Diamond geezer: Michael Caine goes back to his roots

With two Oscars and more than 100 films to his credit, Michael Caine is perhaps our greatest living movie star. In his latest role, he plays a disgruntled Cockney con man in seedy Sixties London. Sounds vaguely familiar? Here, he tells James Mottram about a peculiarly personal project – and explains why he's going back to his roots

Think the life of a movie star is glamorous? Well think again. An inclement day in late April, I'm standing – or rather shuddering – outside an abandoned steel mill in Luxembourg. The rusty building is providing the admittedly atmospheric setting for one of the key scenes in Flawless, the new film starring Sir Michael Caine and Demi Moore. Sitting patiently in a foldaway chair, a beige duffel coat shielding his aged bones against the wind, is Caine. With a car waiting to whisk him off to a plane bound for London, he just has a shot in a telephone booth to complete. "A shot in a phone booth that I'm ready to do now!" he grumbles.

Still, as Moore scuttles back to her trailer and technicians buzz around the set, the hiatus affords me the chance to sit and chat with Caine, still immediately recognisable despite the iconic, black-rimmed glasses long since replaced by wire-framed ones. As you might imagine, spending time with such an infamous raconteur is one of life's great pleasures. "He'll talk your arse off," Ewan McGregor once told me. "He sits in the make-up chair and tells you all these stories that you've been dying to hear all your life." The pair featured in Little Voice, the 1998 film that won Caine a Golden Globe for playing a seedy talent scout.

Since then, Caine has experienced a remarkable decade. Picking up the second Oscar of his career – a Best Supporting Actor gong for his genial doctor in 1999's The Cider House Rules – he was knighted a year later, adding to the CBE he got in 1993 and firmly cementing his status as a national treasure. Hollywood then came calling again, casting him in everything from the rakish father to Mike Myers' spoof spy in Austin Powers: Goldmember to Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred in director Chris Nolan's re-imagining of the Batman franchise. "I've been very lucky," Caine says, his hand brushing across his now-white hair. "I don't have to work. I only work because I want to. I only do offers I simply cannot refuse."

In the case of Flawless, it was partly the chance to work again with Moore, who played his daughter in the 1984 romantic comedy Blame It On Rio. Set in 1960, the new film takes place around the fictional diamond merchants, Lon Di. Caine plays Mr Hobbs, a janitor on the verge of retirement. Recruiting Moore's character Laura Quinn, a disgruntled executive who's "hit the glass ceiling", Hobbs comes up with a plan to swindle his employers. "He's not a bad guy," Caine explains. "He's just hard done-by and he took it to heart. And he gets back at them. It's partly a class thing, it's partly a political thing. He talks about the greed of the people and that they're takers and not givers."

Admittedly, as the film's director Michael Radford confesses, it's "not really a stretch" for Caine to play an ageing Cockney – "because that's what he is!" As Radford puts it, "the part is so close to him, the only difficulty was trying to find new ways of being Michael Caine." Still, that rather undermines Caine's skill as an actor. This is not the Caine who became almost a self-parody after starring in potboilers like The Swarm and Jaws: The Revenge. An image he contributed to after collaborating on the Madness song "Michael Caine", he became easy fodder for celebrity impersonators (from Paul Whitehouse to Phil Cornwell in Stella Street) with a catchphrase ("not a lot of people know that") he never even said.

Partly this image derives from his early days carousing in Swinging London, when he was sharing a flat with fellow actor Terence Stamp. In the words of his old friend John Lennon – who, curiously, he based the longhaired dropout he played in 2006's Children of Men on – Caine was a working-class hero then. "I did think it was very important that someone like me, from my background and with my accent, got somewhere," he says. "I have actors time and again saying, 'The reason I became an actor was because of you.' The first one, who became famous, who said that was Bob Hoskins [with whom Caine starred in Mona Lisa and Last Orders]."

With the Loaded generation later lionising Caine for his early performances – from the ladykiller lead in Alfie to the amoral hoodlum in Get Carter – he was the prototype lad. Indeed, he is still not averse to playing on this image when it suits. At the recent Toronto Film Festival, a teaser trailer for the forthcoming Harry Brown, which has just gone into production, was doing the rounds. "Michael Caine was Harry Palmer," it trumpeted, referring to his spy in The Ipcress File. "Michael Caine was Jack Carter. Now he is Harry Brown." Given he plays a pensioner from a decaying urban estate who is forced to become a vigilante, this may be wishful thinking on the part of the film-makers.

If Caine has swapped playing a persona for more interesting character roles over the past decade, his legendary sense of humour remains intact. In a new documentary, Valentino: The Last Emperor, he's glimpsed at a party in honour of the Italian designer, yelling out to Joan Collins, "I've seen you on the telly!" Not that Caine is too keen on sending himself up anymore, though. He refused to do a guest-spot on Friends when the show was on air. "I said 'No' because you're going in as the lemon, with everyone else knowing exactly what they're doing, and you're standing there and could look very silly. I've seen quite a few guest stars look very silly on a lot of those shows."

While this may sound pompous, it's easy to understand where Caine is coming from after, finally, getting the respect of his peers. Flawless shows his subtle side, even if it is tempting to compare it with The Italian Job, the classic 1969 caper about a gold bullion robbery. "The Italian Job, it ain't," chuckles Caine. "It's only partially a heist film, and it's completely different from anything you would think of as a heist film. It's about relationships. It's based on tension not action. Let's face it, a 65-year-old janitor with a wounded leg isn't going to do a lot of running around." So no stunts then? "They do expect me to run down corridors," he winks, "but with a limp!"

Not that this is Caine's only recent attempt at a physically demanding role. In 2003, he made The Statement, the story of a former Nazi collaborator on the run in France after his identity is exposed. "They had me running across roofs in Marseilles," he recalls. "I said to [the director] Norman Jewison, 'I'm 70!' And he said, 'Well, I'm 75!' I replied, 'Well, you're sitting down! I'm running across roofs!'" Despite this, Caine is still in good shape. "I'm quite fit, actually. I walk about four or five miles a day. My wife and I are big walkers. My garden – well, it's 21 acres – is very hilly. Walking around that is a mile of hills. We call it the SAS route, which it bloody is."

The "wife" in question is his spouse of 35 years, Shakira, the luminous former Miss Guyana, some 14 years his junior. It's evident he's as besotted with her as he was when he first saw her on a Maxwell House coffee commercial. The couple have a grown-up daughter, Natasha, and Caine has another, Dominique, from his marriage to the actress Patricia Haines, which ended in divorce in 1958 after just three years. Despite his former screen image, he admits that family life kept him on the straight-and-narrow. "My wife said, 'If you hadn't been married to me, you'd be dead.' She's right. My wife is very steady and quiet. She holds things down. Indian women are like tigers. They sit there very quiet until something goes wrong – and then they pounce."

Dividing his time between the aforementioned 200-year-old estate near Box Hill, Surrey, a Chelsea harbour penthouse and a home in Miami, it's a long way from Caine's humble beginnings. Born in Rotherhithe as Maurice Micklewhite (after his father), he was raised in the less-than-salubrious area of Camberwell. His mother, Eileen, was a cleaner in the Houses of Parliament, something that resonated with him when he read the script for Flawless. "There's a line in this picture where he says, 'It's amazing what conversations people will have in front of cleaners – it's as though we're not there.' I always remember my mother coming home and telling me what people had said in front of her, because they just didn't notice her. You don't notice the cleaners."

It's not the first time Caine has found personal relevance in a script. In Last Orders, the 2001 adaptation of Graham Swift's novel, he played Jack, a Bermondsey butcher who dies – as Caine's father did – in St Thomas's hospital. Moreover, the scenes of Jack's wife visiting their institution-bound daughter recalled a secret that Caine's mother took with her to her grave in 1989. Every Monday, she would visit an asylum, where her illegitimate, epileptic son David – seven years older than Caine – had lived since he was taken away from her at birth, some years before she married. Terrified that the scandal might ruin her son's burgeoning acting career, Eileen had hushed up David's existence – which Caine only found out about via a newspaper article after she died.

As for Caine's father, a fish porter at London's Billingsgate Market, he was a compulsive gambler. Frequently frittering away money reserved for bills on his habit, he left just 36p to his name when he died of cancer of the liver. Neither did he approve of his son's choice of career. When he first saw him wearing stage make-up, "he thought I was gay," notes Caine. "When he died, I was broke, out of work and just got divorced. He thought I was a bum." I wonder if he thinks his father is now on high, basking in his son's success. "Oh, yeah," says a misty-eyed Caine. "I am my father – a complete copy of him. Except he never got out. He was very bright, a lot brighter than me actually. He had to teach himself to read and write. You've got to think of when he was a small boy, he never had any opportunity."

Leaving school when he was 15, Caine did an assortment of odd jobs before joining the army, where he served as a private in an infantry regiment during the Korean War. Just 19 at the time, he was "scared shitless," he says. The strict regime hardly appealed either. "I didn't react very well to discipline, especially with people more stupid than I was." Returning to Britain, he gravitated towards the theatre, initially getting a job as an assistant stage manager. After adopting his stage name on the advice of his agent, taking it from the film The Caine Mutiny, his first uncredited screen roles came in 1956. Eight years later, playing the "upper class twit" officer in Zulu, his career took off.

With well over 100 films to his name since, Caine has been around so long now many of them have started to be remade – notably The Italian Job, Alfie, Get Carter and Sleuth (the latter two remakes, he featured in). He's also the only actor apart from Jack Nicholson to be nominated for an Oscar for films produced in each of the past five decades. The first three times it was for Best Actor – for Alfie, Sleuth and Educating Rita – but it wasn't until 1987 that he picked up his first gong. Winning Best Supporting Actor in Woody Allen's masterful family saga Hannah and Her Sisters, it was an award he received again 13 years later for The Cider House Rules. "You never get used to it," he says. "You don't expect it."

It was all the more sweet because, in the interim, Caine's career had taken a significant nose-dive. He didn't help himself, developing a reputation that he was willing to work on below-par scripts as long as the perks were good. He denies this, though. "Someone asked me how I chose pictures. I said, 'For starters, I have to worry about the location because my family comes with me.' Then it came out in the papers: 'Michael Caine chooses his pictures because of the locations!' It's not quite like that." Still, even he concedes that when he was asked if he'd seen Jaws: The Revenge, he once replied, 'No – but I have seen the extension of the house it paid for.'"

While it's this sort of honesty that makes Caine all the more loveable, he did have a torrid time in the early 1990s, from working with Michael Winner on the excruciating Bullseye! to playing Scrooge on The Muppet Christmas Carol. Rather than demean himself further, he took a year off, wrote his autobiography What's It All About? and began opening restaurants. But after playing Stalin and F W de Klerk in two TV movies, he suddenly decided to return to big-screen acting. "I felt: 'I'm no longer the young, glamorous movie star who gets all the girls. I've let that period go. I can now be an older leading actor.' I said to my agent 'Get me a job.'" Not that offers came flooding in. "The basic reaction from everybody was: 'Michael who?' I couldn't get a job."

Fortunately, Jack Nicholson suggested that he join him on the 1996 film Blood and Wine and the seeds for his career resurgence were sewn. This was none more obvious than when we caught up again a couple of months ago. Caine was in town to promote The Dark Knight, the follow-up to 2005's Batman Begins and his third film with Chris Nolan in four years, after also appearing in The Prestige. Bringing in a staggering $1bn worldwide, The Dark Knight is now the second highest grossing film of all time in America, behind Titanic. "I never worked on a film this successful," he grinned. Indeed, it would only take winning an Oscar for Best Actor to complete the huge list of accolades he's achieved in his career.

He came close after receiving a fourth Best Actor nod for 2002's The Quiet American, only to lose out to Adrien Brody for The Pianist. But Caine is too much of a gentleman to sulk, noting he was "disappointed" that nobody else got nominated from the film. Still, he may yet achieve this particular dream with Is There Anybody There? – a whimsical comedy, it recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival to critical acclaim. Caine plays a grief-stricken magician living out his final days in a retirement home. It upset Shakira when she saw it. "I realised, she's watching me grow old and senile in the film. She got in quite a state. I said, 'I'm only acting, darling,' but she got carried away."

For the Irish-born director John Crowley, it was a joyful collaboration. "It's emotionally more raw than anything he's done in a while," he explains. "God bless him, he was happy to be shoved off the cliff a couple of times and just go for it. It's quite something when he lets rip." True enough: Caine unleashed on screen is a sight to behold, even more so since he entered into his twilight years. At the top of his game, rather than heading for retirement, it's the adrenaline from performing that drives him on. "Now that I'm older, I feel the only thing I have to offer is an acting talent," he says. If that's the case, he still has much to give.

'Flawless' opens on 21 November

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