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CAINE, MICHAEL: The Cider House Rules

With more than 80 features to his credit, the 66-year-old actor most recently earned a Golden Globe for his performance in Little Voice. Alfie, Sleuth and Educating Rita all garnered him Oscar nominations, before he won the Academy Award for Hannah and Her Sisters. In Lasse Hallstroem's The Ciderhouse Rules, from John Irving's bestseller, Caine portrays the unconventional Dr. Wilbur Larch, head of St. Cloud's orphanage, and the childhood home of Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), who sets out to explore the world for himself. The role is special, he tells our European correspondent, JORN ROSSING JENSEN.

CAINE: Unconsciously I started training for this part many years ago, when I was a little boy of six and evacuated from London during the war. I was sent outside to the country and spent six weeks with strangers, and I was not treated very well. This film is about compassion. I have always had a great compassion for children - and been appalled by any cruelty to them - and when I came to play Dr. Larch, I knew exactly what the children would expect from me as a kind person, because I was still that child anyway. To the children, the grown-up is a dangerous person, big and kind of ugly and powerful, but he is wonderful if he loves only you. As a metaphor, each child is like Fay Wray - the only person King Kong loves in the old film they watch every week.

Q: You have performed with a lot of great actors. How was it, for instance, to work with Laurence Olivier in Sleuth?
A: The part in Sleuth came to me as a lot of other jobs, because Peter O'Toole had turned it down…[laughs] and I was kind of fearful for Olivier - after all he was such a giant, one of the greatest actors in the history of theatre. But on the first day I realised we were in my medium which is film, and not his, which was theatre - so everything eased up a bit. Then he was fired from his job at the National Theatre, started taking Valium and could not remember his lines for a week.

As all actors would, I took full advantage of this, screwed him into the ground as much as possible, then ducked and waited for him to come back at me, which he did. However, it was a draw. But he was like a hurricane, coming out of nowhere, and suddenly you are standing in the doorway and the house is gone. One day when we had had a very big scene going after each other, he gave me the best compliment I have ever had as an actor. He came up to me and said, 'I thought I had an employee - I see I have a partner.' And we even became friends.

A star of the stage goes to the theatre, and everybody around him is there to get a great man's performance out of him. He will stand in full spotlight, wearing a red cloak and a crown, surrounded by all the other actors in the dark, with black shirts and trousers. Next day the critics will say, 'What star quality he had - the moment he came on stage you could not look anywhere else.' In the movies there is no such escape.

Q: Over the years, you have yourself become a sort of icon for a whole generation of moviegoers. Do you have a ready explanation for that?
A: I was recently asked the same question by a young men's magazine, so I have thought about it and reached the conclusion that audiences trust me. I come from them. For years leading characters in films have always been gay men, intellectual men, slightly suspicious men, ice cold men or impotent men. I am one of the few actors who - in my whole career - has continuously played heterosexual.

Masculinity is me. There are no doubts about me. People do not look at me and say, 'He is an actor. I wonder if he is gay or some kind of pervert,' because they know it is 'No' to both questions. And then they particularly remember three films. In The Italian Job we went to Italy and won the football. Pretty good for a young guy. In Alfie I seduced every woman I ever met in the movie. Pretty good for a young guy. In Get Carter I slapped the nose of everybody who stepped out of line. Pretty good for a young guy. Win the football, get the girls, beat up anyone you do not like - for 30 years I have represented that to an entire generation of English males, and believe it or not: I am proud of it [laughs].

Q: Who were your own film icons?
A: When I was a boy looking for a Michael Caine, Burt Lancaster came out, and I knew I had met my match. I loved American war movies, not the British - and not from lack of patriotism - but the British were about officers, and the American about ordinary soldiers. I grew up watching Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power, extremely handsome men, and I kept looking in the mirror and said, 'Oh, I failed here.' Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy - they never looked as if they were acting. I was always amazed at their naturalness.

If you watch Bogart, he was a man who could talk - he would do six pages of dialogues in half a minute, and tell the whole story to you, without raising his lip. My all-time favourite films were - and are - black and white, Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, Carol Reed's The Third Man. But the greatest of them all - and I could be a little biased here, because both Bogart and Tracy were dead when I came to Hollywood - was Cary Grant, whom I met, and we became great friends. I always adored him and wanted to be like him, but I never made it ... well, maybe one day.

Q: Another icon - Sylvester Stallone - will play your part in a remake of Get Carter from 1970. How do you feel about that?
A: I have already been offered a part in it, so I am all for it. I am sure Sly will make a good gangster, but the film will be entirely different from ours - set in New York, with an American cast, and a lot more stunts and special effects. The producer will realise that the original Get Carter was made for less than it will cost him to pay for Sly's entourage. Much more money will be slung at it, and I just hope they will sling some of it on to me.

Q: Is there a difference between British and American humour?
A: The best sense of humour in the world is New Yorker Jewish. When the European Jews emigrated to America, they were so happy to get out of here that they saw the funny side in everything. The rest of us who were stuck in England had to see the funny side in everything out of pure desperation. Opposite the American humour, the British is full of irony, because it comes either from very, very smart people at universities or from prisons, where ancestors of the likes of me invented it to confound the wardens [laughs].

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An homage for a limey at an American film festival? "Well, after all I have done most of my work for US studios, and over there I am not regarded as a foreigner. They think I am an American who just speaks funny," said British actor Michael Caine - a true South Londoner - introducing a retrospective tribute of his work at the 1999 showcase of American cinema in the French holiday resort of Deauville.

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