Michael Caine: Character meets actor

Integrity, optimism, wit augment onscreen skill

During a career spanning more than half a century, Michael Caine has worked with a who’s-who of international directors — including such legends as John Huston (“The Man Who Would Be King”), Joseph Losey (“The Romantic Englishwoman”) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (“Sleuth”). Here, five modern helmers offer thoughts on the actor and his achievements.

“Batman Begins” (2005), “The Prestige” (2006), “The Dark Knight” (2008)
“Working with a legend like Michael Caine is about as enjoyable and relaxing an experience on set as one could hope for. His vast experience gives him an air of good-humored calm that you could almost mistake for complacency until the camera rolls, and you see his focus and efficiency nail each scene on the first take. He once told me that he’s never asked for a second take — he’s happy to do one if you have an idea for him to try, but he brings a definitive interpretation to every line. His method has the casual air of effortlessness that can only come from decades of dogged hard work, and you sense that he’s still as hungry for every last morsel of a part as he was when he first captured everyone’s imagination. A fine actor first, and screen icon second, he’s a director’s dream.”

“The Quiet American” (2002)
“Having acted now in over 100 movies, Michael learned a long time ago that the director is an essential component in an actor’s performance. And so he really makes a point of empowering his directors. ‘Quiet American’ was a tough movie to make, in many ways: We were shooting on location, trying to re-create large battle scenes on a fairly small budget. But every time I felt like censoring myself, Michael was there encouraging me to be expansive, to follow my vision and not hold back. And that’s a real privilege to work with. I suspect it’s because, having achieved so much, he’s a man who feels released from the pressure of having to prove anything to anyone. There’s an almost Zen quality to an actor who’s reached that point. He’s not doing it for fame, or for the money. He’s doing it simply because he loves it, and because he needs to act to feel alive.”

“Last Orders” (2001)
“The wonderful thing, on ‘Last Orders,’ was that he clearly relished the opportunity to play someone of his own background as a real person, rather than as a caricature or a comic figure. That helped him bring a real depth and shading to his performance. He’s a star, obviously — one of the last of the great movie stars, I think — but he’s also completely capable of fitting into an ensemble situation without dominating it. He’s a lot of fun on set — very relaxed, very generous … which, to me, says a lot about who he is as a person. He really enjoys life, and he has a lot of interests outside of movies. He’s a great cook; he’s very interested in music and design. And he also knows that, as an actor, you just try to do your best in every situation, and realize that, ultimately, the film will either succeed or fail for reasons outside your contribution.”

“Mona Lisa” (1986)
“When we made ‘Mona Lisa,’ Michael had just come back to Britain from working in the U.S. And I suppose it was slightly daunting in a way — me not far into my career, and him already being such a major star.

“But he made it very easy indeed. For that character, I just wanted him to be as repellent as possible. To show a sweaty, broken side of himself. And he did — magnificently well. I remember thinking how fantastic it was to watch him and Bob Hoskins, in the scenes they had together, tossing the dialogue back and forth like tennis balls. But Michael’s also one of those rare actors whose range has actually gotten greater as he’s grown older. He’s obviously done an enormous amount of films over the years, and it’s impossible to say all of them are worth watching. Yet even when the film is not good, he’s always terrific. And not many actors can say that.”

“Dressed to Kill” (1980)
“Everybody says the same things about Michael — that he’s charming, extremely intelligent, that he’s terrific to work with — because all those things are true. That’s who he is. So, while I’d love to be able to avoid the usual cliches, I don’t know if I’ll be able to. We had a lot of fun on ‘Dressed To Kill,’ and from my point of view, it was a delight to have him on the set. He’s a total professional, very easy to direct — I think because he genuinely loves having the job. Plus, he’s been around forever, so he brings a tremendous amount of experience to what he does, which is extremely helpful when you’re directing anybody. I think a lot of young actors could do worse than look to him as someone to model themselves on. He’s a great example of how to conduct your career intelligently.”

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