Riotously funny, self-deprecating, real, wise, humble, and down-to-earth are just some of the words that come to mind in describing the characteristics that Michael Caine emanates when you meet him! I was lucky enough to participate in a roundtable interview with him in connection with his new film “Harry Brown,” which is a UK “Death Wish” meets ” Shane”! Below is the full conversation that we had with this enchanting legend and wonderful dear man! And for everything Michael Caine go to: http://www.michaelcaine.com/
Q: What was it like making such a violent and disturbing film?
MC: It’s very finny because I never saw it as a violent film. I saw it as a film about violence, which I hate and I’m not. And the whole movie was made against violence. It was sorta to make people, if you want a message, I mean I made the picture because it was a very good part for me, a great script, and I thought it’d make a great thriller. But I wouldn’t make it just for that not playing a vigilante. The vigilante is there as a warning to whoever is in charge in England, I’m not quite sure most of the time probably, nobody that if you don’t do something about the whole section of young people who you have left to rot this is what’s gonna happen to you. And it’s of special interest to me because I come from that whole section of people who’ve been left to rot except it didn’t work with me.
Q: You went into the military, so I’m sure that helped a lot.
MC: Yeah, oh yeah. Eighteen I went into the military. And I don’t wanna be one of those sorta ole’ guys who is like “Stick ‘em all in the Army” and all that. But I do believe that six months of national service, not two years like I did, and no combat like I did, no combat, just six months of discipline and learning to serve your country, you learn weaponry to defend your country, you never use if on anyone. And you come out and you are a different person. I absolutely promise you, you’re a better person. All my gang, I was in a gang, and we all came out absolutely different. I remember one of them, I was on an airplane and he came out and said, “I’m the pilot!” And I said, “You can’t be the pilot. You’re more stupid than I am!” (Laughs) I said, “I couldn’t fly a plane. How the hell did you manage it?!” and he said, “Well, I went to flying school.” But before that he was just like all of us. You know, the gang on the street. And we were, what they used to call, Teddy Boys. We had thick crepe shoes and hair in its own way that was called a DA. It looked like a duck’s ass. That’s why it was called a DA. And we were quite rough. But compared to today’s gangs, we were like Mary Poppins! Because our drug was alcohol and we fought with our fists. But we were only together as a gang outta self-defense. We never wanted to attack anyone.
Q: You grew up in the area that the film was made.
MC: Exactly, exactly. Where those flats…you saw the movie?…well, at the entrance to those flats, there is a mural to me.
Q: How weird was it going back there and seeing how it had changed after all those years?
MC: Well, it was scary because I hadn’t realized quite how dangerous it all was. Because there now, instead of alcohol and fist fight and getting a broken nose, you get shot or knifed and you’ve got people who have no idea what they are doing ‘cause they are so drugged up to the eyeballs. You know, you can say, “Well they’d never do that.” And, of course, they do ‘cause you don’t know they’re high. And so it was extremely dangerous. And one of the minor silly things is we would do daylight shots, you know with dialogue, and it became a nuisance. Because every time we shot a shot, there was a police siren! All day long! And we became aware in the daylight on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, we had to keep reshooting because of the police sirens.
Q: Were you ever intimidated then? Because you used the real kids in the film.
MC: No, no. But the reason for that is, you must remember to them, I am them. I’m the same. And so they talk to me. I can talk to them like nobody else could talk ‘cause they know I am not going say anything to the police about anything. Nothing, so I am them. That’s why I became more charitable towards them. Because I understood. You know, 80% of all gangs, including yours the most terrible gang here that you can think of, 80% are not there to do anybody any harm. They are there so no one does them any harm. They are there for self-protection. And that is the people you gotta rely on to educate and get them out of the system.
Q: “Cause there is a cycle….
MC: Oh yeah, blimey yeah.
TGATP: What do you see as a solution? What can the government do at this point?
MC: I see it as education. It’s education. If you think, it’s a sorta kinda class system, which is even in America the same. In England, it doesn’t matter what you are (racially), if you are lower class you are lower…you can be red, white, and blue (laughs). I know that because I am lower class. And so you’ve gotta get over that. And educate these people. You think, you’re gonna educate this guy who has tattoos up to here and two knives in his pocket? What are ya gonna do? Take him to school? You’ve gotta break down the system and start with the younger ones.
TGATP: I lived in England for six years and I found it interesting that there doesn’t seem to be any breaking down of the class system. For instance, Paul McCartney still considers himself a “working class lad.”
MC: Me too. That’s because the upper class in England is useless. So we don’t wanna belong to that. And so, we are our own kind. We will forever be working class ‘cause that’s how we think.
Q: Is there a pride in that?
MC: Yes, incredible. And one of the things in that is people like myself and McCartney were the ‘60’s when we just said to society “Shove it up somewhere. This is how it is gonna be!” When the 60’s started for very mundane reasons one of them being that Lord Reiss wouldn’t let the BBC, which was the only radio program we had, play pop music. So we had to listen to American forces network in Germany and Luxemburg. And we said, “Wait a minute. What is this?” And so there were all these sorts of prejudices against a whole group and then you had a whole load of working class guys like myself. And as we said Paul McCartney came up and said, “This is not gonna be like that.” So we told everybody to shove it and we created our own society. But the reason we call ourselves “working class” is because we don’t wanna be anything else. Being upper class is not a rise in the system. It is probably a downward step if you understand the meaning.
Q: So is the film shining a new light on this problem?
MC: It’s worked in some areas. I mean, like, for instance, the London Times called it “odious”. And you go, “that’s a pity”. Because the film was aimed at you ‘cause you don’t seem to know it is there and if you are reading the London Times, you’re probably educated, in some position of authority, and you could do something about this. And as you are that strata of society, and the film is “odious”; you must take responsibility for the smell ‘cause you created the cesspit it is coming from! So that’s why I was particularly upset. Not because of the review, I didn’t care about what they said, but because we hadn’t got through to them. But we did get through to a lot of other people.
Q: You’ve worked with a lot of great filmmakers over the years. This is Daniel’s first movie. What was he like as a Director?
MC: He did a picture called “Tonto Woman”. It was a short movie, which is the one I saw and he got an Oscar nomination for that. And I saw that and I thought this guy knows exactly what he is doing. He knows exactly what he is doing. And then when we talked, he said to me, “This isn’t about Harry Brown. This is a western, isn’t it?” (laughs) I said, “In a way yeah.” And I noticed with him, and it came sorta to fruition in the movie, I know he’s a movie director but he has incredible use of sound. And he’s young and he does lots of commercials. And what I Iike about him is he knew all the lens and things. He knew the stuff you could do better than an old time director no matter how great. This guy knew every technology all over the shop; he’s got it in there. And I think he’s gonna be a very big director. Very big. He’s a wonderful young guy.
TGATP: We know that the upper classes will likely not do anything to end the situation for the poor. Do you feel that seeing the film will get the community itself to bond to end the violence in their neighborhood?
MC: I think so. I think so. But the community itself will say, “We know ‘bout that” ‘cause that drug guy, those two drug guys, live next door.” It’s aimed basically rat the middle class and upper class who, of necessity, run the country.
Q: Have you heard any response from the working class community about the film?
MC: I was told by a reporter, he asked me “Have you ever seen this film with the public?” I said, “No.” He said that every time we shoot someone, they cheer. (laughs) So that’s the response from the people at the Elephant and Castle!
Q: Emily’s character seemed really fragile, even from the beginning Are there really women like her in the Metropolitan police?
MC: Yeah, I thought it was a very courageous thing instead of casting a great big butch girl who could throw you out a window to put Emily in there.
Q: Do people come from London to that area and get frightened or overwhelmed?
MC: I remember I was walking in the area, just going for a stroll round and looking, in between takes, and there was a young couple coming along. And she was a very pretty young girl and they had their arm round each other and when they got to me they went “Can we have your autograph?” And I said, “Yes”. And they both went, “We’re undercover police.” And she looked just like Emily! Because I had been a bit worried, I thought I’d have expected someone a bit more butch. As the Mayor of Los Angeles said “with more upper shoulder strength”(laughs) and he got into trouble for that. But what Emily had she’s a wonderful actress, and she had this very sensitive quality and a quite thin look not a robust girl. And that was the thing, she mixed this icy policeman’s thing with a tremendous tenderness for this old man, who was crumbling before her eyes, you know. And that’s what I thought was so wonderful about it. Because when Daniel said Emily, who I’ve known since she was born because her father John Mortimer’s a friend of mine, I thought “I don’t know if Emily’s a bit small for this”. But she turned out very big. I thought she was excellent.
Q: Harry was very reluctant to discuss his military background, as someone who has one as well….
MC: Soldiers never do. Combat soldiers don’t. If you hear a guy shooting his mouth off about combat and all that, he’s never been through combat.
Q: Was it hard to put that behind you?
MC: It wasn’t for me. The day I left the army… you know, I specialized in cowardice and won several medals. (laughs) I was like give me a pair of running shoes, some Nikes!
Q: Did you do any weapons training for the film?
MC: No I knew all that. I’m very heavily trained. If you gave me a really modern gun I’d haveta say “Where’s the safety?” But I really know weapons.
Q: They don’t mention exactly what Harry did in the Marines. When you were putting the character together did you envision him as a sniper or something?
MC; No he wasn’t a sniper. Because he was in the squad. Because when he describes watching his friend die, a sniper wouldn’t be there. No, he would just be an ordinary infantryman. But he wasn’t a soldier like me. He was a real one. He was a Marine. I mean, they had to teach me that stab move when the guy came out. The guy came from the Army and taught me how to do that. I wouldn’t have learned that as an ordinary British soldier. We just, you know, fired at anyone that moved and ran! (laughs)
Q: The role was at times extremely challenging for example, Harry watching his friend be killed on the phone. How do you as an actor walk into a moment like that and make it believable?
MC: The way I do it is I am a Stanislavski actor and that doesn’t mean you mumble and scratch your ass all the time, but I’m a Method actor. The basis, there are a couple of things with Stanislavski – the rehearsal is the work and the performance is the relaxation. And the other thing is sense memory. You pick for instance, if I want to cry I can do it like that. ‘Cause I pick one thing from my memory that I remember and I will go. And I have never told anyone what it is. Even my wife doesn’t know what it is. But I can cry, as you saw me do it in the movie, I just did it straight like that. But what you have to remember if you are an actor, and a male actor, is men do not cry. They will do anything BUT cry. They stop themselves crying. And eventually they do cry if it is bad enough. So that’s how you know with a man how bad it is for him. Because he would’ve stopped himself ‘cause it’s I’m very butch and I don’t cry, that’s sissy, that’s feminine. Men always cry like that. They don’t cry and in the end they do and if they do then it’s overwhelming. Which is what I did and then I blew the whole thing out.
Q: You mentioned Stanislavski, so you took acting classes?
MC: No, I never took any acting classes. Where I learned that, I went to Joan Littlewood’s theatre workshop as an actor in plays and she taught Stanislavski during rehearsal and taught me in particular. She said something rather telling for me, she was Communist and it was all very Communist in group theatre and Russian and Stanislavski. But she eventually fired me. And the reason she fired me and I had no idea what she was talking about, she said “This is a group theatre, Michael. We will have none of this star nonsense here!! You’re fired.” And I said, “But I’m in the group what am I doing, what am I doing?” And she said “I know what you’re doing.” But I didn’t. and that ‘s what she said to me. And she fired me. But before she fired me, I learned about those things from Stanislavski.
TGATP: You have been making movies for five decades now. How has Hollywood changed for you for better or worse? If at all.
MC: Hollywood for me, has been, has stayed the same. Inasmuch as all the myths of Hollywood, like I’ll give you some for instances like, “you’re only as good as your last picture”, “your friends will dump you if you fail, blah blah, blah blah blah , “it’s full of false friends”, “don’t trust anyone”…. I have in Hollywood a group of friends who I trust with my Life, I’ve had for forty years. And whether I have made a flop picture or a successful one, has not changed anything in the slightest about them. And they are completely sincere and would do anything for me. And so I have the highest regard for Hollywood. Also, I was writing my first biography and I was so pro-Hollywood, I thought to m’self bloody hell I sound like I ‘m kissing ass here! I’d better do something negative about Hollywood. And I sat there another while and I said “I know what I’d do negative about Hollywood – divorce! “ And I went to write about divorce and all my Hollywood friends had been married to the same woman longer than I had. So I couldn’t write about divorce! You know this is Billy Wilder, Gregory Peck, Frank Sinatra, all these people. They’d all been married for years. Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, any of them. All the executives. Lew Wasserman. Any body. They’d all been married to their wives longer than I’d been married to mine. And I was going to do Hollywood about divorce. So I had to can it. So I’m very pro-Hollywood. It can be tough. But it’s only tough if you haven’t prepared yourself. If you’ve never done an acting lesson and ever done any acting and you go to Hollywood and say , “I’m gonna be a star!” whether you are male or female, you’re gonna haveta sleep with someone on the way there . Take my word for it! And there’s also one Monday morning when some director is gonna say “Action” and you’re gonna go “Oh shit! What do I do know?”