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Talking With: Michael Paul King from Starz Political Series ‘Gaslit’

Interview with Michael Paul King, talking-up the Watergate scandal opposite Julia Roberts.

By FierceScribePublished 2 years ago 13 min read
Actor Michael Paul King as Mike Douglas in "Gaslit" (courtesy: Starz)

This edition of Talking With focuses on Michael Paul King, who portrays the real-life talk show host Mike Douglas in the Starz Watergate docu-drama series, “Gaslit,” based on the original podcast, “Slow Burn.”

The eight-episode series offers a modern perspective on the 1970s political Watergate scandal and delves into lesser-known stories surrounding the notorious break-in, including that of the first whistle-blower Martha Mitchell (Julia Roberts). The wife of Nixon’s Attorney General, John N. Mitchell (Sean Penn) and a prominent Washington socialite, Martha was a regular guest on the popular The Mike Douglas Show. In one such appearance, she proves very entertaining when Douglas (Michael Paul King) confronts her about Watergate and the Nixon Administration.

Michael admired Mike Douglas and watched his show as a kid, and it’s fitting that “Gaslit” marks the first time that Michael has portrayed a real person on screen. He was also excited to reunite with Julia Roberts, 30 years after first meeting her in Texas at a fundraiser for Governor Ann Richards.

After reconnecting with his passion for acting later in life, Michael is more enthusiastic than ever about his career and hopes to continue collaborating with other creatives.

To learn more, we are Talking With Michael Paul King.

Why did you want to be part of “Gaslit”?

Michael Paul King: Actually the answer to that is fourfold, and it evolved as I learned more about the project. Initially, I was just pumped to get to audition to portray Mike Douglas, a guy I was actually a huge fan of when I was a boy. Then, upon initially researching the project so I would have my head around what it was for the audition, I quickly came to the realization that I would very likely be working in a scene with Julia Roberts as I knew she was playing Martha Mitchell. Martha and Douglas had a fairly, I’ll even go so far as to call it, “affectionate” relationship vis-à-vis all her appearances on his show. He considered her part of the extended Mike Douglas Show family. I think I may even have improvised a line along those lines on a take or two. So knowing I was going to probably be working with Julia was a major shot in my arm for my enthusiasm at getting this opportunity.

Also on realizing that Matt Ross was the director, well, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I was already a fan of his acting work, most recently his brilliant turn as Gavin Belson on Silicon Valley, but more to the point I fell in love with his movie “Captain Fantastic” when it came out and the “Pitch Perfect” actors he cast in that. He’s a real “actor’s director,” you can tell from that film. My experience with him bore that out, and I didn’t put together that it was the same guy! Matt Ross is a great actor and a great director. So that was a real treat.

Finally, once I got my head around the story, who Martha Mitchell was, her role in Watergate, the fact that this show was going to, in essence, redeem this woman as a historical figure and in a very real-world way, and that my character was somebody who was openly supportive of her in real life well, that just means a lot to get to be part of something like that. I barely knew who Martha Mitchell was, frankly, before this show and the “Slow Burn” podcast it was based on, so getting to dig into this has been a real eye-opener. I also realized Sam Esmail was executive producing it. That pumped me up. I’m a big fan of “Mr. Robot” so it was a thrill to get to be in a project under his umbrella.

As an actor, what helped you the most in bringing the famous talk-show host to life?

MK: Aside from my already existing childhood fandom of him? Two Words: Matt Ross. Firstly, he sent me research videos of Mike Douglas episodes where Martha served as his co-host for a week, something she did several times over the course of their professional relationship. I also managed to dig up a few of my own on YouTube and whatnot. But more importantly, when Matt and I met to discuss the shoot and the character, he made it very clear he did not want me to feel like I had to attempt to pull off any Mike Douglas impression or imitation. He felt that my audition made it very clear that I already embodied the essence of who that guy was and to put anything on top of that would be too much. I actually took this as a personal compliment as Douglas was such a lovely, personable guy. But more importantly it really took a load off my shoulders as an actor and really allowed me to relax into that character and the scene, which was a great gift as I would be working opposite literally one of the biggest stars in the history of cinema. I imagine actors like Aaron Goddard who played Tom Snyder and Kat Foster who played Barbara Walters received similar marching orders. But their characters have even more distinctive, well-known personalities and vocal traits. I’d be curious to know how they approached so perfectly striking that balance.

Had you ever seen “The Mike Douglas Show” before landing this role?

MK: Many times. He was part of my TV-watching routine as a kid, but I was very young. I was actually a huge fan and have very clear memories of watching him at my grandmother’s house in New Jersey, she loved him. And I was obsessed with wanting to have an awesome haircut like his. I used to call that look a “Glenn Campbell Haircut” when I was a little guy and I was obsessed! The irony, of course, is now that I got to actually portray him, I had to wear a wig to pull off that “full head of hair” style.

Is this the first real person you’ve ever portrayed on screen? And, what’s that like?

MK: On screen? Yes, this is the first time, to my memory. I’ve taken on some actual historical characters on stage in the theater, but this is the first time on screen. It felt like a real honor, especially as this is a guy who I was an actual admirer of when I was a kid. I also had this weird worry in the back of my head, like, his surviving family or offspring might see it and hate me. Like “our dad was more fit and trim than this guy!” or something. Fortunately, nothing like that came up, well, as far as I know anyway.

Do you have a favorite moment from working on the project?

MK: If I had to distill it down to a single favorite moment, it’s when I first walked on set so Julia and I could rehearse. I wasn’t in wardrobe yet. I think I’d been through make-up as I had the wig on. She was in a dressing gown with her hair up in curlers from a prior scene she had shot with Darby Camp, who plays her daughter. She was chatting with the director, Matt Ross, who was wearing a COVID-mandated face mask, but it was the first time he and I had been able to interact in person due to the pandemic. And that moment of walking on a huge soundstage like that, with those people, and on to the perfect recreation of Mike Douglas’s set, another set of the 70’s game show “Truth or Consequences” next to it, and Tom Snyder’s distinctive set recreation around the corner from that? Well, that’s when I got that initial thrilling shudder of “This is real. This is happening. This is how that movie magic is done, and I’m gonna be a part of making it happen!”

Then Christopher Mychael Watson joined us as Chubby Checker in his groovy bell bottoms and open, wide-collar shirt, and well that was just the cherry on top. Also, our last shot was Christopher grabbing Julia’s hand and teaching her how to do “The Twist”. On our final take, Julia grabbed my hand to stand up and join them, but my suit hadn’t been taken in by wardrobe for some reason, I’m afraid, and my pants began to fall off as I danced, me hoisting them up with my free hand. That scene didn’t end up in the show, sadly, but I would give up my firstborn to have footage of that take!

How was it to act opposite Julia Roberts?

MK: Absolutely joyous. I was so delighted as to how personable and down-to-earth I found her and with such a sense of humor. On the one hand, you want to be as professional and low-key as possible in a situation like this, you want to do everything in your power to help the day go as smoothly as possible for the production. But you also really want to connect with your scene partner, so it’s best, in my experience, to have some kind of offscreen rapport, in most cases. I tested the waters a bit when we first sat down for rehearsal because she immediately, thankfully, created an opening for it.

I of course was fully memorized because I wanted to do a perfect job for her and Matt that day. She was still working off her script and whispered to me not to worry, that she would have it memorized by the time we were going to shoot it and I said, “Oh! I’m not worried, Academy Award Winner, Julia Roberts!” which she laughed at, thankfully. In between takes it also came up that the next day would be my 18th wedding anniversary and she and her husband had just celebrated theirs within that past year, so she was trying to remember what gift you’re supposed to get for 18 years, and then shouted, “Matt! We need to wrap this up so Michael can get to a mall to buy an anniversary gift for his wife!” Very funny. Oh, and spoiler alert, she did have her lines memorized by the time we shot.

Why do you think fans are still so enthralled with the Watergate scandal?

MK: It’s the standard bearer example in our culture of the price to be paid for our human foibles. It’s absolutely timeless in that regard, isn’t it? It is tragically Shakespearean in scope. In the case of our episode the bards are Robbie Pickering and Anayat Fakhraie and man do they nail it. We’re all fascinated by power: the acquisition of it, the seductive addiction to it, the price of maintaining it, the gravitational pull of it, and the people who get sucked in and sometimes destroyed by those enticing eddies. As an audience, it’s not even schadenfreude that attracts us, that’s for reality TV. It’s really more a cautionary tale because anybody with any ounce of ambition can be susceptible to their own version of this. One only needs to look at the hearings going on about January 6 to see perfect, current, real-world examples of it in action right now.

What inspires you the most creatively?

MK: I am very fortunate to have “rediscovered” acting and performing later in life. While I sometimes wonder where my fledgling career would be if I had stuck with it all this time, from my twenties into my forties, I have little doubt that if I had I wouldn’t be nearly as enthusiastic and full of joy about it as I am now, given the path that brought me back to it. I am so pumped by getting to do it. A few years back I had the unparalleled opportunity to study acting with James Caan for three months, twice a week, four hours a day, very intense. Near the end of that, in a private moment, he described me as a “great actor” and I realized that I had found it again, I was a real actor again. And I was never going to lose it. And I will now, in some form or fashion, never not do this, or some version of it, until the day I drop. Do you have any idea what kind of a gift that is to discover? To give oneself at this point in life? I’m so grateful for it.

Also, collaboration. I love nothing more than to work with teams of creative people: filmmakers, crew, writers, other actors and comedians. Musicians, too, as I dabble a teeny bit in music. And the best thing about being among the older folks in an acting or improv class is that my younger, higher-energy classmates inevitably will seek me out to play a role in their short film, their filmed sketch, their web series, their table read, their Zoom performance, whatever. I’ve done it all. I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore and I always feel like I’ve legitimately brought something extra and awesome to their project. Based on this I’ve learned to always say “yes.” I mean, why ever say “no” if it all brings you joy?

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

MK: That this isn’t the first time Julia Roberts and I have hung out! We had actually met, like 30 years previously at the height of her post-"Pretty Woman" fame, where we sat next to each other at a soundcheck for a fundraiser for Governor Ann Richards and chatted casually. She was so down to earth, really. Sweats, hair up in a scrunchie, if I remember correctly. She just reminded me of a girl in my chemistry class. So it was surreal to be sitting next to each other again for our scene, in literally the exact same position, after all that time.

The main thing I want people to know is how amazing Julia Roberts really truly is as a professional actor and, let’s not hedge this, lifelong celebrity. I don’t know how much is calculated or instinct at this point, but she must know the effect her very presence has on a subset of people and man, does she know how to put someone like me who has to suddenly work with her on screen immediately at ease. When I first walked on set and she was chatting with the director, she saw me, immediately pulled away and moved toward me, flashing that smile, her hand outstretched and said, “Hi! I’m Julia!” I knew it wouldn’t need to be “Ms. Roberts” or anything like that and that was a great signal to get from her out of the gate. Really, she was still that “girl from my chemistry class” after all these years.

Also, I want to mention what an absolute mensch Patton Oswalt is in real life. He plays Chuck Colson in the series and when “Gaslit” used my voice and clips of Julia and I prominently in their trailers and social media to promote the show, he DM’d me out of the blue on Instagram to offer his congratulations. We had a little DM exchange and he was so sweet and encouraging and supportive. I mean, who does that? What a guy.

Connect with Michael Paul King on Instagram: @mikekingjr / Twitter: @mikekingjr / FB:

Michael Paul King

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About the Creator


I write about entertainment and the inspiring people who create it. Interviews with actors and filmmakers revealing their latest projects and what influences them creatively.

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