Behind the Candelabra – Interview with Matt Damon

The cast of ‘Behind the Candelabra’ gave a behind the scenes chat at this years Cannes Film Festival…

Born in 1919, Liberace was an American pianist and vocalist famous for his lavish lifestyle and flamboyant costumes. Some argue he set gay rights back years by never coming out of the closet and suing those who mentioned his homosexuality, others argue that he paved the way for future drag movements.

A new movie ‘Behind the Candelabra’ with Michael Douglas as Liberace focuses on his relationship with a younger lover, Scott Thorson (played by a bulked up and stripped down Matt Damon). The movie is based on the memoirs of Scott Thorson, which gives an intimate look at Liberace’s courtship of the much-younger Thorson, their same-sex relationship, and the messy breakup in the early 80’s that resulted in a ‘palimony’ lawsuit before Liberace died of an AIDS related illness in 1987.

‘Behind the Candelabra’ is the swansong for acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh, who came up with the idea while working with Michael Doughlas on ‘Traffic’, speaking of his early memories at this years Cannes Film Festival Soderbergh said “I remember watching my parents watch him, because at 7 or 8 I had no idea what to make of him. He seemed very enthusiastic and obviously a very arresting person to look at visually because of the outfits, and I just remember being fascinated by how fascinated my parents were by watching him. At that point, until I talked to Michael on the set of Traffic about the idea of playing him, I literally don’t think I ever thought of him again. In the interim I didn’t think of him at all, he just popped into my head.”

It was Steven Soderbergh who convinced Matt Damon to join the cast, Damon playing his first ever non-fiction character was unsure at first, but decided to trust Steven having worked with him seven times previously. Below Matt Damon talks more about his role and reveals what it was like to sleep with Michael Douglas…

When did you first hear about Liberace?
I remember him being a presence… I was born in 1970, so throughout the 70s there would be specials on television and you would see him, but he was less of a presence in my life than in my mother’s. My mother told me that they would sit around and they would watch him. My grandmother was an excellent piano player and she absolutely loved watching him play, so whenever he was on they would stop everything and watch.

Did you get to discuss your performance with Scott at any stage?
I did not talk to Scott. I talked to Steven about whether I should and we decided it would be better… We got everything that we needed from his book, the script drew heavily from Scott’s book, and we just talked about an angle of attack in terms of the tone of the piece. I think meeting him, before I did it, 30 years after all of this happened, it wouldn’t have been helpful necessarily.

Did you reflect on the skill with which Liberace maintained his secret and whether he could have done it today?
He wouldn’t have been able to. You can’t manage an image any more. I never even bothered trying; it’s an exercise in futility in this day and age. The guys who were around him at the time referred to his relationship as a marriage. Had it been a relationship between a man and a woman it would have been a marriage and they would have parted and there would have been an agreement and none of this stuff would have blown up in the press, but Scott became addicted to drugs and was desperate for money, it all had to play out the way it played out – in a large part – because they weren’t allowed to live out in the open.

Did the prosthetics make you nervous, did you hesitate at all?
No, not at all. I choose movies entirely based on who’s directing them now. I have done movies with no script and they have turned out the way I wanted them to, just because of who the director was, so to have a director like Steven, and then on top of it, to have a script that was as good as any script I had read, it was just absolutely beautifully written – and I say that with envy, because I am a writer. These two roles were really phenomenal, so it was not the kind of thing I would hesitate about. This was a real opportunity and we both jumped at it.

What is it like to be in bed with Michael Douglas?

I now have things in common with Sharon Stone and Glenn Close. We can all go out and trade stories! [Laughs]

In one scene we were trying to film an argument, Steven staged it so as the argument builds, I get closer and closer to the bed and eventually end up in the bed because, like with married couples, sometimes you get in an argument at the end of the day and it’s not like you’re going to leave the marriage; it’s time to bed. I had explained to him in this parking lot in West Hollywood about this Brazilian tan line, which I had to get to make some of the outfits fit and not show a tan line. Steven sat there listening and I said ‘It’s the wrongest thing you have ever seen, what if I drop the robe and get into bed and you see the Brazilian tan line?’ Steven just looked at me for a long time and he goes ‘Oh I know where to put the camera!’ [laughs] I am really proud of that scene. My behind is very large in the frame, but it is out of focus because the focus is thrown deep to Michael. I did warn every guy on the crew; this is not something you can un-see. You are all welcome to look, but you can’t un-ring that bell; it will be seared into your memory! [laughs]


Why do you think films like this struggle to find financial backing?
I would say it’s a difficult time for smaller, independent pictures. Studios still seem to be wed to gambling on very very large budgets with very very large marketing budgets. I don’t think the problem with ‘Behind the Candelabra’ with the studios was a gay issue, it’s just they don’t like to be bothered with smaller pictures, they don’t seem to like to have to worry about smaller pictures and smaller budgets, it’s just not in the wheelhouse, therefore cable television in the States has become an access point. Many of us have been involved with smaller, independent pictures that have no marketing budget and it’s very frustrating; you work for nothing and the only advertising is you going on talk shows and all of that. I thought this was a wonderful combination of the two; HBO in the States and then worldwide.

Words : Brogen Hayes

‘Behind the Candelabra’ is at cinemas from June 7th