Caine and Able
As 'retired' actor Michael Caine's latest movie is released, the veteran performer talks to Steve Pratt about working with Kenneth Branagh and being "cuckolded" by Jude Law
The Northern Echo, 24 November 2007
Michael Caine is enjoying his "retirement".
He's made 12 pictures and won an Oscar since announcing he intended to stop working. "That's typical of me," says the actor born Maurice Micklewhite 74 years ago.
The Billingsgate fish porter's son has become a big fish himself in the movie pond, an award-winning actor equally successful on both sides of the Atlantic.
He once called himself "the original bourgeois nightmare - a cockney with intelligence and a million dollars", and yet displays none of the airs and graces you might expect from someone from humble beginnings who's made good.
How many other genuine movie stars would turn out early on a Sunday morning to promote their new movie? While co-star Jude Law was fighting shy of most of the Press, Caine and his director, Kenneth Branagh, are holding court in a London hotel.
Their subject is "Sleuth", the second screen version of Anthony Shaffer's stage thriller. Caine, having played the young lover in the first film 25 years ago, now switches roles to play the cuckolded husband, Andrew Wycke, in the new Harold Pinter-scripted picture. Law plays his love rival, as well as producing the film. It was he, of course, who took the Caine role in the remake of "Alfie" that was roundly, and rightly, trashed by critics and public.
It didn't do as badly as the remake of another Caine movie, the North-East set gangster drama, "Get Carter". After that, he said that only bad movies should be remade, making an exception for "Sleuth".
"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," he says.
"I would never have remade Tony Shaffer's script. But with Pinter's script, there isn't a single line from the original. For me, it's not 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, I thought was a mistake in the first place. I was even in the "Get Carter" remake because Sly Stallone was a friend of mine and said come and walk on for a day'. So I did it for a joke."
Branagh, most successful as a director with his Shakespeare films, says there's an implication there's a dearth of imagination by doing a remake of "Sleuth". He points out every production of "Hamlet" is a remake, and he's about to work on his fifth version, directing Law on stage in London.
Caine doesn't say whether he and Law talked about their Alfies, but pays tribute to his producing skills. "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. I'm a great admirer of him, right from "Mr Ripley".
"Ken's a very relaxed director, he doesn't seem like it with all that Shakespeare stuff. You can relax, so it's okay."
Branagh, too, praises Law's approach. "He was a hands-on producer so, for him, the most nerve-racking moment was when he had to take his producer's hat off and say I'm in this'. The moment of truth came a day or two into rehearsals. He'd seen him (Caine) acting and didn't want to give him a two-day start.
He was inspired by what your man here was doing."
Caine shares his character's love of gadgetry, always trying "to get the latest hi-definition this and that", he says. "I drive my wife nuts because there's always people coming in changing things.
There's a very good security system if you come into my house at any time I can give you a very nice colour digital photograph of yourself, day or night. That's a protective thing for my family."
The social niceties of life have changed since the first "Sleuth" when Laurence Olivier, who was Lord Olivier, wrote to him before filming began, saying "It occured to me that you might be wondering how to address me when we meet. Well, you must address me as Larry at all times".
Caine says: "That was lovely, but the fact that he felt it was necessary to write the letter says something about the times. 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 'p**s off'."
Caine gives the feeling of enjoying his hardearned fame and fortune. Since his "retirement" he's been even more content. His view of life is that you mustn't compete with your contemporaries or predecessors, you must compete with yourself.
"All I ever try to do is make a better film each time, since the period I retired 15 years ago I've only accepted scripts where I thought I could improve on things. 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 "Cider House Rules" to "The Quiet American" to this. Those ones, I think, each one is better than the last one."
He forgets to mention the next Batman movie, "The Dark Knight", in which he again plays butler to Christian Bale's caped crusader.
Branagh, who's not had an easy ride maintaining the momentum of his early theatre and film success, must be taking notes on how to do it. "I was so involved with the acting in this and my interest in performance is intense, but I do enjoy watching and seeing how people approach it in different ways," he says.
Michael is a creative actor, where the acting comes from the old cliche, being and behaviour, rather than laying something on. In rehearsal it was fascinating to see that stripped away, so it became more and more the essence of somebody. Watching both Michael and Jude didn't make me want to be acting in "Sleuth" but did get my acting juices going."
Few can beat the variety of Caine's screen roles.
He only does movies he can't refuse - and he's not talking about the money. Unlike Law, he never contemplated producing. "My thirties 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?'," he says. "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 six in the morning. I can't do that any more.
"The whole thing changed right over. Before, you were under contract to the studio and you got paid $100,000 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."