Movie Interviews
3:17 pm
Thu May 30, 2013

Michael Caine: 'I Spent My Life Doing Something That I Love'

Originally published on Fri May 31, 2013 8:28 am

Over the course of his career, Michael Caine has played big parts and small parts, all of them memorable. His films include everything from Alfie to The Man Who Would Be King, from The Cider House Rules to The Dark Knight.

"I've been very fortunate," Caine tells NPR's Robert Siegel, "because I spent my life doing something that I love doing so much, I used to do it for nothing. So you can't have a better life than that."

Caine turned 80 this year, and he's still working hard. This weekend, you can watch him, along with Morgan Freeman, in the crime thriller Now You See Me. And Caine doesn't have plans to slow down: "Occasionally a journalist will say, 'Why don't you retire?' Well, I say, 'You don't retire from the movies — the movies retire you.' One day the parts don't come, or the money's so small it's not worth getting up."

Caine tells Siegel about the class stereotypes of English accents, how he changed from "movie star" to "movie actor" and which of his movies he'd like to be known for.


Interview Highlights

On his shift away from being a movie star

"If you're a movie star, you get the girl, you lose the girl, and then you get her back. But if you're a character like me, you lose the girl, then you get another one, then you get another one, then you lose them all, then you lose your life. It's all very different. And it's fascinating for me.

" ... It's [being] a movie actor, as opposed to movie star. And I remember when it happened to me. A producer sent me a script, and I sent it back and said, 'The part's too small. I don't want to play it.' And he sent it back and said, 'I didn't want you to play the lover; I wanted you to play the father.' And I thought, oh my god. I rushed in the bathroom, had a look in the mirror, and there wasn't the lover looking at me: There was the father."

On how accents like his used to never be heard on BBC

"The BBC was so posh, on the radio they used to read the news in an evening suit ... in a bow tie and everything. ... They've improved out of all recognition. It's a completely different, whole different country and way of life now. I mean, there are still people who talk like that, but no one listens."

On the advantage of having a "working-class" accent

"If someone is very upper-class you have a stereotype of him which is probably true. If someone has a working-class accent, you have no idea who you're talking to."

On whether, as an actor, he was ever pressured to lose his accent

"No, but I was in repertory, which meant that I would do like 40 plays a year, one a week, so I was playing all different sorts of people. But I am what's called a Cockney, which is very, very working-class London.

"And a symbol of the class system in the '60s was, for me, my first big role in a movie which got me recognition was in a movie called Zulu, right? The director of the movie was an American, and I was up for the part of the Cockney corporal. But it had been cast by the time I got to the audition. And he said to me, 'Can you do any other accent except the one you've got?' And I said, 'I can do any accent you like.' And he cast me as a very upper-crust toffee-nosed English officer.

"I assure you, even if I said I could have done the accent, no British director would have cast me as an upper-crust officer. And I was a big success — it started me on the road to stardom."

On how, having been in the Army, he had to research for the role of an officer

"I went to the Grenadier Guards or something like that; I would go to lunch in their mess. But I did see and figure out the relationship of officers with each other, as opposed to the relationship of officers with me, which was usually of anger and denigration."

On which three of his films he'd like to be known for, if he had to choose

"I'd pick Dirty Rotten Scoundrels because it was the funniest. I'd pick Educating Rita because it was the farthest away from me — I'm playing a university professor. And I'd pick Alfie, which made me a star and got me my first Academy Award nomination.

"... Some people would have said The Man Who Would Be King and things like that, or Get Carter, Sleuth with Larry [Laurence] Olivier — I mean, there were a lot of them. But these were the three."

On his performance in Educating Rita

"... It was very funny ... I played an alcoholic professor of English — and I grew a beard and put on a fat stomach. And we were just doing the first shot in the grounds of the university and I saw a man coming along with a potbelly and a beard, and he was carrying a case of wine. And as he went by I said to him, 'Are you the English professor?' And he said, 'Yes.' And I said, I thought, by god, I've got it right."

On whether he's considered turning down smaller parts and supporting roles

"No. I think where that comes from is my background of repertory, where I did a play a week. One week I'd be the lord, the next week I'd be the butler. For me, the performance was always playing different people. And so when I got older, was no longer the romantic leading movie star, it became more and more interesting for me, the characters I played, you know?

"I won an Academy Award for The Cider House Rules, playing an American. It was fascinating — it still is fascinating for me. I'm about to do a sort of thriller with Ben Kingsley, and then I'm going to do a picture with Al Pacino where he plays an aging rock star who wants a last tour, and then I'm going to be a professor in Christopher Nolan's new film Interstellar. ... I'll be 95 before I get over all that.

"But you see what I'm saying — I'm not the lead in any of those films, but it's very, very interesting."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. If it's possible to say of an actor that he has done it all, then that actor is surely Michael Caine. From "Alfie" to "The Man Who Would Be King" from "The Cider House Rules" to "The Dark Knight," big parts, little parts, all memorable parts, the 80-year-old actor is still working constantly.

This weekend, you'll find him in theaters yet again, along with Morgan Freeman in "Now You See Me."

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "NOW YOU SEE ME")

MICHAEL CAINE: (As Arthur Tressler) Let me be blunt. My bank account is much, much bigger than yours and my lawyers are much stronger. And they will manacle you with so many injunctions until you stand by helplessly watching everything that you own drain away in front of your greedy little eyes.

MORGAN FREEMAN: (As Thaddeus Bradley) This isn't the first time I've been threatened.

CAINE: (As Arthur Tressler) It is, however, the first time you've been threatened by me.

SIEGEL: For Michael Caine, that part in "Now You See Me" is far from a starring role. And as he told me, he long ago made his peace with no longer being a movie star.

CAINE: If you're a movie star, you get the girl, you lose the girl, then you get her back. But if you're a character like me, you lose the girl, then you get another one, and then you get another one, then you lose them all, then you lose your life. It's all very different. And it's fascinating for me.

SIEGEL: I see. Well, you've gone from actor to movie star back to actor.

CAINE: Yeah, it's a movie actor, as opposed to movie star. And I remember when it happened to me. A producer sent me a script, and I sent it back and said, the part's too small. I don't want to play it. And he sent it back and said, I didn't want you to play the lover; I wanted you to play the father.

And I thought, oh, my god. I rushed in the bathroom, had a look in the mirror, and there wasn't the lover looking at me, there was the father.

SIEGEL: You know, in the early 1980s, I lived in London and worked for NPR out of the headquarters of the BBC external services at Bush House, listened to a lot of World Service and typically we'd hear no one on it who sounded remotely like you. That is, your accent would not have gotten one on the World Service.

CAINE: Oh, my god, no. The BBC was so posh, on the radio they used to read the news in an evening suit.

SIEGEL: Back in the '50s.

CAINE: Yeah, yeah. You had to read in a bow tie and everything, you know.

SIEGEL: Well, but, you know, when I listen to BBC nowadays, I actually hear lots of accents that would've been unacceptable back even in the '80s when I was there. Have things gotten a lot better in Britain?

CAINE: Oh, they've improved out of all recognition. It's a completely different country and way of life now, you know.

SIEGEL: When you were acting, were you under pressure to lose your accent?

CAINE: No. But I was in repertory, which meant that I would do like 40 plays a year, one a week, so I was playing all different sorts of people. But I am what's called a Cockney, which is very, very working-class London. And a symbol of the class system in the '60s was, for me, my first big role in a movie which got me recognition was in a movie called "Zulu," right?

The director of the movie was an American, and I was up for the part of the Cockney corporal. But it had been cast by the time I got to the audition. And he said to me, can you do any other accent except the one you've got? And I said, I can do any accent you'd like. And he cast me as a very upper-crust toffee-nosed English officer.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "ZULU")

CAINE: (As Lt. Gonville Bromhead) Jolly lucky for you, eh? I mean, otherwise, you would have been chopped with the rest of the column, wouldn't you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What's the date of your commission?

CAINE: (As Lt. Gonville Bromhead) Now, don't tell me. I suppose you have seniority. 1872.

I assure you, even if I said I could have done the accent, no British director would have cast me as an upper-crust officer. And I was a big success. It started me on the road to stardom.

SIEGEL: You've written about that because you'd been in army, you understood how upper-class officers would treat the men. You'd been a private. You didn't understand how the officers would deal with one another.

CAINE: Yeah. I went to the Grenadier Guards or something like that; I would go to lunch in their mess. But I did see and figure out the relationship of officers with each other, as opposed to the relationship of officers with me, which was usually of anger and denigration.

SIEGEL: Thinking back on all the many movies you've made, if there could only be three Michael Caine films that we would know you for, which three would you pick?

CAINE: I'd pick "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" because it was the funniest.

(SOUNDBITE FROM "DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS")

CAINE: (As Lawrence Jamieson) At last we meet, Officer Benson. After all those letters, I feel that I know you. I am here to help you, my boy.

STEVE MARTIN: (As Freddy Benson) Great.

CAINE: I'd pick "Educating Rita" because it was the farthest away from me.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "EDUCATING RITA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Doctor, are you drunk?

CAINE: (As Dr. Frank Bryant) Of course, I'm drunk. You don't really expect me to teach this when I'm sober.

And I'd pick "Alfie," which made me a star and got me my first Academy Award nomination.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "ALFIE")

CAINE: (As Alfie) Well, you're all settled in? Right. We can begin. My name is...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Alfie.

CAINE: (As Alfie) Alfie.

SIEGEL: I think a lot of people, including myself, would have assumed you'd say "Alfie" but are surprised by the other two.

CAINE: Yeah, well, some people would have said "The Man Who Would Be King" and things like that, or "Get Carter," "Sleuth" with Larry Olivier, you know. I mean, there were a lot of them. But these were the three because there was the funniest and to play - in "Educating Rita," I played a university professor, which for, you know, as a background I'm talking about, it's still a class thing in that, you know.

And I got nominated for an Academy Award for playing that, so I was very happy.

SIEGEL: And as with your first movie experience, your first big movie experience with "Zulu" when you went to see how officers acted with one another, did you go to university to see how university professors acted with one another?

CAINE: It was very funny because I grew a beard. I played an alcoholic professor of English and I grew a beard and put on a fat stomach. And we were just doing the first shot in the grounds of the university and I saw a man coming along with a potbelly and a beard, and he was carrying a case of wine.

And as he went by I said to him, are you the English professor? And he said, yes. And I said - I thought, by god, I've got it right.

SIEGEL: You know, we began with you talking about the transition from movie star to leading movie actor. Did you ever consider saying, you know, I won't take the smaller parts, I won't do the supporting roles?

CAINE: No. I think where that comes from is my background of repertory, where I did a play a week. One week I'd be the lord, the next week I'd be the butler. For me, the performance was always - playing different people. And so when I got older, was no longer the romantic leading movie star, it became more and more interesting for me, the characters I played, you know?

I won an Academy Award for "The Cider House Rules," playing an American. It was fascinating. It still is fascinating for me. I'm about to do a sort of thriller with Ben Kingsley, and then I'm going to do a picture with Al Pacino where he plays an aging rock star who wants a last tour, and then I'm going to be a professor in Christopher Nolan's new film "Interstellar."

SIEGEL: So you're booked up through the age of 95 here, basically.

CAINE: Yeah, yeah, I'll be 95 before I get over all that. Yeah. But you see what I'm saying. I'm not the lead in any of those films, but it's very, very interesting.

SIEGEL: Yeah, when you received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 2000, you very graciously acknowledged all the nominees and you told Tom Cruise how fortunate it was that he didn't win.

(SOUNDBITE FROM 2000 ACADEMY AWARDS)

CAINE: If you had won this, your price would have gone down so fast. Have you any idea what supporting actors get paid?

SIEGEL: In that same acceptance, you described yourself as a survivor. It sounds like you've done better than just survive all this time.

CAINE: Yeah. Occasionally a journalist will say, why don't you retire? And I say, you don't retire from the movies. The movies retire you. One day, the parts don't come or the parts don't come and the money's so small it's not worth getting up. So I've been very fortunate because I spent my life doing something that I love doing so much I used to do it for nothing. So you can't have a better life than that.

SIEGEL: Well, Michael Caine, thank you very much for talking with us today.

CAINE: Thank you for asking me.

SIEGEL: Michael Caine's latest film is called "Now You See Me." This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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