistically stop when they're out of breath.' I said, 'I'm glad you liked that acting.' Kiefer, he takes off, so I said, 'Well, I'm going to pretend that I'm looking for some evidence or something.' I asked him later, I said, 'You're really fast Kiefer.' 'Thanks,' 'Did you run in school.' 'Yeah, I have the State record for 400 meters.' I said, 'Oh, alright.' Now, Eva comes by me in high heels, and I'm thinking, 'How can she run like that in these high heels?'

You've played the President and the secret Service Agent - who gets more action?

Michael Douglas: Secret Service guys are - don't forget the Drugs Czar - but I think the pressure on these guys, the idea to be trained so much as a six-shooter that you can put your body in front - I look a lot at that opening scene of Reagan and that one agent who just turns and sits there and waits for it, it's pretty extraordinary, and the pressure level, just getting the sense of the crowds and everything, and dealing with that situation, that when they go off duty party pretty good. And I must say I've run into a few of the advanced teams, Secret Service guys who are advancing a few days before a President arrives, they seem to have a pretty good time.

You, Kiefer and Eva all have worked television and Clark Johnson did as well - did you trade any war stories about TV days?

Michael Douglas: More the opposite, more of the attraction of working with them, because I'm a big supporter of television, I think the quality of television given the amount of time you have, how short you have, is proportionately so much better than most movies, and myself remembering coming out of Streets of San Francisco, you're like lifting weights, you're so attuned, you're working on new scripts every week, you're rewriting the scripts every week, you're dealing with guest stars. Kiefer is the producer of the show, you have no time for diva stuff business, except to work as a team, and as a producer, given the schedule on this picture and everything else, was part of the attraction, with both of them. Nowadays it's a lot easier to go from television to feature films than when I was doing my series, I think it was Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood before me; that was about it. So I cherish that and I just enjoy this relationship with them so much because they were so professional, they don't have that la-dee-da movie time in their heads, they're there to work and they're there to make everybody else look good too, which is something else you learn. What I'm happy is the movie, even going to the background extras, everybody had a job, everybody had a role, there was a sense that we knew what we were doing, and it's a joy. And for Clark too, he had amongst his other pilots, he had developed a pilot called The Service which was about the Secret Service, which had not been picked up, but gave him a good insight.

When you attach yourself to a project, what makes you decide to also produce it?

Michael Douglas: People either come to me as an actor - if I'm the producer it's because I've developed that in my production company, not that I ask for the credit as a producer, I'd much rather just act, it's a lot of fun just to be - you know, 'Are you okay Mr. Douglas? Anything I can get you?' 'I'm fine, thank you.' And then when the movie's over give everybody a hug and go away and see it when it comes out for the premiere. You're producing a picture there's much more responsibility, putting all the elements together, follow it through to post-production, and all of that, so I just do it to allow myself options. I don't like just being at the mercy of having to wait for a phone call or dealing with whatever the choices are they're offering you as an actor, this gives you come kind of control. And when you take your times off, like this last three years, it allows me to stay involved and work on different projects.

When you make a movie like The Sentinel, do you see a contemporary resonance to it?

Michael Douglas: This started out as a genre movie, just to execute it as well as possible, but the way the world is going with the leaks in Washington and homicide detectives being hit men for the mob, I'm wondering. All of a sudden there becomes a little more of a element of terrorist movement and everything else, more of a sense of well maybe there could be a mole in there.

When you look at projects do you look for this is something that hits me because it's happening outside my window?

Michael Douglas: Yes, but it just gives it more texture if you deal with contemporary subject matters it will just help it make more real, more credibility, and so if you create more reality then people are going to believe this journey you're going to take rather than just dismissing it.

What do you think of The Star Chamber being remade and what as an actor is the one thing you look for from a director?

Michael Douglas: I didn't know Star Chamber was being - I guess they're all going to get - I know Street of San Francisco is being developed for a movie. It was a good concept, Star Chamber. I just remember I couldn't believe how young I was to be a judge. I couldn't believe it. The director I just - whether I'm producing or just acting, I just want to make sure he's got a vision of the picture, so I will push him to sit down from page one and talk me through the picture, because what I do, just as an actor, I like to close my eyes and get a sense of what the rhythm of the picture is, kind of picture it, so I know what my responsibility is scene by scene for the movie, I know I've got to pick up the pace here, I've got to add some comic relief, I've got to be threatening, whatever it might be, that's what the movie needs. And in the same breath I'm looking to make the other actors as comfortable and good as they possibly can be, because all I want to be is involved in a good movie. So I'll push directors, I call it my shit-detector, I put it out there to see does this guy really talk this movie through, does he know this picture through? Does he have a vision of this movie or is he just b-sing?

You produced Flatliners, how has Kiefer changed in from those years?

Michael Douglas: He's gotten better like a good wine, he's experienced, I think the discipline - he likes a good time, Kiefer, he's always been known for that, and there's nobody I know that can burn the candle at both ends better than he can and still show up and know every line, professional as he is, he hasn't missed a moment in 150 - and this has probably been a good experience, very hard, this show, but he's more directed, I think, and more career orientated in a good way, he's got a record company, he's got a lot of things going on, he's in great shape, and he must be dating a lot of interesting people.

You can check out Michael, Kiefer, Eva, and Kim in The Sentinel in theaters April 21st; it's rated PG-13.