Q+A: Michael Caine on Gardening, Christian Bale's Temper

By Nicki Gostin

Born Maurice Micklewhite in South London to a charwoman and fish market porter, Michael Caine has been a movie star for more than 40 years. His first major film role was in 1964's "Zulu," and he's been working steadily ever since. Just last year he appeared in one of the biggest blockbusters, "The Dark Knight," playing the ever-faithful Alfred. Along the way he's picked up two Oscars, for "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "The Cider House Rules." In the new film "Is Anybody There?" Caine plays a retired magician who moves into a retirement home, where he strikes up an unlikely friendship with the death-obsessed young son of the home's harried owners. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Nicki Gostin about the pleasures of gardening, the secret to a happy marriage and what he thinks of Christian Bale's temper. Excerpts:

Gostin: So did you have fun making this movie?
Yeah, it was great, because I was working with all the right people, because I've gotten to the stage now where I only work if I want to and everything has to be right. Working for me now has to be a labor of love. I only work with people now that I like.

Is it depressing playing old codgers?
No, no, I thought he was quite a funny old guy. I had a lot of fun with him. It could have been depressing at the end, but I didn't play it like that. Also, the character had Alzheimer's, so you don't know what's happening to you, so you don't get downhearted.

I guess that's the bonus of having Alzheimer's.
Yeah, it's about the only one.

You play a magician. Did you get help?
Yeah, I decided to part my hair in the middle … the magician who came on the set told me all the magicians part their hair in the middle because Houdini used to do that, so they all did it.

Were you doing home renovations when you did "Jaws: The Revenge" in 1987?
Um, I don't know.

I mean, when you accepted it?
I only did a little guest shot. I was only in it for 10 minutes.

So you didn't do it for the cash?
Oh, no. Besides, I only take responsibility for the movies where I'm the lead. I've played the lead in probably 75 to 80 movies.

Can you believe your career?!
I'm still here and I'm still playing the lead. I must say, right now I don't have another script. I'm sort of out of work, I have nothing to do. Someone asked me the other day if I'm retired. And if I don't find another script I want to do, I'll be retired, because I just do what I like. I've just taken 18 months off, and I really got quite good at it.

What do you do on your time off?
I'm a writer, I'm a gardener, I'm a cook and I travel a lot. I'm an extremely diligent family man, I love spending time with my family, so I have plenty to do.

Gardening: veggies or flowers?
It's everything. I have 21 acres.

Do you actually get down and dig?
I do; I mean, I have gardeners, but I'm always out there with them.

What do you like growing the best?
Vegetables, because they're things you can eat, and they're so much better than you can buy at the shops.

I hope you don't use pesticides.
The whole garden is organic. The maggots get a quarter.

You have a beautiful wife whom you've been married to forever. What's the secret?
Two bathrooms. That's just the start. You have to be equal partners, completely devoted to each other, which we are.

Aw, how many years are you coming up on?

Are you going to have a big blowout for the 40th?
I dunno, I just want to be here for it!

Did you hear the Christian Bale rant?
Yeah, I heard that.

Did you see any temper tantrums on the set of "Batman"?
No! I was absolutely stunned, because Christian doesn't even swear in conversation. I mean, I swear more than he does. I'm surprised he did it, but I'm not surprised an actor did it. Sometimes you're working on a movie, and people are not paying attention and things are not happening. I mean, I've blown my top on a set. But not for many, many years. When I was younger I did, but I don't blow my top anytime now. I think the most upsetting thing about it is the scumbag who recorded it. That's a piece of junk. I hate people like that.

Give me a couple of Cockney rhymes.
"Trouble and strife"; that's your wife. "Apples and pears"; that's stairs. "Amos and Andy"; that's brandy.