Honestly, do these men need an introduction? The two recently collaborated on a remake of the 1972 film of Anthony Shaffer's play Sleuth, this time with a new screenplay by Harold Pinter. In the 1972 version, Michael Caine played the younger character, opposite Laurence Olivier as the elder character. In the new version, which Kenneth Branagh directs, Caine has taken the elder, opposite Jude Law.
Speaking to Back Stage, Caine and Branagh share bits of their early life, then offer a skills set for dealing with the mysteries of Pinter — and filmmaking in general.
Michael Caine: Back Stage is the equivalent of the English The Stage, which is where I got my first job from. I answered an advert for an assistant stage manager and small parts. "Small parts" worried me, but I went and became assistant manager anyway. Through this paper, like yours, I started. I was working in a factory. And I was working with an old man, whose daughter was a semiprofessional singer. And he used to ask me what I wanted to do. And I said I wanted to be an actor. And he said, "I know: There's a newspaper you can get where they advertise for actors."
Kenneth Branagh: And I got my first job in The Stage. I was looking after my parents' house; they were on holiday. It was just before my last term at drama school. I went to the library to get a copy of The Stage. It was easier than buying it. There was an ad for "Actor who can play 16-20, with authentic Irish working-class, Belfast accent. Apply to Room 212," or whatever it was, "at the BBC Television Centre," which to me was like hearing "Broadway." I remember at that time, when I was a kid in Belfast and we'd watch Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and they'd say [in California accent] "Filmed in Burbank, Calif.," that Burbank, Calif., seemed to me the most magical, exciting place I could possibly be.
Back Stage: You had the power of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art behind you, and RADA couldn't get you your first job?
Branagh: Well, I'll tell you. In my last term at RADA I wrote 100 letters — to every rep company in the country. I got an audition for one — the Westcliff Palace Theatre — and I did not get the job. Eventually, because they were doing a play about public school boys, in the West End, Another Country, we jumped that thing: You couldn't get a job without an Equity card, and you couldn't get an Equity card without a job. It has changed since.
So we were given a special dispensation — a temporary Equity card. But the power of RADA, the power of anything, really doesn't matter. It's the business. It's fairly equal once you get out there, I must say. You've got to find a way to get in the door, and certainly RADA didn't help me get in any door. But what it did in my case was, it was a practical way of learning about things: stage fighting and voice production and singing and all those kinds of things. I had a fantastic time at drama school. But once you're out there, in the big world, it's sink or swim.
Caine: I never got an audition. I auditioned for Alfie in the theatre, and I didn't get that either. Johnny Neville did it. Johnny Neville played it very well onstage, but from the point of view of casting, I thought, Johnny Neville had the most patrician classical face. And to cast him as this cockney seducer was quite extraordinary. When he turned into profile, he looked like Jesus. He always reminded me of the French actor Jean-Louis Barrault. And there [Neville] was as Alfie, saying [in cockney accent] "Hallo, darlin'!"
Branagh: It's funny with auditions: I remember the Pitlochry Theatre, up in the Highlands of Scotland, and their proud boast was "Six plays in six days" in the full summer season. I don't know if [Michael] got this at Horsham — that first job you got — but what I was after was this experience of being in a rep company. I ended up going straight to the West End and doing six months. But I found myself eventually in rep, with the Royal Shakespeare Company and various other places, but I wanted a bit of what Michael had, which was to go and play everything.
Back Stage: What do you remember of those early auditions you went on?
Branagh: I would always try and guess. You didn't always get the best information. So you're here to play this senior police officer, so you go in with a jacket and tie, and they go, "Well, we see this character as a bit of a maverick," and almost immediately you go, "Yeah, that's what I thought..." and you start to undo the tie. "But he also has this sequence — and you've obviously read the script," and no one sent you the script — "where he rides the horse. You ride horses?" "Of course, absolutely. I was born in the saddle." I've never been on a horse in my life. I used to lie through my teeth to get past the first bit. So I was always trying to guess how to dress, how to do my hair. Not necessarily a clever thing to do. And I remember so clearly, God, coffee bars in London I have known, where you're waiting. You get there early, because you don't want to be late. You find the front door [of the casting office], and then you go off and sit somewhere endlessly while you wait to go in. That's my memory of those auditions: misjudging them.
Caine: I used to lie about my experience, and I got caught out rather badly. There was a very famous play, a repertory sort of play, called George and Margaret. And [the auditor] said, "What have you played in anything?" And I said, "I played George in George and Margaret." And he said, "You bloody liar. George and Margaret is about George and Margaret who never turn up." I had an audition piece, no matter what I went up for. There's a speech by the young man in The Glass Menagerie. The Gentleman Caller.
Branagh: I did it myself.
Back Stage: With a Southern accent?
Caine: With a Southern accent. I would be going up for Alfie, I'd be going up for Richard III —
Branagh: Is this the one where he goes [in Southern accent], "You know what I think we have here? I think we have an inferiority complex." I used to do that as well. And I did Mick, from The Caretaker. [In low-class London accent] "I'll tell you what I'm going to do: I'm going to have cabinets made in afrormosia teak veneer." And if I was really stupid, I'd go and they'd say, "Are you going to do a bit of Shakespeare for us?" and I'd say, "Yes, I'd like to do a bit of Hamlet," and they'd go [posh accent], "Oh, Christ!" And it would be the 15th Hamlet of the day. "To be, or — " "Thank you!"
Caine: I did it in German once. "To be, or not to be," it's [somberly, in basso voice], "Sein oder nicht sein; das ist hier die Frage: Obs edler im Gemüt, die Pfeil und Schleudern...." And they said, "What the fuck are you doing?" I said, "I just thought I'd make a change."
Branagh: I tell you, once I went for an audition for Shakespeare. I hadn't [yet] got the job in Another Country. And I went to audition for Prince Hal in Henry IV, Parts I and II, at the Leicester Haymarket. I learned the first speech; it's when Hal turns around, and he's been playing with Falstaff, and he goes, "I know you all, and will awhile uphold / The unyoked humor of your idleness," and it goes on, basically, "You think I'm a scoundrel and a wastrel; I'm going to be a great king." And I thought I was rather good; I thought it would be wonderful playing Prince Hal in both parts of Henry IV. The bloke says, "Ah, this isn't going to work. I'll tell you your problem, son: You're always going to play a policeman." You take a few slaps along the way.
Caine: I'll tell you a story. I go up to play Bill Sykes in Oliver!. I thought, "I'm a big, tough cockney. I've got to get this part." I didn't get it. I was almost suicidal. I nearly gave up the business. That play ran a long time. Three years later, I was driving past that theatre, in a Rolls Royce, and I looked up, and I went, "Thank God I never got that part," because I would have been in it, earning £100 a week, thinking, "Bloody hell, this is fantastic."
Back Stage: After you left your starving-actor phase and started earning, what was the first luxury you each bought?
Caine: Everything to do with hygiene. I bought a flat with the best bathroom and the greatest shower. And then I bought all clothes: underclothes and shirts. I [had been] forever washing socks and underpants in the sink and putting them on slightly wet the next morning.
Branagh: Do you know the first thing I bought in 1985, when I had been at the RSC for two years on 300 quid a week, and I had enough to put a deposit down on a little flat in Camberwell? The first thing I bought was a washer-dryer, because I had spent the previous 10 years, every Sunday, like all actors, at a bloody launderette, washing. And I used to get so fed up, fighting for the bloody dryer, fighting to get change, fighting to not be the one who chooses the washing machine that breaks down. So being able to do your own washing and drying, for me, was an absolute thrill.
Caine: It's because, I remember when I was young, we were bombed out, and then they made prefab houses, and they were very modern for us. It was the first time we ever had a bathroom with hot water.
Branagh: I was born in a prefab house.
Caine: Well, I wasn't. The first time I ever had electric light was in the prefab. And you had to put a shilling in the gas meter to get enough water for a bath. And I remember saying to my dad, "Can I have a shilling for a bath?" He said, "You're not having a bath again, are you? You had a bath last Friday." I said, "No, I just want a bath, Dad." So I had this thing about hygiene all the time. I'm always in showers, washing my hair.
The Pinter Principals
Back Stage: Will you talk to our readers about doing Pinter?
Branagh: What was great with Harold was that Harold was an actor, Harold has been a director, and he's a writer. He said he likes actors doing his work to have a "relish" for it. And so it was great to work with somebody — a Nobel Prize winner — who came from a perspective of the performer. He was very, very alive to what that required. So he's a good combination of somebody who's obviously a terrifically bright man — he is an intellectual — but he also understands the intuitive.
Caine: I did his very first play, called The Room, at the Royal Court. I'd never done any [more] of [Pinter] until now. He'd been writing for 50 years. I'd thought, "When am I going to get another one?" So when Jude Law brought [Sleuth] to me, I was very happy. Someone said to me, "What's the secret of acting Pinter?" And I think I know it. You've got to be like a straight man in a comedy act. You just play it absolutely natural. If you try to be funny, if you try to do anything to help Harold, you've destroyed it. You must stay true to the person you're playing. It's my view, exactly, of movie comedy: If you do anything funny in a movie, you're not funny. You must be real. And you must be real with Harold. And you must never indicate that you've said something quite weird. You must go straight by it, as though you've said, "Pass the salt," instead of which some weird line has come out, and everybody goes, "He didn't even notice that line. What's going on here? Something is wrong." Harold is like that. Don't ever try to be Harold Pinter. Be the character.
Branagh: You go acerbic, really. And that's the luxury, when you've got writing of this standard, that you aren't tempted into playing mannerisms or tricks of your own — to make up something that isn't there. You've got to sail the beautiful vessel that is his dialogue, and he does so much for you by way of humor, atmosphere, and all the rest of it. As Michael says, if you can find a way to be truthful, in the moment, answer the other character, then the writing will do everything else for you.
Back Stage: I read somewhere that the actors gave so many different readings of each line. How did you cut it? Because that third act was seamless — and puzzling.
Caine: You have to have a lot of faith, as a movie actor, in the director, to do that, because you're giving him three goes. I used to say to [him], "Do you want small, medium, or large?" That was the code for it.
Branagh: Sometimes it was all variations in between. I remember a particular line where in postproduction I was thinking, "Gosh, this is a kind of key to how we might play the whole film." The interchange is Jude Law saying, "Maggie never told me you were such a manipulator. She told me you were no good in bed." And Michael replies, "She told you I was no good in bed? She's joking. I'm wonderful in bed." Now, we knocked that out of the park in every conceivable way. We did at least seven takes. And there was one where there were tears in Michael's eyes; his heart had been broken by this remark. He was angry at one stage. He was completely throwaway at another stage. He was unfazed —
Caine: Which one did we use?
Branagh: Well, to quote what you said earlier on, we played the straight one. We did the one where you didn't act anything. But I have to say that all the other versions really worked. And some of them, including the sort of heartbroken one, led to an early cut of the picture that, I think, could have played almost as a sort of Shakespearean tragedy. But it was too far that way. And in fact what we were missing was the brilliance and the wrong-footedness of the humor.
Back Stage: A lot of actors talk about having secrets for their characters. Some don't like to share them with the other actors. Did you have secrets, or do you not like doing that?
Branagh: My own view is that, within the context of the room itself — me, Jude, Harold, and Michael — is that it's full information. I worry about secrets. I worry if it gets into a kind of games-playing. I personally don't try to trick actors. [Spoiler alert] There are ways to help. For instance, an acceptable version of that is, Michael said to me, "Don't show me anything about what Jude looks like as Inspector Black, and I'll react on the day." That seems to be a really smart thing to do. But when it comes to tricking people —
Caine: There's a very simple answer to that: I'm not afraid of any actor. "Oh, he's a wonderful actor, but you'd better watch your back." And I say, "I don't have to. I am bulletproof if I remain as the character." If he does anything which is out of character, he will look like a bad actor. So he'd better not even try. I remember when Olivier, in the first [Sleuth], was starting to go right over the top, I went in under him the whole time. You looked at me, and this was an ordinary person just like us in the audience, looking at a lunatic. I just looked. Never reacted. If you stay true to your character, you are completely and utterly safe and bulletproof. The other actor cannot harm you.