The Prestige - Michael Caine interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
MICHAEL Caine talks about working on The Prestige, the brilliance of Christopher Nolan and why wearing glasses earned him a dinner with Harold Lloyd…
Q. How did you approach the role and change your voice?
A. Well, my character had a London accent because he was from London but in those days there was always fog. I remember when I was young there was a cold fog and everyone had slightly deeper, husky voices (does the voice). In Liverpool, they had chemical fumes so everybody talked through their nose like The Beatles. That’s where they got that accent from.
Cutter, for me, is you, in the middle of all these lunatics. A clever director like Chris uses a character like me so that when he wants to make the audience jump, he does it to me. It’s a similar role I play in Batman. The audience is asking “What’s going on? There’s a guy dressed in a batsuit?” So I ask: “What’s going on? You’re dressing in a batsuit?” I’m the audience’s representative on earth.
Q. Do you enjoy being the audience more than the hero these days?
A. Yeah I love that now. I can never be the hero now. You have to be young and all that stuff. I used to be the hero. I don’t get the girl anymore. Last time I got the girl was a bit odd, in The Quiet American. But I thought to myself, “I’m never going to get the girl again.” And I haven’t so far.
But I like what I do. It’s much more interesting to be a movie actor than a movie star. Also, I’m in the luxurious position of only doing what I actually want to do because my own mentality is that I’ve retired. They send me these scripts and if I absolutely have to do it, then I go to work, which is what happened with this script.
Q. Did you notice many differences between being an actor and a magician while doing your research?
A. One of the things that should be the same is that magicians never tell you their tricks. I never look at those things on DVDs where they show you how they blew up the volcano or anything because I don’t want to know. We want there to be the magic and if I was in charge of the movies I wouldn’t let them put any of those reveals or tricks on the DVDs because I hate them.
Q. We can always hear every word you say. Are there too many actors today who are not enunciating?
A. Yes. I’ve been on movies, not on this one, where I literally couldn’t hear what the other actor was saying myself. They’ll say: “This is the way I do things.” You talk to people and they don’t know what you’re saying, is that it? Then they want to post sinc it afterwards louder. So you wind up looking at this guy and waiting for his lips to stop. If he’s doing a pause, you just start to speak and his lips move again – it’s very awkward.
My wife is always telling me to keep my voice down in restaurants because I do have a voice like a foghorn. But soundmen do like me, very much. They can hear me.
Q. Is it down to training?
A. The old guys like me started in the theatre, and I was in the theatre for nine years. The first day you go in the producer says: “The people in the back have paid to hear you. Project it!’ It’s not a case of shouting, but bringing the volume up gradually. The sound man goes ‘ooh, shit’ [grabbing his ears].
Q. You often play mentors. Do you see yourself in that role in the acting community?
A. No, I don’t see myself in the acting community at all. I don’t mix with a lot of actors. That’s not because I don’t like them but because I live in Surrey and there’s not a lot of actors down there. Leatherhead is very sparsely populated with movie stars, I assure you [laughs].
I don’t see myself as anything. I just wander around getting on with my life. I have this whole image in the paper, which I like. I think that’s me and my wife says ‘That’s not you at all.’ I say ‘I’m an icon. It says so in the paper.’ She says: ‘OK. Take the rubbish out!’ It’s like that, my life. It’s quite ordinary.
Q. There’s a line in the movie – “obsession is a young man’s game” – so where do you keep getting your obsession from?
A. Obsession is a young man’s game and my only excuse is that I never grew old. I see myself as 38, but you don’t notice it. I’m in the fortunate, luxurious position of only working when I really, really, really, really want to because I don’t like getting up early in the morning and learning all that stuff. I work with offers that I can’t refuse and Christopher, of course, I can’t refuse. I’m doing the next Batman with him too. Otherwise I regard myself as retired. I have to become obsessed about what is offered to me. I don’t go to work to make money. You don’t make any money when you’re my age. The stars get it all. That’s a lie, actually.
Q. Have you ever done a movie purely for money?
A. About the first 30! [Laughs] I come from a very poor background and I was broke when I was 29 – absolutely broke. I owed £4,000 as a matter of fact. I come from a very poor family. But then I started to get into movies and made all that money. I spent the first six or seven movies buying houses for everyone. Every one of my relations got a house. It’s great, all those little houses that I bought are all worth £1 million now – I should have kept them. But I don’t have to do that anymore. It’s such a luxury. Occasionally, if someone offers you so much money that you think: “I don’t think it’s going to be any good but if they want to pay the money, to hell with it.” You do it. I’ve done that a couple of times, which is a disaster. But I didn’t do it very much.
Q. Is it true that you heard one of the first recordings of Goldfinger?*
A. I did [laughs]. I got slung out of my flat, where I was, and didn’t have time to find a new one, so John Barry put me up for about six weeks. I was living at his house when he was writing. I couldn’t sleep because he stayed up all night banging away on the bloody piano, so I could hear it [mimics theme]. So I asked: “What is it you’re writing?” So, I was the first person ever to hear Goldfinger.
But I shared flats with funny people. My barber was Vidal Sassoon. I shared a flat with him. I shared a flat with Terrence Stamp, who came a big star long before I did.
Q. You were also a restaurant owner at the time. Do you still have those?
A. I sold out all my restaurant interests about six years ago. Dealing with chefs is worse than dealing with temperamental actors; it’s a bloody nightmare. You have to remember that I had a restaurant where the chef was Marco Pierre White and the soo chef was Gordon Ramsay [laughs].
Q. So was it you cooking in The Ipcress File?
A. Well, I’m a good cook but I’m not like those guys. They are chefs, I’m just a cook. I’m an amateur. And they do it when they feel like it.
Q. But you don’t use button mushrooms…
A. No, don’t ever use button mushrooms. That was the advice in The Ipcress File. It’s very funny the attitude in The Ipcress File is… I wore glasses, which is something that heroes didn’t do. The Hollywood executives immediately said: “He can’t wear glasses, people will think he’s gay.” I thought, “that’s funny, I know a lot of people who weat glasses and none of them are gay”. Then, when they saw the rushes of me cooking the dinner for this woman, they said: “He can’t do that, people will think he’s gay because the woman cooks…” I said: “Every chef I’ve ever met has been a man because there weren’t many female chefs then.” So it’s weird how they do that.
But funny things happen to you in movies for silly reasons. I wore glasses in Ipcress File and I got a telephone call one day from Harold Lloyd. He was in London. And he said: “You’re the first movie star since me to wear glasses, come and have dinner.” So I had dinner with Harold Lloyd, which was incredible.
I remember we were having dinner and he had a claw hand. He saw me looking at it and said: “I know what you’re wondering, you’re wondering how I hang on to the clock.” He said that he had a wire on his wrist because he obviously couldn’t hold it. We were at The White Elephant.
Q. When did you first discover the magic of cinema – was it with Zulu or Alfie?
A. I discovered it long before that as a movie fan. I adored movies. I think probably I’m the first generation of actors who saw an actor for the first time on screen, not on stage. The milieau that I came from, you didn’t go to the theatre, obviously. You went to the cinema. So, I first saw an actor when I was four and I was taken to the Saturday Morning children’s screening – it used to be called the thru’penny rush. It had children only and I was taken by two of the big boys who were neighbours. The first actor I ever saw was The Lone Ranger. I thought: “That’s what I want to do.”
If you read the biographies of great actors like Olivier or Gielgud, they all say: “Nanny took me to the theatre and the curtain went up and I knew what I wanted to do.” It wasn’t like that with me.
Q. Were you encouraged to follow your dream, having come from a working class family?
A. No. I was never encouraged because the idea of being an actor in Elephant & Castle, where I come from, which is very, very tough, was that they were either gay or posh, or both. The idea for someone like me to say they wanted to be an actor meant they either thought I was gay or had ideas above my station. A lot of people said to me: “Who do you think you are?” I told them I know exactly who I am and I don’t have ideas about my station and I’ll tell you exactly where I’m going.
People sometimes say to me: “Do you ever see your old friends from the old days?” But I say, “no”. But the reason for that is nobody wants a poor, unemployed unknown actor, so all my friends blew me out long ago. So, I never went back. You only get one chance to blow me out. Things are not quite what they seem always. They [my friends] would avoid me in the pub because they knew that if they bought me a drink I didn’t have enough money to buy a round. Things like that…
Q. Do you think that you paved the way for other actors?
A. I really do. I was very much aware of class. Don’t start me on class, otherwise you’ll get a four hour lecture. I retained my accent and my background just to prove to anyone who is working class in England that you can do it, and you don’t have to be false about it. So that’s my proudest accomplishment. I feel that I helped the working class by just saying there are no barriers, which I consider to be true.
Q. Has fame affected your life in any way?
A. Yeah, I wear a baseball cap all the time, which I would never normally wear, and I walk very fast. Fame is fantastic because you can ring up anywhere and everyone wants to know you. You can also talk to anyone because no one’s afraid of you. You’re not some kind of serial killer if you speak to a woman. I can chat anyone up. Guys go out with me and I chat up all the girls for them. Also, the funny thing about that is you can always talk to anyone famous. And it doesn’t matter what field they’re in.
Q. Are you going to remake Sleuth? And is there a sense that you’ll be handing over the baton to Jude Law?
A. Yes but no, I didn’t think of it like that. Jude came to me. It’s his company that’s making it. He said: “We’ll make it if you do it, but we don’t want to do it with anyone else.” He had a script by Harold Pinter, so I said yes. I think it’s a completely different film really. I’m the lead and not Olivier. There’s a very quick difference in the script.
In the original film it’s a lovely old country house and when you go inside it’s a lively old English country interior. In this, it’s a lovely old English country house but when you go in, everything is marble and glass, including a glass lift. So, you immediately go: “Ooops, what happened there?” Which is typical of Harold Pinter.
Q. Was Laurence Olivier a generous actor when you were originally making Sleuth?
A. He became a generous actor [laughs]. The greatest compliment I ever had paid to me as an actor was by Olivier. He’d been in the theatre and it was just the two of us, we’d been acting for a couple of days, and he looked at me after one take and said: “I thought I had an assistant, I see I have a partner.” I went: “Ooh, that’s the best compliment I’ve ever had.” It’s never been beaten because what happens is, if you’re a movie actor you’re on your own because you cannot control the stage. The director controls it. So he was swamping me a bit. He’d come in like a whirlwind and I’d go straight in underneath him and make him look even bigger. But Joe Mankiewicz walked past me and said: “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you.”
I needed a bit of care during the first week but after that Larry and I became great friends. By the way, calling him Larry… before we started he was Lord Olivier. I got a letter from him – I’d never met him – which said: “I just thought I’d drop you a note because I was thinking you may be wondering how to address me as I am a Lord. After we meet, I will be Larry forever more.” Even after the movie, which is unusual, we used to go out to dinner together.
Q. Do you think that you have to sacrifice part of your individuality to be an actor – much like the illusionists in The Prestige?
A. You don’t sacrifice your individuality. You sacrifice a lot of freedom. There’s lots of stuff you can’t do – some of it you wouldn’t even want to do. But you couldn’t go to a strip club, for instance, because you’d be in the papers. You watch everything that you do all the time. Also, if you go shopping they photograph you. You wonder where you’re going to see them and I get all the magazines, but I never see pictures of me shopping. But they take them all the time – every day in The King’s Road. You don’t see the camera men but we do.
Q. Does that put a lot of pressure on your marriage, because you have one of the longest marriages in showbusiness?
A. No, no one could put pressure on my marriage. We’re so intertwined, my wife and I, we’re like the same person almost. We are a patnership, a real true partnership. And although we’re both Pisces, we’re the exact opposite of each other. She’s very gentle, she’s a Kashmiri woman, a Muslim, and I’m exactly the opposite – tough, brutal, mad, a pain in the arse. I take care of the tough stuff and she takes care of the gentle stuff. So, it works perfectly.
She is the only person in the world I have ever met who absolutely nobody has anything whatsoever bad to say about her. There is nothing bad you can say about her. She is absolutely a completely perfect, wonderful person. I get all the stick because there’s quite a lot of bad stuff written about me. She even says a lot of bad stuff about me. But she is wonderful.
Q. Did you ever have a plan B when you were struggling as an actor?
A. No. Everyone else said do something else. Funnily enough, when I talk about The Prestige, I say it’s not about magic, it’s about obsession. You have to be obsessed. My early career for nine years, from 20 – when I came out of the Army and became an actor – to 29, they were brutal, really really brutal. To survive that and still be here, you have to be obsessive. All the people around me – Finney, O’Toole, Terence Stamp and all those people – were obsessive.
Q. You have many landmark films on your CV, what are your personal favourites? Which are the ones you’re proudest of?
A. Well, Ipcress File because it was the first time I was above the title; Alfie, the first time I became a star in America. Sleuth, seocnd time I got nominated for an Academy Award after Alfie. And Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which is one of the funniest films I figure I will ever make. Right through to The Quiet American and The Cider House Rules. They’re favourites for different reasons.
Also, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was the greatest location [south of France]. I got a villa for 12 weeks in the South of France between my two best friends – Roger Moore and Leslie Bricusse, the composer. I couldn’t believe it.