In “Harry Brown,” the revered English actor Sir Michael Caine reveals a very different side of himself. As the title character, he plays an aging pensioner who, no longer willing or able to give in to ruinous gang rule in his neighborhood, goes on a spree of relentless vigilante revenge.
Caine, who is surprisingly brutal and violent in the movie, is in fact and in real life the clever, charming and gracious gentleman we’ve encountered in so many of his other movies, in a career that has spanned half a century and is still going strong.
In this interview with Jennifer Merin, Sir Michael says he chose to do “Harry Brown” knowing that the film’s vigilantism would be quite controversial, and that he welcomes the chance to stir up awareness about some of the issues it raises.
JENNIFER MERIN: What made you decide to do “Harry Brown” and what does your decision to play this very different sort of character express about you?
SIR MICHAEL CAINE: It expresses quite a lot. I did the movie for two actor reasons — Because it’s a very good part and a very good script. But apart from that, there’s a sort of socio-political reason. It’s to draw attention in my country to the authorities, whomever they may be, to the fact that these gangs, these people who we made the movie about exist, that there is a lower class of people who have been forgotten and neglected. And, what is more important, from my point of view, is that I come from that same class. And I come from that same place — but many, many years ago.
What I’m talking about is the gang life that is very violent, indeed. And very nasty and very drug-oriented. You know, England has 300,000 heroin and crack addicts on benefits that can’t work. So, you have this lower area of society which seems to have been ignored.
So, the extra reason that I signed on for the project, apart from the script and all those actory things that made it more worth while, is that it’s a sort of wake up call to my own country, one that says these gangs are there. You put them there with your with your political system, and your class system and your socio-economics, and you’ve left them there to rot. You’d better do something about them, otherwise they’re going to come out and kill you — or, as I read the other day as happened in Chicago, you’ve got to bring out the army. We’ve not gone that far yet, but we’re well along the bloody way.
MERIN: You say you come from this area, and from these circumstances. Yet do you think that when you were starting your career in the 1950s, this film could or would have been made?
CAINE: No. But it wouldn’t have been necessary, because it wasn’t as violent a period. In my own case, I was in a gang, but we were just…we were like Mary Poppins compared with these guys in the film, who are like the gangs you find in England today. I mean we were 12 comedians, Cockney comedians, very funny. Nice guys, who suddenly had to ban together to protect ourselves. And we learned how to do that. We never ever attacked anybody, but we sure as hell knew how to defend ourselves. And the difference between then and now was our drug of choice was alcohol and our weapons were our fists. So we used to get drunk and have a fist fight, and get a broken nose, lose a couple of teeth. Now, you die.
Look, it takes 25 or 30 years for alcohol to kill you, but drugs can kill you in three weeks. And so the drug you’re taking is more lethal, let along the weapons — the guns and the knives that are now used. So it’s a very different world.
MERIN: How was it for you going back to that world, although it has changed?
CAINE: From my own personal point of view, the projects — we call them council estates in England because they’re housing estates built by the council for poor people — are familiar to me. I actually grew up on the estate where we shot the film, and there is a mural to me on one of the walls. So that’s how I am known in that community. And when we were on location there, we had a lot of the gangs in the movie. We shot a great deal at night, and they would talk to me in an entirely different way than they would talk to any other authority figure. I would talk to them for hours. Even though they were villainous and very very tough, I could still see a side of them that was crying out for help. You have to remember that they talked to me as though I was them — they completely trusted me. They knew I wasn’t going to go to the police and say anything. To me they all seemed to think that they’d never had a chance. I knew they’d had a chance, and they’d blown it. But what I saw was they needed a second chance.
MERIN: It might be hard for some people — like Harry Brown, for example — to sympathize with them. Do you find that Michael Caine is able to do so?
CAINE: The first thing people don’t realize about gangs — who are a very nasty-looking group of young men, and right away you think, blimey, I’m going to run away from them — is that 80 percent are only there for their own protection, because if they weren’t in the gang, they would get attacked by it. So that’s the 80 percent you’re going to deal with if you want to reform the situation, which is what I would obviously like to do. So I think that 80 percent can be reformed if you give them a second chance.
MERIN: What advice did you give to the gang members with whom you spoke?
CAINE: You can’t tell them what to do. But they asked me, “Where do you come from?” And I said, literally from where we were sitting, “500 yards, over there, in a little prefab. We were bombed out during the war and they sent us these prefabricated little houses that used to come in a box. Of course, they were up for a few years, and they tore them down and built these concrete blocks like you lot have. And I came from that one over there.” And, they all asked, “How did you get out?”
I said, “How many of you have a father living with you?” And there’d be one hand go up. Well, I had a loving family with a great father. And I got an education. I won a scholarship to a grammar school, and in my area, well, grammar school was like going to university. And then I was dragged off the streets by a preacher called Reverend Butterworth, who built a club called Clubland. We all went there and joined the basketball club. I was a skinny six-foot tall kid. I’m only six-foot-two now, but I was already six foot tall when I was 14. I was like one of those anorexic models. I played basketball. To me it was all accidental what happened to me. If Reverend Butterworth went to these gangs today and said come to the club and play basketball, he would be told to shove off quickly. But the fact is our gang listened, even though a lot of them didn’t stay in the club for long.
MERIN: How did that lead to your getting out of the estates and becoming an actor?
CAINE: What happened to me was on the way up to the basketball court you passed the amateur dramatics society. None of the boys would join because it was sissy. I don’t mean homosexual — we didn’t know anything about all that. We just thought it was sissy and we didn’t do sissy things because all the other guys would take the piss out of you for doing something so sissy. The teacher kept asking all us lot if we’d join the dramatics society, but blimey no.
We were all up there playing basketball, but the dramatic society had push doors with glass windows, and I could see through the windows that all the pretty girls were in the dramatics society, and they never had any boys. I was 14 and I really wanted to kiss a girl, but I hadn’t met anybody. So I joined the dramatics society. I never got to kiss a girl there, but I got here. I got here from there.
MERIN: Well, that’s not a bad beginning to your very interesting journey…
CAINE: Yes, that was the beginning of my trip. And for all silly reasons. It was quite weird. But I look back and compare us lot with these gang boys today, and I see how much has changed. So, I so a lot of things for charity, and I hope Harry Brown can get people more aware. But you know, when this movie came out, we got a lot of good reviews for the acting and directing and all, but the socio-political reviews were scathing. The London Times called us odious — because they said how dare the film show this kind of violence. They didn’t get it. They were the very people we were showing the violence to, letting them know that this is what’s really going on. But they didn’t get it. And I thought, don’t you realize there is an odor, and you’re the people who made the odor? It’s because of your society that these people are stinking. But you dismiss the film and their story as odious.
MERIN: Do you think society is ready for a Harry Brown, a vigilante who acts outside the law to clear the world of violence?
CAINE: The reason I made the film is that I think society should do something to avoid having a Harry Brown emerge. That’s why Harry Brown is there — to let people know how close we are to having a Harry Brown emerge, and to prevent someone from becoming him.
Someone asked if I’d seen the film with a public audience, and I said I hadn’t. They told me that when I kill the gang members, the audience applauds. I said that’s why we made the film because that’s how far it’s gone — people are applauding people killing people. You’ve got to do something about gang violence because if you don’t, private citizens will. We’ve never had an old guy like Harry Brown become a vigilante in England and kill people, but we’ve had groups of old people get together and go around and kick the shit out of gang members.
MERIN: In real life?
CAINE: Oh yes, several times. Excuse my language, by the way….
MERIN: That’s alright. Your mentioning Harry’s age actually brings me to another subject. How do you manage to keep so young and to sustain your high level of energy?
CAINE: Do you think I have a high energy level? That’s what my wife says, too! I don’t know the answer. I walk a lot — three or four miles a day, every day. I’m a gardener, and I happen to garden on the side of a hill, so I’m forever pushing a wheelbarrow up the side of that hill. And, of course, I watch what I eat and drink. I drink wine, but I don’t drink any other alcohol. And, I only drink wine at night, never in the daytime. And I don’t do any drugs. I once smoked marijuana and laughed for five hours and nearly got a hernia, so I didn’t do it again.
MERIN: Can I quote you on that?
CAINE: Yeah, sure. As you like….