Sir Michael Caine has waited a long, long time to be reunited with Harold Pinter.
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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?
A: 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?
A: Yes, I did. We were friends before this picture.
Q: What about with Olivier?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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….
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: Yes, sometimes.
Q: What was that like?
A: 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?
A: 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
Q: This one is darker and savagely funny. What did you see the piece was about essentially?
A: 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
Q: Had you seen Jude’s work over the years?
A: 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
Q: Did you shoot it in sequence?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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.