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Is Anybody There? - Sir Michael Caine interview

Sir Michael Caine in Is Anybody There?

Interview by Rob Carnevale

SIR Michael Caine talks about playing an ageing magician in new movie Is Anybody There? and why the project has such a personal connection to him in light of the death of a close friend.

He also discusses the joy of working with child actor Bill Milner (of Son of Rambow fame) and his recollections of his first experiences of going to the movies as a young boy…

Q. How did you first get involved with Is Anybody There?
Sir Michael Caine: For me, I knew that John [Crowley] was a well-known theatre director in Ireland… although I’d never seen any of his productions. But then I saw a movie… I saw two movies of his, and he had an incredible cinematic eye. I thought: “Here’s a twin – here’s a director that can direct actors and knows where to put a camera.” It’s wonderful because you rarely get the two. That’s one reason, the other is that [producer] David Heyman, who is an old friend of mine, gave me the script… I’ve read many scripts that have made me laugh, and this one made me laugh as well, but I’d never read a script before that made me cry. It made me cry, so that’s why I did it.

Q. I gather that your best friend suffered from dementia and sadly died. This must have been a film that was very close to your heart. What kind of personal insight did you bring?
Sir Michael Caine: I obviously brought a lot of experience of how it was to suffer from dementia because Dougie was one of my closest friends and he died while we were making the film. I hadn’t really thought of it because it’s not a film about a guy with dementia. It’s just a film about an old magician and a little boy. So, I didn’t think about it honestly until I really came to the moment and then it struck me. I’d been living four years/five years with it, obviously, not day in/day out like a relation, but just waiting for me to walk in and for Dougie to ask me who I was. And one day he did. So, that’s as accurate a portrayal of dementia as I could do with my talent from extreme close-up experience.

Q. How did you prepare for the role?
Sir Michael Caine: The first thing I did was to remember back to when I did little parties for my daughters. We always had a conjurer and I noticed that his hair was always parted in the middle. So, the first thing I did was to part my hair in the middle. Then I met Scott Penrose, who was our real conjurer, and who taught us some tricks, and his hair was parted in the middle. So, I thought to myself: “I haven’t even started and I’ve got something right!” And then I said to him: “Your hair is parted in the middle and I’ve parted my hair in the middle…” And he replied: “Do you know why we do that? Houdini parted his hair in the middle and we are all fans of Houdini.” So, that’s how I prepared – I started by parting my hair in the middle and wound up in tears just thinking about my friend who died of dementia.

Q. Did you enjoy the cantankerous nature of your character?
Sir Michael Caine: I did enjoy the cantankerous nature of my character. I’ve never done a really old guy like that. I’d put him at about age 84 and I’ve known a few old guys like that in my time.

Q. Clarence, your character, learns some valuable life lessons from young Edward. Did you in real life end up learning any lessons from Bill Milner?
Sir Michael Caine: I learned a most invaluable lesson in as much as unlike all other child actors I could absolutely trust him to be there as though I was acting with an adult actor, which was an incredible thing to know.

Q. What do you find the differences are between acting with young actors and middle-aged co-stars?
Sir Michael Caine: When I was very young I went to the Theatre Royal with Joan Littlewood and we would talk about the Stanislavski method. And one of the things that struck me about Stanislavski, which was very good for movies, was the phrase: “Rehearsal is the work, performance is the relaxation.” And that’s what I look for in very good film actors; they’ve already done all the work before they got there. And that’s what I got with the entire cast of this picture.

Q. How many of the older cast members had you been able to work with before?
Sir Michael Caine: There were all these old actors who’d made millions of films and such was my experience in my early acting days, I’d never been in any of them. I never got a part in British films for ages and ages. So, I knew them from the screen as a fan and had that attitude. The most impressive thing about working with someone for me was Anne-Marie Duff. She’s playing this little bit dowdy keeper of an old folk’s home, and I didn’t know at the time of her theatrical past. And suddenly I read in the Evening Standard that she’s been awarded best actress for Joan of Arc at The National and my whole attitude towards her changed… I mean off-set, of course. But she’s such a wonderful actress because if you think she can do that and then play this woman in our film, it’s quite extraordinary.

Q. Why do you think as a general rule the British population is so dis-connected and dis-respectful of the older generation?
Sir Michael Caine: In my opinion, everybody is getting older and older. We have a great deal of dementia because nobody grew old enough to get it, if you see what I mean. Someone said to me the other day: “Well, you’re eventually going to live until 110.” And I said: “Well, who’s going to keep me? What age do I retire? 100?” How are you going to live all those years and who is going to keep you doing it? I have a couple of grandchildren now so I’m banking on them.

Q. Edward is a little boy with an obsession. Did you as a little lad have an obsession?
Sir Michael Caine: Funnily enough, my obsession was cinema. From the age of three we used to have the thru’ penny rush on a Saturday morning, because there was no television. It was only kids and I was taken there by two older boys when I was three. The Lone Ranger came on and that’s what I wanted to be – from them on I wanted to be a movie actor; not necessarily The Lone Ranger. But it didn’t start quite like that. The film came on and everything went black and I suddenly realised that someone had thrown an overcoat from the balcony and it had gone straight over my head [laughs].

I’d never been to the cinema before, so I didn’t quite know what was going on. Then there were punch-ups, and then I put my feet on the back of the row in front and pushed, and the row I was in went over backwards because the boys had taken the screws out of the floor! So, that was my first experience of motion pictures – rather frazzled, and it has remained like that ever since!

Q. How does it feel going from a film as big as The Dark Knight to something as intimate as Is Anybody There?
Sir Michael Caine: Well, it’s a movie business. I’ve done all sorts of movies in my career. Certainly, The Dark Knight is the biggest movie I’ve ever done. It was eight months during which time I worked for 12 days, so I had lots of time off to study this script. So, it worked for me like that. I was a repertory actor when I was young, so I used to do 30, 40 or 50 plays a year – every one different, every person different, so for me now, and with this film in particular, I could play someone who wasn’t me, and who wasn’t even like me, and could work on it. So, I got the money off The Dark Knight and the experience from this one.

Q. Taking the name of the film, is there anybody there in the after-life?
Sir Michael Caine: I’d dearly love to think that there is somebody there and I have a lot of back-up because my father was a Catholic, my mother was a Protestant, I was educated by Jews and now I’m married to a Muslim, so I won’t lose out on a technicality.

Q. How do you think you’d fare in a retirement home like the one depicted in the film?
Sir Michael Caine: I would probably own it.

Q. When you do make the big leap into the blue yonder what do you want written on your stone?
Sir Michael Caine: See you later, no hurry!

Read our review of Is Anybody There?