‘You don’t retire from the movies,’ says Michael Caine profoundly. ‘The movies retire you. The scripts stop coming, or the money’s not good enough, and then it’s not worth getting out of bed.’
A rather somber note on which to start, but thankfully the 84-year old actor is not speaking from experience. A British film icon, with two Academy Awards to his name, Caine remains a man in demand – and has starred in over 115 films and counting.
‘But if someone asked me if I wanted to live till I’m 100, I’d say no,’ the actor continues. ‘And they’d say: why not? And it’s because I couldn’t afford it. If I had to stop working, I have a very high standard of living, and I couldn’t keep it up. I’d rather die than go back to when I was young, living in a tiny room with just a bed in it.’
Caine tells it like it is. After half a century of being on top – other than Jack Nicholson, Caine is the only actor to be nominated for an Oscar in every decade since the Sixties – it is this honesty and openness that has typified his career. Despite changing his name from Maurice Micklewhite in the early Fifties, Caine kept his distinctive working class cockney accent – and can credit much of his success to it.
‘When I was young, I wanted to be an actor,’ recalls Caine. ‘I just didn’t know how to do it. I came from a very working class background, where you wouldn’t know about drama schools or anything like that. After finishing National Service, I was working in this butter factory, and this old man says to me: Do you want to do this all your life? A young man like you? Fit and healthy?’
He didn’t. Instead, after nine years ‘slogging away in a little theatre out in the country’, Caine landed a West End role. On the first night, a director in the audience spotted him and cast him in 1964’s war epic Zulu.
‘I never did theatre again,’ reveals Caine. ‘In fact, I’ve never been tempted to return to the stage.’
Zulu was Caine’s big break, an ensemble piece which cast the cockney as ‘a very posh officer’.
‘Cy Endfield, the director, was American,’ explains Caine. ‘And I’m working class Cockney, and England is very class conscious, so I was very lucky that he was American because no English director would have cast me in that part. God bless America, that’s what I say…’
Talking America, Caine’s latest venture on the big screen sees him jumping across the pond and playing the part of Joe Harding, a retiree whose pension is cruelly cancelled in Zach Braff’s Going in Style. For the feature, Caine partnered once again with friend Morgan Freeman.
‘I’ve done six movies with Morgan now,’ counts Caine. ‘I think they lied on this one, though. Alan Arkin is also in it, and I think they phoned one of us and said they had the other two, when they hadn’t, and that’s how they got us all. It’s a common trick. So when they tell you that, you think: Oh blimey, I’ll do that.’
But Caine values the importance of friendship on a film set.
‘It’s so easy working with these guys. Movies, if you don’t really know or like the other people are hard. So we’re friends. Good friends. Although because actors are never in the same place more than five minutes, it can be hard. Morgan lives in Mississippi. I live in London and Alan lives in San Diego – we’re not popping over to each other’s homes for dinner.’
Instead, Caine counts many other artists and musicians among his close friends. Leslie Bricusse, a composer ‘who owned the discotheque Caine lived in when he was younger’ and photographer Terry O’Neil being two of the most prominent. When it comes to actors, a pair of Bonds make up Caine’s close circle – Roger Moore and Sean Connery.
‘And I also hang out with my driver, as I don’t drive anymore,’ reveals the actor. ‘All together, I have about ten extremely close male friends, and we have never in 60 years had an argument – about anything.
‘We never disagree at all, and none of us have ever really asked anything of each other – but we’ve still all given. It’s not that you don’t do anything for each other, that’s not the key to lasting friendship – it’s that when you see something going wrong you volunteer before you’re asked. That’s the key.’