Michael Douglas has been acting for nearly five decades. What keeps the prolific star motivated to continue to make films?

“I love the danger that comes along with acting. It’s a thrill and I love the feeling of flying without a net,” Douglas, 71, told Variety while attending a celebratory luncheon Thursday at New York’s Le Bernardin restaurant with wife Catherine Zeta-Jones where he was honored with the AARP Movies for Grownups Career Achievement Award. “That’s probably why I’ve always taken unpredictable projects. I like projects where you don’t know where they are going to end. It’s fun. Acting is something that I’ve known my whole life and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.”

Douglas has appeared in 50 films and produced nearly 20 movies. He said the secret to his longevity is focusing on the work and not worrying about impressing others.

“My career has been based on the material and it’s always been based on what I think emotionally moves me, what makes me laugh and makes me angry,” he said. “Sticking with the material rather than worrying about your image is the key and the most important thing in an actor’s career. That has been the crux that has led me in my career.”

His advice to newcomers who want to pursue acting — including his own children Dylan, 15, and Carys, 12 — is to be prepared for rejection.

“My son and my daughter both want to be in the business. They both want to act and I’ve told them to be ready for rejection,” he said. “That’s the one part I always warn everybody starting out in the business. You have to be able to take a hit and keep on going no matter what. It’s hard, but you have to deal with it because it’s going to happen. I experienced lots of rejection in my career and it’s never easy. You have to keep on going and someone will say yes.”

The intimate lunch, hosted by AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins and Jann Wenner, drew Glenn Close, Paul Rudd, Joel Schumacher, Blythe Danner, Bob Balaban, Zac Posen and David Hyde Pierce. AARP the Magazine editor Robert Love moderated a Q&A and asked Douglas about his battle with cancer. It’s been five years since Douglas revealed he had tongue cancer. He was treated with an aggressive form of radiation and chemotherapy and is now cancer-free.

“Well it’s good to be alive,” Douglas said while fighting back tears. “You never anticipate that. That was a workout. It was one of those situations where I was aware of something being wrong and had two or three misdiagnoses and spent a year before I went in and found out it was stage 4 cancer. Once you come out of that end, you have a resurgence of energy and you take advantage of what you want to do with your life. You have to be conscious about how many years you have and anything beyond that is gravy. I am extremely fortunate.”

During the discussion, Douglas gave a shout out to Zeta-Jones and thanked her for her constant support. She told Variety she is grateful for Douglas’ big heart.

“There’s so much I admire about my husband,” said Zeta-Jones. “He’s not just a great actor and a father, but his ability to be such a good citizen of the planet is inspiring. He cares about everybody and that’s what I love about him.”

Up next for Douglas is Marvel’s comic book sequel “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” which is slated to start production next year. Rudd said he is excited to reunite with Douglas and highly respects his candor.

“All of my life I certainly was a fan of his work and getting to know him over the past few years I’ve become even a bigger fan of him,” Rudd told Variety. “He’s very concise, he speaks his mind and he doesn’t worry about what popular opinion might be. He continually impresses me. He’s one of the greats.”

(Pictured: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta Jones, Bob Balaban and Blythe Danner attend the AARP Movies for Grownups Gala Countdown Lunch)