Michael Caine: interview
Michael Caine plays an elderly magician with Alzheimers in his latest film, ‘Is Anybody There?’. As he tells Dave Calhoun, it’s a far cry from his early days playing Jack the lad in ‘Alfie’ and ‘The Italian Job’ – but he wouldn’t have it any other way
‘Every youngster knows me,’ Caine tells me, looking bemused and delighted. He’s got the anecdotes and patter of a cabbie, whether talking about how in the early 1960s he and his old flatmate Terence Stamp bumped into Roger Moore – then a total stranger – on Piccadilly and Moore told him, after seeing him on TV the night before, that Caine was going to be a star. Or how he wishes he saw a little more of his two best friends, but ‘Roger Moore lives in Switzerland and Sean Connery lives in the Bahamas’. He’s still got that famous south London drawl after six decades of acting. It’s one of the things that makes his career remarkable: he was one of the first working-class actors to have a serious career without having to pretend to be someone else.
‘I’ve become more dignified over the years,’ he jokes. ‘I’ve gone from Alfie to Alfred. I have this new base of people who recognise me in the street. It’s weird because they’re little teenagers.’
We’re talking in Chelsea, in a hotel opposite his Chelsea Harbour flat, and I tell Caine that the guides who run the pleasure-boat tours down the Thames always delight in pointing out his apartment. ‘Do they? It’s funny, yeah, I used to live on the Thames at Windsor and they did the same thing there too.’ He points out the window. ‘I live in that block over there and my daughter lives in the next one. The great thing about my block is there’s just one flat on every floor, so you’ve got a 360 view, you can look all the way round.’ There’s something immediately likeable about Caine: he’s upfront, blunt, has no hang-ups, is happy with success and proud of it too. London born and bred, he moved to Los Angeles for several years in the late 1970s and ’80s, making some of the least notable films of his career, but came back in 1987 and splits his time between London and a place in Oxfordshire. ‘We spend two nights a week here. We have our London dose, our injection, and then we go back to the country and it lasts us for five days – we come back, get another dose.’
Constant revivals and remakes – not to mention the ample snaps of a dapper Caine as a bachelor about town in the 1960s – keep the flash beginnings of his career firmly in the public mind. ‘Alfie’, ‘The Italian Job’, ‘Get Carter’ and ‘Sleuth’ have all been remade in recent years, the last in 2007 with Caine taking the Olivier role in a version written by Harold Pinter. It all happened very quickly for him. After getting his break in ‘Zulu’ in 1964, at 31, stardom came swiftly. He played well-dressed hard men and flash boys with a rich seam of backstreet chat.
Almost a hundred movies later, his latest is ‘Is Anybody There?’, a small British indie for which he can’t have received much of a cheque. It can’t be vanity either. He plays a character who’s white-haired, scruffy and unshaven, so he’s back in the territory of ‘Last Orders’ and ‘Children of Men’, though this is a more acute, unsettling picture of ageing.
This time, he’s a doddery, bitter 85 year old whose time on earth is coming to a end. Clarence is a vulnerable former magician who moves into a home and strikes up a friendship with a boy – the son of his carers – whose obsession with death stems from the sight of body bags travelling down the stairlift. Clarence knows that he could very well be next.
How things change: Caine starts his career inhabiting youthful, idealised versions of himself and now he plays a frail widower on the verge of death. ‘When you’re a movie star and you’re young, you are always playing someone who’s a better fighter, a better lover, a better everything than you,’ he says. ‘This one was extraordinary because I had to get rid of Michael Caine for a start. And once he was gone, I had to get rid of any ego about what I looked like.’
The boy from Bermondsey – his dad was a porter at Billingsgate Fish Market – turned 76 last month and has no intention of retiring. ‘I don’t think you retire from movies, movies retire you. If you’re a real movie actor, which I consider myself sometimes, if a great script comes you’ve got to do it, you can’t say, “No, I’m too old.”’ Some actors might be put off by portraying someone senile and dying – and Caine says that his wife, Shakira, was upset when she saw him wasting away on screen – but he isn’t one to worry about death. ‘Yeah, I should,’ he says. ‘But I always worry about it for other people. I never worry about it myself. I don’t care.’
He’s surrounded in ‘Is Anybody There?’ by older actors in cameos as care-home residents, including Sylvia Syms and Leslie Phillips. Phillips is an interesting contrast to Caine: he’s 85, so only nine years older, and comes from a working-class Tottenham background, yet he’s famous for his endless turns as a plummy bounder. ‘Leslie Phillips had to develop a posh accent to work,’ says Caine, ‘but he’s actually a cockney.’ So, what changed? Why was Caine able to get ahead? ‘Because of writers. People like John Osborne and Harold Pinter.’ Once he was famous, did he experience any resentment from the industry? ‘No, I never got that. You got the opposite, you got a lot of actors talking what you call mockney.’
Caine was one of a stream of fresh faces to grace screens in the mid-1960s, as he remembers. ‘I shared a flat with Terence Stamp. I understudied Peter O’Toole. I remember being in Liverpool and going to see a matinee with a young actor nobody had ever heard of called Albert Finney.’ It felt like a wave? ‘Oh, a tremendous wave. It was ridiculous. I knew a writer who wanted to write musicals called Lionel Bart, a painter called Francis Bacon.’ Did London feel smaller? ‘It was all the West End, there are a lot of things all over the place now, you’ve got Hoxton and all that. I mean that’s amazing. I just shot a film called “Harry Brown”, this tough film about London, out east, and I was stunned. I was shooting in Hackney on a Saturday night and I was amazed at how well dressed and gentrified everyone was.’
Caine has always worked hard – sometimes, as he admits, for the money. He once quipped that he’s never seen 1987’s ‘Jaws: the Revenge’ – ‘However, I have seen the house that it built, and it’s terrific.’ He’s made a lot of duff movies, but he’s always willing to try something new, whether it’s playing a tranvestite murderer in Brian de Palma’s ‘Dressed to Kill’ (1980) or hanging with puppets in ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol’ (1992).
As Caine says, he knows what he’d be doing if he hadn’t got that early break. He’d be working in theatre, the arena he abandoned when he found success in cinema. ‘Oh boy, I didn’t want to know the theatre any more,’ he says. ‘No, I had been nine years in the theatre and hadn’t had massive success. My only thing was I wanted to be an actor and I didn’t care when, where, or how much for.
‘I would still be the old character-actor in theatre. I’m 76, I wouldn’t have had the money to retire, I would be working and having a couple of drinks in the evening just to forget, and life would have been very different. But I would have stayed an actor, that’s all.’
‘Is Anybody There?’ opens in cinemas on May 1.
Author: Dave Calhoun
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