A life of parts

Film Michael Caine talks about his career, mortality and his personal connection to his character in the film Is Anybody There?

Is Anybody There? Caine plays a former magician who forms an unlikely bond with a boy (Bill Milder) whose parents run a retirement home.
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The voice is unmistakable and seems to enter the room before he does. "You need to be a magician to get up them stairs," it quips, reminiscent of many of the characters that made its owner infamous over the years.

The voice belongs to Sir Michael Caine, a British acting legend enjoying a second career of sorts since his Academy Award-winning role in The Cider House Rules a decade ago. To today's teenagers he is best known for playing Alfred in last year's record-breaking The Dark Knight, but over the last 40 years he has appeared in numerous award-winning or culture-defining movies. His latest role is in the British independent film Is Anybody There? It's a million miles from Gotham City, but after a successful run at the Toronto Film Festival last year, it has proved to be very close to many critics' hearts.

In it, Caine, a 76-year-old Londoner, shows a very sombre, melancholy side. The film deals with dementia and the isolation of old age. Produced by David Heyman (the Harry Potter series) and directed by John Crowley (Boy A, Intermission), Is Anybody There? is the story of Edward (Bill Milner), a young boy living in a retirement home that his parents run on the English coast. He is fascinated by the process of death and what happens when you die.

The boy forms an unlikely bond with the newest resident of the home, Caine's character Clarence, a retired magician. Caine says it's the emotional aspect of the script that drew him to it. "The story made me cry, to be honest," he says. "I have read many scripts in my career that have made me laugh - and this certainly made me laugh - but this is the first one that made me cry. That had never happened before. That's the reason I did it."

To prepare for filming, Caine looked into the world of magic. "I remembered back to when I did little birthday parties for my daughters," he says. "We always had a conjurer and I noticed that his hair was always parted in the middle. So the first thing I did was part my hair in the middle. Then I met Scott Penrose, the on-set conjurer who was going to teach us tricks, and his hair was parted in the middle. I remarked about this to him and he said: 'Do you know why we part our hair in the middle? Houdini parted his hair in the middle, and we are all fans of Houdini.' So that's how I prepared - by parting my hair in the middle!"

Caine's co-star, Milner, is a child actor familiar to many for the breakthrough British movie Son of Rambow. Despite being more than five times his colleague's age, Caine has nothing but praise for him. "He's a startling young man," he says, "and it's given me something I've never experienced before on a picture. I could absolutely trust him, unlike most child actors, to be where I was, just as if I was acting alongside someone much older. That's what I took away from working with Bill - that trust."

Since the 1960s, Caine has consistently produced a solid body of work. He has been nominated for an Academy Award in five consecutive decades, winning twice (the first was for 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters). His 1960s heyday produced some of his best-known characters: the "anti-Bond" Harry Palmer, Alfie, and The Italian Job's Charlie Croker. In 1970, he starred with such Hollywood goliaths as Laurence Olivier in Sleuth (which Caine later remade in 2007 with Jude Law), Richard Burton and his fellow Sixties breakout star Sean Connery.

Caine's beginnings, however, were far from illustrious. "I never got a part in a British film in ages and ages in the early part of my career," he says, adding he is not sure why it took him so long to be discovered. "Maybe it was my accent," he laughs. Many of Caine's answers to more serious questions are peppered with humour, the sign of an actor who has braved the publicity junkets many times before. At an earlier press conference, he skirted comically around a question about whether this part made him think of his own mortality.

"No," he said dryly. "When I do a role like this I don't think of my mortality. I think of yours. I'm being sympathetic to all you people who are going to die, because I'm not going to do it." Behind the humour there was a very personal pain associated with his character's condition. A close friend of Caine's died as a result of dementia, which Clarence develops during the film, and Caine found many parallels between the story and his experiences.

"I didn't immediately think of Dougie when I started to make the film because it's a story about mine and Bill's characters rather than one about dementia, but obviously I brought a lot of personal experience with me. "It got to the point where I was just waiting for the day when I walked in and Dougie would ask who I was," Caine recalls. "And one day he did." Caine's most high-profile recent role was undoubtedly in last year's box office phenomenon The Dark Knight. Making more than $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) worldwide, it is one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Caine played Bruce Wayne's loyal butler Alfred in both of Christopher Nolan's Batman films.

Was the change between action and drama jarring? "That's the movie business," Caine shrugs. "Although The Dark Knight is definitely the biggest film I've ever been involved with. It was eight months of shooting, during which time I worked 12 days. So I had lots of time to study this script and work out how I was going to do it." It was luxury for a man used to a heavier work schedule. "When I worked in repertory theatre I was doing 30 to 50 plays a year, every one different. So it worked well for me in that sense. I got the money off of The Dark Knight and the experience off of this one!"

As actors in every blockbuster franchise are, Caine remains coy about a third film. "I have no idea," he smiles. "You'd have to ask Chris." There is a driving force that keeps the man formerly known as Maurice Micklewhite in the movies for so long. "My obsession has always been cinema," he says. "Ever since I was a kid. When I was about three, we had no television. We used to have what was called 'the thrupenny rush' at the local cinema on a Saturday morning. It was three pence and it was only for kids. I was always taken there by two older boys."

But the love affair got off to a rocky start. "I had no idea what happened at a cinema, so when I went the first time, the lights went down and then everything went black. What had really happened was an older boy sitting higher up had dropped his overcoat over my head, so I sat there in darkness thinking that was what happened." Once he was properly introduced, however, there was no going back. "One time The Lone Ranger came on and I decided that's what I wanted to be from then on. Not The Lone Ranger, but a movie actor."

Despite his claims of immortality, the advancing years must prey on his mind from time to time. "Yeah," Caine agrees, "but I think getting too old is more frightening than dying. Someone said to me the other day: 'You're eventually going to live to 110', and I said: 'Well, who's going to keep me? What age do I retire?' We have a great deal of dementia nowadays because in the past no one grew old enough to get it."

Speaking of retirement, does it ever cross his mind? "Never!" Caine is attached to two more projects over the next year, the British revenge drama Harry Brown and Inception, his fourth film with Nolan. He will co-star with Leonardo DiCaprio and yet another Bat-star Cillian Murphy. For now, however, Caine is content with Is Anybody There?, with looking back at a job well done.