Michael Douglas for “Wonder Boys”

He’s one of Hollywood’s biggest players. Now, in his latest movie Wonder Boys, playing a writer facing a midlife crisis, in his own life, things are as sweet as can be. Paul Fischer met the Oscar winning actor in Los Angeles, where they discussed life, acting, religion and the Internet.

Michael Douglas knows how to work a room. Impeccably attired in black, Douglas is a captivating presence, with his jocular manner and a willingness to talk, though not necessarily in the most direct way. Though it was revealed that the Oscar winning star of Wall Street was due to marry 30-year old Catherine Zeta-Jones on September 25, there’s a half-smile. “You don’t believe all that crap, do you?”

Which is why Douglas has his own paid web site to keep one step ahead of a gossip-hungry media, as well, he says, to promote his charity work. “I also realised that this craziness that was happening with Catherine and I could be used to my advantage: What I want they have? What do the tabloids want? Pictures of our birthday party? If you want to join the fan club, you can come up and see pictures of our birthday party.” For the media-savvy Douglas, creating his own web site, was a way to keep a step ahead of the tabloids. “Rather than constantly taking something FROM you, and never giving you anything back, this was way not only to raise money for my foundation and focus on my area of disarmament, and at the same time I can do some spin control.” It’s a rare instance of a superstar taking control of media, and it’s a ploy that’s working.

As for Douglas’ union with the much younger Zeta-Jones, the actor willingly opens up about the relationship. He first eyed the beautiful Welsh actress in Mask of Zorro. “She was one of the most beautiful and talented women I’d ever seen. I vowed to meet her,” recalls a beaming Douglas. “When I found out she was also a golfer, that was it for me”, he adds Douglas. Douglas pursued and ultimately proposed to her on this last and all-important New Year’s Eve. The couple is now expecting their first child and promise to properly announce their wedding date in the near future. Last year when they celebrated their birthdays, Douglas turned 55, while Zeta-Jones hit 30. The age difference is of no concern to him. “That factor disappeared very fast in our relationship and we don’t even think about it anymore.”

Life for the obviously happy Douglas, an Oscar winning actor (Wall Street) and producer (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), has reached certain completeness, he says. “It is funny that it’s all coming together now, in that there’s the new movie, a new baby and new start.” Career-wise, critics are al over themselves raving about ‘the new movie’, Wonder Boys, Douglas’ first all-out comedy in years. In the film the actor shows his softer side, as the overweight, pot-smoking Grady Tripp, an English professor whose life begins falling apart on one day: His wife leaves him. His mistress (Frances McDormand) announces she’s pregnant. A young female student (Katie Holmes) is trying to seduce him and a male student (Tobey Maguire) is threatening suicide.

“There are certain parallels to my own life,” jokes Douglas, referring to the financial hoops through which wife Diandra made him jump to get his divorce. But beyond that experience, Douglas worked harder for this film than most. “I had to gain 25 pounds to play this guy. I was reticent in the beginning, but went along with it very fast as I started pigging out.” Out of the 25 pounds he gained he’s now lost all but eight: “I knew it was not going to be fun losing it”, he’s now quick to admit. Douglas says playing the comic-tragic professor, who is under pressure from his editor (a hilarious Robert Downey, Jr.) to finish his 2,600-page novel, was a conscious move away from the suave, suit-wearing characters we’ve come to expect “I had just come out of doing two back-to-back Prince of Darkness roles (The Game and A Perfect Murder). I think if one was going to make a career choice, I would definitely want to do something that was lighter and different.”

It seems ironic that here was a wonder boy making a film about wonder boys. The irony is not lost on Douglas. “I’m so split as a wonder boy, first as a producer winning the Oscar my first time out with “Cuckoo’s Nest.” I remember all of us after that saying, “Well, it’s all downhill from here,” and many of us taking about a year and a half promoting the film around the world and putting off doing anything else. But producing for me just came out of the opportunity of my dad having the property before, so my honest career, which is acting, took a lot longer to develop. So basically producing allowed me to get a lot better jobs as an actor. But it wasn’t for me until my 40s, when “Fatal Attraction” and “Wall Street” gave me success. So I was beyond a wonder boy at that point”, he says philosophically.

And despite parallels between Douglas’ Grady Tripp and aspects of his own life, he laughingly says “that I hope I can’t relate to much else about this guy”, who spends part of the movie exposed in a dirty dressing gown, looking paunchy and middle aged. “That was part of the fun for me.” Douglas happily sees Wonder Boys as being simply “a really good movie with wonderful humour, as well a rich character”

Douglas is now concentrating on those marriage plans and impending fatherhood. He says the major controversy in his life, is the question: Should his Catholic fiancĂ©e become Jewish? “My poor mother is Church of England. I’m very happy for my father who’s having this spiritual renaissance of his. He actually called me this morning and said: I just want to say Michael that you and Catherine can do anything you want to do. You have no Jewish faith, just do whatever you want.” Perhaps that defines the clear bond between father and son. The latter hopes the pair will be able to team up professionally before, as Douglas senior recently quipped, he becomes too expensive. “I hope it’ll happen, and sooner than later.”