Michael Caine may play Bruce Wayne’s loving and attentive butler, Alfred, in the “Batman” movies, but that doesn’t mean Caine isn’t capable of getting in on the action himself. In his new crime-thriller Harry Brown, Caine stars as the titular character, an older man living in a violent housing estate in London. After losing his wife and a close friend, Harry is pushed to the brink and decides to fight back against the vicious youths who rule the area.
Even though Harry Brown is ultimately a fictional tale, there’s a significant amount of truth behind the narrative. In fact, much of that truth is Caine’s truth. Not only is he an ex-serviceman, as is Harry, but he also lived in one of these estates himself. Between those connections, shooting on an actual estate and having some of these notorious teens in the film, a significant portion of the movie is factual. What isn’t quite realistic is Harry’s course of action. Vigilantes make for fantastic subjects in thrillers, but Caine prefers to keep things benevolent and attack the problem of misguided youths through charity and by simply offering them a second chance.
ComingSoon.net had the pleasure of sitting down with Caine to break down the details. He touched upon the usual; working with his co-star Emily Mortimer, getting into character and his hopes in terms of audience reception, but he was always eager to connect the filmmaking experience back to the actuality of the situation, the violent young gangs dominating the estates. Before wrapping up, he happily switched gears to briefly discuss his two upcoming Christopher Nolan projects, Inception and the highly-anticipated and rumor-consumed Batman 3.
ComingSoon.net: I imagine you get a ton of offers, so why this one?
Michael Caine: This one, it was an actor thing for start; it was a great part and a great script and it said a lot about what the state of England was there and I wanted to draw attention to that. Plus, it’s the milieu that I come from, that’s where I came from. And then quite coincidentally, not part of my choice, it was shot exactly where I come from because it’s shot in what you call ‘projects’ in America and on the projects right there, there is a mural on the wall with me on it as one of the people who came from there. The other one is Charlie Chaplin, who came from there too. And so, what it was really, other than I want to make a good thriller, was a wakeup call to my country because the people didn’t seem to realize it was there and I come from that and I knew it was there and I knew it was there much worse than anything I ever knew when I was a young man. I mean, the gangs now make my lot look like Mary Poppins, you know? It’s so lethal. Our drugs and our weapons when I was young was alcohol and fists, so you were always in a fight with someone. You get a broken nose, you’d get your teeth knocked out, but now it’s guns, drugs and knives and it’s very very very serious and it’s getting worse and worse all the time. It was a wakeup call for England saying, “You do know it’s there, don’t you?” Because no one seems to be taking any notice. We have this underclass who have just been left to rot and it’s my people. So it was important to me to do this movie. It’s very controversial. The British press were vitriolic about it. I mean, The London Times called it odious, but that’s just one stupid critic who hadn’t got the idea because the odor comes from something that you made. You neglected these people and that’s why it stinks.
CS: So there’s a lot of truth behind this film.
Caine: This story to those people who have no idea what they’re talking about, for instance the critic at The London Times, this is a documentary. A lot of them say, “Oh, it’s over. Done.” We went with research to the police and they told us, ‘We can’t put that in a movie, no one will believe us. You know, people will walk out if we put that in’ and it’s so disgusting and depraved. That section [that] lower income, no income people have sunk to is terrifying and I went back to where I came from and I, obviously we’re shooting at night a lot, and the boys all knew who I, the real guys, we had a lot of them in the movie, and I talked to them. What came out of it for me and a lot of what has happened is governments, as usual, have done nothing, but the charity things have increased massively. I know because I get asked every bloomin’ time because I’m one of them, you know? And so we did have a good effect in the end and we made a good movie.
CS: When you were shooting there, did you ever run into any problems?
Caine: No. The reason for that is me. You’ve got to remember, I am not them, the others. I am them, themselves, you know? And they talked to me completely differently from how they would talk to anyone else. They talk to me as though I know and understand. The first question they always ask me was, “Where do you come from?” And I say, “500 yards over there.” And then, of course, they go, “Oh.” So they automatically knew that I understood every one of their problems, which of course, I do and the problem is they think they’ve never been given a chance, but they have and they blew it. And I think they should be given a second chance and it should be education. Not expensive because education is a third of the cost of prison and, you know, they’re going to go back and they’re going to make more prisoners. It’s terrifying if you don’t do something about it.
CS: So you really know this character having grown up so close to that area and also being an ex-serviceman.
Caine: Exactly, yeah. And I’m an ex-combat soldier, so I know what I’m talking about. I’m not a bit like Harry obviously, but you research a character when you’re an actor, I had automatically been researching him all my life because half of my uncles were like him and I knew the area. I knew the gangs because I was one. But what they don’t realize about gangs is 80% of gang members are not there to attack someone, they’re there because they don’t want someone to attack them. You had to join the gang otherwise you get done and so that’s what you’ve got to start on, the 80% who don’t want to be there.
CS: Did you use any of your past roles to further inspire this performance?
Caine: No. I’ve seen these old men around and I know them. As I said, some of them were my uncles and I understood the whole situation completely and I just played him as a straight man. I understood him.
CS: You have a fantastic co-cast, but you’re primarily on your own for a good portion of the film. Are there any major differences when you prepare for one of Harry’s more introspective moments as opposed to a more violent scene?
Caine: No. You go with the reality of it; everything is the reality. The best way I can put it is, if you’re watching me in a movie and you sit down and say, “Isn’t that Michael Caine the wonderful actor?” then I’ve failed. What you should be doing is sitting there saying, “What’s going to happen to Harry Brown now?” In that film, very often it’s self-defeating, because you say, “Michael Caine’s playing himself, but what’s going to happen to Harry Brown?'”
CS: I walked into the movie saying, “I want to see this because Michael Caine’s in it,” but I walked out saying, “Oh my god. Harry Brown’s awesome!”
Caine: [Laughs] When I took my wife to see it for the first they ran it from me and I said, “Come and see it.” My wife hates violent films so I was very nervous and I said, “Look, all you do is you just tell me when you want to walk out, we’ll walk out, I’ll come back tomorrow and see it on my own.” And she sat all the way through and she said she liked it because of the character Harry Brown. He wasn’t a killer, he was a poor desperate old man. It was the first time I’ve ever seen a vigilante played as a victim. A lot of guys will come and say, “I loved that movie when he was shooting the gun,” but the surprise is several women have come up to me and said that they liked it. What effect did it have on you? Did you walk out or did you want to walk out?
CS: Not at all. I had a blast watching it, within the confines of the subject matter of course. I enjoyed the experience. The violence is appropriate because it’s necessary.
Caine: It’s what I said, we were a picture about violence, not a violent picture. There was no close-ups of the blood coming out of the throat or anything like that. I’m so pleased.
CS: I’ve walked out of a few horror movies a little upset with the level of gratuity.
Caine: I never see any horror movies; I don’t like them. I don’t mind horror movies that are sort of – like I saw “Let the Right One In,” the Swedish movie. You see, I like that. There was no killing, but I thought that was fantastic, “Let the Right One In” about the vampires.
CS: Back to your co-stars, how was it working with Emily?
Caine: Fabulous! I love Emily and I’ve known Emily since she was still a girl; I was a friend of her father’s. But she’s a wonderful actress and that was quite a difficult part to play because the edge on it, you know? I thought it was great casting because they could have cast some great big butch looking girl, you know what I mean, as a policeman. And she’s very feminine and small, Emily, but her mind works like a razorblade, so she was great.
CS: And what about your younger co-stars?
Caine: Well, they were scary because a lot of them were the real ones. The ones that scared me most were the drug dealers because we did a week’s rehearsal and I went in the rehearsal and they’re both method actors so they don’t come out of character. And so the director, [Daniel Barber] says, “Cut,” and they say, “Alright Mike, let’s have a cup of tea,” and I said to the director, “Are they real drug dealers?” He said, “No, they’re actors.” I said, “Are you sure?” And then I looked them up and they were actors and I’d seen them in other things, but I didn’t recognize them! They were fabulous those two guys.
CS: And what about the ones that actually aren’t professional actors?
Caine: There were many of them! A lot of the guys, I asked them if they had a father and dad was gone all the time because I had a very strong loving father myself and I always looked at this as part of it, the broken family, you know? So you had the sort of alpha male figure disappearing so they go to the gang leader who’s going to protect them, tell them what to do, so that was a replacement for the father. Daniel Barber, he’s quite a young small man, not big impressive physical figure, and he’s a wonderful director, and I watched him, he put half a dozen of these boys in a scene and I said, “Daniel, you know, we’re going to be here all night because after two takes they’re all going to tell you to shove it and walk off and we’ll have to start the whole bloody scene all over again without them.” He said, “No they won’t. They’ll stay.” I wasn’t in the scene, I sat watching and there he was and they were adlibbing, doing ‘should we do this?’ suggestions and I suddenly stood there and watched and I thought, “You’re right Michael about the father figure” because here you have a man, the director, who knows what he’s talking about. He’s telling them how to do something that they really wanted to do. They wanted to be actors and get it right and they were movie stars for a night. It proved to me that I was right about the alpha male figure and you have to replace it with some kind of social alpha male figure rather than a gang leader because we can’t produce fathers.
CS: You’re also right in that you gave them an opportunity and when they were given that second chance, they ran with it.
Caine: One direction made me laugh. [Barber] said, “We all keep the F word down to two each.” [Laughs] And they said, “Okay. Twice, yeah.” Because that group sat there, every other word was F. He said, “Two each,” and they said, “Right governor.” And all of them did the scene, only said it twice. And I just sat there laughing, but I was so pleased because I sort of proved myself right about [that] they needed direction and here was a guy who’s called ‘a director’ and it proved exactly what I said. And in the movie there are two [boys], not from [the estate], but other boys from this same background, drug dealers who rehabilitated who are now professional actors and they were there as professional actors playing the part. So we had the lot there. The thing about them was, I talked to them a lot during the night and they all said they didn’t get a chance and they did and I think what they need is a second chance. They don’t need prison.
CS: You get into some heavy-duty action in this film. Will you get to take that experience to the next “Batman” movie? Will Alfred get in on some of the action?
Caine: I never know! Christopher never tells you anything! I mean, I worked with him on “Inception,” I said, “Is there gunna be another ‘Batman’?” He went, “Yeah, probably next year, you know,” and that was all I got out of him. And I don’t know, but I mean, I’ve done action in it, but I’ve got a stunt double who’s 15 years younger than I am. [Laughs] And you can’t tell the difference.
CS: I can’t believe you know just as little as we do! Someone says ‘Batman’ and we get a whole new concept to run with, but then next week we find out it’s not true anymore.
Caine: Oh, yeah. I’ve seen those stories that are not true, yeah. They’re on the Internet. I got caught out with one. They asked me about ‘Batman’ and I quoted this it was in the newspaper that I had in my hand in Toronto and it said, I’m not going to say it because it’ll come out again, and it went all around the world that Michael Caine said this is this and I went, “No, I was just…” The guy who was interviewing me in Toronto was from the paper and he brought the paper and said, “Look. This is what’s happening. Charlie [mumbles] is gunna do this,” and I said, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” And then it came out, it said, “Michael Caine says Charlie [mumbles]…,” so I never say any bloody thing. Well, it’s not that I never say anything, I don’t know anything. When Christopher brought me the first script of “Batman Begins” to ask me if I would play the butler, I had asked to read it. He lived around the corner from me in the country, in England, he had a house near me at that time, he lives in LA now, but he brought the script around and I said, “Well, would you like a cup of tea?” He said, “Oh, I’ll have a cup of tea… while you’re reading it.” I said, “You’re gunna wait for my decision? Do I have to make the decision now?” He said, “Yeah.” He said, “And I want the script back.” And he took the script away; he wouldn’t let me keep the script because it was secret.
CS: That’s like with “Inception.” I read you were only allowed to have the pages with your part.
Caine: Yeah, I got my lines. Well, I only had a three-day part.
CS: But still, how do you play a part without knowing the direction it’s going in?
Caine: Well, I knew exactly who I was and what I was. I knew who I was. But, I mean, I didn’t know what Leonardo [DiCaprio] was going to go off and do.
CS: You play some sort of recruiter, right? Like a teacher?
Caine: Yeah, that’s right. And I didn’t know what he was going to do and then when he came back and he’d done it, I looked as though I knew what he’d done, but I didn’t know what he’d done. I’m going to see the movie. See if I’ve got it right. [Laughs]
CS: I can’t wait to see it!
Caine: I think that… No, I know quite a lot about that movie, finally enough. That’ll be quite an extraordinary movie.
CS: I wouldn’t expect any less.
Caine: No. Well, I read about it on the Internet and I saw a quote from Christopher, which said, “It is a journey around the architecture of the mind,” and I go, “Oh my god.” [Laughs] We’ll wait and see what that is.