by Erika Hernandez
LEFT: Michael Caine stars as a Nazi collaborator on the run fifty years after World War Two in The Statement.
ome writers will not admit it. I will. The most superficial thoughts creep into your head at the start of a press junket. I am roaming the hallways of the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, looking for The Statement hospitality suite. I find it, and enter its doors. I give my name and credentials. I am ushered in and offered coffee. While I peruse my notes, a smile forces the corners of my mouth to stretch. Right on time, it arrives. Profanely shallow thought #1—I am wearing suede trousers, and am about to interview a Knight. Sure, my blazer covers the top quarter of them, but they are suede all the same. Profanely shallow thought #2 immediately follows, as I squint—Why is a price tag attached to that journalist's sweater? I mention it to her subtly, and we detach it. She is very embarrassed, and I am empathetic. This interaction snaps me back into professional persona. I return to my notes and wait calmly for Sir Michael Caine.
Born in London as Maurice Micklewhite, Caine grew up in poverty-ridden conditions. One would think that he acted his way out of his predicament via a scholarship to a school of the arts. Not so. He quit school at age fifteen and, well, lived. He worked a string of blue-collar jobs and joined the British Army, serving battle time in Korea. Always harboring a fondness for acting, he did some television work, and later changed his name to Michael Caine, after the 1954 Edward Dmytryk film The Caine Mutiny . His first big acting break arrived when he served as the understudy to Peter O'Toole and later starred in the play, The Long and the Short and the Tall. His performance attracted both critical and commercial interest, and in 1964, Caine assumed the aristocratic role of Lt. Gonville Bromhead in the cinematic epic, Zulu.
In the year 2000 (over eighty films later), the “Sir” was bestowed upon the actor by Queen Elizabeth II. It is a title worn well. Meaning, he does not wear it at all. Caine does not project a scintilla of ostentation; rather, he enters the room almost singing, “Helloooooooo…!” Without a beat, he does a little dance with his arms extended toward us, not unlike a kid about to enter a turning jump rope. I have never seen this trait before in anyone but my grandfather, and am delighted to see it in Caine. It can only be described as profound jocularity.
Considering his unremitting body of work, Caine's in-person accessibility is not surprising. He has earned two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor. The first of these was for Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Caine played Elliot, a conflicted and neurotic financial advisor who falls in love with his wife's sister—“For all my education, accomplishments, and so called wisdom, I can't fathom my own heart.” He got his second Oscar for his portrayal of Dr. Wilbur Larch, an aging physician who runs a rural Maine orphanage in The Cider House Rules (1999)—“ Good night, you princes of Maine, you Kings of New England.” He was also honored with a New York Film Critic's Best Actor Award (for Alfie), a Golden Globe Best Performance by an Actor in a Comedy/Musical (for Little Voice) , a British Academy Award (for Educating Rita), and has six Academy Award nominations to his credit (for performances in Alfie, Sleuth, Educating Rita, The Quiet American, and his two Oscar wins).
Michael Caine as Pierre Brossard, an octagenarian fugitive, in The Statement.
On the other hand, Caine has committed himself to projects such as Jaws: The Revenge, Muppets Christmas Carol, On Deadly Ground, Miss Congeniality, and Austin Powers in Goldmember. Like Christopher Walken, Caine's sometimes paradoxical choices remind us that acting can indeed have two functions—Craft/Art and Play/Fun. The role Caine is here to discuss serves the former.
In The Statement, Caine plays Pierre Brossard, an ex-soldier who in 1944 ordered the murder of seven Jews in Nazi-occupied France. Although Brossard has evaded trial for this war crime and lived in anonymity aided by a radical sect of the Catholic Church, he soon learns that he (now around 80 years old) is being hunted to the death. It would seem that this is an ideal role for this Classically-trained actor. Brossard is nothing like Caine. He is spineless, able to shift entire belief systems on a dime, and like a rat, will do anything to survive. Like an Id, Brossard is plagued more by the impending consequences of his actions than the actions themselves. Indeed, the only thing the actor and character may have in common is that they are both male and European.
After his playful entrance at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, Caine sits down among a roundtable of writers to promote the Norman Jewison film and discuss the professional, personal, and political implications of portraying someone whom he deems “the worst guy I've ever played.” He also talks with equal enthusiasm about his upcoming smaller role in Around the Bend—in which “almost immediately,” Caine's character perishes in a Kentucky Fried Chicken, wearing a tuxedo. Told you he wears his title well.
[Read the AboutFilm review of The Statement]
[Read the AboutFilm profile and interview with Norman Jewison]
Question: What's your take on this character?
Caine: Oh, I'm the worst guy I've ever played. I've never disliked anybody so much as I dislike Brossard. And it's the reason I did it, because I keep testing myself to see what I can do to make it harder for myself , because I've been acting a long time, and I can play a Cockney gangster or a womanizer in my sleep or standing on my head. But what I try to do is I try to find characters that are as far away from me as I possibly can and then make them real. A French Nazi is about as far away from me as I can possibly get without actually going to Mars or something.
Question: What about the accent [it is British, and his character is French]?
Caine: The basic thing was if you're in France, and everybody's French, they all speak French, they all speak the same language, and they all understand each other. There was one point where Norman Jewison, the director, said to me, “I've got a French actress for this part.” I said, “Norman, we can't use a French person. Otherwise, we're all going to sound like we're English. [Adopting a French accent] Or we have to talk like “zat,” and I will turn out like “Clouseau the terrorist.”
Question: Did you have pity for this guy?
Caine: I have met racists and Nazis myself, and I always [had] the idea that I'd like to hit them or smash their face in or do something. And, if you talk to them for a while, you come up with what I put into [Brossard]. I felt very sad and found him pathetic. You go in fuming about Nazis, and you come out almost in tears and sadness that anyone should waste their life like that. Because it's not even anti-Semitism. They hate the nearest thing.
Question: I think he was an ass all the way around, and they proved that with the dog abuse. There's no respect for life.
Caine: No, none at all. I was very worried. I have a knack of making villainous people a little bit sympathetic, a bit of fun on screen. [With Brossard], I knew what I wanted to do, but by the end of the day I suffered selective amnesia. I couldn't remember what I'd done. I wiped him from my memory.
It was quite strange because I'd never gone to the cinema before and seen myself on screen where I didn't know what was coming. What I saw was more or less what I set out to do—which was to disappear. You don't sit there going, “Oh, isn't Michael Caine a marvelous actor? Isn't that a wonderful performance?” You just sit there watching Brossard. That to me is what my idea of film acting should be. There shouldn't be any acting. You should just be watching a real person.
Question: Did you ad lib a lot from the script?
Caine: No. Brian Moore, who wrote the book, is a very, very—well, he's dead now—was a very, very devout Catholic. The reason these books were always critical of the Catholic Church is because he saw himself as the conscience of the Catholic Church. Every time they went wrong, he got ticked off because it was his religion that he loved so much, so anyone who made a mistake got it. And the ones who—there weren't very many—but the ones who supported the Nazis in this one, got it.
Question: Would you compare the terrorists we have now in Iraq and Iran to Nazis?
Caine: That's a different thing altogether in my opinion. It's a mixture of discontent with their lot of what is happening to them, and also you have a sect whose job it is to make the entire world Muslim. I don't know whether you understand that. My wife is a Muslim. My own religious background, we've got Jews and Catholics and Muslims. My father was Catholic, my mother was a Protestant, so I became Protestant because she had the upper hand. I was educated by Jews in a Jewish school because of accident of geography and the War. I had to go to the local London school, which was Jewish. And I'm married to a Muslim. There are certain sects of Islamic fundamentalists who are quite open in England. We have a lot of Muslims—I'm married to one; I know.
Question: [Pierre Brossard's wife] hates him, then they sleep together, he has a bad dream, and she holds him tenderly. What was all that about?
Caine: That was just the way relationships work. My mind is that I think she hadn't had sex for a long time and we went back and had it. But we didn't want a sex scene between two old doffers like us.
Question: Was Jewison already a part of this when you signed on?
Caine: He brought it to me. I hadn't read the book, even. But Norman and I had been friends for years, and we always wanted to make a picture together. He finally said, “I've got one.” He said, “It's difficult,” but I was at a stage in my career where I was looking for difficulty. I was like an old skater in the Olympics, you know, degree of difficulty. And I was willing to do some twists and turns. So that's how that came about.
Question: Why were you looking for difficulty?
Caine: To keep it interesting for me. To make myself the best . I only ever set out to become the best possible film actor I could become, and I'm still doing that. Otherwise, I might as well sit at home. I do fun pictures. The next picture I do will be—I'm Batman's guardian and butler [in Batman 5]. So I do fun pictures in between. I'm Austin Powers' father. I'm Sandra Bullock's trainer [in Miss Congeniality].
Question: How does Norman Jewison work?
Caine: He works it all out from his own point of view of photography and everything. With actors, he is extremely sympathetic. Tremendous explanations about everything you should note and hit, the points that you should hit, and what we're looking for in this, right down to, “Do you see that word, ‘God'? Don't hit it. We know it's about God. Let the people figure it out for themselves.” He'll say things. Not that that conversation ever took place, but I was just trying to point something out to you.
Michael Caine and Charlotte Rampling in The Statement.
AboutFilm Question: Can you talk about Pierre Brossard's character with respect to the first scene between him and his wife?
Caine: I was very pleased when that scene came up because it started to reveal stuff that was difficult for me to do because I'm always on my own, and I was very lucky to have Charlotte Rampling doing it, who was wonderful.
AboutFilm Question: Before that exchange, all the viewer sees of Brossard are scenes in which he is merely defending himself. This makes us almost root for him. Are we rooting for an evil protagonist?
Caine: Yeah, if you put someone on screen long enough, they become the hero. Two women, one in Toronto and one in New York, interviewers, said to me, “I am Jewish, and I felt rather strange because I basically started to feel sorry for this guy.” They both said the same thing. I said, “Why do you think that is?” And they both said, “I'm Jewish. He's a fugitive.” So that's what they had in common. Here's a lone, single man being chased by policemen. Jews know about that, even if he is a Nazi.
Question: How did you prepare to play someone so opposite from Michael Caine?
Caine: Oh, I knew what I was going to do all the time. I came prepared. I read this book, obviously, and I read the book on Touvier who Brian Moore based it on, he was a real man. I was twelve when the war ended, so I knew all about this. It just happened I'm one of those people who investigated the World War in books and newsreels after the war as an education for myself.
Question: The new Batman movie being made by Christopher Nolan is English. Was there much appeal in doing something close to home?
Caine: Yeah, yeah. [Batman 5] is being made in England. It's also being made quite differently. I had a long conversation with Christopher Nolan before I accepted the part. I only knew him from Memento. I didn't know him personally. But funnily enough he lived near me, so he came around the house, we had a long chat and cups of tea and stuff, and he explained to me what he was going to do, what his outlook on Batman was and why he wanted me on it. The short answer is that he wants it to be more natural. I remember the phrase he said to me, I said, “Will he be very powerful and strong?” And he said, “Yes, he is Michael, not because of Kryptonite. It's because he does push-ups.”
Question: Tell us about Around the Bend.
Caine: I start shooting on Saturday. They offered me a part with Christopher Walken who's a friend of mine, as the old grandfather—it's very, very funny. It's called Around the Bend , and the picture is around the bend. It's nuts. It's by a first-time writer and director called Jordan Robbins. My son is Christopher Walken, my grandson is Josh Lucas, a six-year-old boy is my great-grandson, and I'm in the first twenty pages of the movie. I die almost immediately. I die in Kentucky Fried Chicken in Albuquerque. I've taken my family there to celebrate in a tuxedo.
Question: Does it take more now for you to sign on to a picture? You have a reputation of doing films for the money in the past.
Caine: That was about thirty years ago. I have enough money not to do pictures ever. I'm seventy years old. I don't want to get up at 6:30 in the morning and learn ten pages of dialogue to do with a bunch of creeps I don't like. It's gotta be fun for me. I did The Quiet American, and then I did Miss Congeniality. I did Cider House Rules, and then I was Austin Powers' dad.
Question: How did you become Austin Powers' dad?
Caine: It's because I knew that Mike [Myers] had based Austin Powers on my Harry Palmer character [seen in 1960s films such as Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain ] who was a spy with glasses and a Cockney accent. And I said to him, “Where did you get those rotten teeth, because I haven't got rotten teeth.” He said, “Well, I added those.” But he sent me what he described on television as the most groveling letter he's ever written, and he did, it was really groveling. He begged me to do it, threw money at me, so I went and did it. It was fun, and it was great. We had a great time. The same thing with Batman 5. It was so nice to be into something like that. It has a $135 million budget. I mean, I'm usually going around with these guys who are like, “Can you share the car?”
Question: Can you speculate on the French reaction to The Statement?
Caine: I think half of them will react well, and the other half won't. The right-wingers won't like it very much, but the people in the right-wing know that we're not revealing some great information to them or the French. What we're just saying is we were surprised. Everybody expected the French to be anti-Nazi. The surprise was that some of them weren't. If you make a film like this, you make it not as, “You're making an anti-French film.” No. “You're making an anti-Catholic film.” No. We're making a film about the surprise of things.
Question: Where were you as a kid in 1944?
Caine: I was eleven in 1944. I was evacuated, and I just got a scholarship. I was in the country having been evacuated by the Brits many times, and, funnily enough, I was in a Jewish school. Because I won a London scholarship, and I had to go to the nearest evacuated London school, which was the Hackney Downs Grammar School. I didn't know it, but I was there with Harold Pinter. That's what I was doing then when the war ended. It ended a year later.
Question: Were you familiar with [screenwriter] Ron Harwood when you took this on?
Caine: I've known Ron for years. Ron used to be an actor. He got an Academy Award for The Pianist. But he wrote The Dresser. But that was based on his own experience.
Question: Compare the level of enjoyment between carrying a film and sharing the screen with Robert Duvall [in Secondhand Lions].
Caine: I love those movies, because, for instance, I worked with Bobby Duvall, and we in real life are like brothers. I love Bobby. So for me, [it was] a joy to do. I love working with other actors. I'm going to do the real test of the two working together because I'm going to remake—everyone else is remaking my films, I thought I'd remake one—so I'm going to remake Sleuth with Jude Law, with a rewrite with Harold Pinter, who used to be a friend of mine.
Question: How do you feel about Alfie being remade?
Caine: I think it's great. Jude is playing it, and Jude is a friend of mine, and I'm a great admirer of his. I think he's a wonderful actor. And it will be very interesting, because Alfie was about a male chauvinist pig in the ‘60s. And it's being rewritten by an American woman. So I'll be very interested to see it, and Jude said it is being written in a very cutting way, which would be interesting to see. It's like with us and Pinter who's rewritten it. I don't want to go into it, but the alterations he's made are savage and extraordinary.
Question: Who's directing Sleuth ?
Caine: Stephen Frears. He said he wanted to. No one's attached to it yet. It's Jude and I.
Question: What is your favorite movie role?
Caine: The three most satisfying were where I play characters that are a long way away from myself, where I have disappeared the most: Educating Rita, The Quiet American and this. Others—Alfie, Cockney womanizer, I mean, I've been married to the same woman for thirty years, but I mean I did do some research. And Cockney gangsters, I come from Cockney gangsters.
[Read the AboutFilm review of The Statement]
[Read the AboutFilm profile and interview with Norman Jewison]
Feature and Interview ©
January 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 by Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.
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