Michael Caine:

on his play­boy past and stay­ing sober

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

Michael Caine is a tall, erect, slim man, im­mac­u­late in a dark suit, dark shirt and ex­pen­sive black shoes, with mild, hooded eyes be­hind thin-rimmed glasses. He looks in good shape. He eats as if he in­tends to live for ever: gluten-free bread, no sugar, no salt. “I’ve lost pounds and pounds of weight. I’m a very health-type per­son.”

Michael has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing a lovely man – and a lovely man he is. Talk­ing of his wife of 44 years, Shakira, which he does of­ten and with pal­pa­ble ten­der­ness, he re­marks that she is one of the few peo­ple he has met who have no nasty side what­so­ever. “We’ve all got a bit of a nasty bit, es­pe­cially me. I have a tem­per. But I never lose it. I haven’t lost my tem­per in years – it’s too bad. I could kill some­one.”

But not today. The woman from the film com­pany who is man­ag­ing his sched­ule; the lady who is do­ing his groom­ing in prepa­ra­tion for a pho­to­graph; the wait­ress who brings over his toasted sand­wich – all are swept up in his aura of bon­homie.

At the age of 84, af­ter more than 130 films, Michael says he is now re­tired. “I don’t,” he points out, “have to work to pay the rent.” But act­ing is a habit he finds hard to break.

This month sees the re­lease of his lat­est film, Go­ing in Style, an

Amer­i­can heist com­edy, which co-stars Mor­gan Free­man and Alan Arkin. It’s a re­make of a 1979 hit and cen­tres on three old friends who find them­selves on hard times and un­able to pro­vide for their fam­i­lies. So they de­cide to plan a bank heist for one last ma­jor score.

It’s quite a de­par­ture from his most re­cent film, Youth, in which he played a re­tired com­poser and di­rec­tor re­flect­ing on his life while hol­i­day­ing at an alpine re­sort in the Swiss Alps. Michael struck a per­fect bal­ance

Shakira calmed me. She’s my right­hand man.

be­tween melan­cho­lia and sto­icism in the face of ad­vanc­ing years in Youth, and the ac­tor – who has twice won Best Sup­port­ing Ac­tor Os­cars (for Han­nah and Her Sis­ters and The

Cider House Rules) be­lieves it was the best per­for­mance of his ca­reer.

So how did he be­come in­volved in a geri­atric heist film?

“I think they [the pro­duc­ers] lied and phoned one of us and said they had the other two, when they hadn’t, and that’s how they got us all. It’s a com­mon trick. So when they tell you that, you think: ‘Oh blimey, I’ll do that.’ And then the oth­ers said the same thing too.

“Also, they do give you a script as well and I thought the script was funny. But what was more im­por­tant about the script was that it was touch­ing, which I liked.”

It also met the brief that Michael has for all his movies: co-stars he ad­mires, and an agree­able lo­ca­tion to which he can take Shakira. “I go nowhere with­out my wife. Nowhere.”

Michael first saw his wife in a 1971 cof­fee com­mer­cial and through a friend in the ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try he man­aged to track down the woman he con­sid­ered to be “the most beau­ti­ful… I had ever seen”. The pair mar­ried in Las Ve­gas two years later.

The ac­tor, who ad­mits he was a hard drink­ing, heavy smok­ing, stressed-out star when he met her, cred­its Shakira with trans­form­ing his life. “She calmed me down. She’s my right-hand man, my con­fi­dante. I tell her ev­ery­thing. I was fa­mous when I met her, but I couldn’t have got this far with­out her.”

Shakira has un­doubt­edly been a sta­bil­is­ing in­flu­ence, but as to whether Michael would have got to where he is today – at 84, still a sought-af­ter star – with­out her is de­bat­able. This is the per­son who, af­ter all, has over­come a stint in the Korean War, sur­vived a life-threat­en­ing brain in­fec­tion, and rose from a work­ing class up­bring­ing in The Great De­pres­sion to be­come the man who has brought us some of film’s most iconic per­for­mances.

Michael’s mother was a char­lady and his fa­ther a porter at a fish mar­ket, which meant that while the fam­ily was poor, they were never hun­gry. Michael says his fa­ther used to steal fish from the mar­ket all the time, so he grew up on the stuff. “By the time I was 15 I never wanted to see fish again. I still don’t eat a lot of it.”

His early child­hood was spent in a flat in Cam­ber­well, south London, un­til the fam­ily was bombed out dur­ing the Blitz. They re­lo­cated to a prefab at the Ele­phant and Cas­tle, a nearby road junc­tion. He re­mem­bers many years ago go­ing back to look around and bump­ing into Char­lie Chaplin, who grew up in the same neigh­bour­hood, do­ing the same thing.

You do not need to go long in a con­ver­sa­tion with Michael be­fore the ques­tion of his work­ing-class up­bring­ing – the ques­tion of class in gen­eral – raises its head, in all its mix­ture of pride, sen­ti­men­tal­ity and just the faintest hint of bel­liger­ence.

What sep­a­rated him from his mates on the street, he says, was in­tel­li­gence; a love of books, in­cul­cated by Mr Wat­son, his English teacher at Wil­son’s Gram­mar School in Cam­ber­well, who got him read­ing Ki­pling and Thomas Hardy at the age of 12; and the happy ac­ci­dent of look­ing in one day at a drama class at his local youth club and notic­ing it was full of girls. “I was about 14 and I thought, ‘I’d like to kiss a beau­ti­ful girl, and I’ve had no luck per­son­ally, so if I join up I’ll be in a play and we’ll have a love scene and

I’ll get to kiss her.’”

Michael says he did not be­come an ac­tor to be­come rich and fa­mous or a movie star – “be­cause, ob­vi­ously that was ridicu­lous and out of the ques­tion for some­one like me. I be­came an ac­tor

be­cause I loved it, with the hope of scrap­ing a liv­ing and not work­ing in a fac­tory – which I would have done.”

The joke about Michael is that when the Queen knighted him in 2001 she man­aged to knock the chip off his shoul­der. But a lit­tle bit has al­ways re­mained. At one point in the con­ver­sa­tion, he brings up a re­view of The Quiet Amer­i­can, where the critic said Michael was “mis­cast” in the role of a re­porter for The Times (based on the book’s au­thor Gra­ham Greene). “And you go, wait a minute... I didn’t have a cock­ney ac­cent; I spoke quite in­tel­li­gently. I’m not the hunch­back of Notre Dame; I’m not a midget; I’m not nine feet tall and look silly. What’s so spe­cial about a Times re­porter that I was un­able to por­tray him?

“But what he was say­ing was... Who does he think he is? It worked out that I got nom­i­nated for an Os­car for it, so I must have got some­thing right.”

His first ma­jor film role was in Zulu (1964), in which he was cast as an up­per-class of­fi­cer. He in­sists he only got the job be­cause the di­rec­tor, Cy End­field, was Amer­i­can. “I swear to you, no English di­rec­tor, even if he’d been a com­mu­nist, would have cast me as an of­fi­cer – not one.”

But it was play­ing the part of an un­re­con­structed cock­ney in Al­fie, in 1966, that made Michael an in­ter­na­tional star. To view it now is a re­minder of how gifted an ac­tor the young Michael Caine was; the emo­tional depth he brings to the role.

Watch­ing it, I tell him, I was struck by a cu­ri­ous thing: Al­fie’s pos­ture. When he is seen walk­ing, his arms are by his side, not swing­ing; it is a de­tail, so sub­tle you might miss it, that seems to re­in­force his sense of con­tain­ment, of bot­tled emo­tions.

Michael nods. “The ba­sic thing in act­ing is you don’t make the ges­ture un­til you mean it – and don’t fid­get. I only do what peo­ple do. I never went to a drama school; my act­ing lessons were watch­ing peo­ple on the Tube and on buses. It’s body lan­guage.”>>

“Pow­er­ful peo­ple never make ges­tures, be­cause they don’t have to at­tract your at­ten­tion – they’ve al­ready got it. I’m stand­ing there talk­ing to Her Majesty the Queen – she didn’t have to make a bloody ges­ture to get your at­ten­tion. And they speak slower be­cause you’re not go­ing to stop lis­ten­ing. The lower and the poorer peo­ple are, the faster they speak, be­cause no one lis­tens.

“In Zulu, be­cause I was play­ing an of­fi­cer, I copied Prince Philip, walk­ing with my hands be­hind my back. And when Para­mount saw the first rushes they sent a tele­gram say­ing, ‘Fire ac­tor play­ing Brom­head – doesn’t know what to do with hands.’”

Caine was part of an emerg­ing gen­er­a­tion of work­ing-class ac­tors – Tom Courtenay, Ter­ence Stamp, Al­bert Fin­ney – all ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the seis­mic cul­tural change that gripped Bri­tain in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was al­ready 31 when he acted in Zulu, and had spent the best part of 10 years work­ing in reper­tory, with the oc­ca­sional walk-on part in a film.

For years he would turn up reg­u­larly at a café in the West End where all the out-of-work ac­tors would gather, around the cor­ner from a cast­ing agency where you could pick up a day’s film work for be­tween 12 and 15 guineas a day – enough “to pay the rent, have a drink, get pissed and buy din­ner”. He quickly be­came a quin­tes­sen­tial 1960s fig­ure, hang­ing out with the cool crowd of film and mu­sic. But it was Zulu that made him a phe­nom­e­non.

We all know what Michael Caine sounds like – Bog­art aside, there is prob­a­bly no more im­i­tated ac­tor in his­tory. In per­son, the cock­ney ac­cent is more rounded, soft­ened by the years, with the faintest midAt­lantic in­flec­tion, picked up in his time liv­ing in Hol­ly­wood. Yet talk­ing of the 1960s, the ac­cent, the ver­nac­u­lar – “booze, birds, dis­cos” – cu­ri­ously re­asserts it­self, as if he is trans­ported back there, un­var­nished.

This was the thing, he goes on: “Ev­ery­body I met in the 1960s be­came fa­mous.” His clos­est friends dur­ing this pe­riod were the night­clubown­ers Johnny Gold and Os­car Ler­man, the pho­tog­ra­pher Terry O’Neill, and the tai­lor Doug Hay­ward. Roger Moore was the one ac­tor who was a close friend. “We be­came a very tight-knit group of 12 or 14. Some of us died. My agent died, my press agent died, Os­car died.” He thinks on this. “There are very few of us left now, about six out of 14.”

His friend­ship with Ter­ence Stamp ended with the decade. Ter­ence be­came a veg­e­tar­ian and later went to In­dia, where he be­came a dis­ci­ple of the guru Ra­jneesh. “There was noth­ing in com­mon any longer. There wasn’t a row or any­thing; he wanted a dif­fer­ent world and dif­fer­ent friends and he went off and got them.” He shrugs.

Michael him­self was quite ca­pa­ble, as he puts it, of “putting the vodka away. But I was never, ever pissed in any cir­cum­stance of em­ploy­ment. I’ve al­ways been a com­plete and ut­ter pro­fes­sional.” He cut back on drink­ing when he mar­ried Shakira in 1973.

“She didn’t say, ‘You’ve got to stop drink­ing,’ but be­ing with her made me want to stay sober and be alive.” He laughs. “And of course she was very

I thank God. He took care of me and I sur­vived.

anx­ious for me to stay alive.” He now only drinks wine with din­ner.

But he was never go­ing to go off the rails. He points to two ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing his na­tional ser­vice that he sug­gests were the mak­ing of him. The first was in Korea, when he found him­self in com­bat for the first time. “I was pos­i­tive I was go­ing to die and I tested my­self for cow­ardice, be­cause you never know if you’re go­ing to run away when the en­emy comes. And I didn’t. I was okay. I didn’t run.”

The sec­ond was when he re­turned from Korea, hav­ing con­tracted cere­bral malaria. “Me and my pla­toon guys all had it. When we got home a man called Colonel Solomons from the Amer­i­can army came from New York, and he was so pleased be­cause he could use us as an ex­per­i­ment.” He laughs. “They strapped us to a bed for 11 days, with calm­ing in­jec­tions so we wouldn’t go nuts. I nearly died.

“So with that and Korea, I wasn’t about to start drink­ing my­self to death, be­cause I had sur­vived. Do you un­der­stand what I’m say­ing? It was the same with dope – I never did any drugs. I was never self-de­struc­tive, be­cause other peo­ple had tried to de­stroy me. I thank God. He took care of me and I sur­vived.”

He re­mem­bers as a child, dur­ing the war, be­ing evac­u­ated to Nor­folk, where two peo­ple took an in­ter­est in him. One was the head­mistress of the local pri­mary school, who took him un­der her wing, gave him pri­vate lessons and taught him how to play poker

(“I was eight…”).

The other was Mr English, a wealthy tim­ber mer­chant who owned the local manor house, and for whom Michael’s mother worked for a while as a cook. Mr English would in­vite him up­stairs from the kitchen and talk about what he wanted to do with his life – he of­fered to pay for a schol­ar­ship for Michael’s school­ing – but what stuck in Michael’s mind was the splen­dour of the house. “That made a tremen­dous im­pres­sion on me. That’s what I wanted.”

He was al­ways very Amer­i­can in his at­ti­tude to wealth, he says. “In Amer­ica, if a man sees some­one in a Rolls-Royce, he says, ‘I’ll get one of those.’ In Eng­land, we say, ‘We’ll get him out of there and burn that bloody thing as soon as we can.’” No sur­prise, per­haps, that a Rolls was the first car he bought, in 1964, af­ter his first big pay­day for The Ipcress File. “And I couldn’t even drive.” (These days he spends a lot of time with his driver, “be­cause I don’t drive any more”.)

When you’ve had noth­ing and you get some­thing, I sug­gest, it takes a long time to get past the fear that you might lose it again. “Oh yeah. For a long time it was like that. But once I started to work prop­erly my mo­ti­va­tion was just to be the best ac­tor I could pos­si­bly be.

“As I’ve gone through life I’ve had no sense of com­pe­ti­tion with other ac­tors. My com­pe­ti­tion has al­ways been me. How am I go­ing to get this bet­ter? How am I go­ing to find a part that stretches me?”

And, at 84, he is far from done. There’s no doubt he could have af­forded to re­tire decades ago, so why does he still bother? “The movies re­tire you, you don’t re­tire from the movies.”

LEFT, FROM TOP: Michael in the 1964 movie Zulu, his first ma­jor film role. With Julie Wal­ters in Ed­u­cat­ing Rita (1983). A scene from The Cider House Rules (1999). In 2015 he starred in Youth.

RIGHT: Sir Michael and Lady Shakira Caine at an event in London last Septem­ber. Af­ter 44 years of mar­riage the cou­ple are still de­voted to each other.

BE­LOW LEFT: Michael’s earn­ings from The Ipcress File en­abled him to buy a Roll­sRoyce as his first car, even though he couldn’t drive at the time. BE­LOW RIGHT: Michael and Shakira on their wed­ding day in Jan­uary 1973.

ABOVE: The film Go­ing in Style, which stars Michael, Mor­gan Free­man and Alan Arkin, will be in New Zealand cine­mas this month. BE­LOW: The ac­tor with his Os­car for The Cider House Rules and with Shakira af­ter re­ceiv­ing a knight­hood in 2000.

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