There are times when being Sir Michael Caine must be a little surreal. “A couple of years ago,” the acting legend laughs, “someone sent me a birthday card and on it was a picture of me and it said, ‘You’re only supposed to blow the candles out,’” referring, of course, to his famous line “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” in The Italian Job, which rocketed him to international stardom in the 60s.
“And you know those GPS systems,” he continues, “where you have the maps in the car and they tell you to turn left or right or whatever. Well, there’s one with my voice on it. But it’s not me; it’s an impressionist. I wish I could get paid for it – I’d be a multimillionaire!”
Thanks to a career that spans more than six decades and includes two Oscars and three Golden Globes and, of course, a knighthood in 2000, he must surely be one already. Not bad for the proudly working class son of a Billingsgate fish porter.
He’s 82 now, still going strong, with no immediate plans to retire, unlike the character in his latest movie, Youth (in cinemas from Friday 29 January). He plays classical music composer Fred Ballinger, who is on holiday at a luxury Swiss spa with one of his oldest pals, film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). Mick is struggling to finish a troublesome screenplay and Fred is resisting attempts to coax him out of retirement for a special concert.
“As I’ve got older,” Caine explains, “what is attractive to me is to play parts that push me as an actor, which means playing someone who is farther and farther away from who I really am, and I feel I’ve done this with Youth.
“I’m from a very working class background and for me to play a classical music composer and conductor, in terms of class and accent, was one of the hardest things I’ve done and I think I’ve carried it off.
“I connected with Fred because we are both 82, but he’s completely apathetic about his work and has an unhappy family life, whereas I’m completely the opposite.”
He did try retiring once, back in the 1990s, convinced that the industry had given up on him and content to spend his days in the Florida sunshine where he had a home.
“I thought it was over. With the movies, they retire you. Eventually nobody wants you and it’s only desperate people who send terrible scripts, or there’s no money and it’s not worth getting up in the morning. So this whole later career is a complete surprise to me.”
It all changed when a friend, Jack Nicholson, tempted him back for a part in the thriller Blood and Wine in 1996, which was conveniently filming near his home in Florida. He’s produced some of his best work in these later years – winning his second Oscar for The Cider House Rules, another Academy Award nomination for The Quiet American and playing Alfred, butler and surrogate father to Christian Bale’s Caped Crusader in Christopher Nola’s batman films.
Nolan continues to cast him in his other films, including Interstellar. “He’s my lucky charm,” he laughs. “I’ve made a fortune out of him. I’ve done six pictures with him and they’re all blockbusters. It’s funny how these things happen.
He recalls their first meeting. “I was at home one Sunday morning and the doorbell rang and there was this man standing there with a script. I knew who he was, so I said I’d have a look. But he’s very secretive, is Chris, and he was like, ‘No, read it now!’ So I said, ‘OK. By the way, what’s the name of the film?’ It was Batman Begins.
“I thought, ‘He’s not going to offer me the bloody butler, is he? What do I say… ‘Dinner is served’ or ‘Would you like another piece of toast?’ But I read it and, of course, Alfred is our foothold into all this fantasy. I thought it was great and asked what the budget was and he said $175 million. ‘Shit, how much of that can I get?’ I asked.
It all changed when a friend, Jack Nicholson, tempted him back for a part in the thriller Blood and Wine in 1996, which was conveniently filming near his home in I didn’t even get ten per cent!” It’s a typical Caine one-liner. He’s hugely entertaining; full of anecdotes about stars like Shirley MacLaine, John Wayne and Roger Moore, which he rolls out with the ease of a polished raconteur who has penned two autobiographies. “You never know,” he says, “I might do another one.”
In Youth, his character is full of regrets but Caine is not the type to dwell on the past. He insists, “I tell my children: ‘never look back, you’ll fall over. Just keep going, not matter what.’ “It’s like when people say, “That picture was a disaster, have you seen the reviews?’ Yep, I just keep going and do another one.” He offers this as a lesson to other young people looking to break into show business.
“I watch those talent shows – The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent – and when someone cries because they’ve been knocked out, I always want to say to them, ‘This is one of a thousand auditions, pick yourself up.’ I did 27 auditions for parts in theatre and never got one. I auditioned for Alfie in the theatre and didn’t get it.
“I was sharing a flat with Terence Stamp when they were about to make the film of Alfie and they offered it to everybody, including Terence who turned it down. I was the last one to be offered the role because Lewis (Gilbert, director) was desperate. So my advice is, you have to ride with it and keep going. As Churchill said, ‘Carry on and keep going’. That’s my motto.”
He was married, for seven years until 1962, to actress Patricia Haines (she died in 1977) who had his first daughter, Dominique. But he credits second wife Shakira Baksh, who is 14 years his junior, with saving him from his wilder ways. “Without her I would have been dead long ago. I would have probably drunk myself to death. I was a bit of a piss artist when I was younger, I used to drink a bottle of vodka a day and I was smoking too, several packs a day.
“I wasn’t unhappy but it was stress. You know, ‘Am I going to get another picture? How am I going to do this part? How am I going to remember all those lines? I’ve got to get up at 6 in the morning and I hope the alarm works.’ There was always some stressful thing. Meeting Shakira calmed me down.
“And she’s not the little wife; she runs the whole business side of my life. She’s my righthand man, my confidante. I tell her everything. I was famous when I met her, but I couldn’t have got this far without her. She is the most important person in my life.”
They were married in 1973 and have a daughter, Natasha. “I’m a big family man. I’ve got two grandsons, aged five and six, and I love ’em to bits.” He adds proudly, “I became a bit of a hero to them. I was watching cartoons with the eldest and a trailer for one of the Batman films came on and there’s me with Batman. He said, ‘Do you know Batman?’ I said casually, ‘Yeah, he’s a friend of mine…’ ”
Michael Caine stars in Youth, in cinemas now