Michael Caine on Youth, Quasi-Retirement, and His The Dark Knight Rises Love Scene

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In Michael Caine's latest project, Youth, he and Harvey Keitel play old friends who vacation together in the French Alps and end up grappling with the realities of their lives. For his powerful performance as a retired composer, Caine has entered the awards conversation. Our friend John Horn, host of the KPCC radio show and podcast The Frame, spoke with Caine before the film was released earlier this month, covering the many ways Caine's career has changed, why he pushes himself to keep acting, and whether Hollywood actually wants to make movies for older people.

Would you explain the name of this movie? Youth seems to be the perfect title.
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 because I've had all those examinations that older men have, I go to see if I'm all clear or not. "You are all clear," he says to me. "It's what we call 'youth.'" That's where the title came from.

I'll tell you what it's going to be like when you get to my age: You'll get to, say, 82, and you'll look back, and you go, what the hell happened? But on the other hand, you're still lucky to be here because you have friends that are gone long before you. I had a whole group of like ten friends, and we've all been friends for the last 50 years, and we've lost three.

In the last couple of years?
Yeah. One of my friends said when the first one died, "They've started bowling in our alley." And it's true.

What does that feel like? Do you end up thinking about your life when you make a movie like this?
No, I never think about anything like that. I try to have a good time every day. And I have three grandchildren now with whom I am obsessed. That's great for me. I'm sitting here — I'm going to go home soon — and I'm not just looking forward to going home. I can't wait to see my grandchildren. You know? 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.

You've made how many movies at this point?
I've starred in about 85.

And appeared in?
Oh, about 150. I did a lot of little pictures just to pay the rent. I would do two-day parts and get $12. 

Do you remember a point in the last couple of years when the kinds of roles you were offered changed?
It happened all at once. I was about 60. I got a script and I sent it back to the producer with a note saying, "I don't want to play the part, it's too small. I'm not interested." He sent the script back and said, "I didn't want you to read the lover. I wanted you to read the father." I went, Uh-oh. 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.

There was a gap where I did nothing. I went and lived in Miami for a long time. I had a restaurant there. I was great friends with Jack Nicholson, who was also living there. Eventually, he got a script, and he said play it — do this part with me. I did it. Jack is such a fabulous man and a fabulous actor. Then, I wanted to go back and start filming again.

What movie was that?
Oh, I forgot. It wasn't a success. Bob Rafelson directed it. It was the movie-acting debut for Jennifer Lopez, and she was very good in it. The film was very good, but from an audience point of view, there was no one to root for. Everybody was really unpleasant, you know? But then I came back in, and I eventually won an Academy Award for The Cider House Rules. And now I'm still here.

I'm an older man. I usually play the butler or a nice part, but it's not the lead. And I don't have to work forevermore and get up at six in the morning for three months. A couple of weeks and I'm done. But it's unusual because now I've got a lead in this movie, and I just finished a comedy called Going in Style, which is about three old men. It's Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, and me. The bank forecloses on their flat, so they rob a bank to pay the mortgage. It's a comedy, obviously. And it's a leading part. But I regard myself as retired. As we're sitting here talking, 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'm not exactly trying to find the rent.

That movie is called Blood and Wine, by the way.
Blood and Wine! That was it!

Youth is a very difficult movie to describe. It's a foreign-language movie that happens to be in English.
Exactly!

When people try to grasp what this movie is about, how do you describe it to them?
I say, "It's about an hour and 50 minutes." 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, if you're young, you're still going to be old, if you're lucky. So, the movie will mean something to you.

You said that not a lot of scripts come in these days. What was it about Paolo Sorrentino's script that made you want to make Youth
I sometimes see young people on television these days being interviewed. "What do you want to do when you grow up?" They say, "I want to be rich and famous." None of that occurred to me. 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 to not work in a factory. That was the other quite strong motive.

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. When I was younger I played Alfie, a young man who was going out with girls. Although I was very good in it and I got nominated for an Academy Award and it was a big success, the only thing that stretched me was that it was comedy, which is very, very difficult.

As I've gone along, I've tried to find parts that are as far from me — mentally, socially, professionally — as possible. Coming from a working-class background in England to play a classical-music composer and conductor, as I do in Youth, that's a very long way away. And playing a man with a stigma in his soul about 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. 

Youth is coming out around the same time as a movie called 45 Years. Both movies star actors of a certain age. Can you imagine a world in which these movies are made in Hollywood? Or do they have to come out of Europe?
I think they're going to have to come out of Europe because you have big studios making pictures here, and they aim at a young audience. But I have a theory about this, which may be a load of rubbish, but I'll tell you anyway. There was a film made called Hotel Marigold.

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Yeah, that's right. It was about a lot of old English people in a hotel in India. One of the stars, I remember, because I know her very well, is Maggie Smith. This picture made over $100 million, and they couldn't figure it. One day I was reading Variety or something, and it said that they had investigated this situation — why this picture had made the money — and they said it was because older people of that generation were fed up with television and were now going out to the cinema. I'm hoping this will happen with [Youth] and it will happen with Going in Style. 

When you're working with a director like Paolo Sorrentino or Christopher Nolan, do you still grow as an actor?
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." So I said, "What was it?" He said, "When you said 'good-bye' to Batman in The Dark Knight Rises. That was an incredible love scene." And I said, you know, I can't think of a love scene that I did with a lady that was better than that.