PASADENA, Calif. — Somewhere beneath the outlandish costumes, showy personality, and high-watt smile, Liberace was a real person. That sense of life-size humanity — of the famed concert pianist and TV personality’s loves, losses, and struggles — was one of the elements director Steven Soderbergh wanted to get across in “Behind the Candelabra,” which airs Sunday night at 9 on HBO.
The film stars Michael Douglas as the man whom friends called “Lee” and Matt Damon as his young lover Scott Thorson, and is based on Thorson’s book of the same name.
“One of the aspects of the book and the story that appealed to me was that at a certain point in the film, the discussions that they’re having are discussions that every couple has,” Soderbergh told reporters at the winter Television Critics Association press tour. “And what’s unusual about it, obviously, is the environment in which these conversations are taking place. But we take the relationship seriously. I was very anxious that we not make a caricature of either of their characters or of the relationship.”
Joining Soderbergh in a discussion with reporters were Douglas — to whom Soderbergh pitched the role back in 2000 — Damon, and “Candelabra” producer Jerry Weintraub.
Q. Was there a particular reason that you thought of Mr. Douglas for the role?
SODERBERGH: I honestly don’t know why that popped into my head, but I remember the day it did. And you [gesturing to Douglas] immediately sort of launched into an impromptu impression of him that was excellent.
And so I had it in the back of my mind for years, but I couldn’t figure out a way in. I didn’t want to do a sort of traditional biopic. I was talking to a writer friend of mine in New York and I said, “I really want to do this Liberace project, but I just don’t know how to do it; I don’t know what the approach is.” And he was the one who said, “Oh, you’ve got to read this book, ‘Behind the Candelabra’.” And I said, “Well, that’s the best title I’ve ever heard.” And I read the book and I thought, OK.
Q. Mr. Douglas, did you ever meet Liberace? And did your costar Debbie Reynolds, who did know him, tell you any stories?
DOUGLAS: I met him briefly two or three times when my father had a house in Palm Springs and Liberace had a house nearby. And just passing in the car, I remember seeing him. You couldn’t miss his car. But I never had an evening with him or anything like that. But I had heard, from what Jerry had said, that he was just an extraordinarily gracious, extremely professional guy. Most of Debbie’s stories, I’m afraid we really can’t tell. (Laughs.) About anybody, not just about Lee, but she did have some very spicy, spicy stuff to say.
Q. What did you do in preparation?
DOUGLAS: First of all, there’s the great Richard LaGravenese screenplay which set the structure for everything. But it’s basically a repetition process of looking at a lot of [clips]. . . . You’re not going to ever be exactly like Liberace and trying to find the balance that makes you comfortable, makes Steven secure, and makes myself attractive to Matt.
Q. Did you find him attractive, Matt?
DAMON: Very, very attractive.
Q. In some clips the film looks like it will be a comedy. Was it fun to make?
DAMON: There are aspects of their relationship that were absurd, right? But for me, it just kind of pointed out that there are aspects of all of our lives that are absurd. And they’re just not absurd to us because they’re our lives. It was so complex, their relationship. Richard so got this dynamic. Whether this was the actual dynamic or not, I completely believed what he’d written. And so it was fun, but we weren’t giggling about it. We took it very seriously. These were people’s lives and we wanted to get it right.Interview has been edited and condensed. Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.