He may play an ageing magician with dementia in Is Anybody There?, but Michael Caine doesn’t struggle with recalling his magical career

The last time Michael Caine ended up sharing some serious screen time with a kid was for Conor McPherson’s criminally-underrated, Dublin-set comedy The Actors, back in 2003.

Back then, Caine’s self-important theatre actor memorably told his pretty little co-star, Mary (Abigail Iversen), to “F**k off!”. No such expletives are necessary in Caine’s latest offering, Is Anybody There?, which once again boasts an Irish director (John Crowley, who previously gave us Intermission), and a talented young actor, in the shape of Bill Milner, from another criminally-underrated comedy, last year’s Son Of Rambow.

“Yeah, I try not to swear at kids too often,” smiles Caine. “Sets a very bad example. If you ration out your expletives, it makes them all the more effective, I find, when you do unleash them. So, you know, I’m saving myself for a particularly sweet young co-star sometime in the near future, so I can really shock them.”

In Is Anybody There?, Caine plays Clarence, an elderly magician who’s showing the early signs of dementia, and so finds himself in a retirement home belonging to the parents of 10-year old Edward (Milner). Two lost souls, swimming in a fish bowl, the odd couple soon become friends, as the former struggles with the loss of his wife, and the latter struggles with the drifting apart of his parents.

A semi-autobiographical tale, by TV writer Peter Harness, Is Anybody There? is a sweet little film. Well, as sweet as a little film can be when it’s dealing with faded love, memory loss and death.

Q: You’re a man who can now pretty much pick and choose his roles – so, what grabbed you about faded magician Clarence?

MICHAEL CAINE: He’s just a guy I haven’t played before, and that’s always important to me. I don’t want to repeat myself, not unless there’s been quite a few years in-between, and I just felt, right, playing this sweet old man would be a real challenge. Not the sweet part, but understanding where he’s coming from, where he is now, and the fact that he knows where he’ll be pretty soon.


It would have been easy to make Clarence quite a sad figure, but there’s a lot of wry humour there…

Absolutely. There’s this idea that, just because someone seems to have reached the end of their lives, they must have given up all hope. That they no longer have any light inside them. If anything, there’s a release that comes with old age. A realisation that you should enjoy every day, every moment, every little victory. I know that’s how I’m getting through my autumn years. Or have I hit winter now?

That’s just it though, Michael Caine at 76 is having the time of his life. In fact, you had the times of at least four or five lives at this stage…

I have, haven’t I? I’ve been blessed, and I’ve been smart, and I’ve been just plain lucky. Who wouldn’t want a long, happy life, and I can’t say that I planned all this down to the last dot, but I’ve been looking after myself for a long, long time, and thinking about the bigger picture, as opposed to just getting my kicks in the here and now.

I eat well, I enjoy life, I have a great family, I keep working – these are all things that helps your mind and body forget that you’re supposed to be retiring. Why would I ever retire? Here I am, doing what I absolutely love and adore, and I’m getting paid to do it.


There’s also the little matter of being a living legend, someone who would be revered today even if you’d only made those wonderful early outings, such as Alfie, Zulu and The Italian Job, but you’ve managed to surprise people in just about every decade. Including this one, with hits such as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight sitting alongside smaller, darker films like The Prestige and Children Of Men.

You see, it’s all part of my cunning plan. I have been written off quite a few times though, but each time, my career gets reassessed when a certain film breaks through – and suddenly I’m loved again. I’ve been up and down so many times, I’ve lost count, but I think the media has lost count too, and so now, they always give me the benefit of the doubt. Which is nice. I was getting tired of this hot and cold relationship that we had going on…


You can understand though how something like Jaws: The Revenge wouldn’t go down well with a critic…

True, true, but then, I’ve spent my entire career – well, the first few decades anyway – believing that the work might dry up, so, you know, you say yes to work. In the case of the Jaws movie, I was in Hollywood at the time, and someone asks me if I want to make a movie with the man who just did Towering Inferno. Seemed like a good idea at the time…


You’ve always had those critics who don’t quite appreciate your talents as an actor. I read that your very first role was on stage in south London, when you were just 14, playing a robot. One reviewer said that you were too wooden to get a robot right?

Right. And he was probably not far off, but, you know, you have to accept that, sometimes, you get it wrong, and sometimes, the person watching you gets it wrong. I’ve had films that were slated upon their release, and then, years later, they’re praised as a cult classic, or whatever. You can only get in there and give it everything. After that, it’s best to walk away…


You’re lined up for Christopher Nolan’s next movie, Inception – any word yet on the next Batman outing? It’s going to be tough, given that Christian Bale is going to have to be strapped to a chair at all times…

Christian’s an incredible actor, and his dedication is something to be admired. It’s all up there on the screen.

I had an outburst early on in my career too, where this horse I was on charged off and took me with him for about two miles. When I got back to the set, I just went crazy at everyone and anyone. The director, James Clavell – the movie was The Last Valley, back in 1970 – took me for a stiff drink that afternoon, and basically told me that I should never, ever behave like that in front of strangers. It’s a very intimate thing, really, to lose your temper, and I never got angry like that on a film set again. No matter how frustrated I’ve been. But it’s something that happens all the time, and we certainly shouldn’t be treating it as some major upset.

I’d rather work with someone as passionate about their work as Christian is than a hundred so-so actors who brings muffins for the whole crew every morning…


Words : Paul Byrne

 


Is Anybody There? is at Irish cinemas everywhere now