Sir Michael Caine has waited a long, long time to be reunited with Harold Pinter. “Yes, I’d done The Room at The Royal Court which was Harold’s first play,” he recalls. “And then Harold became famous as a writer and I became one of his biggest fans and then for 50 years I never got another chance to work with him. And I’m going ‘wait a minute, I started this!'”
When Sir Michael was approached by Jude Law and asked if was interested in re-visiting a film, Sleuth, from earlier in his career at first he was reluctant to commit. Until he heard that Pinter was working on a contemporary version of the story.
Sleuth was originally a Tony award winning stage play written by Anthony Shaffer and then, in 1972, came director Joe Mankiewicz’s film version which paired the late Sir Laurence Olivier as writer Andrew Wyke with Michael Caine as Milo Tindle who is having an affair with his wife.
Pinter has taken the bones of this story and turned it into a piece that is very much his own, says Michael who, this time, plays Wyke with Law, who also produces, playing Tindle. Just to add to the heady mix of heavyweight British talent, Kenneth Branagh directs.
“I would never have made a remake of Tony Shaffer’s script,” Sir Michael explains. “I felt Larry and Joe Mankiewicz and Tony and I did a perfectly good job with that script and there’s no point in remaking it.
“The attraction here was the Pinter script. It’s very, very different and Pinter has made it his own. Pinter never saw the movie and Harold probably wasn’t aware that there was a movie.
“He was given the stage play by Jude who said ‘do you think you could adapt this for a movie?’ So Harold innocently didn’t know about our (original) movie, he just took this stage play – he never saw it on stage, none of us have – and adapted it. And he did the most fantastic job.”
Pinter, who won the Nobel in 2005, has a formidable reputation as a writer who refuses to discuss or analyse his work and is reluctant to let actors and directors tinker with his text. Caine recalls that it was ever so and that even back at the start of his career, Pinter was the same.
“He was great but even then he was an absolute stickler about his work, you couldn’t change it or do anything,” says Sir Michael. “I had a scene where a blind man comes into the room and my character takes his stick away and beats him to death with it. I said to him ‘why do I do that Harold?’ And he said ‘how the hell do I know? Do it. Get on with it.’ So I did it. And he’s like that now. You cannot change any words.”
In Pinter’s expert hands, Sleuth becomes a funny, sinister and mesmerising encounter between two men who, on the surface at least, are fighting over a woman. “It always reminds me of the break down of civilisation under a very thin veneer,” says Sir Michael.
Delivering those marvellously concise words can be a joy. But as far as Caine is concerned you approach a Pinter script with care and consideration and play it completely straight – even when there’s humour on the page.
“I’ll tell you what it’s like, it’s like being a straight man for a comic,” he says of playing Pinter. “The comic is funny – and that’s Pinter. He’s funny, sinister, or whatever.
“You have to be the straight man in delivering his words, like a real person. It’s only funny, sinister, dangerous and nervous if you act just like it’s normal. I can make a comparison with me and Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
“Steve is being absolutely outrageous and I’m acting as thought nothing is wrong. If I tried to be funny it wouldn’t be funny and that’s the same with Pinter. You are the straight man to whatever he is doing and don’t try to be funny, don’t try to be sinister, don’t try to be nasty, just be natural – never overdo it.
“And you have two actors there, Jude and me, who specialise in natural rather than theatrical performances. ”
Caine, Law and Branagh represent three generations of British actors and filmmakers brought together on Sleuth. There is a common bond, he says, and a shared approach.
“If there’s a common bond I suppose it’s ability – the ability to make movies, to be a movie actor, to be a movie director. Jude is a very experienced movie actor. I am too. Ken is very experienced movie director and actor.
“So you have all this experience and you have people who trust each other, like each other and are funny with each other. We had a laugh on that set. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done and more laughs than you would imagine.
“We never stopped laughing. This was a short shoot but you are in every shot and that’s why it’s so hard. You are in every shot every day all the time and you never stop talking, you have lots of dialogue to learn. Sometime we would do nine pages, which is nine minutes, which is a lot. But it is very, very rewarding.”
Sir Michael, who won Academy Awards for Hannah and Her Sisters and The Cider House Rules, is as busy as ever recently playing an ageing hippy in the critically acclaimed The Children of Men and the loyal butler, Alfred, in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and the sequel The Dark Knight.
He keeps working, he says, because he still loves the adrenalin rush from acting. If the key components on a film are right – great script, director and cast – then, he jokes, it’s an offer he can’t refuse.
“I can’t refuse to do Batman and I couldn’t refuse the remake of Sleuth. And with Children of Men, it was a fascinating character with a fascinating director with a fascinating leading man. Why not do it?
“I do exactly what I want nowadays, I mean, I’m not working for the rent here or anything. But I have to be working with people and have something to do because suddenly it’s a very cold Monday morning and you are getting up at six o-clock and you have six pages of dialogue and you are liable to say to yourself ‘why the hell am I doing this?’ And if you haven’t got some very good reasons you are liable to feel very stupid.”
Sir Michael has been one of Britain’s biggest film stars for more than four decades. He was born, Maurice Micklewhite in London 73 years ago and fell in love with film when he watched actors like Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy at his local cinema.
After National Service in the army, he first worked as an assistant stage manager and eventually, as an actor in repertory theatre, touring the UK in numerous productions where he learnt his craft.
In the Sixties, he broke into film with a series of iconic roles – playing the upper class officer leading a doomed company of men in Zulu, a working class womaniser in Alfie and creating Harry Palmer, a British spy, in The Ipcress File.
In the 1970s, Sir Michael consolidated his position as one of the biggest stars in the world, starring with his friend, Sir Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King (directed by one of his cinematic heroes, John Huston) and playing a German officer in The Eagle Has Landed.
In the 1980s, he played the drink sodden, cynical college professor who is charmed by a working class student (played by Julie Walters) and won his first Oscar for Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. Throughout the 1990s, he continued to enjoy a remarkable run of success – his second Oscar came in 1999 for The Cider House Rules. He received his knighthood in the Queen’s birthday honours list of June 2000 for his contribution to the performing arts.
Sleuth opens at cinemas across the UK Friday 23rd November