Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne, left, and Michael Caine as Alfred in a scene from the action thriller "The Dark Knight Rises."

Ron Phillips, Associated Press

This 'son of a Cockney' still seeking a challenge

  • Article by: MELENA RYZIK
  • New York Times
  • December 9, 2012 - 4:41 PM


Michael Caine was doing the eye thing. It's a trick of his, developed over years of film performances and close-ups: Let your gaze rest on your scene partner, but only with one eye. The other eye, the one closest to the camera, can connect with the lens. The camera "will not miss anything," he said, "including the bad. So you have to watch it."

Of course there is little bad when Caine, 79, is on screen. In more than six decades of work he has been a sterling presence, inimitable except that so many have tried. (In the BBC series "The Trip" the comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon do a riff on his Cockney accent and measured delivery that is as hysterical as it is accurate.)

He reminisced about his career before a recent luncheon in honor of "The Dark Knight Rises," the final installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman series. As Alfred, the loyal butler and father figure to Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), Caine has served as a conscience and a consigliere, shepherding and humanizing the hero.

Caine invented his own back story for Alfred. "I thought, I wanted to be the toughest butler in the world," he said. Alfred, he envisioned, was part of a British military force, the Special Air Service, like the Navy SEALs. "He was a sergeant in it," Caine said. "He got wounded. He didn't want to go to civilian life. Then he went into the sergeant's mess and ran that, which is where Batman met him. I needed him to have social skills, like making cocktails and serving things. So that's why I put him in the bar, as a wounded ex-soldier who didn't want to go back into civvy life." (In Caine's vision Alfred taught Bruce Wayne lots of things, including how to make a mean martini.)

Nolan and Caine have now worked together five times. Caine appeared in "Inception" and "The Prestige," also opposite Bale. Warner Bros., the studio behind "The Dark Knight" series, is hoping that their director-actor rapport will help sell the film to Oscar voters, who don't tend to go in for blockbuster sequels but are often swept away by nuanced performances by older character actors. (Caine is a six-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner, as best supporting actor, for "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "The Cider House Rules.")

Caine heaped praise on Nolan. He called him one of cinema's greatest directors, comparing him to David Lean. Nolan, he said, even had a leg up on that "Lawrence of Arabia" filmmaker because he was also a screenwriter.

Nolan heaped the praise right back. "I think being able to say, 'my great friend Sir Michael Caine' is one of the great pleasures of my life," he said, adding that Caine's reputation was the inverse of the old Will Rogers line: "He never met a man who didn't like him."

Caine, who was knighted in 2000, is a noted raconteur; he has written two well-received autobiographies, "The Elephant to Hollywood" in 2010 and "What's It All About?" in 1992.

"He's the best storyteller that I've ever met," said Lasse Hallstrom, who directed Caine -- with an American accent -- in "The Cider House Rules." As an actor, "I think he goes by instinct," Hallstrom added. "After all, he grew up a working-class guy. There's nothing pretentious about him or emotionally false. He's a natural."

Caine, though, considers himself a Method actor -- he based his accent as Alfred on his own army sergeant -- and abides by Konstantin Stanislavsky's maxim that "the rehearsals are the work; the performance is the relaxation," as Caine puts it.

"Before I ever say a line in front of a camera," he said, "I've said it a thousand times. So if you give me the cue anywhere, I would just answer you quite naturally."

His choice of movies, after a half-century as a star, is guided by a few criteria, like whether his grandchildren can see them and whether they are a creative challenge -- anything that's a stretch for "the son of a Cockney Billingsgate fish-market porter," he said, adding gleefully: "For $10 million I'll do a movie. But nobody's offered me that yet. I look at e-mail every morning to see."

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