By Susan King
Los Angeles Times
Michael Caine regards himself as retired, which may seem like an odd statement for someone who consistently works. Truth be told, Caine’s really not retired — he just doesn’t have the next script in hand.
“There may be one that comes along that forces me out of bed, you know what I mean?” said the much-beloved British actor who at 82 is perhaps more active — and more adventurous — than at any time in his storied career.
The one that comes along has to be an offer he can’t refuse, as Caine explains in his endlessly imitated Cockney accent (impersonating Caine was a motif running through the recent comedy “The Trip” and its sequel). Such was the case with Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth.”
Caine was so eager to do the delicate comedy-drama that he almost accepted it without reading the script.
“You get lucky sometimes,” Caine said during a recent phone chat. “When I got the first phone call from my agent saying Paolo Sorrentino has a script for you, I thought, ‘My God, I didn’t think he was the same plane as me.’ I thought he wouldn’t have heard of me.”
Not only had the Italian filmmaker, best known for his Oscar-winning 2013 film “The Great Beauty,” heard of Caine, he has wanted to be the actor since he saw him in Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters,” which won Caine one of his two Oscars (“The Cider House Rules” was the other).
“I fell in love with Michael Caine,” Sorrentino said in an email interview. “I am sure all the men who watched the film wanted to be Michael Caine.”
So Sorrentino wrote something of a valentine for Caine, who made his first big splash 50 years ago as secret agent Harry Palmer in “The Ipcress File” and earned his first of four lead actor Oscar nominations as playing the ultimate cad “Alfie” a year later in the 1966 comedy-drama.
While most older actors have a difficult time finding good roles, that hasn’t been the case with Caine. He continues to find roles that fulfill his most important criteria for taking a part — it pushes him as an actor. He has continued to attract the attention of today’s best directors, such as Christopher Noland, with whom he’s appeared in six films, most notably as Alfred in the “Dark Knight” franchise.
Caine’s done some of his best recent work in small indie productions such as 2009’s “Harry Brown,” in which he plays an ex-serviceman out to seek revenge for a friend’s murder, and 2008’s “Is Anybody There?,” in which he played a retired clown at an old folks’ home suffering from dementia.
He’s also a successful writer, having penned two entertaining memoirs — 1992’s “What’s It All About” and 2010’s “The Elephant to Hollywood.”
“I’m writing a fiction thriller about terrorism,” he said. “But history keeps overtaking you. Paris has overtaken my book, I won’t write anything for six months so I can see what’s going to happen with Paris.”
In “Youth,” Caine commands the screen as Fred Ballinger, an erudite retired classical composer-conductor who is in the midst of his annual visit to an idyllic Swiss spa that’s filled with guests ranging from a young actor (Paul Dano) preparing for his next role, a nubile Miss Universe and an extremely obese former soccer superstar.
Joining him at the spa is his longtime friend Mick (Harvey Keitel), a movie producer in the third act of his career, and Lena (Rachel Weisz), Fred’s embittered daughter and assistant who is married to Mick’s son.
Fred and Mick talk about youth, growing old, love, their prostates and why Fred refuses offers to conduct his most famous composition for an event for Prince Philip. (Fred’s wife, who now suffers from Alzheimer’s, originally sang the song.)
“I wrote the script with him in mind, and without him, I wouldn’t have made the film,” Sorrentino said. “As Renoir used to say, actors are more important than the characters they play. This is not always true, but I think that it may apply to Fred.”
When Caine learned that Sorrentino wouldn’t do the film without him, “I almost said that I’d do it without reading the script. When I read the script, I said, ‘Oh, yes, I’ll do it.’ It was the quality of the writing and quality of the story.”
Caine is always attracted to roles that test him, and Fred, he noted “was an extreme test. I am a Cockney guy — the son of a house cleaner and a fish market porter, and I am playing a classical composer and conductor. Socially in England, that is as far away from me as I could get.”
He had to make Michael Caine and the acting disappear, Caine said, so “all you could see was Fred Ballinger. One of the worst insults I could think of is if you are sitting in the audience with someone and you say, ‘Isn’t Michael Caine a wonderful actor?’ Then I have failed. You should be saying, ‘What is going to happen with Fred?’”
Caine knew how to play Fred as soon as he saw himself dressed as the character in the mirror — with a white wig, black-rimmed glasses and comfortable suits and sweaters. “I knew who he was,” Caine said.
Though he’s receiving glowing reviews for his touching performance, Caine won’t really talk about his chances of receiving his fifth lead actor Oscar nomination. “I always regard it to be unlucky to talk Oscars before you have been nominated.”
Sorrentino, said Caine, was “exactly the same as all other great directors. They leave you alone. I once said to John Huston (who famously directed him and Sean Connery in ‘The Man Who Would Be King’), ‘What is the art of directing?’ And he said, ‘Casting.’ So they are all geniuses at casting. They know exactly what they want and they don’t interfere with you. When they do, they do it very quietly and right to the point with very few words. And you stand there and go, ‘Oh, my God. I didn’t realize that.’”
The director noted that Caine brought a sense of irony “‘between the lines” to his performance. “Only the greatest have such a gift. He is able to establish a sense of humor through details that are so minimal to seem, at times, invisible. But they are indeed there.”
Caine and Keitel quickly bonded because they were both ex-soldiers. “He was a Marine, and I was a soldier in the British army in Korea,” he said. “We had that in common. When you talk to an infantry soldier, you know things, and that helped us.”
Though he just completed a remake of the 1979 comedy-drama “Going in Style” with Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin, the role Caine loves the most these days is that of doting grandfather to his three young grandchildren in the country home he shares with his wife of 42 years, Shakira.
When he describes his current country life, he could be any English gentleman — if that gentleman weren’t one of the most admired actors in the world.
“I don’t get up early in the morning,” he said. “I am a gardener and a cook. I cook a really good turkey. I know I’m boasting, but I really do.”