Michael Caine on Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s Secret, and Drinking With Dylan Thomas

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Photo: David M. Benett/Getty

Michael Caine compares Interstellar mastermind Christopher Nolan to his The Man Who Would Be King director John Huston. According to the 81-year-old actor, both filmmakers believe that the art of direction is essentially the art of casting. Find the right people, make a great movie. If that's not the most humble point to make for an actor who has appeared in each of Nolan's films since 2005's Batman Begins, it's also undeniable. Caine is a six-time Oscar nominee with two trophies to his name (Best Supporting Actor wins for 1987's Hannah and Her Sisters and 2000's The Cider House Rules). His inclusion makes movies better. His baritone Cockney vocals could read Apple Terms & Conditions agreements and we'd listen (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's Michael Caine impression-off in The Trip is proof). Casting may be Nolan's specialty, but casting Caine in $150 million blockbusters is his gift to the world.

In anticipation of Interstellar, we spoke to Caine about his continued collaboration with Nolan, reciting Dylan Thomas poetry, the trippy science behind the film, and whether rumors of retirement hold any water:

Your character bears a striking resemblance to physicist/Interstellar consultant Kip Thorne.
I wasn’t playing him [literally], but I was playing a Kip Thorne guy. I grew a beard because he has a beard. I thought, That’ll make me look like a physicist. I remember first going on to set, my office in the picture, there was an algebra formula around the room, about four feet high, and it was about 50 feet long. I said, “Did you do this?” He said, “yes.” “How many algebra problems is this?” It was one. All that was one problem. I said, “Do you know the answer?” He said, “Yes, I wrote the problem.”

Are you a math guy?
No. I felt like saying “duurrrrr.” I never felt more dumb in my life than talking to Kip.

Did you pick anything up from Kip to nuance your loose version of him?
Oh, yes. He’s very quiet, very knowledgeable, very sure of what he does and says. He doesn’t do a lot of frippery around a conversation. But he’s an extremely nice man, and I got to know him because I did my best to portray that kind of person onscreen.

This is the sixth film you’ve done with Christopher Nolan. There’s always room for Michael Caine in a Nolan movie.
He writes the scripts! If you think of any story, there’s always a middle-aged or older man in there somewhere. In Inception, I had a tiny part. I’d play any part he writes for me, no matter how big it is. He regards me as his good-luck charm. He’s wrong. He’s my good luck charm. I’ve been in six successful pictures — or, six when this comes out, I think it will be successful — and these movies came about quite strangely. He lived near me in England, in the country. One Sunday morning, he was at my door with a script. I didn’t know who it was. I knew who he was when he told me, I had seen Memento and Insomnia. And I thought, Oh, we’re going to do a nice little thriller. I invited him in and he said, “We’re going to do Batman.” I thought, “I’m too old for Batman, who am I going to play?” He said, “The butler.” “What am I going to say, ‘Dinner is served’?” He said, “No, the butler is Batman’s foster father.” And I’m sort of a father figure in every one of the films. I’m the aging guy who arranges everything.

Have you spoken to Nolan about what makes you perfect at delivering wisdom?
I’ve never asked him that. I just thought he saw my movies! But he never said, “I loved you in this.” He’s not the sort of person who would say that. And very secretive. On Interstellar, I practically had to sign the Official Secrets Act in case I told anyone anything. He’s very secretive about everything. They showed me the film the other day, on my own with my wife, and I said, “Can I bring my daughter?” And they said no. She could go to the premiere but not the original showing.

That’s pretty secretive.
When he first came to my house, I invited him in for a cup of tea. I said that I’d read [the script] during the day and have my driver bring it over to him on Monday. “No,” he said. “I’m going to sit here and wait while you read it, then you tell me if you want to do it or not.” I read it in 45 minutes. He had a biscuit and a cup of tea with my Mrs. I said, “I’ll do it.” Then he took the script and left. He wouldn’t leave me with the script. He’s secretive, I’ll tell you. Rightfully so. Some of the stuff he puts in movies, if anyone got hold of it, they’d copy it instantly.

What is Nolan's secret?
He has his tea in his pocket that he drinks all day. He has a coat with a big pocket and in it, a flask of tea. He drinks it all day. That’s his secret.

Did you pick up any of the science in Interstellar?
I read all about black holes and everything. I read Kip’s papers. I read one where he said Einstein was wrong. You couldn’t understand [the science], really. But you could act like you understood it. If you want to act as though you understand something, you find out what you don’t understand. That’s what I did. This is what it sounds like when someone understands. I based it off how Kip talked about thing. He talks to Stephen Hawking every day. Can you imagine that conversation? You wouldn’t understand a word. I just based it on that, the fact that I looked like I knew everything and the audience knew nothing.

In Interstellar, you recite Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” which sounds a lot harder to nail than math talk.
As an actor, you just read the reality of what is going on. I love that poem. I also knew Dylan Thomas quite well. I knew him, but he didn’t know me. He was always drunk when you met him. I know he’s dead, but I’m sure if you said, “Did you ever meet Michael Caine,” he’d say, “I don’t know.” He was a fabulous poet. He was just around in the bars and clubs in London. He was a very bright Welshman who drank too much.

Did Nolan have notes on how your character would recite the poem?
No, but I knew the poem very well. I read it when he wrote it. I knew where he was coming from. It’s a great poem! And it wasn’t in the script. I finished a scene one day and he said, “Would you read this poem?” I read it offscreen, and then I read it onscreen for the camera. He just said, “I want you to read this,” I read it, and then that was it; he said “thank you,” and then he walked away.

Secretive.
I never ask Chris what he’s doing. I just do what he asks me to do [laughs]. What he did with that was very good.

You’ve been part of two movies with grounded portraits of dystopian futures: Children of Men, and now, Interstellar. Which one are we headed towards?
I think if you see what’s happening on Earth, you know we’re headed towards Interstellar. When I went to work on Interstellar, I left London on October 2, and it was 86 degrees. When I got to Los Angeles, it was raining, which was the exact opposite of what it was supposed to be. It’s supposed to be raining in London and 86 in Los Angeles. I never really believed in global warming or climate change until that day. Even now, I’m sitting in the pissing rain in Miami and I’m going back to warm and sunny London.

Interstellar has that environmental perspective, but it’s also about the passage of time and aging. Did you respond at all to the story on a personal level?
I’m a very simple soul. Someone asked me the other day how I felt about growing old. I said, “Considering the alternative, ecstatic!” I’ve changed my ways. I drink far less, I eat much better, I take more vitamins, take much better care of myself. I have incentives — I’m not one who wants to live as long as possible, but I have grandchildren who I adore. They changed my life. I just lost 20 pounds. For them!

A recent interview interpreted your quotes to make it sound like retirement was in your future. To clarify: Are you looking to say good-bye to acting?
I’ve retired about 30 times. But if someone gives me a script that I love? I’m just going to do Now You See Me 2. I have two other scripts that I won’t mention in case I don’t do them, but they’re very good. They may not get done. Sometimes I get movies that don’t get the money. But I do Now You See Me 2 in December and have two more next year if I want them.

And when Nolan makes another movie …
If Chris makes another movie, I’ll make it. I don’t need to read it. I’d be there.

What’s more mind-bending: Inception or Interstellar?
Interstellar. Once you get to the fifth dimension, you start going, “duurrrrr.” I’m glad they never told me about it when I played Kip. He knew all about it. I had to act like I did. But people all over the world will understand. Young people are so smart these days. [The internet] has allowed them to do that.

You use the internet. You’re on Twitter.
I do tweet now and then. My wife does my Twitter. I call her my Tweetheart.