There are few more distinctive personalities in the film world than Michael Caine. The man is a living legend and despite occasional hints at retirement he shows no signs of giving up acting even at age 82. His heavy-lidded gaze, his accent, his self-assured manner — all those elements to his persona have translated into a long and distinguished career that include classic films like Get Carter, Alfie, The Man Who Would Be King, and The Cider House Rules.
His new film, Youth, directed by Oscar-winning Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), is yet further proof that Sir Michael Caine is still capable of delivering deeply affecting performances. Making its world premiere in the competition section of the Cannes Film Festival, the film sees Caine play a retired and dispirited conductor staying at a Swiss spa hotel with his daughter (Rachel Weisz) and a film director friend (Harvey Keitel). Jane Fonda also co-stars as an aging actress.
Much of the story revolves around Caine's character's musing on aging and the passage of time, issues that the actor himself treats with rather more bemused disdain.
"I'm not really worried about aging because you can't do much about it, although I've lost twenty pounds over the last few years," Caine says. "I'm taking better care of myself these days, I drink less, I eat healthier, and I want to stay reasonably fit for the sake of my three grandchildren. I live for them! And I don't mind playing elderly roles now because the alternative is playing dead people!"
Caine currently has three new films in the pipeline, including the sequel to Now You See Me, set for release in 2016. He lives in London with his wife of 46 years, Shakira. When asked about how he felt about having become famous for playing the womanizing title character in Alfie, Caine quipped: “It’s about this womanizer going around screwing everybody. I’ve been married for 46 years to the same woman. If I had to play Alfie again he wouldn’t be so virile."
Sir Michael, what are your impressions of the kind of story Paolo Sorrentino is trying to tell in Youth?
It's a very beautiful film. I love it. I wish I could keep finding stories like this because I think a lot of people young and old will find it very meaningful. At 82, I would have nothing against reliving my youth which, unfortunately, is impossible. So it was more realistic to play this older guy.
Did you mind appearing almost naked in the film?
No. It's the only body I have and I'm not at all ashamed. No one expects you to look like Brad Pitt. I just refused to make any Mr. Universe poses. So what you see is what you get. This is what happens to a body when you get older so young people should be prepared for what lies in store for them.
How did you prepare for the scene where you're conducting?
I was guided by a real conductor through an earpiece. At the end of one take, a violinist in the orchestra told me, "Frankly, Michael, you were better than the conductor we had last week!"
In recent years you've spoken about retiring. But this film and others that you have lined up suggest you have no intention of quitting acting.
You say you're going to retire because you think you're not going to find good roles anymore and then you get a director like a Paolo Sorrentino or others like Christopher Nolan who offer you great parts and then suddenly you're not retiring anymore! I've even been able to play leads in recent years like Harry Brown which I wasn't expecting because at my age you're usually playing the father of the lead or the elderly professor. As I've said many times, I don't get the girl anymore, I get the part.
But I'm not interested in just taking any role that comes my way. Youth was such a beautiful story that I couldn't refuse. I've also done Now You See Me 2 and I have a few more projects on the way. Otherwise I would rather stay at home cooking and gardening or visiting my grandchildren.
Do you worry at all anymore if good scripts don't come your way?
No. I've done enough work to last a lifetime. That's not a joke, even. You never know what's around the corner. And you never know when the parts are going to stop coming your way. But I'm going to stop making announcements about my retirement because no one believes them anyway anymore.
Do you have a favorite role or film that stands out for you?
Alfie is probably the one. That film had the biggest impact even though when I look back at the character he was a terrible womanizer. Alfie made me a star and I received my first Academy Award nomination for the role. That was really the beginning of my career in Hollywood and everything opened up for me as an actor because of that. Educating Rita is another favorite of mine because I played a university professor, which is a character that is very different from who I am. But probably my favorite character is the one I played in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. That was the funniest film I've ever done.
To what do you attribute your longevity in a business which can be very cruel to actors?
I've been willing to adapt as I've grown older. At one point you're no longer a movie star, you're an actor. One day a producer sent me a script and I told him I didn't want to do it because the role was too small. Then he told me that he wasn't offering me the part of the lover, he wanted me to play the father. That was the moment when I understood that I had to change my thinking about what types of roles I should expect to play. But I'm very grateful. I feel very fortunate to have lasted this long in the business, made some money doing it, and now I get to work for the pure joy of it. Although I still like to get paid!
You've played a lot of tough characters as well as criminals during your career. Do you find those characters more interesting than typical hero-types?
I never wanted to play saints. I've never been a saint in my own life, and they're usually pretty boring kinds of characters. I'd much rather play a criminal who's flawed and a rogue with a bit of charm. I've never played a criminal as a purely evil person. Criminals never see themselves as evil. I've always enjoyed making those kinds of characters seem more interesting and appealing than the typical kind of hero.
One of your most interesting and enduring collaborations as an actor has been that with Christopher Nolan with your work in the Batman films and last year's Interstellar.
Aside from being a brilliant director, Christopher Nolan is a genius writer who writes his own scripts. He also makes blockbusters but not with cardboard characters like you find in most blockbuster films. He writes real stories with good parts with good actors in it. Even with Interstellar, you almost feel that you could take the science aspects out and it would play like a straight drama.
Your voice is one of the most recognised voices in the history of the movies. Do you find it flattering that people love to imitate you?
It is very flattering but over the years my voice has gotten deeper and it feels weird to hear people imitate me with this higher-pitched voice from when I was younger.
In Youth, Paolo Sorrentino is reflecting on many different themes relating to aging. What is your perspective on getting older?
I'm trying to stay active and be more aware of taking care of my body. The more you move around and travel and keep doing the things you love the better off you're going to be. I feel like I want to make every day interesting and live as full a life as I can manage. Sometimes I worry when friends die or become ill and it makes me more aware of my mortality, but that just makes me more determined to stick around.