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  • Interview: Michael Caine

    Fri, 17 Apr 2009 14:40:43

    Interview: Michael Caine - On losing his best friend to Alzheimer’s, how this experience informed his role, and working with a talented child actor

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    With over 100 film acting credits to his name, stately thespian Michael Caine is nothing if not prolific. His decades-long career has inspired today’s crop of working actors—often directly, with individuals like Jude Law and Mark Wahlberg taking contemporary stabs at roles that Caine immortalized on-screen (in Alfie and The Italian Job, respectively). The subject matter of his latest film, Is Anybody There?, is both personal and profound. Caine lost his best friend to Alzheimer’s—the same disease which his character, a former magician named Clarence, suffers from in the movie—not long ago. Having witnessed first-hand how the condition can wreak its debilitating effects upon one’s mind, he drew from the experience to play the curmudgeonly man, who strikes up a friendship with a young boy whose parents are running the convalescent home he is lodging at.

    Caine recently fielded questions about the film, his acting legacy, and the ambiguous future of his career, and ARTISTdirect was privileged enough to take part in the conversation.

    Did you just relish this role in the performance?

    Yeah, I loved it. I loved doing this. I fell in love with the script. David Hayman brought the script to me, and I was reading it and I got halfway through and I rang him and said, "I'll do it." He said "Did you like the script?" And I said, "I don't know I haven't finished it," and then he said, "Then why did you call me before you finished it?" I said, "because I was crying and I wanted something to do." It made me cry halfway through and no script had ever done that to me before. And I don't cry easily, believe me. I just thought it was a wonderful thing to do. It stretches me. When you've been an actor as long as I have, you're trying to get better and better and better. The only reason you go to work, really, is to improve yourself better than you were the last time.

    Did you have a say in who played the little boy?

    I didn't have a say in who played the little boy, but I did say to David, "If the little boy is no good, we're in trouble." The he brought Bill [Milner] in and he was fabulous. Bill wasn't from a stage school, he hadn't done any professional acting before, and he was from an amateur dramatic society, and most of all he didn't have a stage mom. He had a very nice, sweet woman as his mother. She wasn't peddling him. He was just a natural—just a very natural little boy.

    I'm not looking for my next script; someone will find me. If I don't do another movie, then there's no announcement.

    What are your thoughts about retiring?

    I feel like movies retire you. What you say is, "I'm going to retire." And then David comes and gives you this script, so you're not retiring. And then they [Hollywood] just did it again. I didn't work for 15 months after this picture. I just found a picture called Harry Brown in which I play the lead, which is unusual. Like in Batman [The Dark Knight], I'm not Batman. These things turn up and you just can't refuse them. I'm not looking for my next script; someone will find me. If I don't do another movie, then there's no announcement. I'll stay at home and cook.

    How difficult was it to learn the magic tricks for the film?

    Quite difficult. Especially when you're my age, you've got fingers that don't work as well. Billy got that one before I did. It's quite difficult to do. [Some illusions] are tricks and machinery and gadgets—things that are much easier.

    The writer of the script [Peter Harness] is in his early 30s. Did you offer any input into the script during the [shooting of the] movie?

    I didn't input anything, just my performance. He actually grew up as Billy, in a house for old people. He said, "Unfortunately a magician never came into my life to cheer me up." His mother and father owned the old people's house.

    He gave me insight into what people my age [go through]. My best friend just died of [Alzheimer’s]. I knew [the disease], had to spend five years [witnessing] it. I knew about Alzheimer's and the confusion stuff. I was very experienced. When you get older, you have friends like that. I just played a guy with emphysema. I had the technical knowledge from my friend with emphysema.

    Other reporters have been asking you what knowledge you instilled in the young actor, but what was it about the young actor that colored your performance?

    I [was aware of] the fact that [I was lucky] to work with this boy, who was so skilled and so natural. I just thank God every day that he was there. It can be so difficult working with children. I mean, on The Cider House Rules I worked with 150 of them. So I know how difficult some can be and how good he was. I learned I didn't have to do anything to help him. That was great.

    When you think about how Hollywood chooses to retire an actor, why do you think it hasn't retired you?

    I have no idea. You don't know when your time is up, so to speak. It just comes the time when the right scripts don't arrive. It might happen now. I don't have another picture to do. If a script doesn't come then I won't do anything and there won't be an announcement.

    —Heidi Atwal

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    Tags: John Crowley, Michael Caine, Bill Milner, Is Anybody There?

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