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Michael Caine stars in the film 'Harry Brown.'

Michael Caine

Goes Back to His Roots with Harry Brown

by Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: April 29, 2010.  

Despite a legendary film career that has lasted well over 50 years and 100 films and gained him a knighthood, Michael Caine puts on no airs.

The man may have one of the most recognizable faces and long-lasting careers in show business, but he still sees himself as a Cockney street kid who somehow made good.

Caine had already been laboring as a bit actor for over a decade when he first opened eyes with his performance in the 1964 film Zulu. He quickly did a series of legendary British performances in the likes of Get Carter, The Ipcress File and Alfie.

Caine started working in Hollywood when Shirley MacLaine personally picked him as her co-star in Gambit in 1966 and Caine has split his work between the US and England ever since. Other classic films that Caine starred in include The Italian Job, Sleuth, A Bridge Too Far, Dressed To Kill, Educating Rita, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Little Voice, Children of Men and The Prestige.

He has been nominated for Oscars for Best Actor six times and won for Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and The Cider House Rules (2000). With this long, distinguished career, Caine may be best recognized to the young generation as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler in the Batman movies.

His latest film is literally a return to Caine’s roots. The disturbing urban drama Harry Brown – in which Caine plays an elderly former marine who finally has enough of the violence rampant in his neighborhood and eventually takes matters into his own hands – was filmed right near the neighborhood in which Caine grew up.

Caine recently met with a roundtable of journalists – myself included – at the Regency Hotel in New York to discuss Harry Brown just a couple of days before the film was to open in New York and Los Angeles. From the moment Caine entered, you could tell that the man was genuinely friendly and enjoys the opportunity to interact with people. “Nobody tried to eat those, did they?” Caine good-naturedly warned as he walked in to talk to the group, pointing at a bowl of obviously fake fruit.

Michael Caine stars in the film 'Harry Brown.'What was it like to be in such a violent, disturbing film?

It’s very funny, because I never saw it as a violent film. I saw it as a film about violence, which I hate. The whole movie was made against violence. People are picking one message out. I made the picture because it was a very good part and a wonderful script and I thought it would make a great thriller, but I wouldn’t have made it just for that. Not playing a vigilante. The vigilante is there as a warning to whoever’s in charge in England… I’m not quite sure most of the time – probably nobody. If you don’t do something about the whole section of young people who you’ve left to rot, this is what’s going to happen to you. It’s of special interest to me because I come from that whole section of people who’ve been left to rot. It just simply didn’t work with me.


You went to the military so I’m sure that helped a lot.


Oh yeah, eighteen I went into the military. I don’t want to be one of these old guys that are, “Stick them all in the Army!” and all that, but I do believe that six months – not two years like I did and no combat like I did – just six months of discipline and learning to serve your country. You learn weaponry to defend your country – you never use it on anybody, but you just do it – and you come out and you are a different person. I absolutely promise you that you are a better person. All my gang – I was in a gang – we all went in and we all came out absolutely different. I remember one of them, I was on an airplane and he came out and he said “I’m the pilot.” I said, “You can’t be the pilot, you’re more stupid than I am!” (laughs) “I couldn’t fly a plane. How the hell did you manage it?” He said, “Well, I went to flight school.” But before that, he was just like all of us – our gang out on the streets. We were what they used to call teddy boys. We had thick crepe-soled shoes and hair in a certain way, which was called a D.A. because it looked like a duck’s ass. We were quite rough – but compared with today’s gangs, we were like Mary Poppins. Our drug was alcohol and we fought with our fists, but we were only together as a gang out of self-defense. We never wanted to attack anyone.


Michael Caine stars in the film 'Harry Brown.'You grew up in the area where the film was made…


Exactly. Exactly. Where those flats… you saw the movie…, at the entrance of those apartments there is a mural to me.


What was it like going back and seeing how it had changed after all those years?


Well, it was scary because I hadn’t realized quite how dangerous it all was. Today, instead of alcohol and a fistfight and getting a broken nose, you’ll get shot or knifed. You’ve got people that have no idea what they’re doing – because they’re drugged up to the eyeballs. You can say, “Well, they’d never do that…” and of course they do, because you don’t know they’re high. So it was extremely dangerous. One of the minor, silly things is that we would do daylight shots with dialogue and it became a nuisance because every time we shot a shot, there was a police siren. All day long. I’ve never heard… [anything like it.] We became aware in the daylight, on a sunny Wednesday afternoon we had to keep reshooting because of the police sirens.


Were you ever intimidated by the real kids that were cast in the film?


No, the reason for that is you must remember to them I am them. I’m the same. So they talk to me. I can talk to them like nobody else could talk because they know I’m won’t tell the police about it or nothing. So I am them. That’s why I became more charitable towards them because I understood that 80% of all gangs – including yours, the most terrible gang here that you can think of, 80% are not there to do anybody any harm. They’re there so that nobody does them any harm. They are there for self-protection. That’s the thing you have to rely on, to educate and get them out of the system.


It’s a cycle…


Oh, yeah, yeah. It’s a big, big [one]…


What do you see as the solution? What can the government do?


I see it as education. It’s education. If you think, [there’s] a sort of class system, which is even in America, but we’re different. In England it’s the lower class – which had been white, but now is also black. Here you have the lower class of black and everything else. So, you had that class thing stuck there in England. It doesn’t matter what you are – if you are lower class, you’re not going to be good. I know that, because I am lower class. So, you’ve got to get over that and educate these people. You think, “I’m going to educate this guy with tattoos out to here and he’s got two knives in his pocket?” You have to take him to school. You have to break down the system and start with the younger ones.


Michael Caine stars in the film 'Harry Brown.'There doesn’t seem to be any breaking of the class system in London. Like, Paul McCartney still considers himself a working class lad…


Yes. Me, too. Well, that’s because the upper class in England is useless, so we don’t want to belong to that. So we are our own kind. We will forever be working class because that’s how we think.


Is there a pride in that?


Yes. Incredible. One of the things is that people like myself and McCartney in the ’60s when we just said to society to shove it up… somewhere. This is how it’s going to be. The ’60s were started by some very mundane reasons – one being that Lord [John] Reith wouldn’t let the BBC, which was the only radio program we had, play pop music. So we had to listen to the American Forces Network in Germany and Luxembourg. We said, “Wait a minute, what is this?” There where all these sort of prejudices. Then you had the working class guys like myself and Paul McCartney came up and said this is not going to be like that. We told everybody to shove it. We created our own society. The reason we called ourselves working class is because we don’t want to be anything else. Being upper class is not a rise in the system. It’s probably a downward step, if you understand the meaning.


So is Harry Brown shining a new light on this problem?


Yes. It’s worked in some areas. For instance, The London Times called [the movie] “odious.” That’s a pity because the film is aimed at you because you don’t seem to know it’s there. If you are reading The London Times you’re probably educated, in some position of authority, and you could get into power and do something about this. And you are that stripe of society and the film is odious, then you must take responsibility for the smell. You created the cesspool it’s coming from. That’s why I was particularly upset – not because of the review, I could care a poof what they said – because we hadn’t gotten through to them. But we have gotten through to a lot of other people. 

You’ve worked with a lot of great filmmakers over the years. Daniel Barber is a first-time feature director. What was he like to work with?

He had it. He did a picture called “Tonto Woman.” It was a short movie and he got an Oscar nomination for that. I saw that and thought this guy knows exactly what he is doing. Then when we talked, he said to me about Harry Brown, “This is a western, isn’t it?” (laughs) I said, in a way, yeah. I noticed with him – and it came sort of to fruition in the movie – I know he’s a movie director, but he has incredible use of sound. He’s young and he’s done lots of commercials. What I like about him was he knew all the lens and things. He knew the stuff you could do rather than an old-time director… no matter how great. This guy knew every technology all over the shop. He’s got it in there. I think he’s going to be a very big director – very big. He’s a wonderful young guy.


We know that the upper classes will likely not do anything to end the situation for the poor. Do you feel that seeing the film will get the community itself to bond to end the violence?


I think so. I think so. But the community itself will say, We know about that. Because that drug guy, those two drug guys, live next door.” It’s aimed basically really at the middle class and upper class who, of necessity, run the country.


Have you heard any response from the working class community about the movie?


A reporter asked me Have you ever seen this film with the public? I said no. He said that every time we shoot someone, they cheer. (laughs)  So that’s the response from the people at the Elephant and Castle!


Emily Mortimer and Michael Caine star in the film 'Harry Brown.'Emily [Mortimer]’s character seemed really fragile, even from the beginning. Are there really women like her in the Metropolitan police?


Yeah, I thought it was a very courageous thing instead of going and casting a great big butch girl who could throw you out a window to put Emily in there. I remember I was walking in the area, just going for a stroll round and looking, in between takes. There was a young couple coming along. She was a very pretty young girl and they had their arm round each other and when they got to me they went, “Can we have your autograph?” I said yes. And they both went, “We’re undercover police.” She looked just like Emily. Because I had been a bit worried, I thought I’d have expected someone a bit more – not lesbian but more butch, you know? As the Mayor of Los Angeles said “with more upper shoulder strength.” (laughs) He got into trouble for that. But Emily is a wonderful actress, and she had this very sensitive quality and a quite thin look – not a robust girl. That was the thing. She mixed this icy policeman’s thing with a tremendous tenderness for this old man who was crumbling before her eyes. That’s what I thought was so wonderful about it. When Daniel said [the role would be played by] Emily, who I’ve known since she was born because her father John Mortimer’s a friend of mine, I thought I don’t know if Emily’s a bit small for this. But she turned out very big. I thought she was excellent.


Harry was very reluctant to discuss his military background. As someone who has one as well…


Soldiers never do. Combat soldiers don’t. If you hear a guy shooting his mouth off about combat and all that, he’s never been through combat.


Is it hard to put that behind you?


It wasn’t for me. The day I left the Army, I was… You know, I specialized in cowardice and won several medals. (laughs) I was like give me a pair of running shoes, some Nikes!


Michael Caine stars in the film 'Harry Brown.'Did you do any weapons training for the film?


No, I knew all that. I know these things. I’m reasonably trained. If you gave me a really modern gun, I’d have to say, “Where’s the safety?” But I really know weapons.


They don’t mention exactly what Harry did in the Marines. When you were putting the character together did you envision him as a sniper or something?


No, he wasn’t a sniper, because he was in the squad. When he describes watching his friend die, a sniper wouldn’t be there. No, he would just be an ordinary infantryman. But he wasn’t a soldier like me. He was a real one. He was a Marine. They had to teach me that stab move when the guy came out. The guy came from the Army and taught me how to do that. I wouldn’t have learned that as an ordinary British soldier. We just fired at anybody that moved and ran! (laughs)


The role was at times extremely challenging, like Harry watching the video of his friend being killed. How do you as an actor walk into a moment like that and make it believable?


The way I do it is I am a Stanislavski actor. That doesn’t mean you mumble and scratch your ass all the time. But I’m a Method actor. The basis, there are a couple of things with Stanislavski – the rehearsal is the work and the performance is the relaxation. The other thing is sense memory. For instance, if I want to cry, I can do it like that. I pick one thing from my memory that I remember and I will go. I have never told anyone what it is. Even my wife doesn’t know what it is. But I can cry, as you saw me doing in the movie, I just did it straight like that. What you have to remember if you are an actor… a male actor… is men do not cry. They will do anything but cry. They stop themselves crying. And eventually they do cry if it’s bad enough. So that’s how you know with a man how bad it is for him. Because he would’ve stopped himself – because it’s “I’m very butch and I don’t cry. That’s sissy, that’s feminine.” Men always cry like that. They don’t cry and in the end they do. If they do then it’s overwhelming. Which is what I did and then I blew the whole thing out.


Michael Caine stars in the film 'Harry Brown.'You mentioned Stanislavski, so you have taken acting classes?


No, I never took any acting classes. Where I learned that, I went to Joan Littlewood’s theatre workshop as an actor in plays. She taught Stanislavski during rehearsal and taught me, in particular. She said something rather telling for me. She was Communist and it was all very Communist in group theatre and Russian and Stanislavski. She eventually fired me and the reason she fired me – I had no idea what she was talking about. She said, “This is a group theatre, Michael. We will have none of this star nonsense here. You’re fired.” I said, But I’m in the group. What am I doing? What am I doing?” She said, “I know what you’re doing.” But I didn’t. That’s what she said to me. She fired me. But before she fired me, I learned about those things from Stanislavski.


You have been making movies for five decades now. How has Hollywood changed for you, for better or worse? 


Hollywood for me has stayed the same. Inasmuch as all the myths of Hollywood, like I’ll give you some for instances. Like, you’re only as good as your last picture. Your friends will dump you if you fail. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It’s full of false friends. Don’t trust anyone. I have in Hollywood a group of friends who I trust with my life. I’ve had for forty years. Whether I’ve made a flop picture or a successful one has not changed anything in the slightest about them.  They are completely sincere and would do anything for me. So I have the highest regard for Hollywood. Also, I was writing my first biography and I was so pro-Hollywood, I thought to myself – bloody hell I sound like I’m kissing ass here! I’d better do something negative about Hollywood. I sat there another while and I said “I know what I’d do negative about Hollywood – divorce.” I went to write about divorce and all my Hollywood friends had been married to the same woman longer than I had. So I couldn’t write about divorce. You know this is Billy Wilder, Gregory Peck, Frank Sinatra, all these people. They’d all been married for years. Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, any of them. All the executives. Lew Wasserman. Anybody. They’d all been married to their wives longer than I’d been married to mine. I was going to do Hollywood about divorce. So I had to can it.  So I’m very pro-Hollywood. It can be tough, but it’s only tough if you haven’t prepared yourself. If you’ve never done an acting lesson and never done any acting and you go to Hollywood and say, “I’m going to be a star!” – whether you are male or female, you’re gonna have to sleep with someone on the way there. Take my word for it! There’s also one Monday morning when some director is going to say “Action” and you’re going to go “Oh shit! What do I do now?”



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Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: April 29, 2010.  

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Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: April 29, 2010.