legendary film career that has lasted well over 50 years and 100
films and gained him a knighthood, Michael Caine puts on no airs.
The man may have
one of the most recognizable faces and long-lasting careers in show
business, but he still sees himself as a Cockney street kid who
somehow made good.
Caine had already
been laboring as a bit actor for over a decade when he first opened
eyes with his performance in the 1964 film Zulu. He quickly
did a series of legendary British performances in the likes of
Get Carter, The Ipcress File and Alfie.
working in Hollywood when Shirley MacLaine personally picked him as
her co-star in Gambit in 1966 and Caine has split his work
between the US and England ever since. Other classic films that
Caine starred in include The Italian Job, Sleuth, A Bridge Too
Far, Dressed To Kill, Educating Rita, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,
Little Voice, Children of Men and The Prestige.
He has been
nominated for Oscars for Best Actor six times and won for Hannah
and Her Sisters (1986) and The Cider House Rules (2000).
With this long, distinguished career, Caine may be best recognized
to the young generation as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler in the
His latest film
is literally a return to Caine’s roots. The disturbing urban drama
Harry Brown – in which Caine plays an elderly former marine
who finally has enough of the violence rampant in his neighborhood
and eventually takes matters into his own hands – was filmed right
near the neighborhood in which Caine grew up.
met with a roundtable of journalists – myself included – at the
Regency Hotel in New York to discuss Harry Brown just a
couple of days before the film was to open in New York and Los
Angeles. From the moment Caine entered, you could tell that
the man was genuinely friendly and enjoys the opportunity to
interact with people. “Nobody tried to eat those, did they?” Caine
good-naturedly warned as he walked in to talk to the group, pointing
at a bowl of obviously fake fruit.
What was it like
to be in such a violent, disturbing film?
It’s very funny, because I never saw it as a violent film.
I saw it as a film about violence, which I hate. The whole movie was
made against violence. People are picking one message out. I made
the picture because it was a very good part and a wonderful script
and I thought it would make a great thriller, but I wouldn’t have
made it just for that. Not playing a vigilante. The vigilante is
there as a warning to whoever’s in charge in England… I’m not quite
sure most of the time – probably nobody. If you don’t do something
about the whole section of young people who you’ve left to rot, this
is what’s going to happen to you. It’s of special interest to me
because I come from that whole section of people who’ve been left to
rot. It just simply didn’t work with me.
You went to the military so I’m sure that helped a lot.
Oh yeah, eighteen I went into the military. I don’t want to
be one of these old guys that are, “Stick them all in the Army!” and
all that, but I do believe that six months – not two years like I
did and no combat like I did – just six months of discipline and
learning to serve your country. You learn weaponry to defend your
country – you never use it on anybody, but you just do it – and you
come out and you are a different person. I absolutely promise you
that you are a better person. All my gang – I was in a gang – we all
went in and we all came out absolutely different. I remember one of
them, I was on an airplane and he came out and he said “I’m the
pilot.” I said, “You can’t be the pilot, you’re more stupid than I
am!” (laughs) “I couldn’t fly a plane. How the hell did you
manage it?” He said, “Well, I went to flight school.” But before
that, he was just like all of us – our gang out on the streets. We
were what they used to call teddy boys. We had thick crepe-soled
shoes and hair in a certain way, which was called a D.A. because it
looked like a duck’s ass. We were quite rough – but compared with
today’s gangs, we were like Mary Poppins. Our drug was alcohol and
we fought with our fists, but we were only together as a gang out of
self-defense. We never wanted to attack anyone.
You grew up in the area where the film was made…
Exactly. Exactly. Where those flats… you saw the movie…, at
the entrance of those apartments there is a mural to me.
What was it like going back and seeing how it had changed after all
Well, it was scary because I hadn’t realized quite how
dangerous it all was. Today, instead of alcohol and a fistfight and
getting a broken nose, you’ll get shot or knifed. You’ve got people
that have no idea what they’re doing – because they’re drugged up to
the eyeballs. You can say, “Well, they’d never do that…” and of
course they do, because you don’t know they’re high. So it was
extremely dangerous. One of the minor, silly things is that we would
do daylight shots with dialogue and it became a nuisance because
every time we shot a shot, there was a police siren. All day long.
I’ve never heard… [anything like it.] We became aware in the
daylight, on a sunny Wednesday afternoon we had to keep reshooting
because of the police sirens.
Were you ever intimidated by the real kids that were cast in the
No, the reason for that is you must remember to them I am
them. I’m the same. So they talk to me. I can talk to them like
nobody else could talk because they know I’m won’t tell the police
about it or nothing. So I am them. That’s why I became more
charitable towards them because I understood that 80% of all gangs –
including yours, the most terrible gang here that you can think of,
80% are not there to do anybody any harm. They’re there so that
nobody does them any harm. They are there for self-protection.
That’s the thing you have to rely on, to educate and get them out of
It’s a cycle…
Oh, yeah, yeah. It’s a big, big [one]…
What do you see
as the solution? What can the government do?
I see it as education. It’s education. If you think,
[there’s] a sort of class system, which is even in America, but
we’re different. In England it’s the lower class – which had been
white, but now is also black. Here you have the lower class of black
and everything else. So, you had that class thing stuck there in
England. It doesn’t matter what you are – if you are lower class,
you’re not going to be good. I know that, because I am lower class.
So, you’ve got to get over that and educate these people. You think,
“I’m going to educate this guy with tattoos out to here and he’s got
two knives in his pocket?” You have to take him to school. You have
to break down the system and start with the younger ones.
There doesn’t seem to be any breaking of the class system in London.
Like, Paul McCartney still considers himself a working class lad…
Yes. Me, too. Well, that’s because the upper class in
England is useless, so we don’t want to belong to that. So we are
our own kind. We will forever be working class because that’s how we
Is there a pride
Yes. Incredible. One of the things is that people like
myself and McCartney in the ’60s when we just said to society to
shove it up… somewhere. This is how it’s going to be. The ’60s were
started by some very mundane reasons – one being that Lord [John]
Reith wouldn’t let the BBC, which was the only radio program we had,
play pop music. So we had to listen to the American Forces Network
in Germany and Luxembourg. We said, “Wait a minute, what is this?”
There where all these sort of prejudices. Then you had the working
class guys like myself and Paul McCartney came up and said this is
not going to be like that. We told everybody to shove it. We created
our own society. The reason we called ourselves working class is
because we don’t want to be anything else. Being upper class is not
a rise in the system. It’s probably a downward step, if you
understand the meaning.
Harry Brown shining a new light on this problem?
Yes. It’s worked in some areas. For instance, The
called [the movie] “odious.” That’s a pity because the film is aimed
at you because you don’t seem to know it’s there. If you are reading
The London Times you’re probably educated, in some position
of authority, and you could get into power and do something about
this. And you are that stripe of society and the film is odious,
then you must take responsibility for the smell. You created the
cesspool it’s coming from. That’s why I was particularly upset – not
because of the review, I could care a poof what they said – because
we hadn’t gotten through to them. But we have gotten through to a
lot of other people.
with a lot of great filmmakers over the years. Daniel Barber is a
first-time feature director. What was he like to work with?
He had it. He did
a picture called “Tonto Woman.” It was a short movie and he got an
Oscar nomination for that. I saw that and thought this guy knows
exactly what he is doing. Then when we talked, he said to me about
Harry Brown, “This is a western, isn’t it?” (laughs) I
said, in a way, yeah. I noticed with him – and it came sort of to
fruition in the movie – I know he’s a movie director, but he has
incredible use of sound. He’s young and
he’s done lots of commercials. What I like about him was he knew all
the lens and things. He knew the stuff you could do rather than an
old-time director… no matter how great. This guy knew every
technology all over the shop. He’s got it in there. I think he’s
going to be a very big director – very big. He’s a wonderful young
We know that the upper classes will likely not do anything to end
the situation for the poor. Do you feel that seeing the film will
get the community itself to bond to end the violence?
think so. I think so. But the community itself will say, “We
know about that. Because that drug guy, those two drug guys, live
next door.” It’s aimed basically really at the middle
class and upper class who, of necessity, run the country.
Have you heard any response from the working class community about
reporter asked me “Have
you ever seen this film with the public?” I said
no. He said that
every time we shoot someone, they cheer. (laughs) So that’s
the response from the people at the Elephant and Castle!
Emily [Mortimer]’s character seemed really fragile, even from the
beginning. Are there really women like her in the Metropolitan
I thought it was a very courageous thing instead of going and
casting a great big butch girl who could throw you out a window to
put Emily in there. I remember I was walking in the area, just going
for a stroll round and looking, in between takes. There was a young
couple coming along. She was a very pretty young girl and they had
their arm round each other and when they got to me they went,
“Can we have
your autograph?” I said yes. And
they both went,
undercover police.” She looked just like Emily. Because
I had been a bit worried, I thought I’d have expected someone a bit
more – not lesbian but more butch, you know? As the Mayor of Los
Angeles said “with
more upper shoulder strength.” (laughs) He got
into trouble for that. But Emily is a wonderful actress, and she had
this very sensitive quality and a quite thin look – not a robust
girl. That was the thing. She mixed this icy policeman’s thing with
a tremendous tenderness for this old man who was crumbling before
her eyes. That’s what I thought was so wonderful about it. When
Daniel said [the role would be played by] Emily, who I’ve known
since she was born because her father John Mortimer’s a friend of
mine, I thought
I don’t know
if Emily’s a bit small for this. But she turned out very
big. I thought she was excellent.
Harry was very reluctant to discuss his military background. As
someone who has one as well…
Soldiers never do. Combat soldiers don’t. If you hear a guy shooting
his mouth off about combat and all that, he’s never been through
Is it hard to put that behind you?
wasn’t for me. The day I left the Army, I was… You know, I
specialized in cowardice and won several medals. (laughs) I
was like give me a pair of running shoes, some Nikes!
Did you do any weapons training for the film?
knew all that. I know these things. I’m reasonably trained. If you
gave me a really modern gun, I’d have to say,
safety?” But I really know weapons.
They don’t mention exactly what Harry did in the Marines. When you
were putting the character together did you envision him as a sniper
he wasn’t a sniper, because he was in the squad. When he describes
watching his friend die, a sniper wouldn’t be there. No, he would
just be an ordinary infantryman. But he wasn’t a soldier like me. He
was a real one. He was a Marine. They had to teach me that stab move
when the guy came out. The guy came from the Army and taught me how
to do that. I wouldn’t have learned that as an ordinary British
soldier. We just fired at anybody that moved and ran! (laughs)
The role was at times extremely challenging, like Harry watching the
video of his friend being killed. How do you as an actor walk into a
moment like that and make it believable?
way I do it is I am a Stanislavski actor. That doesn’t mean you
mumble and scratch your ass all the time. But I’m a Method
actor. The basis, there are a couple of things with Stanislavski –
the rehearsal is the work and the performance is the relaxation. The
other thing is sense memory. For instance, if I want to cry, I can
do it like that. I pick one thing from my memory that I remember and
I will go. I have never told anyone what it is. Even my wife doesn’t
know what it is. But I can cry, as you saw me doing in the movie, I
just did it straight like that. What you have to remember if you are
an actor… a male actor… is men do not cry. They will do anything but
cry. They stop themselves crying. And eventually they do cry if it’s
bad enough. So that’s how you know with a man how bad it is for
him. Because he would’ve stopped himself – because it’s “I’m very
butch and I don’t cry. That’s sissy, that’s feminine.” Men always
cry like that. They don’t cry and in the end they do. If they do
then it’s overwhelming. Which is what I did and then I blew the
whole thing out.
You mentioned Stanislavski, so you have taken acting classes?
never took any acting classes. Where I learned that, I went to Joan
Littlewood’s theatre workshop as an actor in plays. She taught
Stanislavski during rehearsal and taught me, in particular. She said
something rather telling for me. She was Communist and it was all
very Communist in group theatre and Russian and Stanislavski. She
eventually fired me and the reason she fired me – I had no idea what
she was talking about. She said, “This
is a group theatre, Michael. We will have none of this star nonsense
here. You’re fired.” I said, “But
I’m in the group. What am I doing? What am I doing?” She
know what you’re doing.” But I didn’t. That’s what she
said to me. She fired me. But before she fired me, I learned about
those things from Stanislavski.
You have been making movies for five decades now. How has Hollywood
changed for you, for better or worse?
Hollywood for me has stayed the same. Inasmuch as all the myths of
Hollywood, like I’ll give you some for instances. Like, you’re only
as good as your last picture. Your friends will dump you if you
fail. Blah, blah,
blah. It’s full of false friends. Don’t trust anyone. I have in
Hollywood a group of friends who I trust with my life. I’ve had for
forty years. Whether I’ve made a flop picture or a successful one
has not changed anything in the slightest about them. They are
completely sincere and would do anything for me. So I have the
highest regard for Hollywood. Also, I was writing my first
biography and I was so pro-Hollywood, I thought to myself – bloody
hell I sound like I’m kissing ass here! I’d better do something
negative about Hollywood. I sat there another while and I said “I
know what I’d do negative about Hollywood –
went to write about divorce and all my Hollywood friends had been
married to the same woman longer than I had. So I couldn’t write
about divorce. You know this is Billy Wilder, Gregory Peck, Frank
Sinatra, all these people. They’d all been married for years. Walter
Matthau, Jack Lemmon, any of them. All the executives. Lew
Wasserman. Anybody. They’d all been married to their wives longer
than I’d been married to mine. I was going to do Hollywood about
divorce. So I had to can it. So I’m very pro-Hollywood. It
be tough, but it’s only tough if you haven’t prepared
yourself. If you’ve never done an acting lesson and never done any
acting and you go to Hollywood and say,
“I’m going to
be a star!” – whether you are male or female, you’re
gonna have to sleep with someone on the way there. Take my word for
it! There’s also one Monday morning when some director is going to
say “Action” and you’re going to go “Oh
shit! What do I do now?”
HERE TO SEE WHAT MICHAEL CAINE HAD TO SAY TO US IN 2009
us Let us know what you