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Sleuth - Sir Michael Caine interview

Michael Caine in Sleuth

Interview by Rob Carnevale

SIR Michael Caine talks about remaking Sleuth with Jude Law, his past experience of working alongside Sir Laurence Olivier and why he’s decided that it’s only worth remaking bad movies.

He also talks about competing with himself and bettering each performance, working on the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, and which of today’s actors he rates the most…

How nervous was Jude Law about stepping into your footsteps?
Sir Michael Caine: He didn’t seem nervous at all. It was his idea, he was the producer, and he got Harold Pinter to write the new script. He came to me with it. I knew Jude, we were friends already and I’m a great admirer of his work, right from The Talented Mr Ripley. Also, Ken [Branagh]’s a very relaxed director, even though he doesn’t seem like it with all that Shakespeare stuff [laughs]. You can relax, so it’s ok.

Do you share your character’s love of gadgetry?
Michael Caine: Yes, I do. I always try to get the latest hi-definition this and that, and I drive my wife nuts because there’s always people coming in and changing things. There’s a very good security system if you come into my house at anytime – I can give you a very nice colour digital photograph of yourself, day or night. That’s a protective thing for my family. I have all the computers and Slingbox – that’s a device where no matter where I am in the world, you could be in Timbuktu or three for that matter, and you turn on your computer and you can switch on your TV at home and the picture will be there.

After Get Carter, didn’t you say that you should only ever remake bad movies?
Michael Caine: Yes, I thought that. We remade a bad movie that starred David Niven and Marlon Brando and we called it Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The first one wasn’t funny at all. If you remake a very good movie, you’re kind of on a hiding to nothing. I would never have remade [original Sleuth writer] Tony Shaffer’s script. But with Pinter’s script, there isn’t a single line from the original script. So, for me it’s not like a remake at all. It’s a double whammy for me, because I’m not playing the same part anyway. To remake Get Carter and Alfie, which were both very good movies, was a mistake in the first place I thought – and I was even in the Get Carter remake because Sly Stallone was a friend of mine, and he said: “Come and walk on for a day…” So I did it for a joke.

There are a lot of differences between the two Sleuths – one of them being the class issue…
Michael Caine: From Tony Shaffer’s point of view, he had read a lot of Agatha Christie and that was that era, when everyone was writing those kind of novels about upper middle-class people who were so much smarter than poor, working class PC Plod. You knew Larry [ Laurence Olivier] came from that. If Larry had done a back story, his father would have been a professor. My own back story is different in this. It’s that I came from a working-class family who were very ambitious for their child, went to Cambridge, Oxford, wherever, but what remained was not snobbery, but the toughness. You wouldn’t want to take him on in a fight.

I’ll give you a concrete example of the snobbery. Larry Olivier was Lord Olivier, we’d never met and yet we were going to do this very intimate movie together. He wrote to me saying: “It occurred to me that you might be wondering how to address me when we meet. Well, you must address me as Larry at all times.” Which was lovely, but the fact that he felt it was necessary to write the letter [shows how class was an issue]. Now today, I am Sir Michael Caine but the idea that I would write to Jude and say: “You may be wondering how to address me…” He’d probably think: “Piss off.”

Wasn’t Olivier in a rather vulnerable place then?
Michael Caine: He’d just got fired from the National. He was on valium, or something. Then Joe Mankiewicz found out and he couldn’t remember the lines. Then he stopped taking them and he was fine. There were two moments. There was one in rehearsals when Larry was obviously uncomfortable for about three days – we did five days’ rehearsal back then, and on this we did three weeks. Larry came in and he brought out a matchbox, took a moustache out and stuck it on and said: “Now I know who I am.” He then said to me: “I can’t act with my own face, Michael.” Then he was Andrew Wycke.

The word rehearsal is very important on this picture because we rehearsed intensely for three weeks and we shot in four. On the original film, we rehearsed for five days and shot it in 16 weeks. I’m still trying to figure out what we did all that time. I know we went down to Cornwall and the lobster was very good…

What are your thoughts on the current writers’ strike in Hollywood?
Michael Caine: It’s a very good moment for me because I’m finishing a movie on December 11 and I don’t want to work for six months. I decided that before the writers’ strike, so it’s good for me because there’ll be a big pile-up of scripts when I go back to work! I support the writers’ strike – I’m not working for six months and all the writers will love me. But I’ve made three pictures recently. I’ve done Sleuth, Batman and now I’m just finishing Is There Anybody There?

But you also do some writing yourself, don’t you?
Michael Caine: I just write books when I’ve got time, but I don’t publish them… thrillers. The only thing I did think of was writing an added autobiographical thing. I retired and wrote that book and this is me retired – I’ve made 12 pictures and won an Oscar since I retired, which is typical of me. Now I’ve got this whole other part of my life, which is the last 15 years, which I haven’t written about. But then my wife said don’t do it, so to hell with it, I won’t. I don’t want a row with her.

What films are you most proud of?
Michael Caine: My own view of life is that you must not compete with your contemporaries, or your predecessors, you must compete with yourself. So all I ever try to do is make a better film each time – since the period I retired, which was 15 years ago. So I’ve only accepted scripts where I thought I could improve on things. So I’ve gone from Educating Rita, which was the last good picture I made before I mentally retired, and then I went to Little Voice, to The Cider House Rules, to The Quiet American, to this. Those ones, I think, each one is better than the last one. And now I’m doing Is There Anybody There? which is another step in that direction. So, the best performance I’ve ever given is this one, because it’s the latest. I’ve improved on The Quiet American.

There was no mention of the Batman movie in there…
Michael Caine: Well, I play the butler in that, for Christ’s sake! But I’ll tell you something about the next one, The Dark Knight… the problem with that was, how do you top Jack Nicholson as the Joker? Heath Ledger plays the Joker and he is fantastic. I couldn’t see how Jack could be topped but he’s at least equal to him. It’s extraordinary. Jack’s Joker was a very nasty old uncle, this Joker is a maniacal, murderous psychopath. And when you see the make-up – he looks like he’s mentally gone. He puts the make-up on to disguise himself and then goes and never takes it off again, or washes, so gradually it looks like leprosy. I’m a great fan of Christopher Nolan. I thought Batman Begins was the best Batman I’d ever seen. And I think this one will be better than that.

I’d never been in one of those great big movies. So, when they offered me the part I thought that was great. We did a scene out near Venta – there’s a big old airship hangar where we have Chicago built in there – and it doesn’t take up half of it. We had an office in the new one which is 200 yards long and 200 yards wide with a completely neon ceiling, it was incredible. I love all that. But I’m just as happy doing this little picture Is There Anybody There? which is a movie about a little boy whose parents own an old folks’ home. Every time he makes a friend they die, so he goes looking for their ghosts, and I turn up as an old magician who’s come in to die and helps him find his friends.

There’s always been an incredible variety to your roles…
Michael Caine: Well, that’s the whole point. I’m in a situation where I only do movies that I can’t refuse. I’m not talking about money. Sleuth, by Harold Pinter, I can’t turn down. Batman’s butler I can’t turn down. This movie I’m doing, you’ll see when you see it why I couldn’t turn it down. I don’t have another movie to do, because I haven’t found a script and, as I said, I want a holiday. I’m often asked if I’m going to retire, but this business retires you. The way it happens is, I’ll say I’m not going to work for six months, then I’ll say to my agent: “OK, send me some scripts.” And he’ll just say: “There aren’t any!”

What do you think of the quality of today’s actors?
Michael Caine: Fantastic. You see Christian [Bale] in The Machinist, you see him in Rescue Dawn and 3:10 To Yuma – those three performances are all brilliant. He’s the best actor ever to play Batman, by the way, in my opinion. I hope I don’t upset anybody. Hugh Jackman is extraordinary – he can do everything. He’s annoying. He can sing and tap dance and do all these things I’d like to do. These young actors are wonderful. Look at Jude Law. He’s a wonderful actor. He never gets good reviews because he’s good looking.

Jude [Law] is producing movies now, would that ever have entered your mind in your 30s – to produce?
Michael Caine: No, my 30s coincided with the ‘60s. We didn’t think about doing anything. We said: “How late can we stay out and still get away with it?” I remember working in France. There was a very famous discotheque and I remember going from there with Peter O’Toole straight to work on different pictures, straight from the disco at 6 in the morning. I can’t do that any more. The whole thing has changed. Before, you were under contract to the studio, and you got paid a hundred thousand dollars a year and you made six movies, like Bogart, and you were told what to do. I was very close friends with Henry Fonda and he said: “You’re so lucky, you guys, you control what you do.” And we do. No one tells me what to do – and never has.

Have you ever been pushed around on a movie set – or lost your temper?
Michael Caine: The last time I blew on a movie was The Last Valley (1970) and James Clavell was directing. They put me on this horse and it nearly killed me! I said: “I’m not a horseman!” But I found out it had a German name, Thunderbird. I led this charge and I couldn’t stop it and I came back to the set yelling and screaming at everybody, which I thought was quite natural because it had nearly killed me.

But then Jimmy Clavell – who had been a prisoner of the Japanese at the age of 14 and had a Japanese mentality – dismissed the crew for two hours and said: “Come and have a cup of tea with me.” During that he told me: “Anger is something you should only vent in front of intimates, and friends and relations. Never be angry in front of strangers because you lose face.” He said: “Anger is one of the most intimate of emotions and to expose it to strangers is one of the most stupid and sickening things to do. Never get angry with strangers because they are strangers. What you do with strangers is ignore them for ever more. No second chance, no sorry I did it, never accept an apology, but never, ever get angry with strangers…” And from that time on I have never lost my temper on a set no matter what happens.

b>Read our review of Sleuth

b>Read our interview with Kenneth Branagh