Film

Michael J Fox on living with Parkinson's: 'This isn’t something I’m making up. This is my life'

Michael J Fox doesn’t do a lot of appearances now, but we were one of handful of media to catch up with him at the South by Southwest premiere of Still, a documentary about his life... and about dealing with Parkinson's

Michael J Fox

Image: Apple TV+

Arriving at 88 miles per hour into ’80s pop culture, Michael J Fox was an instant global movie superstar. Propelled by near-as-dammit perfect time-travel comedy Back to the Future, he became a teen idol and a hero to millions. Here was an everyman in that grand Hollywood tradition which dictates that we fall deepest in love not with the Adonises, but with those stars who are enough like us to feel authentic, while being funnier, quicker, more charming, better looking than we can hope to be.   

Marty McFly was an incredibly physical, screwball performance: skateboarding at speed, frantically running, guitar-soloing, flashing that instantly recognisable, slightly lopsided smile. It was, Fox says, a continuation of the full-tilt way he’d always attacked life. “It started when I was a little kid and I had no sense of boundaries and no sense of modulation, no sense of parameters,” he explains. “I just would go out and inflict myself on the world.” 

Ironic, then, is too small a word to describe Fox’s diagnosis of early-onset Parkinson’s, received as the 1990s began when he was just 29, not long married and with a toddler at home. He kept the diagnosis secret for seven years, continuing to star in comedy series Spin City, until the symptoms became too obvious to hide. Three decades later, the disease has prematurely ended his career and had a profound impact on his once-athletic frame. Affecting all his movements, it’s made walking difficult, has changed his speech, and sometimes causes his face to freeze. It is degenerative and there is no cure. 

michael j fox as marty mcfly
As Marty McFly in Back to the Future, 1985. Image: AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

Yet when documentary-maker Davis Guggenheim (known for An Inconvenient Truth and documentaries about Bill Gates, Jack White and Malala Yousafzai) started making Apple TV+’s new film about his life, Fox had one condition: “no violins”. Still: A Michael J Fox Movie abides by that edict, focusing instead on Fox’s inspiring resilience, his positivity and his close-knit family ties. Yet, for all it doesn’t lean into the tragedy, the pathos is inescapable. We cut between livewire vintage clips and intimate, tightly filmed interviews with Fox today, fighting against involuntary tremors and stumbling on his words.  

Fox doesn’t do a lot of appearances now, for obvious reasons, but The Big Issue is one of a handful of international media to catch up with him at Still’s South by Southwest press conference. Inspired by our legendary Letter to My Younger Self series, we ask Fox which moment in his life he’d most like to relive. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not the release of Back to the Future, the three Emmy nominations he got for his incredible appearance as sly lawyer Louis Canning in The Good Wife (a man who plays up his neurological symptoms to manipulate courts) or even the day he married his beloved wife of 35 years, the actor Tracy Pollan. Instead, he wants to go back to the moment his dad set everything in motion. 

“I think,” Fox tells us, “it’d be the moment my dad says, ‘OK, I’ll take you down to find an agent.’ I mean, I was this crazy kid and I wanted to leave high school [in British Columbia, Canada] and move to California to be an actor. This is insane. It’s crazy. Nobody does that.  

“The fact that my father – who had this practical scepticism, pragmatic, stolid, no bullshit thing – he said, ‘OK, if you’re gonna be a lumberjack, let’s go to the goddamn forest.’ In that moment, my life changed. He could have said no, I’m shutting that down and I’m gonna make you miserable. But he said, ‘OK, give it a shot’.  

“He died young,” Fox continues, “he died just a couple of years after all the good things happened to me. The fact that he got to see it was just great.” 

“Isn’t it incredible that you’re a movie star, and all these amazing things happen to you,” Guggenheim interjects, “and the things that you want to go back to see are moments with your father?” 

“Well,” Fox smiles, “that’s the real stuff.” 

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Working around Fox’s family’s concern for his welfare, the interviews that form the backbone of Still were conducted over the course of six or seven days. When The Big Issue catches up with Guggenheim over Zoom a few days after the press conference, he insists that (unlike most subjects) Fox was a genuinely open book. He was willing to get down to the sensitive subjects, to talk about the real stuff. 

“There’s nothing I didn’t ask,” Guggenheim says. “And the most sensitive questions are in the movie. I think because of Parkinson’s, he’s freed of this sense of, like, I have to protect my image. I have to protect my legacy or my story.” 

The most sensitive question of all, says the director, was about the level of pain he experiences on a daily basis. Guggenheim put it off and put it off, but finally realised in the editing room, “it’s a question that hasn’t been asked, and it needs to be asked. I think I avoided it. Because I’m just too polite. I just like him too much.” 

Still: A Michael J Fox Movie is out on May 12

The subject was eventually broached on the very last day of filming. It’s a revealing moment, as Fox details the injuries he’s suffered due to his reduced balance – and perhaps also his reluctance to accept his own infirmity. Ever since he went public with his diagnosis in 1998, Fox has been famous for his optimism, but here he shows some of his frustration. Was he hesitant to let us into the reality of living with his condition?   

“I don’t know if I was hesitant to reveal it, but when I saw it, it was shocking to me,” he says. “I understand the idea of my face going blank, I don’t always know what I look like.” Unbeknown to Fox, the team had kept rolling even between takes, so the film captures those moments in unsparing close-up. 

“Davis shot it so beautifully,” Fox continues. “It could have been confrontational, but it was cathartic. At first, I was shocked. I said, I can’t believe you collected those images. Then I thought, yeah, it’s great that they collected those images.  

“In order for this to be the film that it is, I had to let Davis be the filmmaker that he is. And get the stuff that I wasn’t aware that he was getting. But the big shocking thing to me was that – this is real, this isn’t something I’m making up. This is my life.” 

Still: A Michael J Fox Movie will be in select cinemas and streaming globally on Apple TV+ on May 12.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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