fri 19/07/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Actor Michael Caine | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Actor Michael Caine

theartsdesk Q&A: Actor Michael Caine

The British actor talks of remaking Sleuth and a dangerous South London youth

Michael Caine has made more than 100 films: from Zulu, The Ipcress File, Alfie and Get Carter to The Italian Job and Educating Rita. He won best supporting actor Oscars for Hannah and Her Sisters and The Cider House Rules. This interview dates from 2007 when his more recent films were the remake of Sleuth with Jude Law and The Dark Knight.

A sharp dresser, in black trousers and polo shirt, he was slim and fit and did not look 75, despite the lines and thinning hair. The actor lives in Surrey with Shakira, his wife of more than 30 years. They have a daughter, Dominique, and Caine also has a daughter, Natasha, from his first marriage to Patricia Haines.

ELAINE LIPWORTH: What was the appeal of remaking Sleuth?

MICHAEL CAINE: It was interesting to go back. This time, my character, Andrew Wyke, has 'morbid jealousy', which means I am irrationally and psychopathically jealous and will go to any lengths to humiliate my unfaithful wife. It is a genuine medical condition, it makes a husband kill a lover and if the husband hasn't got the courage to kill the other man, he will try homosexual advances towards him instead. So I try to have an affair with the young actor,Milo Tindle, (Jude Law) who has gone off with my wife, because I think that that will be even worse to her than killing him. I am a bit menacing in the film, it's the eyes, I have very weird eyes, that's why I wear glasses. When I was at school they called me 'snake eyes'.

Why did you revisit the film?

When Jude brought me the script for Sleuth, it was a double whammy for me, because it was a very good Harold Pinter script, I loved it, also I have a history with Pinter because I did his very first play The Room at The Royal Court Theatre. We were friends and he became this genius, great writer. I was the one who started him off, but for 50 years I've never had another chance to do a script by him. Also I never do remakes but I didn't feel as though I'd done this film before, I haven't seen the original for 30 years; It is very much a distant memory. And this one completely different.

You and Jude Law are friends, what do you admire about him?

Jude Law is very good-looking, people used to review him as a pretty boy, which normally means no talent, but he is a wonderful actor - he's the double whammy because he's a movie star as well. We are very good friends We watch films together, we went to the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill, they have evenings where a celebrity shows their favourite film and talks about why they like it. I did Casablanca and he came to that. We share a love of food and go to dinner to China Tang in The Dorchester Hotel, David Tang's restaurant. David introduced us actually, but I was already a fan. I can imagine myself as Jude when I was young, except he doesn't come from a working class background like I do, his parents were teachers, my upbringing was very tough. My mother was a cleaning lady and my father was a porter at Billingsgate Fish Market, It was humble but I had great parents. We were very close.

How did you get into acting?

My father thought acting was for sissies - but he didn't actively discourage me from doing it. He died soon after I became an actor. But my mother always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted, she was really great.

Can you talk about your experience as an evacuee in the war?

I was locked in a dark cupboard under the stairs when I was evacuated to Berkshire. I was six years old and I was there with another boy and the woman treated us very badly. She used to go away for the weekend and lock us up. We just sat there; it was frightening because we didn't know if we were ever coming out and when you are stuck in a small space like that, there's no sense of time. She would let us out in time to go to school on Monday morning. So school was actually a great relief. She didn't feed us properly, we only ate tinned pilchards. A lot of people took evacuees for the money because you got paid. And you wouldn't make any money if you spent a lot on food for them and looked after them properly. But what always worried me was that the teachers never noticed anything strange, even though I had sores all over my legs, from malnutrition, vitamin deficiency because we weren't given good food. I've still got the scars. They just ignored it. My mother couldn't come to see us for a while because the rail lines were getting bombed, but when she finally came, she was furious, she beat the woman up and nearly went to prison. And she promised I would never have to go back. And she took us both back home.

What was it like as a teenager in London?

As a teenager in South London, you couldn't walk down the street on your own or you'd be attacked by men in razor gangs. You had to be in a gang to survive, it was so dangerous. We would walk along The South Bank where the Festival Hall is, it's all very posh and nice now, but in those days, you needed six or seven people in a gang for protection, or you'd be dead. The older men all wore spivs and trilby hats and they had razors sewn inside their hats. They would take off their hats and get you, so you would be thinking, 'They've just hit me with a hat', but you'd get slashed with a razor as well and it could be lethal. Nothing happened to me (laughs) because I joined the most powerful gang and no one dared to attack us. They were scared of us. I wouldn't have got into crime though - I'd already been locked up when I was six, I didn't want to be locked up in another prison. I moved on from gangs to becoming a bookworm, I fled into the library and never came out again until I joined the army - actually I was dragged kicking and screaming into the army because of national service.

How involved were you with the South London gangsters?

I knew a lot of gangsters in London very well - that's why when I made Get Carter, I wanted to make it violent. Actually it looks like like Mary Poppins now, but we made it very violent for the time because I had a bee in my bonnet that British films treated gangsters as though they were stupid or funny. But in the Forties and Fifties the gangsters I knew were not stupid. The one thing that struck me about all of them was that never did I meet any one of them who was stupid or remotely funny. They were very, very serious people. And they didn't beat people up to pulp like in films.. They were very expert at what they did. So in Get Carter the reason it looks so violent is that I didn't smash anybody, it was just a single, violent stab in the heart in exactly the right place, without any emotion. It's emotionless. The violence is in the eyes. The thing I noticed about criminals is that they smile, and they're smiling at you, but their eyes stay like ice. What we wanted to show in that film was that these people were neither stupid or funny, and you should take them very seriously.

Can you talk about your experience in Korea?

I killed people when I was an infantry soldier in Korea - I was just trying to stay alive, it was self defence, that's how the army works, but it was always done at night and we never had any idea who we had killed. I didn't even think about it. We had machine guns and we just did it. There was no feeling at all, no guilt or remorse, because it didn't feel real. I never did anything close up or hand to hand. It didn't give me nightmares because the army brutalises you. It was like the First World War if you imagine the trenches - half a mile apart - and we were just firing backwards and forwards so we never knew who any of our victims were as individuals, you never saw the whites of a man's eyes when you killed them.

It sounds terrifying?

It was. I nearly died in Korea. There were four of us on patrol in a valley in the middle of rice paddies. We were surrounded by the Chinese and we knew we were going to die and we said to each other, 'We are going to make this as expensive as we can, we are going to kill as many as we can, take as many with us as possible' - that was our attitude. The Chinese were closing in on us and the officer said to us, 'Let's run towards their line, they won't expect it, because they'll expect us to run away towards our own lines.' So we did that and went right around them. They couldn't find us because they were looking in the wrong place and we got away, but we had faced that moment that we thought was the end. If we'd gone the other way, we would all have died instantly and we made a smart decision to run in the opposite direction. That night we went back to our bunkers and celebrated with a beer and we were just happy to be alive. I faced a moment when I knew I was going to die and I didn't run, I wasn't a coward, and it affected me deeply, I was at peace with myself for my whole life.

Having gone through that, what are your views on war and violence?

War is disgusting and awful and should be avoided at any cost. I am against the war in Iraq. It always strikes me that wars are always declared by old politicians who are too old to go themselves, never by a soldier. People who haven't fought in a war and experienced how awful it is can't imagine it. They get you when you're young because you see all these movies that glamorize war and it makes it look exciting. They go and see John Wayne films, who never went himself. You only see your side going out and shooting and killing the enemy - you don't see the other side of it, it's Boy's Own stuff.

How interested are you in British politics?

I call Gordon Brown Mr Small Print because if you look at all his legislation closely, you'll find he doesn't mean what he says. He'll make an announcement - about anything - and you go, 'Blimey, that sounds nice,' and then you look closely and you can't believe it. For example the inheritance tax sounded great but the zingers were in the small print. My business people showed them to me. The real information that gets you is in tiny, tiny print. You can hardly see it. So if you're going to deal with the guy, you've got to look at him with a magnifying glass. I don't have a magnifying glass, so I don't know what to think of him. He's a mystery.

You became a star in the Sixties: what was it like, hanging out with the Beatles, it must have been amazing?

The Sixties were fantastic, You would be out dancing all night and look around the floor and there would be the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Terence Stamp, Albert Finney, - the list goes on and on - we were all unknown and we all became famous. Terence Stamp was too good-looking, such a hands-down winner. I used to pick up all the leftovers, the girls he didn't want. I hung out with Peter O'Toole a lot. I was his understudy in a play. It was amazing. Even people you didn't expect did well. Terry [Stamp] had a brother called Chris, he was just a young Cockney lad, and he didn't want to be an actor or a painter. And then one day he said, 'I'm gonna be a rock 'n' roll manager,' and I said, 'Oh yeah yeah yeah - have you found a group?' And he said, 'Oh yeah, me and my mate found this group called The Who.' It was typical of that time.

Did you go crazy?

I was a bit wild in the Sixties, you could say I went out to research Alfie. It was quite nice because times had changed and you could actually go out with a girl without having two brothers coming round with a shotgun saying, 'You gotta get married.' We were all wild young men. The point was that we were the generation of children who grew up in the war and everything in our lives had been like a black-and-white movie, then in the Sixties everything was in colour. It was a class thing too. The BBC used to play waltzes all day long. Then in the Sixties we had we had our own music on the radio. We said, 'This is us, if you want to come with us, leave your baggage of class, colour and religion at the door.' The class system went out the window because nobody wanted to be in the upper class. That was just boring - they wanted to be us.

I am still very friendly with Sean Connery and Roger Moore and I hang out with them, also Terry O'Neill [the photographer], Doug Heywood my tailor, Johnny Gold the photographer, Leslie Bricusse the [Oscar-winning] composer, and we call ourselves The Mayfair Orphans. We just go to dinner or lunch and drink very good wine - for example a Puligny Montrachet (around £50-60).

Do you find that people still view you as Alfie in a way, even though you and Shakira have been together for decades?

People do still think I'm Alfie, it's weird. I used to be Alfie, in a way; I mean all young guys are Alfie. I was never vain, though. The girls weren't after me - I used to chase them. It wasn't the other way around. I was going out with a lot of girls until I met Shakira and then I never went out with anyone else. It took weeks to persuade her to go out with me because I had a bad name. I've always been faithful to my wife. I had a very unsuccessful and hurtful first marriage and I had no intention of getting married again, but I knew that if I ever did, the prerequisite would be marrying an extraordinarily beautiful woman, so that being in the movies with attractive women would never impress me. Can you imagine what a girl would have had to look like to tempt me, because Shakira is so beautiful? What I decided, by marrying Shakira, was to cut off the temptations, quite brutally. Shakira is a really incredible woman. You can ask anyone else who knows her. We are complete equal partners. we're together all the time and we never get bored. You can't get bored with my wife.

Where does your love of cooking and food come from?

When 1 was 10, my mother got a job as a cook in a rich man's country house and I lived in the kitchens - it was upstairs-downstairs - which is why I've always been a very good cook. It all started with Mr English, the man who owned the house. My mother would cook for the family, I would be waiting in the kitchen to eat the leftovers, pheasant and grouse. I've never been psychoanalyzed and I never would be but I'm sure they'd say that what I've done is gone back to my childhood. I now have the big mansion and the garden, but I still keep myself in the kitchens. I cook Italian and English food. I make the best roasts. You might say anyone can do an ordinary English roast and I say no one can do it - but I can. The secret of roast potatoes is something every chef would be aghast at. Instead of heating the fat, you put them in cold fat which makes them really crispy. Shakira cooks Italian and Indian, she does great sauces like Arabbiata and the best pesto. So lots of men are jealous of me because I have this extraordinarily beautiful wife who does great Italian and Indian food.

But you don't have restaurants any more do you?

I sold all my restaurants but I am thinking of opening another one in London - with very simple food, that's what people want. I will have recipes I've cooked myself, like shepherd's pie done with bubble-and-squeak instead of potato, so you think you know what you're getting but you ll get a little surprise with every dish. Simple food with a twist.

How important is home life to you?

I have a very big family house in an old 200-year-old barn in Surrey between Leatherhead and Dorking. I've turned it into an up-to-date country house with the highest level of technology I could find, in terms of walls, central heating air conditioning, everything, you don't notice when you walked in. But it is all amazing. I designed the whole thing. We have six bedrooms, guest rooms and staff rooms, five reception rooms, a swimming pool, computer room and the cinema. I spend most of my time there, though I also have a pied-à-terre in London. My daughters are at the house a lot; they designed their own wings. I hate going away and leaving it, but as my wife who's very, very wise says, 'if you didn't leave it to work, you wouldn't have it'.

Can you discuss your love of music?

I'm a secret disc-jockey, I love chill-out music and I have made a compilation record, 'Cained.' It came about when I was having dinner with Elton John at his house in Nice and he was playing some of my favourites in the background and I kept naming the tune, much to Elton's surprise. I told him that recently I've been making chill compilations, because I've gone through my disco period, my house period, urban and rock-and-roll and now I'm looking for quieter stuff. And he got me a three-record deal. As they say in show business, it is not what you know it is who you know. So I made a record that includes music by my great friend the late Stan Getz, and Roy Budd who's no longer with us, he wrote the music for Get Carter. It's music that you're probably never heard before, like St. Germain the French group, Sarah McLachlan and Eva Cassidy. Everyone knows Nina Simone, but no one knows her record Sinnerman.

Do you have a sophisticated sound system? How high-tech are you?

I'm an equipment fanatic with 'top-of-the-line everything'. I get a guy in every few months to update it all, because these days it's built-in obsolescence if you keep anything too long. I make my own records at home and I have them all in the computer. My daughters and friends just bring their iPods round and stick them in and record every bloody thing I have. I don't know the brands of everything but I have the Apple Powermac, I've got all the players and speakers and DVD players you can imagine.
I've got my own very high-quality £130,000 cinema which seats nine or ten people with a Runco projector - the best, everything is high definition. I love films and it's great because I get all the screeners of the best new films that are up for Oscars that won't be out on DVD for months. They arrive just now when the nights are going in and it's getting all grim and dark and we all disappear in to the cinema where we haven't been all summer. It's a wonderful time in our house because everybody comes over. We cook dinner then we watch a movie, have a couple of drinks, discuss it then go to bed. The trouble is we've seen everything good by Christmas and there's nothing good left to watch for months.

Are you extravagant?

I spend a lot but I don't know how much because I never look at the bill for anything. There are no luxuries for me any more because luxuries have become the norm and I can have what I want. If I see something I say, 'I'll have that,' and my wife says, 'How much did it cost?' and I say I don't know. I spent so much time with no money, having to go, 'Oh blimey, how much is this?' I never do that any more. But my wife, oh yeah, she always checks it out to see whether I've got robbed, and if she thinks I have been she will take it back. I like Crème de la Mer, a moisturizer for dry skin, and I do know the price of that, it's £100 a jar, but it works. I have my wife's hairdresser Adolfo who's the best I know, he comes to the house, and I use Sud Pacific aftershave. I've got all those zipup boots we used to wear in the Sixties. I have ten pairs I may go back to at some point. I like suits made by Doug Hayward. I wear Merrill's shoes for casual and Tod's for smart. I spend a lot on holidays. I always stay in great suites and I fly first-class but that is practical, because I'm quite tall so you get cramp in economy.

I've read that you are very direct, is that true?

You get one go with me, that's all. If you are successful a lot of people are envious, they don't like you and they will wrong you, and I am completely unforgiving. My mother once said to me, 'You shouldn't waste your emotions on people if you don't like them. You must cut them out as if they no longer exist.' So that is what I do with people - if they wrong me, they are just dead. This is my moral code: I will treat you as an equal unless you wrong me and then there'll be quite a large payback.

Do you worry about ageing?

I never think of my own mortality. I think about killing a few other people though - I let death worry about me. (Laughs.) I couldn't care less. It harks back to Korea. But I do believe in reincarnation. All my friends are what I call 'old souls'; they've been here before, they know stuff that other people don't know. Like Jude Law. You meet these people and they seem to have a cognizance and then you meet other people who have nothing to say for themselves - they just sit and watch television and they are boring. Dull people don't come back. I don't consciously think we're all going to be John D Rockefeller or Marilyn Monroe next time. But I know this isn't it. If you see idiot-savants playing Bach, you think they must have been here before. If I could choose, I'd come back as the son of a billionaire, just hang about and do nothing. (Laughs.) I want an easier life next time. I've had a fantastic life but I've had to do it myself.

How would you describe your style?

I am very famous so I want to disappear when I'm out and my style is based on my lifestyle. I like to walk four or five miles a day. I'm wearing a black golf waistcoat even though I don't play golf, black trousers and black shirt from American Apparel. I've got a black baseball cap and my glasses go dark, they change with the light, so you can't see who I am, and anyway when you walk fast no one will stop you. Nobody gives a damn, they're on the way to work, and they're not looking for film stars.

Would you consider retiring?

You do not retire in this business. The movie business retires you exactly when it feels like. It will suddenly go, 'Bang, you're gone. No more movies for you.' It almost retired me. I never made a picture for two years, two and a half years. I was having a great time living in South Beach in Miami. I had a restaurant down there. I'd written my autobiography and I was relaxing. And suddenly, I thought, 'I'd like to go to work again,' and I couldn't find a script that I wanted to do, and suddenly Jack Nicholson turned up with Blood And Wine and said, 'Do you want to do this?' and I said, 'Yeah, let's do it', and I enjoyed it. I think Jack is one of the greatest movie actors there is. After that I went back to work and I was lucky, I got Little Voice and The Cider House Rules.

Is acting easy for you these days?

No. Gregory Peck once said, 'I've been very lucky and the harder I worked, the luckier I got.' He's right. I love acting, I wouldn't do it otherwise, it's too hard work. I think I've been extraordinarily lucky, but all my life I've had this fear of not getting it right and then you'd look like a berk. You never get confident - you never go, 'I am going to be great in this.' You are always nervous, and if you are not nervous you are probably in trouble. I sometimes watch these talent shows and people come on and say, 'I am the greatest, I am the new Whitney Houston.' And they sing without any nerve and of course they are useless.

What made you get into acting in the first place?

I only became an actor to meet girls. I was at youth club in the gym playing basketball with all the boys as a teenager and I noticed all the pretty girls were in the amateur dramatics society, and I thought what the hell am I doing up here with all these boring guys? So I joined the society and then all the guys snubbed me because they thought I was gay. There was one special girl I was after, I was determined to get her - I never did, though I tried hard. You know, when you think about it, I've spent the rest of my life getting paid for doing what I did back then for nothing - with amateur actors and pretty girls. I love my life. My mother always said, 'You're a long time dead', and I just like to have a good time.

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