Talking with Michael J. Fox is, in the words of Michael J. Fox, “kind of like waiting for a Grateful Dead concert to start: it’s no fun until the drugs kick in.” So says the 61-year-old actor as we make CanCon small chat – the legacy of Gordon Lightfoot, his affinity for The Globe and Mail – before the star’s medication has taken effect for our discussion of his latest project, the intimate and inventive documentary Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie.
The new film is constructed in a uniquely engaging fashion, with director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) and editor Michael Harte mixing footage of Fox’s on-screen work with scripted re-enactments to tell the story of one Canadian kid’s rise to the top of the Hollywood ecosystem, and how being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease changed his life – for the better. Narrated by Fox – who is the only “talking head” featured here, another rejection of the typical celebrity biopic format – Still is as honest as it is adventurous.
Ahead of the film’s premiere on Apple TV+ May 12 – and just a week after the Michael J. Fox Foundation published a landmark paper identifying a biomarker for Parkinson’s with high accuracy, opening up new routes in diagnostics and potential therapies – Fox spoke with The Globe and Mail about his life and career, from the past all the way back to the future.
Congratulations on the news about the foundation’s work. That must feel immensely rewarding.
It puts things into perspective, right? It was 15 or so years ago that we started the biomarker study. But I’m not a scientist. I don’t go, hey, I’ve got an idea, let’s look at this. But when it was explained to me and I was told how big a study it was and how unlikely it would be that we’d get the results in the time frame that we wanted, I remember asking, well, if we don’t do this, who will? Now, it fast-tracks us. It doesn’t mean we’ll have an answer tomorrow. But it means that, where we once had a choice between 30 doors to go through, now we have one or two.
Did you have much skepticism going into the foundation’s work at first? How do you hold out hope for so long?
One thing that I understood from the outset is that science is hard, and you need three wrong answers to get even close to the right one. I knew what we were going up against. The reason that I left Spin City and started the foundation is that I just didn’t see the urgency for the research at the time. I wanted to jump-start it, and I got lucky by getting great people onboard. We had a few corny slogans that we’d throw around back then, one of which was “purity of motive.” We had no other agenda other than to get this done.
Have you found that you’ve had to make many personal sacrifices to help the foundation get to where it is today?
I don’t see them as sacrifices – these are opportunities. I know this sounds corny again, but what a blessing, what a privilege it is to be in this position. When I first made my diagnosis public, I heard people in online chatrooms saying, ”Oh, thank god he’s got it! Michael having Parkinson’s is the best news!” At first, I was like, what? But then I got it. Someone with as much publicity and attention as I have getting it, it’s an opportunity to do something. It took me a while to figure out what that would be, but now we’re ahead of schedule.
In the new film, there’s one point where you’re talking about seeing your face on magazine covers and you say, ‘it was never a true reflection of myself.’ Is this doc, then, a true reflection of yourself?
True as it could be under the circumstances. As a young man, I was pretty naïve but I always knew when I was selling a movie or enjoying the attention. This was different. When I met Davis and he told me how much my books affected him, I agreed to go on a journey with him and see where it goes. I had no agenda. I didn’t hope it would respark my film career or anything like that. I just wanted to see how a guy who thought in a similar way, and had a great track record of filmmaking, would treat this material.
How closely involved were you in Davis’s decision to construct this film in such a unique fashion?
We talked about it early on, but it’s his genre. I remember my lawyers calling me up and saying, “Here’s how it works: you’ll get three strikes to take major plot points out,” and all these other measures to defend myself against the filmmaker. But I didn’t want to do that. I just wanted to make a movie. So I waived all those provisions and I’m glad I did because god forbid I would have gone in and said don’t use my source material as part of the narrative. I thought that was so clever.
I love watching that scene where it’s talking about my relationship with [wife Tracy Pollan] and it’s footage from Bright Lights, Big City. It reminded me how lucky I’ve been in my career to work with everyone I have. Brian De Palma, Paul Schrader. It was so nice to look back and not only reflect on what was going on in my life at that point, but remember all the people I’ve met along the way.
I suppose that anybody who takes time to do this kind of exercise will find some regrets, faults in their decisions. But on the opposite end, I’m curious whether there is anything you initially felt was a mistake, a bad time in your life, that was actually much better than you initially felt, in retrospect?
I’m a goofy, optimistic guy, so all the things that have happened to me were great. I seriously wouldn’t change a thing. The difficulties I had with my early diagnosis, turning to alcohol, getting rid of that to save my marriage – as difficult and painful as all that was, I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without it, and my family wouldn’t be the same family without it. So I don’t question things, but I do celebrate them.
Some of the things in the film, people might wince at. But I was going, yeah, cool. Like that moment of me laying on the floor looking up at Tracy and finding her bored with my alcoholism and realizing that was the moment I needed to change. Yeah, I made the right decision coming out of that. The great thing about this film is the moments with my family. The way we were laughing. You can’t fake that laughter. I laugh so much it’s all you can do to get my face to not stretch beyond its skull and blow off.
Well there’s an image for a movie. Actually, it sounds pulled from The Frighteners.
Peter Jackson, I got him between masterpieces.
Hey, The Frighteners is a favourite film of mine.
I wouldn’t joke about it if I didn’t believe that, too. He’s a great filmmaker. I first met him in Toronto, when Heavenly Creatures premiered at the festival. I flew up to see it, and then agreed to make that film.
There is at one point in this doc where Davis says that you get close to the tough stuff and then dart away. How hard did he push you – and how hard did you push yourself – to get to the more difficult material?
Davis did a brilliant thing, in that he put the camera 15 feet away from where I’m sitting, back up against the wall, and he left it on. I forgot it was there. The painful stuff, when I’m looking vacant and drooling in that blank, concrete Parkinson’s stare, I couldn’t have manufactured that for him. He had the filmmaker’s instinct to know how and where to get that. I didn’t see footage until the end, so I didn’t even know what he was up to. He wasn’t going to do talking heads – the one talking head was just mine, even though my head can barely talk some time. If I had any prenegotiated control over the material, it would have been a disaster.
I would, though, like to see a sequel where it’s just talking heads of collaborators you’ve worked with.
They gave me an Academy Award this year for my humanitarian work, which was great because Woody Harrelson presented it. He gets up and starts telling these stories and I thought, oh Jesus. Someone once said to me that we were “eighties famous,” and that’s true. We had a different perspective. There were none of these things [points to his smartphone]. It was just hardcore.
Woody starts to tell this story about when we were in Thailand, and I took them through the jungle. It was me, Woody and [hockey player] Cam Neely, and we found this little hut. It was Deliverance in Southeast Asia. This kid comes out who I had met before, and I gave him this big bag of baht, and he took me to this concrete wall and we jumped over. That’s when Woody and Cam realized there were like 35 cobras in there. I just sat there until they picked up a cobra. Its blood was drained and mixed with Thai whiskey and we drank it. “Brotherhood of the snake,” or something goofy like that. Madness. If we got a whole group of my friends and told these stories, we’d never get out of there.
I think you just found the title of your next doc, though. Michael J. Fox: Brotherhood of the Snake.
Or Fox Eats Snake.
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie is available to stream on Apple TV+ starting May 12.
This interview has been condensed and edited.