Recently a bit of news appeared that made me sad: Michael Caine, one of the best actors ever, was retiring. Of course, he has the right the withdraw from his profession and take it easy. Still, when I hear that a real artist retires not for health reasons I always think, why? To stop doing what you love best? What kind of decision is that?
It turned out that the news on his retirement was not true. Caine is not a young man, his health could be better and he is aware that, after 88, big parts are scarce. But still, Sir Michael, please, I beg you, keep it going.
What follows is some bits of one of his books about his life as an actor (Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life, 2018), unmissable if you have an interest in the acting trade.
3 books of memories of an amazing career
Caine’s career started in the 60s and has spanned until now, the last years partly to his work with Christopher Nolan, who tries to count on Caine in every project – Batman’s butler Alfred in the Nolan trilogy introduced Caine to a whole new generation.
Chronologically, a few of his achievements: Zulu (1964), The Ipcress File (1965), Alfie (1966, which got him an Oscar nomination), The Italian Job (1969), Get Carter (1971), Sleuth (1972), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Educating Rita (1983) which earned him the BAFTA and Golden Globe Award for Best Actor, and Woody Allen‘s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) which gave him his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He received his second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in The Cider House Rules in 1999.
I would never be a star
With my appearance and my accent, I knew for sure I would never be a star. That world was distant, unreachable. In those days, in the 1940s and 1950s, your accent didn’t just tell where you came from, it told where you were going to, and if you had a Cockney accent like mine, that was nowhere.
No drama school
I didn’t go to drama school so most of my learning was on-the-job or on-the-bus. On the bus and the tube, I learnt voice and movement and character, from watching how people behaved. On the job, I learnt lessons of technique that I used throughout my career and still draw on every day I am on set; I built skills and confidence that prepared me for anything and everything the business could throw at me. My years in draughty repertory theatres, my brief unsuccessful stint in Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop and my endless bit parts on TV and one-line movie roles formed my apprenticeship, and for an actor I still think there can be no better start.
Learning by observing
More generally, I observe people all the time. In the early days it was on the bus and the tube. Now it’s in restaurants, at the airport, in the doctor’s waiting room. But wherever and whenever it is, I’m looking out for mannerisms, listening in for turns of phrase and watching how people respond to each other. Not just the obvious: I’m seeing whether I can discover something new. Over the years I have become an expert at reading body language.
How to play a drunkard
I was cast as a drunkard, and at my first rehearsal I came staggering onto the stage, then swayed about a bit. The director held up his hand. ’ ‘Stop. What are you doing, Michael?’ ‘I’m drunk in this scene,’ I explained, failing to hide my irritation that it had not been apparent. ‘I know that,’ he said. ‘But what are you doing? You’re giving me an actor playing a drunk. I’m paying you to be a drunk. You’re trying to talk slurred and walk crooked. A real drunk is trying to speak clearly and walk straight.’
An important lesson
THE MAIN LESSON I learnt from Joan Littlewood – the only person who ever fired me – was this: the rehearsal is the work, the performance is the relaxation. Once I had worked out what it meant – that by the time you get to the performance, you should be so familiar with what you are doing that it seems effortless – I understood its importance, in acting and in life.
This goes beyond getting the basics right – turning up on time, maintaining energy levels, checking the kit. It’s about knowing your role inside out. If you can prepare thoroughly, if you can put in the spadework before the performance – or any big challenge – then you’ll be more in control. You’ll be more in control of your material, your nerves and yourself. That control should free you up to listen, pay attention to what is going on around you and react to whatever gets thrown at you.
The rehearsal is the work
You have already done the work in rehearsal, you have already been through all the sweat, had all the nightmares, and when it comes to the performance you can relax, give it your best and deal with everything – from a slight change of plan to a complete and utter balls-up – from a place of alert but calm confidence. If you do it right, preparation is not in any way opposed to spontaneity. It actually allows you to be spontaneous.
When you are prepared, you are able to subdue your fear, control your nerves, channel your energy and enter that state of highly alert relaxation that is spontaneity’s best friend. In the theatre and in the movies, preparation means researching your character, working out gestures, movement and mannerisms and above all learning your lines. In the theatre you can add another layer of rehearsal with the cast.
You can watch a great 1969 video interview with Michael Caine here.
Below, Michael Caine’s first interview for American television, filmed during the summer of 1965 outside of his home in London:
MORE ON MICHAEL CAINE IN OUR POSTS Michael Caine On Acting For The Screen and More About Film Acting from Master Michael Caine (Part 2).
MORE ON FILM ACTING IN OUR POSTS The King of B-movies, Bruce Campbell, on Film Acting, No Small Parts, Goodbye to a Master of Acting, Max Von Sydow, On Screen Acting According to Edward Dmytryk (and Jean Porter), Joseph Cotten, a Great Autobiography and On Directing: An Elia Kazan’s Masterclass.