[18 October 2007]
NEW YORK—When it comes to movies, the mark of Caine—British star Sir Michael Caine—states that any producer who doesn’t cast him shall suffer the wrath of God.
Sure, you could argue it’s really Caine’s prodigious talent, chameleon-like range, and beloved and assured screen presence, but c’mon, the man’s made so many movies even he literally cannot count them: “Someone said to me, `You’ve been in 120 movies.’ I said, `No, I’ve been in about 80,’ and then I looked on the Internet and there were all these titles I didn’t even know, where I had come on and done one line or other little bit.”
Born Maurice Micklewhite in London’s Rotherhithe district, Caine, 74, began acting in the mid-1950s. He gained attention with “Zulu” (1964) and became a star with “The Ipcress File” (1965) and “Alfie” (1966). He’s played everything from working-class blokes to genteel gangsters, from an aging hippie (last year’s “Children of Men”) to an expatriate in America, with Oscar-winning turns in “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986) and “The Cider House Rules” (1999). He’s a manipulative author in “Sleuth,” a remake of his 1972 film.
We spoke with Caine in an Upper East Side hotel.
Q: The story goes that when you signed to do the original “Sleuth,” where you played the young scoundrel Milo who tries to steal the wife of a rich author, you asked your co-star, Sir Laurence Olivier, how you should address him, and that he said “Lord Olivier” the first time, and “Larry” afterward.
A: No, what he did was, he sent me a letter before we ever met and said, “When we meet, you may be wondering what to call me. From the moment we meet, you must call me Larry,” and that was that. Because at that time, though (England’s) class system was dissolving fast, there was still that thing where he was Lord Olivier and I was just a half-assed Cockney guy from the wrong end of town. Anyway, we started off like that and we had a very good relationship.
Q: So now that you’re Sir Michael and playing Olivier’s role, did you send a letter to Jude Law (who’s playing Milo in the remake)?
A: No, I already knew Jude—Jude and I were friends—and the class system had moved on so much that even though I was “Sir Michael Caine,” you wouldn’t think of anybody not calling you Michael. It would have been preposterous for me.
Q: How about Mickey? Can we call you Mickey?
A: (Chuckles) No, not Mickey. That’s for Rooney.
A: No, no. You have to call me Michael.
Q: Not Maurice.
A: Oh, Maurice, now, nobody calls me Maurice. Maurice never made any money!
Q: You knew Harold Pinter before he had any money either, or a Nobel Prize. He rewrote the Anthony Shaffer play and movie “Sleuth” for the new film, but you’ve known him for decades. I’ve read conflicting accounts of how you met.
A: We went to the same school, but he was older than me and we never met there. But I did do his first play. Harold was an actor called David Baron who decided to write in his own name, to not get confused with the careers. And he wrote a one-act play called “The Room” (1957) which I did at the Royal Court (Theatre in 1960). So I did the very first Pinter ever—and then for 50 years, this great writer wrote all these things, and I never got another! I’ve waited all this time, and no one’s ever given me another Pinter script!
Q: Did you have a word with Harold about this?
A: No, you don’t have words with Harold about anything! (Chuckles) He doesn’t take a lot of prisoners. What he writes he writes and that’s it, and it doesn’t matter who you are.
Q: I read that director Kenneth Branagh did discuss a line change or two.
A: Not exactly. There’s a scene in the picture where Jude is on the phone with my (character’s) wife and at rehearsals—Harold was at a lot of rehearsals, especially around lunch time—Ken said to Harold, “What do you think the wife is saying on the other end of the line?” And Harold said, “How do you know he’s talking to the wife? No one said he’s talking to the wife. He’s just saying, `Hello, darling.’ It could be a male friend (who) called up as a joke.”
Q: That’s brilliant.
A: I mean, that’s Pinter, y’know? You go, “Duhhh, why didn’t I think of that?”
Q: You once said that the best research for playing a drunk is being a British actor for 20 years.
A: Oh, yeah! In those days, because we used to drink then. They do drugs now, don’t they? I always remember the first time I played a drunk in a play. I was a very young actor and came onstage drunk and started to do my dialogue drunk, and the producer said, “Stop. What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I’m drunk in this scene, sir.” He said, “You know what you’re doing, don’t you?” I said, “No, what do you mean?” And he said, “You are an actor who’s trying to talk slurred and walk crooked. A drunk is a man who’s trying to speak properly and walk straight.”
Basis of all acting! I was 20 years old, in my first repertory company ... this was one of the best lessons ever taught me.
Q: Last question: In “Jaws: The Revenge,” you played a character named Hoagie. Was it always your ambition to play a sandwich?
A: Ha, ha, ha. No.