Feature Story by Brad Balfour
Whatever compelled Oscar-winner Sir Michael Caine to play 80-something retired magician Clarence in Is Anybody There?, it's fortunate that he did. The septuagenarian Brit takes even a simple, sentimental tale like this and, through his rich performance and nuanced turns, give us a real peek into a man whose life has been slipping away from him as he enters the twilight of his life. From his first raggedy appearance on screen, Clarence is transformed into someone much younger as he mentors a lonely 11-year-old boy Edward (Bill Milner) trapped in the makeshift nursing home that his house became when his parents started a business caring for a group of old people in the 1980s.
Clarence shows glimmers of his old self as he teaches Eddie some magic tricks and convinces to have a birthday party with kids he generally shies away from---he'd rather search for the ghost of the dead old folks rather than play with his peers. But inevitably it's too late and the ravages of Alzheimer's take control, bringing an end to Clarence and the film.
So Caine continues to turn out sterling work (as he should after working in more than 100 films) however one might feel about this quiet film. In delivering such a performance, he has also mentored in real life, giving a boost to the talented 14 year old Milner (who also did a remarkable job in his other film, Son of Rambow) and support to young directors like Crowley.
Certainly what career moves Caine makes now are for fun--and maybe a little money. He's done a slew of benchmarks, from early films like The Ipcress File, and Alfie, to Oscar winners like Hannah and Her Sisters and Cider House Rules. But it didn't hurt him in joining the latest incarnation of the Batman franchise as Bruce Wayne's butler and confidante, Alfred, in the recent two films, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
Q: Do you believe that there's an afterlife?
MC: I'm hoping there's an afterlife. As you get older, you hope even more fervently. But I am still far enough away to have a few doubts [though] I'm sure they will tighten up as you get closer [laughs]. I've noticed it with older people.
Q: Your wife claims to have the ability to see ghosts--is there a story that you have that she experienced that you can talk about?
MC: No, not really, because I don't discuss it. It's one of those things where she believes in ghosts and I don't and we never talk about it. We never talk about it. I'm sorry. We just don't talk about it. I hope she's right.
MC: Well, it'd be fun, wouldn't it? Something is better than nothing.
Q: You seem like someone who doesn't have the word "retire" in your vocabulary. How do you do it?
MC: I just enjoy what I do. You have to remember, when I started out I was an amateur actor, amateur meaning "to love." I like what I do and enjoy the process of filmmaking; provided this is the situation that I'm in--that I have complete and utter choice of where, what, why, when, how and with whom.
That's what happens to me now. I don't work for a living. I just work in order to improve myself as an actor which is what I've always done. I've never been competitive with other actors. I've been competitive with myself and I'm my own worst critic, a terrible critic I am, and unless I get something right, I feel very unhappy.
But with this picture I couldn't have done any better than I did. There are probably a dozen other actors who could've done it better than I did, but I couldn't have done it better. So I'm very happy about what I've done.
Q: What excited you about playing this angry senior citizen?
MC: The depth and range of it. You go through every emotion and so does the audience. If we do it right, we should make you roll with laughter at one point and cry your eyes out at the next. That to me is the epitome of an actor's job, to get the most extreme emotions out of you with the most reality. I love the relationship with the boy. It's sort of like a hill. I lead him up a hill into his childhood and he leads me down a hill to my death.
Q: Did you visit any nursing homes or want to spend any time in one for the role?
MC: No, I didn't. I knew all about them. My mother was in a nursing home, but not like that. My mother was in a very luxurious nursing home. But I did see a lot of people like that. People, when they get older, get infirm and do strange things.
The great thing about it was that I'd known all those actors for 50 years [who played the nursing home inhabitants] like Barbara Harris who was in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with me. I've known [actors] Leslie Phillips all my life, and Sylvia Syms [they play Reg and Lillian, two of the nursing home residents]. I was looking at them and didn't know what they had turned into when they had become old. Then, I saw it. They had become old just like everyone else and it was fascinating.
Q: Here you've got the challenge of working with a younger actor in Bill Milner. Did he give you a run for your money?
MC: Oh, boy, did he! Bill is a very wonderful, natural actor. He's never had theatrical training and so he didn't have to get rid of all those tricks for when you act in front of a camera like a stage actor. I was a stage actor for years. He's very professional and, of course, he has an incredible advantage over a lot of other child actors.
Bill doesn't have a theater or a stage mother. She's not acting out her failed fantasies through her son or daughter. She's a very, very nice, very, very educated woman who's quite surprised by his choice. I think that he was found in the school amateur dramatic society and not in a drama school.
Q: He reminds me of the talented Freddy Highmore, the young British actor who was in Neverland with Johnny Depp.
MC: Oh, yeah, I remember him. He's very self-possessed and so is Bill. Journalists ask if I gave him any advice and I said, "No. He didn't need any. He could do it."
Q: Did Bill give you any advice?
MC: Oh, yeah, he'd give me advice all the time [laughs]... He didn't [really] give me advice but we were very lucky because without a great little boy. of course, the picture was in the toilet.
Q: You've never had to worry about losing your career over the years, but your character is someone who did. How did you draw on those observations, not having experienced them?
MC: Well, I've known so many people like him in my life. I worked in repertory, and if you're an old character actor working in repertory, you were working for 10 pounds a week--and you're him. I've learned from dozens of those [people]. I like old actors, though. They're funny.
Q: To see you go from the sophisticate in Sleuth to this character... There are those little details that you pick up on, little mannerisms and looks. How do you make those choices?
MC: Well, they're just a guy. It's just observing people of that age. I mean, I'm nearly that age. I reckoned that he was about 84 or 85. I'm 76.
I've just done another part where I've played an older man called Harry Brown. The picture is about an old man who lives in the projects and becomes a vigilante when they kill his friend. What happens to me is that I keep getting made down instead of made up when I go into makeup in the morning. Instead of trying to make me look the best that I can, they tried to make me look the worst that I can.
So now I'm looking for a movie where I get made up and it's not Batman, because Batman is a bit of a ways away, but something else where I get made up.
Q: Do you ever get sentimental, looking back on your younger self in either film or photos?
MC: No. I never look back at all. All of my sentiment and emotion goes into my family. I'm an extremely family oriented person and I have a very, very happy family life. That doesn't just include blood relations. I have friends who are close to me.
But one of the things for [me with] this movie was that one of my closest friends had Alzheimer's while we were doing this film. So I knew exactly what it was because I had lived with Alzheimer's for five years. Though not like his closest friends or family, I knew the stages and what happened. In one case, it was a bit scary doing it, but I did know what I was doing on a daily basis.
Q: What are some of the films that have been most memorable for you in your long and distinguished career?
MC: Well, films are memorable for different reasons. Zulu, because it was my first speaking part where I had more than 10 lines. The Ipcress File was the first time I had my name above the title. Alfie opened a market for me in America. It goes right through to films like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, where I made a very funny film, a very happy film, and for that location they gave me a villa in the south of France for three months. I'm still waiting for another movie like that. I've never gotten it.
But the films that I loved making--the original Sleuth.... Well, I loved making the second Sleuth but we got slaughtered for that, but I still loved making it. And, [there's] The Quiet American, Little Voice, and Hannah and Her Sisters.
I loved working with Woody [Allen] and love New York, so I was very happy with that. I thought that Hannah and Her Sisters was Woody's warmest film with sort of Thanksgiving and everything. It was funny then because I would have a line of dialogue in the picture, I'd say, "Well, you know me, I'm not fond of kids and I don't like the country." Mia [Farrow] would always say, "He's right and he's saying that to me. It's personal to me." All these things, I kept saying lines to Mia and she'd say, "That's another one. You see?" It was very funny.
Q: In further reviewing your career, what are some of the things that you realize you accomplished in terms of craft, accents, or whatever?
MC: I managed to get to a stage where I imagine--and I've never taken drugs--if you take a drug of your choice, you get some ecstatic feeling. I have a situation now [that in [various] takes where I know I've absolutely nailed it. I know.
I think that's why I'm still doing it because that's the drug I need. The director says "Cut" and nobody even says, "Lets try it again." They say, "We're over here" and they just walk away because you can't do it again. That for me is what I've learned to do.
Q: How did you avoid drugs all your life and these years in this business?
MC: Well, they weren't there when I was young. It was alcohol. We were all drunks. All the British actors of my time were all bombed out of their minds. I remember seeing a Shakespeare play--I forget what it was--with Trevor Howard and a very old British actor who's a very famous drunk called Wilford Lawson. He was always pissed. I saw a matinee, and they came on--both were very drunk in this Shakespeare play. A member of the audience shouted out, "You're drunk." And Trevor Howard said, "If you think we're drunk, wait until you see The Duke of Buckingham."
Q: You've never been drunk and done a role?
MC: Oh, no, I never drink at work at all. Nothing. I'm very professional. I mean, I can drink. Well, I used to drink vodka like the lads and [go to] discos and piss [off] and all of that stuff, but I mean I'm very, very family oriented. I'm a big cook and a good connoisseur and I only drink very good red wines now.
Q: You've been married for so many years; how are you and your wife Shakira alike and different?
MC: My wife and I are alike in that we're both Pisces and we're both slightly off-the-wall and very gentle people. But we're at different ends of Pisces so she's very, very gentle and I'm the other end, into some serious [stuff]. I forget what it is, but I can be quite tough for a Pisces.
Q: You've said that you met her on a TV commercial.
MC: Well, I didn't meet her, but I saw her on the television, yeah.
Q: And you're still together after all those years.
MC: Yeah, 38 years together, which shows you that I was right, doesn't it? I've seen thousands of beautiful girls on television commercials. Why I went nuts over this one I don't know.
We never watched television in those days. But my best male friend and I, we just stayed in one night from the discos and getting bombed and all of that, and we just had a quiet night in. I cooked some dinner and then we watched the television--we were just going to have a quiet night, get some sleep.
Q: Of all the many actors you've worked with, who have you bonded with the most and stayed in touch with the most?
MC: Sean Connery. That's a bit of a cheat really, because Sean and I were friends anyway before we made the picture. Actors--movie actors--don't see each other again. I've worked with Roger Moore, too, and he's another one that I'm close to.
But even for those... I live in England. One lives in Switzerland and the other lives in the Bahamas. So I never see them. You never see each other. My circle of friends are not actors at all. None of them are actors, really, because they're are not available. They're always off somewhere.
One of my friends was my tailor, one of my best friends, who died of Alzheimer's. Dougie Hayward. Another close friend is Leslie Bricusse who's a composer. He's always where he wants to be and he lives near me in England. There's the photographer Terry O'Neil and a guy called Johnny Gold who had the big London discotheque, Tramp, in the '60s where I used to go and drink vodka.
So you bond with actors and get on with them very well, and then, you don't see them. If you're a leading actor you don't work with another actor. You work with a lady, if you see what I'm saying.
Q: How did you bond with James Bond, so to speak? Did you two meet outside of work?
MC: Oh, yeah.
Q: What was the connection that made you such good friends?
MC: Well, we always were. When I met him, Sean Connery was a chorus boy in South Pacific. What had happened was that [its producers] came to London to do South Pacific and had to have all these American sailors, big tough sailors, singing "There's Nothing Like a Dame." They did auditions with London chorus boys who were not really very butch. They had all these little, skinny guys, and it looked ridiculous when they sang "There's Nothing Like A Dame." So the producer went around to all the gymnasiums and Sean was like Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was Mr. Edinburgh. He was going for Mr. Great Britain and Mr. World. He was a big weightlifter, a great big guy. The opening night of South Pacific was a Thursday and I went to a party on the Saturday night and met him there. He was 24 and I was 22. That's where we met.
Q: What still excites you about the parts you do?
MC: The degree of difficulty and the people that I'm working with. For instance, I like to work with young directors, and I had seen the two films that John [Crowley] made [Intermission and Boy A].
I made another picture [recently], Harry Brown, and saw the one picture that the director Daniel Barber made. I think it was called The Tonto Woman. He got nominated for the [Best Live Action Short] Oscar in 2008 for it and now, this is his first feature. So I like to do that. I mean, even Christopher Nolan was a young director with only two small movies when we did Batman Begins.
Q: Is there a certain kind of fun when you do big tentpole movies like The Prestige or Batman?
MC: Oh, yeah, it's wonderful. I love doing those [kinds of films]. I love working with Christopher Nolan. I think he's a new David Lean, Christopher is. He's extraordinary.
I've seen everything he's ever done. I've worked with him on three pictures and I just think he's the most extraordinary director and has an incredible imagination. Remember, he writes these scripts.
Q: Having worked with him, what do you think about that business that went around about Christian Bale's temper?
MC: Well, I was surprised that Christian did it, because he doesn't have a temper. He's a very quiet man. I can't remember, and I will swear in conversation not in anger, but say things like "Bugger this" and so on. I don't even remember Christian swearing in conversation. So it was a big surprise to me. The fact that he did it is not a surprise to me. If I had been him, I would've done it and I would've done it longer and better than he did.
Q: You have a line in this movie that goes, "There are so many things that I'd like to say and do before the curtain comes down." What's your bucket list?
MC: Unlike [Clarence], I've been very successful. So I was allowed to say and do everything. I don't have any regrets because I'm very optimistic, and live each day as though it's the last. So I don't have any feelings that he would've had about life.
Q: And that's keeps you young and looking great?
MC: Well, I do a lot of exercise.
Q: Do you go to the gym?
MC: No, I'm a walker. I walk about five miles a day and I'm a gardener. If you're a gardener you don't need a gym, I'll tell you. You're always carrying large sacks of manure all over.