With his Cockney accent and rough-and-tumble charm, Michael Caine emerged in the 1960s as the working-class answer to every posh English actor—a reputation he solidified with films such as The Ipcress File, Alfie, Gambit, and Get Carter, where Caine made even the most violent or roguish of characters eminently likeable. But Caine always seemed to reject out-and-out movie stardom, mostly by agreeing to appear in so many middling films (often while blatantly admitting he was just after the paycheck.) His willingness to be in pretty much anything became something of a running joke. Thankfully, he’s become choosier with his roles in recent years, with the last decade seeing some of his career-best work.
In the new Harry Brown, Michael Caine gets back to where he came from—quite literally, as the film about an ex-soldier who’s pushed too far finds him cleaning drug dealers and gangs off the same mean streets where Caine grew up, in the Elephant And Castle district of London. Caine plays the title character as an exceedingly reluctant vigilante who’s tired of the deteriorating conditions in his neighborhood and decides to do something about it with extremely violent results. Predictably, the film has drawn a lot of criticism for its depiction of an England overrun by nihilistic hoodlums, something that’s put Caine into a new role: political spokesman, including using the problems addressed in Harry Brown as a talking point for his current campaign on behalf of Conservative Party leader David Cameron. The A.V. Club spoke to Caine about the sociopolitical message he’s hoping to make with Harry Brown, as well as what it was like getting back to “kicking ass,” and his secret to making criminals and cads loveable.
The A.V. Club: What was it about Harry Brown that appealed to you?
Michael Caine: I don’t work very much, and I just sit here waiting for a script that I can’t refuse—and I’m not talking about money. Just from the ordinary actor’s point of view, it’s a wonderful part in a wonderful script. And then there was the coincidence that it was about the sort of people that I was, and then the coincidence again of where the movie was going to be made, which is exactly where I came from. Then there’s also the sort of sociopolitical thing of it: Why the hell is this happening, and why isn’t someone doing something about it?
AVC: Have you ever had that happen with a script before, where you felt it was really about you and where you came from?
MC: No. Not like that, no. I mean, the guy I played wasn’t a bit like me, but the background was similar. He’s an ex-soldier, and so am I, so I understood that side of him. And I understood the area. I understood a lot of it. The thing is, I wasn’t playing anyone the least bit like me, but all the research I’ve been doing all my life. [Laughs.]
AVC: In keeping with that, you’ve even had your own experiences running with gangs. What was the roughest thing that you were involved with? Was it anything close to the sort of stuff depicted in the film?
MC: It was always just gang fights. In my day, the drug was alcohol and the weapon was a fist, so it was very sort of innocent and primitive. Now you’ve got drugs, guns, and knives, which are so lethal. What a lot of people don’t realize about gangs, in my opinion, is that a gang is not there to attack you. Eighty percent of the people in a gang are there to stop anyone from attacking them. You join a gang for protection, not to go out and hit someone.
AVC: When you were growing up, the “angry young man” sentiment was very palpable in English culture. How does that compare to the feeling you get from those sorts of kids today?
MC: Well, we’ve changed in England. We’ve changed the society for them, and the majority of kids are great. There’s not a problem. It’s just that there’s this underclass which seems to have been left to rot, which is one of the reasons I made the movie—to draw attention to it. It’s very difficult to make a movie like this. The London Times called it “odious.” We said, “Wait a minute. We’re just trying to tell you that it’s there. Take some notice.” But they just said, “Oh, it’s dreadful and odious, this movie.” So we failed. They also thought that we exaggerated it. We presupposed the political reaction to the movie. I mean, we got a very good reaction in general to the movie, for the acting and that stuff, but the political one… We anticipated it practically down to the last figure and number.
AVC: It has drawn criticism for presenting what some have called a “Daily Mail take” on things—that it’s tabloid fear-mongering.
MC: That was exactly the reaction. Because one of the things is that if you’re a Socialist newspaper, well, the Socialists have been in power for 12 years, and these are the very poorest people in England, and this is what’s happened to them. So you’ve got to say it’s a load of crap. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did Harry Brown influence your recent coming out as an official spokesman for the Conservative Party?
MC: That came out because they actually had a charity that was trying to take care of these people. This wasn’t something that [Conservative Party leader David] Cameron was going to do if he became Prime Minister; it’s been up and running for ages, and Cameron is part of it. But there’s also another reason—that is, that I don’t belong to any political party. If anybody’s been in too long, I vote for the next lot. [The Labour Party] has been in for three terms now, and I always think that it’s too long. I voted for Maggie Thatcher, and when she’d been in for two terms, I voted for Tony Blair. Now he’s been in too long, and we wound up with Gordon Brown. We didn’t even vote for him. So I thought I’d vote for Cameron this time. But then I told him, “You’ve only got two terms, as well.”
AVC: You told him that to his face?
MC: Yeah, I did. I think we should all vote like that. Otherwise we’re just the slaves of any political party. We should vote for the welfare of the country, not for the welfare of the party.
AVC: Do you really believe that government can solve the kind of problems that are depicted in Harry Brown?
MC: Yes, by education. By education—I absolutely believe in it. If you talk to a government official, he’ll say, “Well, education for those people would be very expensive.” But I always answer that it’s about a third of the cost of prison.
AVC: Harry Brown also presents it as a moral question—summed up in that pivotal line about the difference between the sort of killing your character did in the army and the killing that they’re doing, which Harry believes is for “entertainment.” Do you think that that’s true?
MC: It is, yeah. Also, there’s a very funny thing: A couple of the newspapers accused us of exaggerating for a movie effect. Of course, the exact opposite is true. When we researched it with the police, we said, “We can’t put that in a movie. No one will believe us.” [Laughs.] But it’s exactly as we depicted it. But still the people are hiding under a bushel and not taking any—well, that’s not fair. They are taking notice, because I was in it. I’m a public figure. I’ve been approached now by many charities that are now doing things for these young people.
AVC: How would you feel if someone were to adopt the Harry Brown method of dealing with those problems?
MC: Well, that’s not good. [Laughs.] That’s not why we made the movie. The problem with the Harry Brown thing was we were just carrying to an extreme the suffering of the innocent people who are not part of the gangs. First of all, you’ve got the gangs. Then you’ve got the drugs and the people—and we have 300,00 people on benefits who are just heroin and crack addicts that have come forward. Then you’ve got older people who live in these—projects, as you call them in America, we call them council estates in England—but they live in these projects, and they don’t go out. They live in fear the whole time. So that’s not an exaggeration. We just took one man to an extreme, because we’re making a movie and we want someone to come and see it.
AVC: But do you think the movie might actually encourage an “us against them” mentality rather than “we should help these people”? The audience I saw it with cheered every time you killed someone.
MC: No, I don’t think so at all, because in the cinema the people we’re killing are really bad people. Let’s put it another way: 80 percent of any gang is not there to attack someone. They’re there so no one will attack them. We’re aiming at that 80 percent that you could possibly save, if you want to put it that way. There are quite a high percentage of people in there who are sociopaths, psychopaths, or hardened criminals who you’re not going to reeducate. All we want to do is reeducate the ones who are too scared. [Laughs.]
AVC: And as part of that reeducation, you’ve suggested reinstituting the National Service.
MC: Well, not National Service as I knew it. Just six months, non-combat.
AVC: What do you think that will do for them?
MC: That will bring about discipline. That will bring about a right to be here, to be in the country. You will have learned to defend your country and yourself.
AVC: Just to clarify, when you say “a right to be in the country,” do you feel as though if you haven’t served in the armed forces, you have less of a right to be in the country?
MC: No, but you would have a firmer right. I was born in the country, but I felt more of a right to be there once I’d been a soldier.
AVC: So do you think that disconnect is why these kids we’re talking about maybe feel left behind—that they don’t feel like part of their country?
MC: The ones that I talked to, and I talked to a great many of them, obviously—we shot at night around there, and we used many of the real young men in the movie—the ones I talked to, the thing that I came away with was that they felt they’d never been given a chance. Myself, I thought they’d been given a chance and had mucked it, but I thought they should be given a second chance.
AVC: Moving away from the political stuff—
MC: [Laughs.] I feel like I’m running for president here!
AVC: It’s been a while since we’ve seen you, for lack of a better term, kicking ass. What was it like getting back to that?
MC: I rather enjoyed that. I played a couple of old men who were dying and had dementia and Alzheimer’s and then died, with their life collapsing all around them. I turn down any scripts like that now. I want proactive old guys. I’ve found three scripts that I want to do—but we’ve not got them off the ground yet, so I can’t say.
AVC: It seems like once a male actor reaches a certain age, a lot of the parts he’s offered have to do with “loss of virility” and stuff like that.
MC: Right, and that’s what I’m going against now. In the last one [Is Anybody There?], I lost everything. I lost my memory and everything. I’m going for proactive old guys, now, that’s what I’m looking for. Because I don’t believe in it.
AVC: Although, even Harry has his own sort of slump-shouldered reluctance to stand up for himself. He lacks the swagger that’s defined a lot of your roles. How did you approach playing that?
MC: Oh yeah, well, every time they said “action,” I slumped right over. [Laughs.] That was my first bit of acting, to slump right over like you say, because he’s also suffering from emphysema. Like when the policemen said, “You mean they were done in by an old-age pensioner with emphysema? No, it couldn’t be possible!”
AVC: Some reviewers have drawn parallels between Harry and Get Carter hero Jack Carter—which you’ve mostly downplayed. What are the crucial differences? Is it just nobility of purpose?
MC: Well, Jack Carter was, for a start, a very much younger man, but he’s a professional criminal and a killer. Harry is a very, very old man who’s completely innocent. He has no interest in killing anybody until he’s forced into it. Jack Carter would kill anybody.
AVC: You’ve spent a good chunk of your career playing likeable criminals, killers, and cads. What’s your secret to making those kinds of characters appealing?
MC: Well, nobody’s a criminal to himself. You see, I never play a criminal like a bad person. It’s like the con man in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: He’s fooling old ladies for their money and all that. But he never saw himself as [a criminal]. He just saw himself as some kind of romantic figure, which is funny.
AVC: Do you find the more amoral a character, the more interesting it is to play?
MC: Oh yeah, they are more interesting to play. I don’t want to play saints. I don’t think I’d know how to play one, because I’m not one. [Laughs.]
AVC: When you were first coming up, you represented the rough-and-tumble, Cockney, working-class man—the antithesis to more “proper” British heroes. Do you think that those class divisions still exist in pop culture?
MC: No. We broke those down in the ’60s. You have to remember that before people like me came along, the only time you ever saw a Cockney in the movie was either as a thug or a subservient servant of some kind. You never saw [Cockney] heroes until John Osborne wrote Look Back In Anger—the first working-class hero I remember. For instance, in England, all war films were about officers, which is why my lot—my young guys—we all watched American war films. All American war films are about privates. From Here To Eternity, The Naked And The Dead—it’s all about privates. Every British war film was about officers. But I eventually wound up in a play called The Long And The Short And The Tall, which was the first play for the stage ever written about private soldiers. So that was where we broke the class thing down.
AVC: Do you think that still defines who you are as an actor, at least internally—that you came out of that class struggle?
MC: It defines who I am as a person. As an actor, I’ll play anything. First role I ever played was a very toffee-nosed officer in Zulu. When I won the Academy Award for Cider House Rules, I was playing an American. So being working-class British is only me, personally. And yeah, I still feel that. If I see any injustice done, I have a big enough mouth and the position to open up about it. [Laughs.] So see, we’re back to Harry Brown again, which is me opening my big mouth. I saw something wrong.
AVC: You’ve had over 100 roles in your career. Is there anything that you haven’t gotten to play that you’re still hoping to?
MC: As I say, I have three scripts that I’m hoping to play, but they’re not… I don’t sit here saying, “I haven’t yet given my King Lear” or something like that. I’m not that kind of an actor. I am what I started out as. I was a repertory actor, which meant that I did a play every week. I was a different character every week; for a year, I was doing 40 or 50 characters. So when I became a non-movie star and became a movie actor a few years ago, this was my delight. I didn’t get the girl—I got the part.
AVC: You’ve been quite vocal about wanting a Best Actor Oscar—enjoying the Supporting Actor wins, obviously, but wanting to win for a lead role. Does that still matter to you?
MC: No. It would have been nice, but I don’t mention it now. Anything you mention, that puts a sort of curse on it. I keep my mouth shut now. I’ve learned to do that—just not very long ago.
AVC: And actually, the past decade seems to have been one of your best ever, at least in terms of the quality of the roles you’ve been offered. Do you feel like you’re having a late-career renaissance?
MC: Oh yes, that’s exactly it! I wrote an autobiography [What’s It All About?] which was published 15 years ago, and that was the end of it. I was like, “I’m over, I’m done, dead, bang. Done.” Then suddenly I had this whole new thing happen to me. And now I’ve written another autobiography, which I just finished.
AVC: What’s the name of that?
MC: It’s called The Elephant To Hollywood.
AVC: In reference to the Elephant and Castle.
MC: Right, Elephant and Castle is the reference, but it gets people saying, “He went on an elephant to Hollywood? Was he in the circus?” [Laughs.] For me, it sort of worked out in as much as the last film in the book—the book is finished—is Harry Brown, and I was back where I started. Exactly back where I started, 500 yards away. That’s where the title Elephant To Hollywood came about.
AVC: I wanted to share this with you: I was standing in line for Harry Brown at the SXSW Film Festival, and I overheard a conversation between a couple of college kids. One of them said, “Well, who’s Michael Caine?” The other replied, “Oh, he’s Alfred in Batman.” How does it feel to have this huge body of work behind you, yet to a certain generation you’re best known as Alfred in Batman?
MC: [Laughs.] Well, I would hope that they’d say, “You know, when he started out, he was called Alfie. Now he’s called Alfred, because he’s older.” And then the other would say, “Well, I haven’t seen that film, Alfie…” It’s a very funny thing: I now get young children coming up to me about The Italian Job. All of these films come around, because there’s this whole new generation of children who know me from Alfred. It’s funny. I was walking along in London, and there were about 20 young Japanese girls—very pretty young girls, about 14, 15, 16—and they all recognized me as Alfred from Batman. [Laughs.] It was quite weird, because none of them spoke English, and I’m trying to communicate with them, and here were all these people staring at the dirty old man with all the young girls around him. Anyway, it’s just funny.
AVC: As you mentioned earlier, you don’t work very much anymore, so what does a script have to do to make it worth getting out of the house?
MC: It has to test me. I’m forever testing myself. As a person and as an actor, I have no sense of competition. I am a great admirer of other actors, but I never compete with other actors. I always compete with what I did last, and I’m my own most vicious critic. So I’m always trying to do it better. Let me put it this way: If you’re sitting in a movie and you’re watching me, and you say, “Isn’t that Michael Caine a wonderful actor?” then I’ve failed. If I’m a really wonderful actor, you’ll forget because you’re going “What’s going to happen to Harry now?” That’s a movie actor, and that’s what I try to be. I’m looking for me to disappear, and the acting to disappear, and all you see is a real person.