From the start, few mistook Michael Caine for typical movie-star material. “I had a thick Cockney accent and I was a tall, skinny guy,” Caine recalls.
The situation was compounded during the filming of one of his first hits, 1965’s spy thriller The Ipcress File: “I wore glasses, and during the movie I tried to seduce a woman by cooking a meal for her in my kitchen. We got a note back from Hollywood saying, ‘Leading man looks gay — wears glasses, cooks and shops in groceries.’”
Yet Caine went on to become one of Hollywood’s leading freaks and geeks, appearing in more than 170 films and playing everything from the morally corrupt philanderer in Alfie to Austin Powers’ dad and butler Alfred in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night trilogy. At 85, he’s hardly slowing down — when he spoke to Rolling Stone last fall, he was filming Medieval, a historical drama about Wenceslas and the Czech revolution, due this year — and his appeal remains the same. “In the Sixties, we were the first working-class people to become movie stars,” he says. “The reason for that was that people didn’t worship us, really. They just said, ‘Oh, here’s a man just like me, so we’re the same, you know. And I bet if I met him he’d talk to me and have a beer.’” He’s also recently published his second memoir, Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life.
What’s your criteria for saying yes to a movie role?
Well it’s gotta be somewhere I want to go, it mustn’t be too long, and the money must be good. And of course, the part must be good.
Every actor has a role they regret turning down. What was yours?
I never made that kind of mistake. I only made the ones in the opposite direction — what I didn’t say no to.
Like On Deadly Ground, where you played a villain opposite Steven Seagal?
It wasn’t one of my dream experiences, to put it nicely. We were in Alaska. He was quite pleasant, but I never saw much of him; he never came out of his motorhome very much. He was one of the top whatever it is — jiu-jitsu, whatever it is they do. I’d never argue with him. I didn’t want him to throw me over.
You almost retired in the Nineties, but Jack Nicholson talked you out of it. What did he say to convince you?
I got a script from a producer and he said, “You play the father, not the lover,” and I thought, “Oh, I’m retired, it’s over, forget it.” I emigrated to Miami for the winter, and Jack was living there and we became friends. I decided I wasn’t going to work again and then Jack said, “I’ve got a movie called Blood and Wine, and there’s a very good part for you in it,” and he talked me into doing it. The lesson was: Never give up.
Who was your hero?
Winston Churchill. I was in a youth club when I was a boy and I was the head of a little drama group. I was about 14, and Winston Churchill was one of our patrons and used to come every year and have tea with us. I had tea with him about three times. He was lovely and very funny, and very nice to us.
What advice do you wish you could give your younger self?
If you’re going through hell, keep going. I had a very hellish time when I was young. I came out of the army when I was 20 and immediately succumbed to malaria I’d picked up in Korea. I came out the other side, but just you’ve got to keep going.
Also, you can’t ruin my career now by giving me a bad review. I’m all right. I’m OK now. I got to a certain age where I went, “OK, it’s all right, mate. Stop worrying.”
If you could tell your younger self not to do a certain movie, which would it be?
The Swarm. It’s about [killer] bees. I did it without reading the script, because I said, “Who’s in it?” and they gave this me great big star list: Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, Jose Ferrer. I said, “I’ll do it.” One day we were all having a conversation with live bees above us, and suddenly we noticed all these little black dots on our shirts. The bees were shitting on us. And so the first review was in, but we didn’t know it at the time.
What was the most self-indulgent purchase you’ve made?
In the Sixties, after I’d just made Alfie, The Ipcress File and Zulu, I had enough money to buy a Rolls-Royce, so I went out and bought one. I couldn’t drive, so I had to rent a chauffeur. Very expensive, and I never did anything that stupid again. I only kept it for a couple years, then sold it. Once you become famous you don’t want a Rolls-Royce because everybody looks to see who’s inside it. I’ve now got gray cars that everyone drives. No one ever looks in my car.
What was your drug intake like during the Sixties?
I knew all the Beatles, all the Rolling Stones. I knew everybody in the music business and we spent our lives in discotheques. I drank alcohol quite heavily for some time. But I never did any drugs. I was at a party with [actor] Richard Harris and I said, “I’ve never smoked marijuana,” and he said, “Well, smoke one.” I smoked the marijuana and I must have been terribly tense, because I laughed for five hours. I couldn’t get a taxi home because I was standing at one o’clock in the morning on the pavement trying to wave a taxi: “I’m not picking him up, he’s nuts or drunk.” Also, I was told by my doctor not to do it. He said, “You’re an actor, you’ve got to remember lines, and marijuana is murder for the memory.”
And at one point you were smoking 80 cigarettes a day?
Oh yeah, and they were French cigarettes, Gauloises, one of the most extremely powerful brands you could think of. They weren’t even cork-tipped to filter them a little bit. But I was watching television in England, and there was a snooker player I knew who had lung cancer and had lost his voice and had the thing in his throat to speak. I’ve never smoked again.
You’ve been married for 47 years. What’s the secret?
You must have separate bathrooms. You’ve got to be able to spend some time out of the way of each other. We never share a bathroom. Never. Ever. If you start to get into trouble, buy a new bathroom.
What was your favorite book as a kid and what did it say about you?
It was an American book by a woman called Ayn Rand called The Fountainhead. It was about a man’s journey through life, a John Wayne–ish type who was very poor and trying to become a success. So it struck a little bit of a note with me. My eldest daughter is named after Dominique, the heroine of the book.
About a decade ago you released a mixtape album, Cained, that featured a lot of chill-out electronic remixes. Why that genre?
It’s more clever than the rest. It’s smoother and, you know, more romantic. I love it. I made the tapes for my family. I made about a dozen of them, but Cained wasn’t a success so they never asked me to make another one. But my daughters and everyone put them in their cars.
If you were to make a mixtape now, what current song would you put on it?
There’s a song I love in Dear Evan Hansen, the musical, called “Waving Through a Window.” It’s about a lonely young man who’s looking out the window and there’s no one there for him. That never happened to me, but I sympathize with people who did experience that. It’s my favorite song of the moment. Just try it.
You were one of the first major actors to play gay roles, in movies like California Suite and Deathtrap. Today no one bats an eye when actors play characters of a different sexuality, but what did you hear at the time?
It was a bit dicey to do — people said it could be a career killer and what are the girls going to think of you? A couple of people said, “Do you really want to do it, Michael? People will think you’re gay.” I said, “No, they won’t. They know I’m an actor.” I loved doing that. Many of my friends were gay, so I’d studied them and their movements and speech, so I basically knew what I was doing. And the parts were so very good. I’d never kissed a man on the lips before. Chris Reeve and I had to do a romantic scene [in Deathtrap]. Neither of us had ever kissed another man before, so we drank a couple of brandies. Then when it came time for the dialogue, we couldn’t remember it. So the kiss was a bit of a disaster.
As a Brit, what do you think of Brexit?
I’m all for Brexit. I was reading about that EU government and that they have the most luxurious offices of anybody in the world. I thought, “Mmmm, I see where we’re going with this.” I’m a right-wing socialist or a left-wing conservative. I believe in the working class, but I also believe capitalism will get the most money for them, because I notice when they start to put taxes on the rich, they all leave my country and go away and then the poor get less money. I’d rather be a poor master than a rich servant.
You interviewed Paul McCartney in your recent documentary My Generation. Which Beatle were you closest to?
I knew John quite well, but George and I were neighbors and we used to go to each other’s houses for dinner. I never did that with Paul or John. I invited George to dinner one evening and he brought what we thought was a guitar and we thought he was going to sing for us and we were all excited. What I didn’t know was that George was the president of the George Formby fan club. He was a famous, very funny singer who used to sing these silly songs. George had brought a ukulele and sang George Formby songs all evening. Which were great, but it was such a surprise.
What was one new thing you learned about McCartney during your interview?
He said one day he was coming out somewhere, waiting to get a cab, and the Rolling Stones — or maybe just Mick and Keith — came along in a cab and said, “Where are you going? We’re going to a party. You want to come?” He and John got in the cab. The Stones were making their first LP, and Paul said to them, “How’s it going?” and they said, “Well, it’s going great but we don’t think we’ve got a Number One yet.” And Paul said to them, “Well, John and I have just written a song — we’ll give it to you and see what you think.” And the Stones recorded it [“I Wanna Be Your Man”] and it became their first Number One. That’s the story Paul told me.
You worked with Beyoncé on Austin Powers in Goldmember. What did you take away from working with her?
I knew she was a singer and had a group. I asked her one day, “What do you want to do with your life, Be-yons?” I always called her “Be-yons.” And she said, “I want to win the Academy Award for acting.” She was very good in the movie, a very competent actress, and I thought she could get somewhere with this. She’s gone far beyond my world. She’s so big now.
You won an Oscar for Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. What would you do if you were offered a role in a new movie of his?
If he had a trial and someone proved he had done something, I wouldn’t do it. No. But I didn’t read of him being on trial and being found guilty or fined or sent to prison or anything. This is all things that people say. You can’t go on hearsay the whole time.
What are your most important rules to live by?
I don’t go to church but I do believe in God. If you were me, you would have to, because how the hell this happened to me, I don’t know. I was a nobody from nowhere who knew nothing and just set out to do something without requiring fame, money, recognition, anything.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
John Wayne said, “Never wear suede shoes,” pointing at my shoes. I said, “Why not?” He said, “’Cause you’re gonna be famous, and you’re gonna be in the toilet taking a piss and the guy next door to you is going to turn and recognize you and piss all over your shoes, kid.” I gave all my suede shoes away to people who were unknown.
Did you pass his advice along to them?
No. I didn’t mention a word. I wanted them to take the shoes.