Citizen Caine

Michael Caine on his career as a distinctly British Hollywood icon
by David Schwartz  posted May 28, 2010
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This article is part of a series of interviews with leading filmmakers and craftspeople, made possible with special support by the Academy Foundation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Academy series has so far featured Q&A's with director Noah Baumbach, production designer Rick Carter, composer Carter Burwell, cinematographer Harris Savides, and documentary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

If Lon Chaney was the Man of a Thousand Faces, then Michael Caine may be the Man of One Face...and a Thousand Characters. Caine is one of those rare stars whose acting technique is so refined, and who is so natural in front of the camera, that he never seems to be acting. Growing up in the same rough-and-tumble neighborhood that served as the location for his latest film, Harry Brown, Caine developed a hybrid persona that was at once distinctly British—he maintained a distinct Cockney accent in an era of international co-productions that inspired bland homogeneity—but also rooted in the laconic, hardboiled naturalism of Hollywood actors, particularly Humphrey Bogart. In fact, Caine was born Maurice Micklewhite, and found his adopted surname on a poster for Bogart's latest movie, The Caine Mutiny.

In this wide-ranging conversation, which took place before a preview screening of Harry Brown presented by the Museum of the Moving Image, Caine talks about how he developed his approach to screen acting, focusing on three formative roles—in Zulu, Get Carter, and The Italian Job.

We're calling this evening "Sir Michael Caine: Icon." So you now have titles on both sides of your name.

It's very difficult being an icon, because there's nowhere to go to learn. There are no restaurants we all go to, like the Icon Restaurant, where we swap stories. It's a small group. So it's kind of lonely.

Speaking of icons, is there an actor you've met who's awed you?

Shirley MacLaine first brought me to Hollywood to star in Gambit with her. She was a big star and had her choice of actors. She gave a party to welcome me and the first person to walk in was Gloria Swanson, who's a lot smaller than I thought. The second person was Frank Sinatra. They didn't stop and say hello to me—they walked straight past and said hello to Shirley. Later I became very close friends with Cary Grant, who I adore.

Tell us a bit about the neighborhood you grew up in. Did you go to the movies a lot?

As a young man, I went to the movies seven days a week. It was an escape for me. In Harry Brown, you see what we call council estates in England, and you call the projects in America. This particular project is called Elephant and Castle, and it is very, very dangerous. It is actually where I come from. I used to be a gang member there years ago, but not like they are now. We were like Mary Poppins compared with the guys there now. We didn't have oaths and swearing-in ceremonies; we just stuck together so no one would beat us up. But on the side of one block of flats, there is a mural with me on it as someone who came from there. The other actor who came from there was Charlie Chaplin, but I'm not even in his class.

What sort of movies did you go see?

I loved anything that Bogart was in. I remember clearly that I spent one whole week watching The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon. John Huston was the director, and later in life, he cast me in The Man Who Would Be King. It was the part he had originally wanted Bogart for, but Bogart died. And the Sean Connery part was originally supposed to go to Clark Gable. So I had this tremendous feeling of belonging. It was like all my dreams came true. I was this dirty rotten little gangster guy sitting in a movie theater, saying, "One day, I—" And here I am. And I've been here for 40 years.

Can you talk about John Huston's directing technique?

He hardly ever spoke to you. When we started filming The Man Who Would Be King, I had a long speech and halfway through it, John said, "Cut." I hadn't made a mistake; I thought I was doing rather well. So I asked, "John, why did you stop me?" He said, "You could speak faster, Michael. He's an honest man." I've been suspicious of people who talk slowly ever since. That was the only direction he ever gave me. Halfway through the movie, I said, "John, you never give me any direction." He said, "The art of directing, Michael, is casting. If you do it right, you don't have to say another word. You get paid a lot of money to do this. You don't need me to tell you what to do."

There's a long tradition of British actors who study theater, start out as stage actors, and then become screen actors. But you seem like someone who was born for the screen.

I was in the first generation of actors for whom the first time they saw an actor was onscreen. You read about Olivier or Ralph Richardson, "Nanny took me to the theater, and the curtain went up and I knew what I wanted to be." That wasn't how I started. Some big boys took me to the theater for children on a Saturday morning, and the curtain went down. Someone had thrown an overcoat off the balcony. It went straight over my head and I was in darkness. I took it off, put my feet up on the seat in front of me, and the entire row fell back because someone had taken all the screws out of the floor. Finally the movie came on, and it was The Lone Ranger. I thought, "That's what I want to do." Not be the Lone Ranger, but be an actor. I never wanted anything to do with horses; I don't like horses and horses don't like me. But I was in the first generation to do that.

People said to me later, "Did you go to drama school?" I said, "Where I came from, nobody knew there was such a thing as a drama school." Also, there was a sort of stigma to it. When I told my father that I was going to be an actor, he instantly knew that I was gay. Because you're always gay if you're going to be an actor. When we were on the streets, there was a reverend called Reverend Jimmy Butterworth who had a club called Clubland. He used to scoop us delinquents off the streets and entice us in there with basketball. On the way to the basketball was the amateur dramatic society, which had a swing door with windows. I noticed that it was full of pretty girls. All the pretty girls joined the drama class, while all us butch guys were playing basketball. One day I asked if I could join the amateur dramatic society, and the guys said to me, "You're a sissy." I said, "Listen. I'm in there with half a dozen beautiful girls, you're up in the shower with naked guys, and you're calling me a sissy?"

The way I became an actor was from working in a factory. There was an old man working there with me who said, "You're not going to do this for the rest of your life." I was 20, just out of the army, and I was a very fit guy. I said, "No, I want to be an actor." He said, "Oh, well, you get those jobs in the paper." I said, "What?" He said, "Yeah, there's a paper called The Stage. My daughter's a semi-professional singer. Buy The Stage." So I bought The Stage, and it said, "Stage manager, small parts" and I got the job. And it turned out that all the other actors in the company were sissies. I think that's why I got the job—I was the only butch one there. I used to play the policeman or anybody who had a fight. They were a bit short on that, you know? That's how I started, in the little repertory company. Nine years later, I got my first proper part in a movie, which was Zulu.

I'd done a lot of bit parts in second feature movies, just ­­­two days work, like the policeman who drags the villain off. Or I was the butler who said, "Dinner is served." But I never had a part with a lot of dialogue. After nine years in the provincial repertory theater, I finally got to the West End, which is our version of Broadway. Two nights into the run, Stanley Baker, the star of the film, and Cy Endfield, the American director, cast me. And I never went back to the theater again. I always thought my movie career depended on the length of the bar at the Prince of Wales Theatre, because that's where they met me. It was a long bar. Being a Cockney myself, I went there to play the Cockney corporal. When I arrived, they said James Booth had got the part. I was walking out, and Cy Endfield said, "Wait a minute," as I was just shutting the door. He said, "Can you do a posh accent?" I said, "I can do any accent. I've done a thousand plays. I've played everything from the Lord to anybody."  He said, "Well, do a screen test." So I did a screen test with that very upper crust accent and I got the part. So after all these years of being a Cockney and a gang kid, the first movie part I played was an extremely posh officer. He was actually a real person called Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead.

You bring an interesting edge to that character.

I accidentally took my own advice. Stanley Baker was the star playing a very rough captain. He said, "Well, you're this effete, foppish officer." And I said, "Stanley, I've got an idea. You overcome this man. You beat him. Won't it make you look stronger if you beat a strong man rather than a foppish man? Because the minute I walk on they're going to say, ‘Stanley could walk all over this guy.'"

Joe Levine produced the movie, and he gave me a seven-year contract. After the movie came out, he took my contract away. He said, "I'm terribly sorry, Michael, but you'll never be a movie star because you come over as gay. I'm going to take your contract away because you really can't make it." I said, "Joe, I'm playing a character. I'm a Cockney gang member from bloody Elephant and Castle, and you think I'm a foppish officer." But he still took my contract away.

In your films, do you draw on your experiences fighting in the Korean War?

Combat makes you an entirely different person. I remember when we marched out the line for the first time. Our position was being taken over by another regiment of British soldiers. We were marching out and they were marching in. We were only six months older, but they looked like babies and we looked like old men.

You're a very economical actor. You use silence a lot and an unblinking glare that you're known for.

You're supposed to be a person. And people don't act. They behave. They look, listen and speak. So that's what you have to do. In Zulu, Stanley Baker wears his helmet up so you can see his eyes, and I wear mine down with my eyes hidden. In the first rushes, the cinematographer had told everybody to keep their hats back so he could see the eyes. So Stanley had his hat back. It looked a bit stupid, honestly, but you could see his eyes. My hat was down. The cinematographer said, "Look at that silly bastard. I told him to keep his bloody hat up, and he's gone and hid his eyes." The reason I did that was because Brando was my hero at the time, and Brando never looked up until the hit line. And they didn't know. I also looked at Prince Philip, who's a very powerful man in our land. And he always has his hands behind his back because he doesn't have to defend himself. He doesn't have to wave his hands to attract your attention when he wants to talk. He doesn't have to open a door. So he can walk as a powerful man, with his hands behind his back. And all the way through Zulu, I always have my hands behind my back. When the Paramount executives saw the rushes, I saw this telegram that said: ‘Fire actor playing Bromhead. Doesn't know what to do with hands.'

You've said that rehearsal is the time to work really hard, and acting is the time to relax.

It's Stanislavski. I'm a Method actor. My view of movie acting is that if you're watching me onscreen and you say to someone, "Isn't that Michael Caine a wonderful actor?" then I have failed. What you should be saying is, "What's going to happen to Harry Brown next?" You shouldn't see the actor. You shouldn't see the acting. That's what I've always tried for, though not always successfully, I must admit. But you try to make the acting and yourself disappear.

You have some memorable lines where the delivery and the timing really stand out.

Even today, when they see me, people say, "You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off." That's from The Italian Job from 1969. At the time when you do the line, nothing occurs to you. These lines come. I've always tried to anticipate them.

There's another one in Get Carter, where I say, "You're a big man, but you're out of shape. With me, it's a business." In Harry Brown, when a villain fires a gun at me and it doesn't go off, just before I shoot him, I say, "You've failed to maintain your weapon." It's a British army thing—the law is you must maintain your weapon. On the rifle range, if it doesn't go off the sergeant will say to you, "You've failed to maintain your weapon." So you spend two days peeling potatoes. But I see young lads in England when some guy in a pub says, "My girlfriend's left me." And they all go, "You've failed to maintain your weapon."

Do you often collaborate with screenwriters?

No, never. I don't even know who they are sometimes. The script is the most important thing. With real estate, it's location, location. With movies, it's the script, the script, the script. And I add things or change things all the time. It's not like in the theater, where they go mad if you make changes. I did a movie for Neil Simon called California Suite, and I said to him, "Can I ad lib or change any of the dialogue?" He said, "Yes, Michael. If it's funnier than me." So I never touched a thing, obviously.

You've played a real variety of roles. Could you talk about some of the roles that you did in the sixties after Zulu?

After Zulu, I did The Ipcress File in which I played Harry Palmer. In the novel the character didn't have a name. I remember we were trying to think of a name for him, and we wanted the dullest name possible. Harry Saltzman, the producer, and I were having lunch, and I said, "When I was at school, the dullest boy was called Palmer. Sid Palmer. But Sid's too interesting. Harry's a dull name." He said, "That's okay, Michael. My real name's Herschel." So I never offended him. Then just before the movie came out, he said, "I'm going to put your name above the title." I said, "Oh, thank you, Harry." He said, "Oh, don't thank me. If I don't think you're a star, who else is going to?" But Harry was the most generous man because he had given me a seven-year contract, and the monies payable to me were ridiculously low, compared with what I could've earned without a contract. But on my birthday, he gave me my contract torn up in an envelope. And that was the most generous thing that any producer ever did for me.

Your character in The Ipcress Files was sort of the antithesis of James Bond.

Bond was very showy with his Aston Martin, his girls, "shaken, not stirred," and all that. But mine was more of a real spy. He's a guy with glasses. No one would look at him. He did his own shopping—I got the gay thing again from the executive. There's a scene in which my character cooks the girl a meal, because he's trying to seduce her. So you had the male lead cooking a meal for the girl, and when they saw the rushes, they said, "The guy will be taken for gay. He can't cook a meal. I mean, he's already wearing glasses." Harry [Saltzman] said, "Now, he's cooking dinner. It's more or less like he's being a woman. It doesn't work." But it did work. And when Harold Lloyd came to London, he rang me and said, "Come and have dinner with me. You're the first leading man in a movie with glasses since me." So I had dinner with Harold Lloyd. I noticed he had a deformed hand, and I always remember him hanging on the clock in Safety Last. He saw me looking at his hand and said, "You're wondering how I hung on the clock. I had a hook up my sleeve." I said, "Was it a real clock?" He said, "Yes." He was hanging up there without a net. They did silly things in those days.

Much of your acting seems to come from observing details around you in day-to-day life.

If you're going from the very weak to the very powerful, there's less and less movement. But as you go down the scale of social strength, you've got people who no one listens to, and they make massive gestures the whole time. "Listen to me, I want to—". They're trying to get your attention. Powerful people never do that because they've already got your attention.

In Harry Brown, we see characters who are going through incredible stress, but there aren't any big emotional actor scenes where we think somebody's going for an Academy Award.

I don't watch plays to find out about acting. I watch other people. I watch newsreels. I'm always watching news, and this was a lesson to me. I remember watching the Challenger shuttle blow up with the young woman on it. Her mother and father were standing there, and she blew up. I'm watching it live, and suddenly the actor in me came on because they cut back to the mother and father and they never moved. In a movie, they would've had a big emotional scene. But in reality, they just stared at the smoke for eight minutes. And that's a lesson. It's easy to burst into tears and throw yourself all over the floor.

Do you prefer to work on screen rather than on the stage?

I worked on the stage for nine years. My view of the stage and the cinema is that the stage was a woman I loved dearly who treated me like dirt; and the movies is a mistress I can do anything with. So I stood where I was more comfortable. And the money's better.

You had a number of mistresses in Get Carter, which is one of your defining roles. The film came out right in the midst of the sexual revolution on film, and was initially released as an X-rated film.

There was always some morality thing going. There always is, isn't there? Someone's doing something, and five years later you say, "What? What was all the fuss about?" The film didn't take off in America because MGM had it, and they sent it out as a second feature with a Frank Sinatra film called Dirty Dingus Magee. But eventually Ted Turner bought the library and he liked Get Carter, so he put it on television.

There are some fairly explosive scenes, but the character is very cool and contained.

I based him on one particular gangster that I knew very well. He didn't know it was based on him, and he said to me, "I saw that film Get Carter you made. I thought it was the biggest load of crap I've ever seen in my life." I said, "Why?" He said, "You weren't married. You never had any kids. No responsibility. Just remember, we were all married and we had families. That picture was crap. It was dishonest." I said, "Okay, I'm sorry about that." This is a guy who's recently gone to jail for five murders. He's quite an old man now, as am I.

Is there anything that you used to do, as a young actor, that you find you don't need to do anymore?

Small parts. I don't do movies with the producer's girlfriend. Everything I used to do, I don't do anymore. You know, I cut out all the acting. Movie acting is behavior. You have to remember, I was a stage actor when I went into movies.

Does that come from knowing what the camera can find?

Yeah, but you eventually make the camera your friend. I remember being in the theater and the producer saying to me, "Speak up. There's a man at the back there. He's paid to hear what you're saying. So he's got to hear every word." So my voice was produced. I'm not shouting, but I can project it right up to the back. In a movie, there's a camera. If you twitch, the camera goes, "Dishonest." You can whisper—the sound picks it up. So it's an entirely different technique.

You've said to young actors, "Should you see something you like, steal it." Are you still stealing?

I'll nick everything. I told you what I nicked off of Brando, with the eyes, because he was always doing this. His head was always down. I'd steal anything from any actor. I don't mind who it is. Then you put it all together, and it's you. No one knows where you got it from, because there's such a mélange. It becomes you.

Do you have favorite contemporary screen actors?

Bob De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino. Those are the three American actors I admire. Oh, wait a minute! My most favorite of all: Jack Nicholson. But he's a very close friend. I know all the other guys, but we're not close friends.

What was it like working with Jack Nicholson on Blood and Wine?

Fabulous. It was a great thing for me. I more or less thought my career was over because I'd got to the stage where you're the young leading man, and you get the girl, and eventually there comes a time in your life—a producer sent me a script and I sent it back. I said, "The part's too small." He sent the script back and said, "I didn't want you to read the lover. Read the father." And so I knew. There was a sort of hiatus in my life and I left the business altogether. I didn't work for a while. I mean, I wasn't suicidal over it, but that was a break. I was down in Miami having fun. I was opening restaurants. Jack was down there, and he came to me with a script called Blood and Wine. He said, "Do this. You're not doing anything, do it with me." So I said, "Okay, I'll do it." And that revived my faith in the industry, which I'd come to hate because I'd been given so many bad scripts. Just as a person, Jack is the most extraordinary man. I was so impressed with him. I'd known him a long time, but not very well. But when we worked in such a close situation on Blood and Wine, I got to know him much, much better. He restored my faith in the entire industry, which is why I came back and made more pictures. That was fifteen years ago. I wrote a biography fifteen years ago. I've just finished the second part, based on what I call the Nicholson period.

You've played playboy and lover in many different films. Could you tell us about an actress you've loved working with?

My favorite of all was the woman who brought me to America; Shirley MacLaine. She's lovely, and I made a few pictures with her. I loved working with Elizabeth Taylor. Jane Fonda was great too. Recently I worked with Maggie Smith. I loved working with her. And Beyoncé Knowles is very nice.

You said before that you don't collaborate with the screenwriter. What was it like making Hannah and Her Sisters with Woody Allen.

That's a different story altogether because Woody was also the director. And in that case, he was a co-star as well. I said to Woody, "I haven't had any close-ups." He always says, "I never do close-ups." When I saw the movie, all the close-ups were of him. He went back afterward and did his own close-ups. I said, "Thanks very much, Woody." I won the Academy Award anyway, without the bloody close-up.

You played Horatio in a 1964 film version of Hamlet. It's never been released on DVD. Could you please make some phone calls?

It was a black and white Hamlet on television. One of the best Hamlets I ever saw was with Christopher Plummer. We actually shot it in Denmark, in Elsinore Castle, which is actually called Helsingør. It was an extraordinary experience for me. I'd never done Shakespeare before. The director said, "The main problem with Hamlet is that at the end, everybody's dead. When Fortinbras comes on, who has a small part, he's got to command the stage. You really need a star, but no star's going to play a part that small." I said, "Well, have you found someone?" He said, "I found this young actor who I think can command the movie when all you lot are dead." So I said, "What's his name?" He said, "Donald Sutherland."

You've said that you don't particularly love doing Shakespeare.

That was the only Shakespeare I ever did. I'm a very natural, realistic actor. But Chris and I were very close friends and so was the director, so I was in a shielded area.

Why did you change your name to Michael Caine from Maurice Micklewhite?

I always say it's because there was another Maurice Micklewhite who was already a star. But what happened was that I changed my name to Michael White. I was in the theater in the country, and I didn't have to belong to the British trade union, British Actors' Equity. I came to London, and I was trying to get bit parts in films. I phoned my agent every evening to see if there was a job. I phoned her one evening and she said, "We got you a TV job, but you've got to join the union to be on the BBC television." So I said, "Okay, I'll join." She said, "But there's already another Michael White in the union. You can keep the name Michael, but you can't call yourself White." I was on the phone in Leicester Square, which is like Times Square here. I looked round and Humphrey Bogart was in The Caine Mutiny. So I said, "Caine." She said, "How do you spell that?" I went, "C-A-I-N-E." And that's how I became Michael Caine. If I'd have looked further, I'd have been called Michael 101 Dalmatians which would be so difficult to sign. Maurice Micklewhite would've been a bugger to sign, as well.

There have been times in your career when you've done four films a year. You do fewer films now.

I do one about every 18 months.

Why did you choose Harry Brown?

Basically, I'm retired. But if I get a script I can't refuse, like Harry Brown, I do it. First of all, from a selfish actor's point of view, it was a good part for me. It's a very good script. And also it was because of the background. This pool of young gangsters were salvageable, and should never have been there in the first place, except for the socio-economic situations of the country. In my country, no one seems to take any notice of these guys. There's getting to be more and more of them, and they're getting into a worse and worse state. So I thought, "If I make this film, maybe some people will notice that they're there and do something about it." From a political point of view, not much happened. Because nothing happens in England at the moment. From a charitable point of view it really did work, and it helped the youngsters. I know that there's a thing of saying lock the bastards up and throw away the key because they're scumbags. But they are not. I don't believe that, because I am one of them. We are responsible. The parents are responsible for what they are. I used to talk to those gangs in the middle of the night. They were always talking to me because they knew who I was and I was like them. I would always say, "Who's got a father living in the house?" There'd be eight, nine, ten of them. Occasionally, one hand went up. It's the family unit which let them down in the first place, and the lack of government or education which went further. There are some psychopaths and sociopaths in those gangs, who need different treatment, but 80% could be salvaged. So that's part of my own little socio-economic-political message behind this movie. I said this, and a reporter said to me yesterday, rather accusingly, "Oh, really? Have you ever seen this film in public?" "No," I said. He said, "I've seen it. And every time you shot one of those kids, everybody cheered. What are you advising people to do?" I said, "Well, that's exactly what I'm saying, because all journalists and politicians ever do is half think. You say, ‘How dare he make that film? These people are cheering an old man killing innocent boys.' The London Times called the picture odious. Think one step further. If you do nothing, this is what is going to happen." You can see it's happening now, because the audience is cheering in the cinema. So there's a very serious side to this Harry Brown. As a matter of fact, there's only a serious side to this movie, as you'll see when you watch it. In fact, it's a good thing I gave you a few laughs here, because you won't get any when you watch it.

The last thing I want to ask you is what it was like to play this character, to play Harry Brown. In some ways, it evokes some of the earlier tough guy characters that you've played.

This is an old, sick man. And so it's an entirely different thing. He's desperate. And although I'm playing the vigilante, in a way I play him as a victim, not a perpetrator. I'm not Charlie Bronson, going around yelling and screaming, "Have another go; bang-bang-bang." No, it's not like that. Well, I'll leave you to decide. Okay? 

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THE AUTHOR

David Schwartz is the Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies at Purchase College.

More articles by David Schwartz