One of the finest English actors of his generation, Sir Michael Caine was part of a new breed of talent in the '60s that came up from a working-class background. With iconic roles in The Ipcress File, Alfie and Get Carter under his belt, Caine went on to become a Hollywood fixture and two-time Academy Award winner. As the years passed, he shrugged off the limiting nature of fame, as he explains: "Movie stars can't do a lot of acting because they have to stick within certain parameters, but once you get to my age you get to become a movie actor, which makes for a much more amusing time." In his new film, the gritty, character-driven Harry Brown, he returns to his roots in London's rough Elephant and Castle area, playing a white-haired widower and military veteran who exacts revenge on the feral youths who murder his best friend.
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Congratulations on your performance in Harry Brown; you give the character a lot of depth.
Thank you very much. That was the point, I tried to make him a real old person at the start, because he was going to eventually become a killer, but I wanted him to be an innocent man who became a killer, not a killer who was a killer. A lot of interviewers have said to me "Is it like an old Jack Carter [from Get Carter]?," and I said no, really he's an innocent old man, he just happened to have the skills from the war that came back.
You show some serious moves in the film when you turn a mugger's knife back on him. Did you call on your military training from your time in the National Service?
No, they had an SAS [British Army's Special Air Service] guy come in to teach me. I wasn't at all the military type; I was dragged in screaming and I was glad to get out, but I was glad I did it in the end.
I left the movie quite scared of senior citizens—every time I see white hair now, I cross the road.
[Laughs] Yeah, you don't want to get in my way. No, obviously the film was to bring to the attention of people what was going on in what we call council estates, but the Americans call projects.
Will the new Batman movie feature an action-hero Alfred?
Oh, I know nothing about that, Christopher Nolan is the most secretive person in the world. I heard a rumor that we're maybe shooting it next year.
If you want to pass it on, I vote for an ass-kicking Alfred.
My backstory on Alfred, I had him as an ex--SAS man who was wounded and worked in the sergeant's mess because he didn't want to leave the army. Batman came down to meet another officer, saw him and then took him as a servant. That's my backstory, that's not in the film, and obviously he could kick a little arse if called upon.
Harry Brown was shot and set in Elephant and Castle, where you grew up. How much had it changed?
It has got much more ferocious. When I was in a gang, the drug was alcohol and the weapons were fists. Now the drugs are drugs and the weapons are guns and knives, so it's a thousand times more dangerous.
Because I'm English as well, a lot of my American friends ask me about cockney rhyming slang, but I'm only a mockney.
[Laughs] There's a lot of them about 'n' all.
You're a proper cockney. Do you actually use any rhyming slang in day-to-day life?
I do. If you're in a pub and you had diarrhea and had to go to the men's, you wouldn't suddenly bring that out, you'd just say to your mates "I'm going for an Allieds"—that's not rhyming slang in actual fact. Allieds is short for Allied Carpets. They always had a sale on and the big sign outside every Allied Carpets was COMPLETE CLEAROUT. Do you get it? If you were going to say I'm going for a piss you'd say "I'mgoing for a hit and miss." My wife and I will be in the back of a caband I don't have any change, I'll suddenly say, "Do you have anyrifle for the ice cream?" Well, the rifle is short for rifle range, which is change, and ice cream is rhyming slang for ice cream freezer, which is geezer, which is the man. So I'm saying in code, "Have you got any change for the man?"
Harry Brown opens Apr 30.