Michael Caine's long acting career has encompassed characters like a smart-aleck playboy, an international thief, an orphanage director, the butler to a superhero, and countless others. But he says that the happiest he's ever been with a role was on "Youth," his latest movie.
"The trick is, for me, is to make me disappear, and make the acting disappear, and you just see Joe Smith, the character," said Caine on The Frame. "On this movie, it's the happiest I've ever been with that"
As his career has progressed, Caine has sought roles that are further and further away from who he is as a person. In "Youth," he plays a retired classical music composer and conductor — a far cry from Caine's early years as a Cockney man working in a factory.
The composer, Fred Ballinger, is on vacation in the Swiss Alps with his screenwriter friend, who is working on what he suspects will be his last impactful script. Beyond that, the movie defies description.
Caine says that the role provided him with a variety of life circumstance that he had never experienced, and so he had to "study human beings" who had. At the end of it, he felt he had continued growing as an actor.
Read more of Caine's conversation with John Horn below.
Do you want to explain the title? “Youth” seems, in many ways, the perfect title for this film.
Yeah, it does. I mean, people may wonder. It’s called “Youth” and the leading man is 82. There’s a scene in it where I go to my doctor, and he says, You are all clear. It’s what we call "youth." So that’s where the title came from.
Do you end up thinking about your own life and your own career when you make a movie like this?
No ... I try to have a good time everyday. And I have three grandchildren now with whom I am obsessed. And so that’s great for me. So, I have that in my life and it’s had a good effect on me, because some of my unhealthful habits, like drinking a bit too much vodka or eating badly — I’ve changed all of those. I’m trying to stay alive and be with them as long as possible.
Do you remember a point in the last couple of years when the kinds of roles you were offered changed? And it wasn’t just about age, but you were becoming interested in playing different kinds of characters. Did it happen all at once, or gradually?
It happened all at once. I was about 60. That’s when I changed, from getting the girl, to getting the part. I changed from being a movie star to a movie actor. It was much more interesting.
I’m an older man — I’m usually like the butler or a nice part, but it’s not the lead. But I regard myself as retired. As we’re sitting here, I don’t have a script I want to do. Unless a script comes along that I do want to do, I’m retired.
I want to ask a little bit about Paolo Sorrentino’s film, “Youth.” This is a very difficult movie to describe. I’m fond of saying it’s a foreign language movie that happens to be in English.
When people you know are trying to get a grasp of what this movie is before they’ve seen it, how do you describe it to them or do you throw up your hands?
Well they say, What’s it about? I say, It’s about an hour and fifty minutes. [Laughter.] Because it’s not like any movie you’ve ever seen before. But when you finish seeing it, you will understand it completely. Unbeknownst to you, it’s all about you. It’s called “Youth,” starring an old man. But no matter what age it is, you’re young, you’re still going to be old, if you’re lucky. So the movie will mean something to you.
When scripts come in, what do you respond to and what was it about Paolo Sorrentino's script for "Youth" that made you want to make this film?
When I became an actor, being where I was from, and my accent — a Cockney accent, working class in England at a time which was very class-conscious . . . I didn't become an actor to become rich and famous. I became an actor to become the best possible actor I could be. And not work in a factory. That was the other quite strong motive. So, for me, my severest critic is me. I have no sense of competition with other actors. I have a sense of competition with myself. And every time I do another part, I want it as far away from me as possible.
But as I've gone along, I've tried to find parts that are as far from me — mentally, socially, professionally — as possible. And coming from a working-class background in England to play a classical music composer and conductor — that's a very long way away. And a man with a stigma in his soul over what has happened to him, which he never reveals until the end. I've never had that emotion. I've been happily married for years and years, and I have children and grandchildren, and I'm very happy. So that was a test for me.
And so the trick is, for me, is to make me disappear, and make the acting disappear, and you just see Joe Smith, the character. And on this movie, it's the happiest I've ever been with that.
In any movie you've made?
In any movie I've made.
What was different about it?
Well they had a whole set of circumstances that I have never had. So I had to study human beings who did.
When you're acting now, and you're with a writer or director like Paolo Sorrentino or Christopher Nolan, do you grow as an actor still?
Oh yeah. Well, I hope to. I try to. You can get deeper as you get older. I'll tell you a funny thing. A journalist the other day said to me, What's the best love scene you ever had? So I'm thinking. He said, I'll tell you the best love scene I think you ever had. When you said 'goodbye' to Batman in "The Dark Knight." And I said, you know, I can't think of a love scene that I did with a lady that was better than that.
"Youth" is currently in theaters.