Michael Caine – excuse me, Sir Michael Caine – truly needs no introduction. He worked as an actor for ten years before earning attention as a young British officer in1964’s Zulu. Since then, he’s become one of filmdom’s most beloved actors, appearing in the great (Sleuth, The Man Who Would Be King), the less-than-great (The Swarm, On Deadly Ground) and a little thing we like to call Jaws: The Revenge. Along the way, he’s picked up a pair of Oscars and a knighthood. He’s also enjoyed a tremendous late-career renaissance, appearing in a number of Christopher Nolan’s films as well as terrific turns in Children of Men and The Quiet American (the latter of which earned him another Oscar nomination). He’ll be in Pixar’s Cars 2 this Friday, playing a suave British spy car called Finn McMissile. During the film’s press conference, he spoke to the press remotely via satellite from his home in London. A partial transcript of the interview follows.
Question: Is this the first time you’ve played a car?
Michael Caine: I have honestly never played a car before. I drove some cars in The Italian Job, which was a thing about Mini [Coopers], but I’ve never been a car. This is a brand new experience for me and one of the reasons I did it; I’ve been in the business a long time and it’s very difficult to get a brand new experience.
Q: What was it like for you working with Pixar on this film?
MC: Well it’s surprisingly easy to do because everybody facilitates what you’re going to do and where you want to be at. It’s very straight. It’s not like making a movie where you go through a studio. It’s a very on-off affair because you don’t see people for three or four months and then suddenly they bring you in and you’ll start doing it together again. And your co-star, even if it’s a lady, is a director because he’s doing all the other parts. It’s very simple. You read the lines. You don’t have to remember any of them and it’s good fun.
Q: This is your first animated movie. How did you find it different from making a live action film? You mentioned you didn’t have to learn any dialogue.
MC: Also, you never meet the other actors. You don’t do scenes with the other actors. You might meet them coming out of the studio when they finish their session and you’re going in, but I never met anybody in the movie until I went to New York. I was in New York at the Toy Fair where they had my real car, the big one, the real Aston Martin. I was there with Emily Mortimer, who’s also in the picture. She was the only person I’ve ever met who’s in the film. Usually, you strike up relationships with people but with this, you don’t get any relationships.
Q: What are some of your most memorable moments from working on this film?
MC: Well, the great thing, of course, first, is to be called Finn McMissile. I couldn’t resist it. And then, they said you’re a spy. And then, they said you’re a 1966 Aston Martin Pale Blue and I thought “this is perfect for me”. But there was also something beyond that: I’ve got three grandchildren. And, of course, the reason I really wanted to do it was because I wanted them to see me. They know my voice. They gave me a car with my voice, a little model car, and I brought it back here and my grandchildren played with it. So, I’ve got this tremendous bond with my grandchildren through this film; the films that I make, little children can’t usually go and see them, and so, it was a wonderful opportunity for me.
Q: Why do you think that 60’s iconic spy still remains so potent with film audiences today?
MC: I think it’s because they were real. The iconic spy, James Bond, was so obvious he couldn’t possibly be a spy because he drew so much attention to himself. There are spies who are the consorts to the king or something like that. And then, there’s the other type of spy which was the ordinary guy. A friend of mine met Putin when he was head of the KGB, and he said, “Tell Mr. Caine we used to watch those movies and laugh because he was such a clever spy. We were never that clever.”
Q: At this point in your career, how important is it to stay in touch with the audience?
MC: I was walking along the street the other day and a dozen Japanese girls suddenly looked at me. They were teenagers, 14 or 15. And I suddenly realized they’d seen me as the butler in Batman. Now I’m going to be outside some infant school with my grandchildren and everybody is going to hear me speaking and say “I know that voice.” I have a very original voice anyway because everybody has always impersonated me.
Q: John Lasseter is a notorious car aficionado. Are you a car fan or are they irrelevant to you by and large?
MC: Cars, for me, are transport. I grew up in the war in London. I didn’t know anybody who had a car until I must have been 16 or 17. In London, at that time, we had the Tube and the buses, and it was great and it was cheap. So there was no reason to have a car. Then I became a movie star and I’d never driven. I went from penniless to quite well off. The first car I ever bought was a Rolls Royce and I couldn’t drive it. And I said to them, “I’ll learn to drive it” and the insurance company said “No, you won’t. You’re not going to learn to drive in a Rolls Royce.” And when I saw the premium for me, it was twice the sum that I would pay a chauffeur. So I had chauffeurs all my life and I never drove a car until I went to Los Angeles, where you have to drive a car. I took my driving lesson in America. When I took my driving lesson, it was very official. “The inspector who’s going to judge your driving will only speak to you about technical things. You will not speak to him about anything else. There will be nothing personal. Just listen to what he says and answer what he asks and everything must be kept absolutely professional.” I got in the car very nervous. He’s sitting there and he says to me “You’re going to have to be rubbish not to pass this test. I’m looking forward to a lot more than that from the man who would be king.” So I was off and running. I’m a particularly terrible driver but I passed that test.
I’ve obviously had lots of cars but I don’t drive them, especially in London. I’m not a very patient man and the idea of parking the car and looking for a space and all that stuff…it’s so…so I have a chauffeur. If you’re very famous and you’re not allowed to go on public transport because it would pose a hubbub, you get it off on your taxes so that’s alright.
Q: As a seasoned actor working on an animated film, are you concerned about developing your character’s back story arc or do you simply show up and say your lines?
MC: Oh no, I’m a Stanislavski actor. There is a back story to my character. For instance, I play Alfred the Butler in Batman and I wanted him to be a tough butler and I wanted him to be an ex-soldier. His voice is the voice of the first sergeant I ever had; I was a soldier and I have this voice of this sergeant and that’s his voice. I always imagined him to be SAS which is our Special Forces. He was wounded, didn’t want to leave the army, and went to work in the Officers’ Mess behind the bar. Batman’s father [Thomas Wayne] came to visit a friend there. He saw him and said “Would you like to be trained as a butler?,” and he said “Yes” and he went with him to America to be trained as a butler. And that’s the back story on Alfred. Yes, I always do a back story.
Q: During your time in the booth, was it hard to adjust to a different environment where you’re acting with your voice?
MC: No, I’ve done a lot of radio in my life. I’ve done radio plays for the BBC when I was young so I was absolutely used to that style of work, of working with the voice. I have a very distinctive voice so it’s always great for me because I open my mouth and everybody knows who it is.
Q: Being in the booth is not strange for you, but so many times we talk to actors who are doing it for the first time and they talk about how weird it is. What is the weirdest environment you ever acted in?
MC: The weirdest environment I ever acted in was in a movie [Beyond the Poseidon Adventure] where we were divers and it was a disaster. We were surrounded by sharks and there were three of us – Karl Malden and a young lady [probably Angela Cartwright] and me – and we were all sharing the mouthpiece for the oxygen. You think you’re going to die and you keep screaming for them to give you oxygen and everyone’s breathing and everything and then you’re making a shot. I mean, we didn’t have a lot of dialogue underwater. We just screamed and shouted and we were surrounded by sharks which were obviously put in later. But that was the weirdest scene I ever did.
Q: A lot of us are very excited about the next Batman movie. I know you can’t say anything about it, but could you at least tell us how filming has been going so far?
MC: Oh, it’s fantastic. I started filming last week and I film next week. As the butler, I do a lot of filming at the beginning; then everybody goes off and does all the adventures and they all come home shot to pieces and I patch them together when they all get back. Christopher Nolan, I think, is one of the greatest directors in the world and this is my fifth movie with him. It’s such a pleasure to work with him; he is so clever. We’ve all signed the Official Secrets Act. I’m lucky to be able to tell you the title of the movie. I remember I did an interview and somebody said “What are you doing next?” and I said “I’m doing Batman.” And I saw Chris and he said “Why’d you tell them you were doing Batman?” “Because I am.” “You’re supposed to keep it a secret!” I said “I couldn’t keep that a secret.” Let me tell you, the plot is really extraordinary, and I know why he wants to keep it a secret. You really need not to know until you see the movie… which by the way, goes for Cars 2.
Q: You mentioned you were a Method actor. How did you use the Stanislavski method to become your character in this film?
MC: You use your own experiences in life and you use what Stanislavski called “sense memory” which is where you use things from your own life to make you laugh or cry. But you also do something which is very practical. Stanislavki said, “The rehearsal is the work. The performance is the relaxation.” What that means is that by the time you get to the performance, you’ve rehearsed it until you’re blue in the face. And you couldn’t say any other line because you’ve said it a quarter of a million times, and you are so relaxed about it. That’s the secret of Stanislavski. The rehearsal is the work. Also, you don’t study other actors. You sit on the subway and study real people. I do a lot of stuff. I watch the news all the time and I’m always watching real people react to things.
Q: how do you think the Queen would react to her portrayal in Cars 2?
MC: I think she’d react very well. She’s a good friend, the Queen. I’ve met her a couple times and I sat next to her at a dinner once and she suddenly turned to me and she said “Do you know any jokes?” “Yeah, but not many I can tell you, Your Majesty.” “I’ll tell you one while you think of one you can tell me.” I cannot remember the joke she told me, but it was very funny. The Queen has an incredible sense of humor. I mean, you always see her being serious because she’s supposed to but she has a tremendous sense of fun.