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Michael Douglas tells TV Week about stepping into the shoes of one of America’s most iconic historical figures in Franklin

After more than five decades in show business, Michael Douglas knows there is no way of telling if a project is going to meet expectations until you see the final product. But on the set of Franklin, the Apple TV+ series depicting Benjamin Franklin’s eight years in Paris trying to secure financial aid and an alliance between France and America, Douglas could already feel the electricity.

“I was the only American actor there — it was all French and English actors — and I remember pulling Tim Van Patten, our director, aside and saying, ‘Man, these guys are good,’ ” he tells TV Week. Filmed on location in Paris, the production employed thousands of extras to accurately depict 1776 France. “There was a scene where I arrive into a crazy crowd, and I felt like a rock star getting out of this carriage,” Douglas recalls. “I’m looking in their eyes and said, ‘Oh boy, this is really impressive.’ That was the first time I’ve been that overwhelmed by extras.”

Franklin on Apple TV+. Pictured: Ben Franklin (Michael Douglas) is joined on his mission by his grandson, Temple Franklin (Noah Jupe) during his sojourn in France.
Apple TV+

While the series never lacked grandeur, using practical locations like the Palace of Versailles and the Basilica of Saint Denis, Van Patten was careful never to lose sight of the real story. “I didn’t want it to feel remote or like a set piece,” he says. “You want to feel the layers of the culture at the time: Paris and all its opulence and decadence, the street-level poverty. Then, you’re introduced to this iconic figure who, at 70, is basically retired, and on this secret mission to save our republic.” To Van Patten, there was no one as appropriate as Douglas for this particular mission. “He embodies a lot of Franklin,” says the director. “Franklin always had a glint in his eye — you could see it in the paintings of him. Michael is absolutely charming and curious, wise and witty. He was the right person for the audience to feel Franklin. There’s no wall between [the two]. The idea was to build a living, breathing world of late 18th century France, and be over Michael’s shoulder for the journey.”

Benjamin Franklin is known from history books as one of the first scientists to study electricity, America’s first postmaster general and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. His acts of diplomacy in France are, however, a lesser-known accomplishment. “I didn’t know this amazing story,” says Douglas. “After working on creating our constitution and the Declaration of Independence, he was asked to go to France to see if we can talk the French into supporting us — and him not really knowing what he was going to do, really using his wit and his intelligence. Truth be told, if he had not succeeded, America would never had existed in its form. That’s a really big story.”

Franklin is Douglas’ first period project, a fact that both intrigued the 79-year-old actor and gave him pause. “Let’s start with, I looked at the hundred-dollar bills with Ben Franklin on it and said, ‘Well, I don’t see much of a resemblance here,’ ” he joked. The hair and makeup team considered prosthetics to achieve more of a similarity but ended up scrapping the idea. “People know me. I’ve been around for 50 plus years. You almost want your persona to come through, to have the audience behind you for eight hours,” says Douglas. “And one of the things I think we’re all happy about is that [the show] doesn’t stand up like a historical monument. You really feel immersed in that period of time, a real spy story and a tremendous gamble.”

Douglas is surrounded by co-stars Daniel Mays (Line of Duty), Ludivine Sagnier (Lupin), Thibault de Montalembert (Call My Agent) and Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place), as Franklin’s grandson, Temple. The French characters, and often the English-speaking ones, do much of their communicating in French, which was a unique challenge for Van Patten. “I don’t know a word of French,” laughs the director. “What I was really looking for was to see if I could feel the truth in the performance physically, emotionally. Looking at people in a scene, and I guess it comes from growing up in the streets in New York, I didn’t have any problem. I knew I could feel when it was working. It was just so fun.”

As wonderful as the experience of immersing oneself in period Paris was for everyone involved, Douglas can’t help but reflect on how topical this story from the 18th century remains today. “I’m very proud of the show. I think it shows a wonderful important point in our development,” says Douglas. “I see a lot of parallels today in terms of just how valuable democracy is, how fragile it is, how it constantly needs to be nurtured and protected. And I think it’s a reminder for us in our country now with our elections coming up.”

Franklin, streaming Friday, April 19 on Apple TV+

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