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 the age of 82 .
Michael Caine’s heavy-lidded gaze, his accent, his self-assured manner – all those elements of his persona have translated into a long and distinguished career. His new film, Youth, is further proof that Sir Michael Caine is still capable of delivering deeply affecting performances. The film sees Caine play a retired and dispirited conductor whom we find staying at a Swiss spa hotel together with his daughter (Rachel Weisz) and a film director friend (Harvey Keitel). Jane Fonda also co-stars as an ageing actress. Much of the story revolves around Caine’s characters musing on ageing and the passage of time, issues that the actor himself treats with rather more bemused disdain.
“I’m not really worried about ageing because you can’t do much about it,” Caine says. “I don’t mind playing elderly roles now because the alternative is playing dead people!”
Caine currently has three new films in the pipeline. He lives in London with his wife of 46 years, Shakira.
Sir Michael, what are your impressions of the kind of story being told in Youth?
CAINE: 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?
CAINE: No. It’s the only body I have and I’m not at all ashamed of it. No one expects you to look like Brad Pitt. 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 are conducting?
CAINE: 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?
CAINE: You say you’re going to retire because you think you’re not going to find good roles any more 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 any more! 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 any more, 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 have a favourite role or film that stands out for you?
CAINE: Alfie is probably the one. That film had the biggest impact; even though when I look back at the character he was a terrible womaniser. Alfie made me a star and I received my first Academy Award nomination for the role. That was the beginning of my career in Hollywood and everything opened up for me as an actor after that.
Educating Rita is another favourite of mine because I played a university professor, which is a character that is very different from who I am. But probably my favourite character is the one I played in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. That was the funniest film I’ve ever done.
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?
CAINE: 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 always enjoyed making those characters seem more interesting and appealing than the typical kind of hero.
In Youth, director Paolo Sorrentino is reflecting on many different themes relating to ageing. What is your perspective on getting older?
CAINE: 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.