Sleuth : Michael Caine Interview


Sir Michael Caine has waited a long, long time to be reunited with Harold Pinter. “Yes, I’d done The Room at The Royal Court which was Harold’s first play,” he recalls. “And then Harold became famous as a writer and I became one of his biggest fans and then for 50 years I never got another chance to work with him. And I’m going ‘wait a minute, I started this!’”

When Sir Michael was approached by Jude Law and asked if was interested in re-visiting a film, Sleuth, from earlier in his career at first he was reluctant to commit. Until he heard that Pinter was working on a contemporary version of the story.

Sleuth was originally a Tony award winning stage play written by Anthony Shaffer and then, in 1972, came director Joe Mankiewicz’s film version which paired the late Sir Laurence Olivier as writer Andrew Wyke with Michael Caine as Milo Tindle who is having an affair with his wife.

Pinter has taken the bones of this story and turned it into a piece that is very much his own, says Michael who, this time, plays Wyke with Law – who also produces – playing Tindle. Just to add to the heady mix of heavyweight British talent, Kenneth Branagh directs.

“I would never have made a remake of Tony Shaffer’s script,” Sir Michael explains. “I felt Larry and Joe Mankiewicz and Tony and I did a perfectly good job with that script and there’s no point in remaking it.

“The attraction here was the Pinter script. It’s very, very different and Pinter has made it his own. Pinter never saw the movie and Harold probably wasn’t aware that there was a movie.

“He was given the stage play by Jude who said ‘do you think you could adapt this for a movie?’ So Harold innocently didn’t know about our (original) movie, he just took this stage play - he never saw it on stage, none of us have – and adapted it. And he did the most fantastic job.”

Pinter, who won the Nobel in 2005, has a formidable reputation as a writer who refuses to discuss or analyse his work and is reluctant to let actors and directors tinker with his text. Caine recalls that it was ever so and that even back at the start of his career, Pinter was the same.

“He was great but even then he was an absolute stickler about his work, you couldn’t change it or do anything,” says Sir Michael. “I had a scene where a blind man comes into the room and my character takes his stick away and beats him to death with it. I said to him ‘why do I do that Harold?’ And he said ‘how the hell do I know? Do it. Get on with it.’ So I did it. And he’s like that now. You cannot change any words.”

In Pinter’s expert hands, Sleuth becomes a funny, sinister and mesmerising encounter between two men who, on the surface at least, are fighting over a woman. “It always reminds me of the break down of civilisation under a very thin veneer,” says Sir Michael.

Delivering those marvellously concise words can be a joy. But as far as Caine is concerned you approach a Pinter script with care and consideration and play it completely straight – even when there’s humour on the page.

“I’ll tell you what it’s like, it’s like being a straight man for a comic,” he says of playing Pinter. “The comic is funny – and that’s Pinter. He’s funny, sinister, or whatever.

“You have to be the straight man in delivering his words, like a real person. It’s only funny, sinister, dangerous and nervous if you act just like it’s normal. I can make a comparison with me and Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

“Steve is being absolutely outrageous and I’m acting as thought nothing is wrong. If I tried to be funny it wouldn’t be funny and that’s the same with Pinter. You are the straight man to whatever he is doing and don’t try to be funny, don’t try to be sinister, don’t try to be nasty, just be natural – never overdo it.

“And you have two actors there, Jude and me, who specialise in natural rather than theatrical performances. “

Caine, Law and Branagh represent three generations of British actors and filmmakers brought together on Sleuth. There is a common bond, he says, and a shared approach.

“If there’s a common bond I suppose it’s ability - the ability to make movies, to be a movie actor, to be a movie director. Jude is a very experienced movie actor. I am too. Ken is very experienced movie director and actor.

“So you have all this experience and you have people who trust each other, like each other and are funny with each other. We had a laugh on that set. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done and more laughs than you would imagine.

“We never stopped laughing. This was a short shoot but you are in every shot and that’s why it’s so hard. You are in every shot every day all the time and you never stop talking, you have lots of dialogue to learn. Sometime we would do nine pages, which is nine minutes, which is a lot. But it is very, very rewarding.”

Sir Michael, who won Academy Awards for Hannah and Her Sisters and The Cider House Rules, is as busy as ever – recently playing an ageing hippy in the critically acclaimed The Children of Men and the loyal butler, Alfred, in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and the sequel The Dark Knight.

He keeps working, he says, because he still loves the adrenalin rush from acting. If the key components on a film are right – great script, director and cast – then, he jokes, it’s an offer he can’t refuse.

“I can’t refuse to do Batman and I couldn’t refuse the remake of Sleuth. And with Children of Men, it was a fascinating character with a fascinating director with a fascinating leading man. Why not do it?

“I do exactly what I want nowadays, I mean, I’m not working for the rent here or anything. But I have to be working with people and have something to do because suddenly it’s a very cold Monday morning and you are getting up at six o-clock and you have six pages of dialogue and you are liable to say to yourself ‘why the hell am I doing this?’ And if you haven’t got some very good reasons you are liable to feel very stupid.”

Sir Michael has been one of Britain’s biggest film stars for more than four decades. He was born, Maurice Micklewhite in London 73 years ago and fell in love with film when he watched actors like Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy at his local cinema.

After National Service in the army, he first worked as an assistant stage manager and eventually, as an actor in repertory theatre, touring the UK in numerous productions where he learnt his craft.

In the Sixties, he broke into film with a series of iconic roles – playing the upper class officer leading a doomed company of men in Zulu, a working class womaniser in Alfie and creating Harry Palmer, a British spy, in The Ipcress File.

In the 1970s, Sir Michael consolidated his position as one of the biggest stars in the world, starring with his friend, Sir Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King (directed by one of his cinematic heroes, John Huston) and playing a German officer in The Eagle Has Landed.

In the 1980s, he played the drink sodden, cynical college professor who is charmed by a working class student (played by Julie Walters) and won his first Oscar for Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. Throughout the 1990s, he continued to enjoy a remarkable run of success – his second Oscar came in 1999 for The Cider House Rules. He received his knighthood in the Queen’s birthday honours list of June 2000 for his contribution to the performing arts.

Q: What are your memories of the first Sleuth?

Very vague. I haven’t seen it since I made it, because you don’t. You see them so many times when you make them, you go to this premier and that premier and you sit through them, and you never want to see them again. My memories of that film were that it was very, very long – it took 16 weeks. We shot this one in four weeks and I’ve been trying to think what we did on the other one for the other 12 weeks. (laughs) I don’t know what we did. We did rehearse this and we did rehearse the one with Larry a bit, for about five days. He was in a bit of trouble, he was taking Valium and he had been fired from the National - it was a rotten period for him. When we started rehearsals it wasn’t very good and that was a bit worrying for Joe (Mankiewicz, director of original Sleuth) because there was only two of us in it. But after a couple of days of rehearsal he brought in a moustache and put it on and then he was great, that sort of opened it up for him. He said to me at the end of the week ‘I could never act with my own face. I can’t do it.’ And if you look at him he’s always got a bit of a nose, some teeth in, some contact lens or a beard. He said ‘I cannot do it with my own face.’ And I watched him try and he couldn’t. And also it was quite strange if you think of a parallel, he was Sir Laurence Olivier and I was an ordinary young actor and I am Sir Michael Caine and Jude is just Mr Jude Law and the difference to the class thing now to then is huge. In the papers then it was ‘oh the greatest actor in the world is going to chew Michael Caine up into little bits. The little Cockney upstart from Alfie’ and all this. There was that kind of snobbery went on in papers to the extent where Larry before we actually met sent me a letter saying ‘when we meet you may be wondering how to address me and you should call me Larry from that moment onwards.’ But the difference in the class situation now, none of that would occur with Jude. He calls me Michael and that’s it.

Q: Did you know Jude before working together?

Yes, I did. We were friends before this picture.

Q: What about with Olivier?

No, I’d never met him. The first time I met him was when he came to rehearsal, which was five lackadaisical days of rehearsal and 16 weeks of shooting. Here it was three weeks of intense, intense rehearsal, so intense that Jude and I knew all the dialogue before we turned up for shooting so that there was no fluffing around. And then we shot it in four, four and a half weeks. So it was like a big adrenaline rush.

Q: Did you like Olivier?

Oh yes, we got on so well that we used to have dinner months after the movie had gone. Larry would ring up and say ‘what are you doing tonight? Do you want dinner?’ and we would go and have a chat. We got on really well. He was a nice man, very nice. I read all these articles about him in the paper but I never noticed anything of that kind.

Q: Would it be fair to describe Ken Branagh as an actor’s director?

Yes, definitely. That was the advantage we had with both of these pictures, they were great actor’s directors because both movies are about acting, they are not about scenery and CGI and violence and action. Joe was one of the best directors of words and he was a great writer himself – he wrote All About Eve. And with Ken Branagh you have a director who is probably as good if not a better actor than you are. And he knows what you are trying to do and he can see things that maybe you can’t. Very often he would come up to me and whisper something in my ear and I’ll go ‘why didn’t I think of that?’

Q: What persuaded you to do the film in the first place?

Well, I would never have made a remake of Tony Shaffer’s script. I felt Larry and Joe Mankiewicz and Tony and I did a perfectly good job with that script and there’s no point in remaking it. The attraction here was the Pinter script. It’s very, very different and Pinter has made it his own. Pinter never saw the movie and if I know Harold, he probably wasn’t aware that there was a movie. He was given the stage play by Jude who said ‘do you think you could adapt this for a movie?’ So Harold innocently didn’t know about our movie, he just took this stage play, he never saw it on stage, none of us have – and adapted it. And he did the most fantastic job.

Q: Before he became known as a playwright, Pinter was an actor….

Yes, he was, he was known as David Baron. If you look closely in Sleuth you will see that the publisher of Andrew Wyke’s books is called ‘Baron Books’ and there’s a lot of those little things in there if you notice them. You have to notice things with Pinter. Like when I ask Jude’s character if he wants a drink and he says he doesn’t want vodka and he goes to the drinks and it’s already poured. Because when he loses his temper with him he says ‘I had everything already planned before you got here.’

Q: Had you seen Pinter over the years?

Occasionally but not often. We never moved in the same circles at all. I went into America for a long time and he won’t be going to America I wouldn’t think (laughs). We were friends, we went to the same school, Hackney Downs, and so we had that in common. It was one of those friendships that when you meet again you kind of continue where you left off. I mean, we’re not bosom buddies but I’m a great fan of his. When I got the Pinter script there are only two lines in it from the original, one is ‘it’s only a game’ and the other one is ‘Tindolini, that sounds like a bell.’ He kept both of those lines but as for the rest of it it’s completely Pinter.

Q: Was Pinter there when you rehearsed?

Yes, sometimes.

Q: What was that like?

Well, a bit scary. He would be there once a week at least and we would run things through for him. And then at the end we ran the whole thing for him because we knew it like a play. We both knew all the lines. It was a bit scary with Pinter there but then he liked it so much that we were off and running once he said that.

Q: Pinter has been involved with this project for more than four years. When did you first come on board?

Jude and I had dinner with a mutual friend, David Tang, about a year ago and neither of us knew the other one was coming. And during the course of the dinner Jude said ‘would you be interested in a remake of Sleuth?’ and I said ‘oh, I don’t know..’ and he went ‘re-written by Harold Pinter.’ And I went ‘yes, please.’ It was Pinter that brought me in.

Q: This one is darker and savagely funny. What did you see the piece was about essentially?

It always reminds me of the break down of civilisation under a very thin veneer. Inside my character’s house it’s ultra modern and full of gadgets - there are cameras and computers and lights and cars but they go right back to the primitive very quickly. The set is very cold, it’s like the inside of a refrigerator – to me they look like two pieces of meat rotting inside a refrigerator where the electricity is gone. In the end, they forget what they are fighting about – the woman becomes completely irrelevant.

Q: Had you seen Jude’s work over the years?

I’ve seen all of his work. I rate him very highly. I wouldn’t have done the picture otherwise. I can’t act with bad actors, I become bad myself if I act with them, they bring it all down and I become worse than them. You try to act with the best possible people to bring yourself up. And it’s very important in a piece when there’s only two of you.

Q: Did you shoot it in sequence?

Yes, both of them. And that helped a lot because you knew how far you’d gone. That’s very rare. Of all the films that I’ve done it’s only been the two Sleuths that I shot in sequence – not Alfie or Educating Rita and they were plays. That was Ken’s and Joe’s idea. It helped because it’s an acting piece and the actors have to get it right otherwise you’ve got nothing.

Q: Let’s talk about Ken Branagh. How did he approach this?

You know, he’s the funniest guy to work with. And he’s so inventive, if you think in terms of that incredible set, which was Ken. In the script Pinter just said ‘the interior is glass, marble and wood.’ The rest of it was Branagh and the designer and the lighting man and it was amazing. We were doing an interview together and here’s a guy who as an actor is probably as good as you are, and he’s a phenomenal director.

Q: Was there a common approach with yourself, Ken Branagh and Jude Law?

Yes, we approached it completely professionally and there was no tantrums, lateness, not knowing lines. And then we wanted to make it absolutely natural and real, which I’ve always done. And Jude has done the same thing, too. So you have this naturalness. People like Jude and Ken and Pinter, I mean, they are very, very talented and if you are working with people like that you must produce something worthwhile. I mean, it’s not going to be a piece of shit or something.

Q: What have you been doing since you finished Sleuth?

I just finished Batman, The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger who plays the Joker will be the surprise in that. He has gone a completely different direction from Jack (Nicholson). Jack was a bit funny, a bit like a nasty old uncle and this guy is a terrifying psychopath. He’s a wonderful actor, Heath, and a very nice guy. I’d never met him before and he’s wonderful. Most of that we did in Chicago but I did some here. In a few weeks I start a picture called Is There Anybody There? Which is produced by David Hayman who produces the Harry Potter films. It’s about a 10-year-old boy whose mother and father own an old people’s home. So he lives in an old people’s home and every time he makes friends the people die, so he gets a camera and a flashlight and a tape recorder and he goes looking for their ghosts. And he can’t find their ghosts or anyone to talk to, and an old magician turns up to die, me, and he helps him find his ghosts. I love the story.