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After all these years, Michael Caine discovered emotional nudity playing Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American, a reprehensible character he could ‘take all the way’ he tells Andrew L. Urban.

Michael Caine is sitting at a big desk in the rather large room he calls the office at his magnificent Surrey home just outside London, surrounded by shelves of books, on top of which sit the many awards he’s won. Three Golden Globes, three BAFTAS and the two Oscars jostling for pride of place in the centre above him. “There’s lots of paintings and stuff on the walls …. I’m not a minimalist, I’ve covered everything,” he says lightly.

"it’s the lad within"

The room is dominated by a giant tv set; ”everyone watches tv in here,” he says with that characteristic laugh. This is the incongruity of Sir Michael Caine, knighted for services to entertainment, living in a comfortable country mansion amidst the trappings of class and wealth, yet the moment he speaks he’s the lad from the poor end of London, his accent an instant give-away in this class conscious world. (Nobody calls him Sir – except the staff at British Airways.)

But it’s not just the accent; it’s the lad within. We start our conversation laughing about the incongruity of his roles in The Quiet American and Goldmember – and the odd twist of fate that had me seeing previews of the two films just three days apart. “Yeah, a bit different,” he chortles. “There you go….I’ve done so many serious things I look now to get some fun out of life, some funny stuff. I did Miss Congeniality, too,” he adds unnecessarily. “I had a lot of fun with both of them.”

Yet he’s quick to point out that those films were fun in a funny way. “But when you’re doing something you really like, that’s true fun. And that’s why The Quiet American for me was the most fun picture I ever did in my life. I was happy with the film, I was happy with Phillip [Noyce, director] and the people in it. It was a wonderful film to work on.”

It’s set in Saigon, in 1952: a beautiful, exotic and mysterious city caught in the grip of the Vietnamese war of liberation from the French colonialists. New arrival Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an idealistic American aid worker, befriends veteran London Times correspondent Thomas Fowler (Caine). When Fowler introduces Pyle to his beautiful young Vietnamese mistress Phuong (Do Hai Yen), the three are swept up in a tempestuous love triangle that leads to a series of startling revelations and finally murder. 

The film’s grand metaphor is a political one; the central characters could represent the political forces aligned in Vietnam at the time – with prophetic accuracy. But of course they are also characters, people who play out a dramatic and dangerous love triangle.

"doing emotional nudity"

And the extraordinary thing is that Caine – a veteran of dozens of movies and once a young soldier in Korea “before they started Vietnam” - now found himself for the first time “going the whole way emotionally….I opened right up, doing emotional nudity, so to speak. I suppose the film taught me I could go as far as I wanted… There’s no such thing as an actor going too far into a character. It’s a gift of a part for an actor of my age.”

Praising the entire cast and crew effusively, Caine says “it was easy although it was hard to do; the process was difficult but the actual doing it was easy.”

When he was first approached about the role, he was instantly enthusiastic. “I thought it was Christmas! I couldn’t believe it that they offered it to me, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.”

Caine knew the book, indeed, knew the author the late Graham Greene, whom he had met when making Green’s The Honorary Consul (1983), which was also adapted for the screen by Christopher Hampton, as was The Quiet American. “He (Greene) told me he didn’t like the movie…I liked you though, he said, but I think he was just saying that not to make me feel too bad. He didn’t like the films of his books, but I think he’d have liked this one; it was very true to the book.”

True not only in the telling of the story but the effectiveness of the mood. “Ah yes, that’s Phillip, you see” says Caine, “he’s a great filmmaker. If you think how Saigon and Hanoi are today, for him to be able to recreate that was quite extraordinary, because that was a special time and a special place and couldn’t be anywhere else at any other time. I think that’s the sign of a great movie maker.”

When it came to creating the character of Thomas Fowler, Caine had to drop his own accent, “of course, it had to be posher than mine. Fowler is middle class…. Funnily enough an American said to me the other day, You’re all right in that because you could use your own accent…” Caine then had to explain the critical subtleties of English accents and how “it’s a class thing”. 

"I think that’s what holds your interest"

He describes Fowler as a “reprehensible” character, “I’ve seen a lot of Fowlers around the world; you see them in discotheques, older guys with young girls, especially in Thailand and Vietnam. The thing I’ve always felt about them is that they were very sad. So I added sadness to him. Graham didn’t make him sad. But I think that’s what holds your interest, in a man who’s so reprehensible: he’s a drug addict screwing young girls, he kills, he doesn’t work properly, he’s bad reporter….but you don’t end the film hating him. I think you feel sorry for him.”

Which is not how Caine feels about himself of course. He has sold off all his restaurants and since The Quiet American he’s finished making The Actors, another comedy, this one shot in Dublin and directed by Conor McPherson. But restaurants still have great appeal: “it’s like opium,” he says jokingly. “I’m thinking about buying another one in London. If I can get my wife’s permission…. she’ll scream at me if I tell her. I haven’t asked her yet…I’m just plucking up courage…”

Published January 9, 2003

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Michael Caine



QUIET AMERICAN GHOSTS - a poignant and deeply personal response to Phillip Noyce’s film of The Quiet American by Cynthia Spencer

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