Honored this year at the Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival for his incredible volume of work over six decades, Michael Caine is remarkably down-to-earth as he reflects on lessons learned and how his plans to retire more than 20 years ago just never quite worked out. In addition to winning the KVIFF award for contribution to world cinema, Caine came to the Czech Republic to screen “Best Sellers,” director Lina Roessler’s feature debut, in which he plays a cantankerous writer – a character into whom he says he has real insight as the author of several books of his own, ranging from biography to fiction. Caine will also be seen soon as Lord Boresh in the Czech historic epic “Jan Zizka.”
As you thanked the crowd here on opening night at the Karlovy Vary festival, many noticed your voice hasn’t seemed to lose its tenor a bit over the years.
I was a stage actor when I was very young and of course in the theater you have to produce your voice. When I first started, the producer stopped it and said, ‘Michael, you’ve got to speak up. People at the back of the balcony have paid as well.’ When I was a young actor I got wonderful advice. When I was in repertory, I had to play a drunk. So I came on stage and I did my bit and the producer said, ‘Stop, Michael. What are you doing?’
And I said, ‘I’m drunk in this scene.’ He said, ‘I know you’re drunk in this scene. What are YOU doing? A drunk is a man who is trying to talk properly and walk straight. You’re an actor who is trying to talk badly and walk crooked.’ And that was the basis, basically, of movie acting. Truth.
In your most recent role as a temperamental writer, what did you want to bring to the screen for the role?
I’ve met so many writers – and I’ve played them all. Writers drink a lot because you’re on your own. I’ve written six books so I know.
Some with the help of a nip or two?
Oh, yeah. You’d get bored. I’m just sitting there on my own. You want some help, some stimulus. And it helps.
What roles do you think back on most fondly?
“The Man Who Would Be King,” “Alfie,” and a recent one, “Youth,” with Paolo Sorrentino. I won the German academy award for that, but it was completely ignored in the U.K. and America. I was waiting for reviews, a bit. Maybe I might get a nomination for something. Completely ignored. I have no idea why. A John Huston film as well, “The Man Who Would be King.” He was a great, great director. And I met him several times and I knew his children. There’s no one like John Huston and obviously there’s no one like Sean. We were friends forever.
How did your series of roles in the Batman franchise with Christopher Nolan first come about?
I have a country house and I was there on a Sunday and the doorbell rang and I was near it so I answered it. And there was a man standing there with a script in his hand and he said he was a director of movies. He said, “Can I come in?” And he said to me, “I want you to play the butler in ‘Batman.’” So I said, “The butler? What do I say, ‘Dinner is served?’” He said no, he was the godfather of Batman and it’s a much bigger part. That was the first thing I remembered about Christopher Nolan. And playing the movie was absolutely fantastic. The thing about Nolan is you don’t always know what’s going on in the scene, as an actor. And you ask him and he says, “I’ll tell you after you’ve done it.”
And this was another role that came along quite a bit after you had decided to retire?
It was such a wonderful thing for me because I had almost given up cinema. I had a flat in Miami and a restaurant there and I was very happy and I’d go to England in the summer. But it gave me a whole new outlook in life. And then I went on to win the Academy Award in “Cider House Rules” and it was amazing the things I did after I decided I didn’t want to do anything anymore. I thought, “It’s not in you to do these things anymore.” I was tired and old – I was 65. Jack Nicholson was living in Miami and he said, “I’ve got a script and I want us to do it together.” And I suddenly thought if I retired at 65 I would never have won an Academy Award, I would never have done a picture with Jack Nicholson, and would not have done all those movies with Christopher Nolan.
I’m in his movies now as a good luck charm. I was in “Dunkirk.” There was no part for me but I was the officer who answered all the airplanes and gave them instructions what to bomb.
And while retirement as an actor keeps evading you you’ve also taken on new challenges as an author, right?
I never did retire. I mean I’m 88 – people are not knocking at my door trying to give me a script. But occasionally there is a part. What I have done is, with all this time we’ve had off, I got bored this time and I thought I’ve never written fiction. And I thought I’d have a go at fiction. And I wrote, not literature, a thriller called “If You Don’t Want to Die.” And I’ve put it out to publishers but it’s early days. I loved writing fiction. It’s like writing a biography but you can tell all the lies.
Thrillers are certainly a genre you know well in your career. What is it that you bring to the roles you get that makes them so indelible in people’s minds?
I try to look for more depth in any character I play, including in this movie. I mean the guy was just an old drunk. But there was more to him than that. So I found it – I mean I hope I found it.
With more than a hundred film parts, what are some you turned down and why?
One hundred and fifty one. I didn’t want to do too many. I’d never turn down anything. I’ve got a list of films I don’t know about. I was a worker – I just wanted to work and work and work.
You didn’t worry any of the more thinly written ones might damage your reputation?
No, because I didn’t really know I had a reputation. I mean the first film of mine that went to America, “Alfie,” I got nominated for the Oscar. And I didn’t win so I thought, ‘Oh, the hell with that. I didn’t win – I’m not worried about that anymore. Then I got nominated six times and won twice. So I figured I was doing all right.
It was Shirley Maclaine that brought me to Hollywood after “Alfie.” And she said, “Take me to dinner.” So I said, “Sure, where’s the restaurant?” And she said, “Danny Kaye’s house. He has the best Chinese chef in California.” So I went there and there was a table for four and sitting at it was Cary Grant and Prince Philip. So I said this suits me.
How do two Oscars stack up against [your knighthood] in the big scheme of things? Which do you value more?
It was being knighted by the queen. Because you can only get one of them. When she knighted me she said to me, ‘I have the feeling you’ve been doing what you do for a very long time, Sir Michael.’ And that was the first time I was called Sir Michael. And I felt like saying, ‘So have you,’ but I thought I’d better not say that.