Michael Caine says that the third act of his life and career are his most fulfilling. From Batman to Sleuth, where he plays the role that Lawrence Olivier originated on screen 30 years ago, Caine is certainly having the time of his life, as he enthusiastically explained to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview.
Question: Was it a strange experience for you to be asked to be a part of this movie?
Caine: It would have been had we been doing Tony Shaffer’s script, but it would have been a very short relationship because I would have said ‘no’, as I didn’t see any point in remaking Sleuth; I mean you could have made it a bit better I suppose, but not much. I mean Joe Mankiewicz did a fabulous job on it, Larry Olivier did a great job, Tony Shaffer did a great job, me you forget but those those three did a great job. So you’re gonna have to go some to improve on that, but what got me was the Pinter script. because there is a rider to that in as much as Pinter used to be an actor called David Baron and we knew each other about 50 years ago, when he said he was going to write plays under his real name. So I said “What’s your real name David?” and he said I said “My real name is Harold Pinter” and I said “Oh, really”, you know, when someone says they’re going to write, I’m like ‘Oh yeah, well that’s the last we heard of him. Then he came back and he had written a one act play called “the Room” which I did at the Royal Court Theatre in London and that was it. So for fifty years he had been writing all this great stuff, Nobel Prize winner, the most acted playwright in the world and I never got another chance at it.
Question: Until now.
Caine: Until Jude turns up with this great script with me playing a great part, and so I didn’t believe my luck, I thought it was wonderful.
Question: What do you tap into in your own psyche to bring out, at times, the venomous darkness of this character?
Caine: Well I think we all have venom and darkness inside of us somewhere and I mean if you’re paid to find those things, then you’d find in yourself. I know I can, because you know I come from a very rough background to put it mildly and I grew up with gangsters and so I know the venom – the pure violence in people’s hearts. This is about violence even if it’s mental, and men going up against each other for things which, in this case because of a woman – in the end they forget it’s even about woman, the battle becomes the thing. So you sense memory which is what I did.
Question: When you play a character like this [not that there’s anything wrong with the Batmans or any of those kinds of things] does it remind you of why you became an actor in the first place?
Caine: Oh bloody hell, yes! Yes. I mean, in a case like Batman I had never been in one of those great big things and I thought it was a lovely part to play and then also when you do these little films there’s no money in them at all, so you have to subsidise the whole operation. But my philosophy of life comes from a saying that I read somewhere which said “Do not compete with your predecessors or your contemporaries, but with yourself”. So to compete with myself each time and do something better, I’ve got to find scripts. I can’t do it as Alfred the Butler in Batman, especially not the second time or the third time, so I’ve got to find things like. I retired at 65, but made about 15 films since then, so I only make films that, to quote Marlon Brando, ‘make you an offer you can’t refuse’ and it’s got nothing to do with money. I couldn’t turn down a script by Harold Pinter based on Sleuth or Children of Men when Alfonso Cuarón came to me. I couldn’t turn down The Quiet American. There was no money in it, but they just said come to Vietnam and do it. I just couldn’t turn it down and those are my criteria now I’m older.
Question: Are those kinds of roles hard to come by ?
Caine: They sort of are but I don’t know. I am about to start my third picture this year, even though one of them was Batman. Now I’m going to do a picture called Is there anybody There? which is a very small British picture, not a lot of money. It is produced by David Heyman who is a very rich producer of Harry Potter, but this is a very small movie and it’s about a little boy of ten whose parents own an old folks’ home. He lives in an old folks’ home and all the people he makes friends with of course are old people and every time he makes a friend they die. So he gets a flashlight, a camera and a tape recorder and he starts to search the house for their ghosts and into the house comes an old magician who’s come to die, so he becomes friends with the magician and the magician helps him find his ghosts. It really is the most enchanting story. I mean it’s the reason I’m doing it, there is no money in it or anything.
Question: It seems to me this is probably one of the most creative periods of your career.
Caine: Oh it’s the most creative period because I have complete freedom of choice and no economic reasons for doing it.
Question: You have your house and your garden so it must take lot to get you out of that house and garden.
Caine: Oh it bloody does; believe me its gotta be good, otherwise I wont go.
Question: When you were just a working class kid, you look at your life and you look at how successful you have become, how surprised are you?
Caine: Oh I’m astonished. I believe in God, you see, and people say to me “You believe in God?” I say ‘Well wait a minute, wait a minute. I said I believe in God. I don’t expect you to believe in God, but if you were me you would believe in God too’ I said, After all, someone’s up there watching me, because the chances of me being where I am and having done what I’ve done are kind of minimal. You don’t even understand it yourself, you don’t understand – for instance, the other day someone said “You’re so much older than Jude, did you give him advice on the film?”. I said “Of course I didn’t give him advice”. I said ‘I never give anybody advice’. I said ‘Let me tell you, 90% of the advice I was given was three words: “Give it up”. Everybody who I ever spoke to gave the advice “Give it up, give it up”. “You’re not going to make it Michael”. And I used to look at myself in a mirror and think “You know sometimes I think they’re right”. I must have a strain of insanity in me because anybody with half an ounce of sense would have given it up. It was too hard. It was 9 years of incredible struggle to learn, because I didn’t go to the Academy. I just went into repertoire with little parts, you know, the butler coming in, ‘Dinner is served’ or something. I was always the policeman who came in at the end and arrested ‘Come along with me young man’, you know. I was very good with handcuffs, I’ll put handcuffs on you like a professional copper, but you know there must be somebody watching over me.
Question: What drove you to struggle? I mean, what was in you that you made you determined not to give up?
Caine: I just thought it was there. I saw the people on the screen, and it was on the screen and not the theatre because I was a first generation of actors who the first actor they saw wasn’t on stage, it was on the screen. The first actor I ever saw was the Lone Ranger when I was 4 years old when the kids threepenny rush on a Saturday morning. That was the first actor I ever saw, you know when you read the biographies of those older English actors like Olivier, Gielguld, Ralph Richardson and all those, you’d read their autobiographies and the first chapter was always “Nanny took me to the theatre, the curtain went up and the lights went on and I knew what I wanted to do with my life. ” Mine wasn’t; I went to the threepenny rush, the curtain went up, the Lone Ranger came on, and everything went dark and what I didn’t know is someone had thrown an overcoat off the balcony and it landed over my head, so that was my start in the cinema.
Question: Now let me ask you about this little low budget movie you made earlier in the year with the second Batman. First of all you signed for a third one?
Caine: I think I am yeah. I enjoyed it, but the big surprise of that movie will be Heath Ledger as the joker. Did you see that poster on the internet of it? You see what he looks like, you know.
Question: Was he great?
Caine: Oh he was fantastic.
Question: Is it fun doing those kinds of things?
Caine: Oh I love it. It’s completely different from anything else. You need so much patience and this one was bloody awkward because I had to go backwards and forwards to Chicago four times. I mean, they brought be back to Chicago for one day, you know, but the money doesn’t compare.
Question: It pays for the small movie.
Caine: It pays for me to do Sleuth.
Question: Have you signed for anything else?
Caine: No I’ve signed up for a holiday. I’ve had enough. I’m done.