Interview: Michael Caine, The Prestige

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

The Prestige PosterMagicians have long had need for close assistance. Whether behind the scenes—
where brilliant imaginations think up the tricks in the first place—or on the stage—where sexy, charming women have always served as a delightful means to distract the audience—magicians must rely, however begrudgingly, on the talents of others. In "The Prestige,” the assistants of Angier and Borden only serve to further thicken the plot with their own agendas and deceptions.
 
Some of the most vital behind-the-scenes players in the magic world are the people known as ingeneurs—the dark, secretive figures of technical prowess who actually create the tricks. Angier’s ingeneur is the retired conjurer Cutter, portrayed with wit and verve by one of cinema’s most lauded stars, Sir Michael Caine. Though Caine has played an extraordinary range of characters in a vast array of film stories, he had yet to encounter a world quite like that of "The Prestige.” Add to that the chance to reunite with Christopher Nolan, with whom he had worked so successfully on "Batman Begins,” and Caine was immediately interested. He says that Nolan brings to mind another director from the past. "He reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock, the way that everything is about creating the best moments of suspense,” says Caine. "He is tremendous with suspense.”

As for his character, Caine describes him as "a teacher, a father and a guide to Angier.” He continues: "He finds Angier, helps him to create his best tricks, and then watches as it all goes terribly wrong.” In creating his nuanced portrait, Caine even altered his highly recognizable voice. "Cutter is an older man, and in those days, they smoked like chimneys and drank like fish, so I brought his voice down into the throat with a kind of cough in it,” he explains. "And his accent is very thick and rather menacing.” Body posture was also key to Caine’s reading of Cutter. "He’s a powerful man, but also very relaxed,” he observes. "One thing about him is that he often has his hands in his pockets—but when they come out, you better worry!”

The filmmakers knew that Caine would make the role entirely his own. Says Nolan: "Michael Caine’s character really becomes something of the heart of the movie. He has a wonderful warmth and emotion to him that draws you into the story and allows you to have a point of view on these characters without judging them too harshly.”

At the Los Angeles press day held at the Pasadena Ritz Carlton Hotel to promote "The Prestige,” Michael Caine sat down with Movies Online and other journalists to discuss what it was like working with Christopher Nolan and starring opposite Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. Caine is not only a fabulous actor and person, but he has a wonderful sense of humor.  We really enjoyed our time with him and appreciated his. Here’s what he had to say:

Q:  Here we go.

MC: Hi, domestic press.

Q:  Hello.

MC: Domestic press.  Sounds sort of nice, doesn’t it. 

Q:  It sounds domestic. 

MC: Like you’ve got to get your breakfast or something.

Q:  The breakfast is actually not bad.

MC: No, it’s not bad.

Q:  So how are you?

MC: I’m good, wonderful.

Q:  I hear they decided to do it in Pasadena because you wanted to come to Pasadena, is that true?

MC: I couldn’t understand why we were going to Pasadena to do it.

Q:  Did you even know where Pasadena was?

MC: No.  I’ve been here before, but Pasadena is one of those places where you go there, you still don’t know where you are.

 [Laughter]

Q:  And this hotel too…

MC: Yeah, and this hotel is extraordinary isn’t it.

Q:  It’s huge.

MC: You go, wow, how did this get out here.

Q:  So… you can pick and choose what you want to do because you have, you know, money.  You know, you did "Jaws Returns” and all that kind of stuff. 

MC: I didn’t do "Jaws Returns” and all that kind of stuff.  I only talk about movies that I starred in. I was in "Jaws” for ten minutes, it’s not my responsibility.

 [Laughter]

Q:  So when you do pick something now, what is the most important priority for you?

MC: It’s an offer I can’t refuse.  I don’t want to go to work.  I don’t want to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning and go out and do something I don’t want to do with people I don’t want to be with.  I don’t need to pay the rent.  It’s okay.  I don’t have a mortgage.  And the phone bill’s okay – it’s not very heavy.  And so I just do offers, pictures that I really can’t refuse, and this was one.  For a start I’ve got Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale, and then you’ve got this script which – if you’ve done as many scripts as I have, you know, a lot of them are pretty similar, and then you get something as different as this, you go… you sort of think it’s your lucky day.  It’s like your birthday or something.  And this… this was one of those.  It’s an offer I can’t refuse but it’s nothing to do with money.

Q:  But you could have refused "Batman,” for instance. 

MC: No, I love "Batman.”

Q:  Why is that?

MC: Oh, because… I… I thought it was great, "Batman,” because to me the butler is the human representative of all of us in the middle of the movie with all these extraordinary characters, which is sort of a specialty of mine.  I’ve always played very human sort of characters.  So for me that was great.  And I’d never been in one of those great big blockbusters.  You know, of all the pictures…  I’d never been in one of those massive great deals.  I think there was $180 million, and I thought this would be great.  And also it’s an old aged pension.

 [Laughter]

 When Michael Gough, who played the butler before me…

Q:  Right.

MC: â€¦the last time he played it, he was 83. 

 [Laughter]

MC: It’s true.

Q:  So you…

MC: So I’ve got 10 years.

Q:  Ten years to wait now.

 [Laughter]

MC: I’ve got 10 years.  The way they make ‘em I’ll make about three.

 [Laughter]

Q:  Have you seen anything on the second one yet?

MC: No.  No.  I know it’s called "The Dark Knight.”  I know it’s all about the Joker.  I know the Joker is Heath Ledger.  And that’s all I know.  He won’t tell you anything.  Christopher won’t tell you anything.

Q:  But you are doing the Sleuth remake, right?

MC: I’m doing the Sleuth remake.  That’s been…

Q:  Finally.

MC: Yeah.  That’s with Jude Law.  And that’s being directed by Kenneth Branagh with a script by Harold Pinter. 

Q:  How different is it from the wonderful movie that you did?

MC: Yeah, it’s very, very different indeed.  Kenneth Branagh and I were having lunch the other day and a guy came by and saw us and said are you two doing a remake of "Sleuth,” he said, no.  He said we’re doing a movie based on the plotline of "Sleuth” and we’ve stolen the title.  That’s it.  It’s… it’s very different, but the plotline obviously has to be the same.

Q:  How different…  Really? 

MC: Well, I’ll give you a quick difference.  Olivier’s house in the original was a very nice English country house…

Q:  With all those mazes.

MC: Yeah, and all that.  And you go in and it’s a very nice old English country house with lovely chinzy furniture and all that.  In this it starts off with a very nice English country house, just the same, and then you go in and the entire place is marble, minimal, and in the middle is a glass elevator that goes up to the roof.  That’s the start.  Everything from then on is different.

Q:  Is it fun to play the role that Olivier [played]?

MC: Well I’m not playing the role that Olivier played.  I’m playing a role that had been written by Harold Pinter.  Olivier played a role written by Peter Shaffer. 

Q:  Peter Shaffer, right. 

MC: So it’s… it’s got…  For instance, I would never… I haven’t re-run "Sleuth” to see how it went, you know, because I wouldn’t.  I wouldn’t want anything to do with Larry’s performance, you know.  It’s… it’ll be very much different.  It’ll also be nearer to reality because Larry, you know, was sort of this…

Q:  Very much older.

MC: â€¦very flamboyant.  It would… that character played by me would not be quite as flamboyant. 

 [Laughter]

Q:  In the opening dialogue of the film, of "The Prestige,” you explain the three acts…

MC:  The pledge, the turn and the prestige.  Yes.

Q:  Exactly.  And I know one of our outlets here wanted to know if you’d explain the prestige to us once again.

MC: Well the pledge is that they show you something and they pledge to you that it… (picks up one of the journalist’s recorders) it’s a little digital recorder, right, that’s all it is, you know.  And then the turn is they do something to it and you don’t notice it because you’ve been misdirected.  That’s the turn.  You’re not looking, probably because you’re looking at Scarlett Johansson in tights.

 [Laughter]

Q:  Funny that. 

MC: Yeah, yeah.

 [Laughter]

MC: As you do.

Q:  That’s right.

MC: And then the prestige is his prestige in turning it into… to say it’s not really, that’s a dove and a dove comes out.  That’s it.  The pledge, the turn, the prestige.  And you see these magicians – better put that down…(places recorder back on table)

 [Laughter]

MC: [Inaudible]  If I get a microphone I turn into a stand-up comedian.  That’s what I think I should have been.

 [Laughter]

MC: I’d just like to say [inaudible]. 

 [Laughter]

MC: Um, where was I?  Um… if you think in terms of the movie you see these guys doing the pledge, the turn, the prestige.  What you don’t know that is happening is that there’s another magician called Christopher Nolan who is doing that with you, and the whole movie…

Q:  Is an illusion.

MC: â€¦is a magic trick with a pledge, a turn, and the prestige when you…  We wind up with the little girl and the Lord (a character that’s introduced towards  the end of the film) and that’s it. 

Q:  Now…

MC: And I’ve been talking to her the whole time, not you.

Q:  Did you do a lot of that kind of research on this when you were… or you just relied on the script?

MC: Well you can rely on the script.  I happened to, in my own life, know very great magicians myself.  Cy Endfield, who directed "Zulu,” was the king of The Magic Castle.  He invented practically every card trick you’ll ever see actually.  And then the other one is great friends of mine and who I’ve seen their act the whole time, which was much more apropos of this film, was Siegfried and Roy, who were two extraordinary characters, you know, who could do these great big things.  And they had an engineer who would build them stuff – which is what I am, you know. 

Q:  How do you like playing the role of serving in the background as opposed to the lead character?

MC: Well I think… what it is, it’s… you don’t regard yourself as that because what happens is, is when you are in front of a camera – I don’t care if you’ve only got one line – when you speak you’d better be a star and you’d better get it right, and you’d better be the person, otherwise you’re never going to work again.  You know, I…  What happens with me is that I used to be a leading man so I got the girl, lost the girl and then I got her back, you know, and I did that… Everybody tried to make me as good looking as possible with the nicest clothes, but that can become boring, especially if you don’t want to do it anymore, and also if you’ve become older you obviously can’t play that.  So then you get the really interesting parts.  What I do now is so much more interesting from an acting point of view than what I did before.  And there’s always… there’s always a moment in your life when you realize it.  You don’t quite realize it, you go along…  I remember I was sent a script and I read the part of the young lover and everything, and I sent it back to the producer and I said this is far too small, I don’t want to be bothered with this.  And he sent the script back and said read the father. 

 [Laughter]

MC: So that was it.  I suddenly went ‘read the father’, oh…  And, you know, my wife said to me, well, you’re 50, you’ve got two daughters, what do you think you are.

 [Laughter]

Q:  It must be a tribute to you that there are so many of your films being remade or have been remade…

MC: Well you… you wonder about it, don’t you.  I was talking to a man over there who said to me did you know that they’re doing a musical of "The Man Who Would be King.” 

Q:  I didn’t know that.

MC: I didn’t know that.  I don’t know whether it’s true or not.  I don’t know quite how you’re going to do it.  There’d be lots of Arab dancing in it with all those women.  Get those blue Berber women out of the mountains again.  They’re good.

Q:  Do you like looking at your old stuff? 

MC: I never look at anything.

Q:  If [it’s] on [the] tellie, you just flip the channel?

MC: No.  The only thing I ever look at – and I find myself, I get sucked into it – is "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” 

Q:  I love that movie.

MC: And, you know, I’m usually going through and if I see Dr. Schaffhausen walking in I think, wait a minute, I’ve got look at this for a minute and then I’m stuck there for…

Q:  Did you see the play?

MC: No, I’m going to see the play.  I’m going to New York next week and I’m going to see the musical.  Yeah, yeah. 

Q:  Do check out the website also, which is not related to it at all…

MC: Pardon?

Q:  Do check out the website for the School for Scoundrels…

MC: Oh, I don’t know what this is. 

Q:  It’s a group of magicians, many of whom you might actually know from The Magic Castle.  School for Scoundrels.

MC: Oh, is it? 

Q:  Yeah.  It’s a great website.

MC: You have to remember, I’ve just arrived in America and none of this stuff is going on in England so we don’t know.  What I do is I get The Calendar and the L.A. Times everyday about this is what’s being made, and I’m looking to see what screeners I’m going to get from the Academy.  I got… the first screener arrived this morning.

Q:  Of  what?

MC: "Little Miss Sunshine.”

Q:  It’s very good.

MC: Yeah, I haven’t seen it.  I mean I’d never heard of it but that was…

Q:  Brilliant.

Q:  Wonderful.

MC: And it’s a big moment in the year for me.  We love it in England.  We get the screeners and we sit all the winter watching these movies.  And I’m also a member of the Academy… European Academy.

Q:  In Britain?

MC: No, the… I’ve already got the DVD of Volver. 

Q:  How is it?  I haven’t seen that yet.

MC: It’s fantastic.  Wonderful.

Q:  Now I know that in the first Batman film you put in a lot of background story yourself that you created for Alfred…

MC: Yeah.

Q:  Are we going to see a little bit more of this character, you know, the background of the character?

MC: No, that was just for me.  In order to justify--- what I wanted to be… I wanted to use… he has a very sharp, staccato military delivery in that.  I wanted to be a servant but tough, and so I figured if he’d been injured in the SAS, which is like your SEALS, you know, very tough, and then he stayed on and got a job in the Sergeant’s mess, so therefore he knew how to do drinks and serve, but you’ve still got this guy who is inherently a trained killer.  That’s what I wanted.  And that’s how I played him.  I don’t know whether anyone else noticed.

Q:  Did you learn any good tricks while making "The Prestige?”

MC: Yeah.  Yeah.  I learned to let the camera come around on Hugh and then you can get home early. 

 [Laughter]

MC: No.  The trick I learned… we had to do, Hugh and I had to do the, um, the collapsing birdcage without killing the bird.

 [Laughter]

MC: We never ever did it with a live bird.  We killed about eight rubber birds.

 [Laughter]

MC: Goodbye. 

Q:  Thank you.

Q:  Take care.

MC: Okay.  Bye, bye. 

"The Prestige” opens in theatre on October 20th.  I invite you to read my Review of the film, my interviews with Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, Hugh Jackman, and Christian Bale and to watch a ton of Videos right here.

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