Sir Michael Caine: role of a lifetime

THERE remains something of the cockney geezer about Sir Michael Caine. Despite his knighthood, wealth and fame, the Rotherhithe-born star has all the patter of an east end barrow boy. Asked what he would like on his tombstone, he quips: See you later, no

THERE remains something of the cockney geezer about Sir Michael Caine. Despite his knighthood, wealth and fame, the Rotherhithe-born star has all the patter of an east end barrow boy.

Asked what he would like on his tombstone, he quips: "See you later, no hurry."

What about an afterlife? "I would dearly like to believe there is someone there and I have a lot of back-up: My father was a Catholic, my mother a Protestant. I was educated by Jews and I am married to a Muslim, so I won't be caught out on a technicality."

As for filming in Folkestone: "It was the middle of winter, we were working our butts off and like most movie actors I had absolutely no idea where I was. I understand it's a wonderful town and I will visit there once the sun comes out."

As it turns out, patter is a handy tool for Caine's latest character, a former magician with dementia who washes up in a seaside retirement home peopled by the cream of veteran British actors.

Playing a decade older than his 76 years, Caine has made no secret of his hope that the role of Clarence will help him get his hands on the so far elusive best actor Oscar.

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He is indeed superb in the dark, quirky British comedy Is Anybody There? delivering a performance that brims with rage, frustration and pity. It's a star turn amid a top notch supporting cast. The home is run by Anne-Marie Duff's drudge-like mum.

"She was tricky to play because she loses her sense of herself," says the Crouch End actress, who is married to James McAvoy and won last year's Olivier award for Shaw's St Joan.

"I was trying to flesh her out and find someone who didn't just become the wallpaper. She's desperately trying to please everybody but doesn't please anybody, least of all herself."

Duff's dowdy, sympathetic character grows increasingly distant from a husband undergoing a midlife crisis, played by David Morrissey, who lives in Highgate with his author wife Esther Freud and their three children. (No slouch as a screen actor, TV parts in State of Play, The Deal, Red Riding and Sense and Sensibility have earned him the reputation as one of Britain's finest actors.)

The couple's faltering marriage is just one strand in Peter Harness's moving but never sentimental script, set in the late 80s. Harness himself grew up in an old people's home and Caine's co-star is 13-year-old Bill Milner who plays the morbidly minded Edward.

His only interest in the home's frail residents is a fascination with ghosts and the afterlife as he ghoulishly leaves his tape recorder under their beds to record their dying breaths.

Edward's touching, often combative relationship with the cantankerous Clarence ultimately helps him to connect better with the living - and to take note of the life stories behind the senility and illness around him.

Clarence in turn finds forgiveness for mistreating his dead wife.

Harness's script was the draw for Irish director John Crowley: "I loved the tone of it, and knew it had the potential to be a sensitive, touching, funny film - a lens to examine ideas of growing old and growing up."

Duff adds: "I thought the script was funny and irreverent about something you never see on a big screen and it offered the chance to work with some of my heroes, people I had watched growing up and been inspired by."

(These include veteran Maida Vale actor Leslie Phillips; former Coronation Street actress Thelma Barlow; Sylvia Syms, whose films range from Ice Cold in Alex to The Queen; and Elizabeth Spriggs, who played Nan in Shine On Harvey Moon.)

Caine signed on because of the script, which he read and immediately agreed to: "You read many that make you laugh but I have never read one before that made me cry".

He also admired Crowley. "He has an incredible cinematic eye and is a great theatre director so he knows how to direct actors and where to put a camera. You rarely get the two together."

Asked whether the role had made Caine ponder his own mortality, he's back to quipping. "I don't think of my own mortality, I think of yours. I am sympathetic to all you people who are going to die. I can show you how it's done but I am not going to do it myself."

He did, however, base his portrayal of Clarence's dementia on his old friend and tailor Doug Hayward, who died following a five year battle with Alzheimer's

"That is as accurate a portrayal of dementia as I could do with my talent from extreme close-up experience. Doug was one of my closest friends who died while we were making the film. But I don't think this is a film about a guy with dementia, it's about an old magician and a little boy and in the end he does die. Then it struck me I had been five years waiting to walk in the door and for Doug to ask me who I was. And one day he did."

Asked how he usually prepares for roles, Caine cites the Stanislavsky coda that the "rehearsal is the work and the performance the relaxation".

"That's what I look for in very good film actors, they have already done the work before they get there and that's what I got from this entire cast."

Caine has nothing but praise for his young co-star, who he learned to trust as if he was an adult actor.

Duff, whose first screen break came in Channel 4's Shameless, adds: "Some actors who can be your seniors are a lot less mature than actors who aren't. I have worked a lot with kids and it's a real joy that they don't come with any of the baggage we load ourselves up with about our profile and performance. They just tell the story and it forces you to do the same thing."

Crowley believes the film "delicately" raises issues about our ageing population.

"I don't think people know what to do with them. It's an awful shame. I understand that people don't like to be reminded of what happens when you get old but it's crucial to show that they don't stop being individuals. We go on a journey with one resident but the feeling should be that in every room there are individuals having their own private memory experience and we could have dipped into any one to tell their life story."

Sadly, Spriggs died while the film was in post-production. Duff recalls she still had the energy "as if she had just started acting".

"She was so keen and bold and reminded you we are so lucky to do this for a living, we have to seize it and love it. She's a fine example of doing that and going for it."

Caine reveals a rather gentlemanly streak as he remembers her spending a few minutes congratulating him on a performance in a film he wasn't in. "It was Lawrence of Arabia which starred Peter O'Toole, but I never let on."

Caine, who was born Maurice Micklewhite but took his acting name from a Leicester Square billboard advertising The Caine Mutiny, reveals his obsession with cinema began at the age of three when he watched the "three penny rushes" on Saturday mornings.

"The Lone Ranger came on and from that moment I wanted to be a movie actor."

His prolific career contains as many stinkers as hits but those hits have made him a legend - from Alfie, Zulu, The Italian Job and Get Carter to Cider House Rules, Hannah and her Sisters and Little Voice. He learned the lines for Is Anybody There? while filming the latest Batman movie in which he played the superhero's butler Alfred.

Asked which sort of movie he prefers to make, Caine shrugs philosophically: "It's the movie business. I have done all sorts of movies in my life. Dark Knight was the biggest I have ever done, eight months during which I worked for 12 days but I had lots of time off to prepare for this.

"I got money off the Dark Knight and a great life experience from this one.