‘How the hell did he know about me?’: Michael Caine, Paolo Sorrentino on new film Youth, life, and naked women

Italian director’s beguiling meditation on ageing stars veteran British actor Caine, who was surprised to get the call, as well as Harvey Keitel, and features a cameo from Jane Fonda

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 March, 2016, 5:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 March, 2016, 5:01am

Films can spring from the strangest of kernels. In the case of Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, the idea had been fermenting in the Italian’s mind for several years – ever since he heard a story about his fellow countryman, Riccardo Muti: the conductor turned down a request from Queen Elizabeth II to perform at a private concert in Buckingham Palace.

“They couldn’t agree on the repertoire,” says Sorrentino. “She didn’t change her mind so he said, ‘I won’t come’.”

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It is rather unusual, of course, to turn down one of the most famous women in the world. Over time, this act inspired the central character in Youth: Fred Ballinger. A retired conductor and composer, Ballinger has secreted himself away in a Swiss spa resort when he receives a request, via an emissary from Buckingham Palace, to play his most famous piece, Simple Songs, on the occasion of Prince Philip’s birthday. And like Muti, Ballinger politely declines.

Playing Ballinger is Michael Caine, who admits he was surprised when he heard that Sorrentino wrote the part with him in mind. The British actor had just watched the Italian’s Oscar-winning film The Great Beauty – “I voted for it in the Academy,” he says – when he was sent the script for Youth.

“I thought, ‘How the hell did he know about me?’ I was surprised he’d even heard of me; and even if he’d heard of me, that he was interested at all.”

On the contrary, the Italian was very interested. “I never saw any other actor being able to play the role. I wanted a well-known actor who was also an icon, that had a very specific charisma, and in my view, that was Michael Caine.”

Curiously, Sorrentino hasn’t seen any of Caine’s recent movies. “The last one I saw was The Cider House Rules,” he says, referring to the 1999 film that won Caine a second best supporting actor Oscar. “That’s my approach. I like seeing things from a distance. If you look at things too close, you might be disappointed.”

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With Youth a beguiling meditation on the ageing process, Caine is undoubtedly perfect for a role that won him best actor at the recent European Film Awards (while Sorrentino took best director). Needless to say, he’s delighted, with the film allowing him to play a character far from himself.

“I’m from a very working class, poor background,” he says. “And for me to play a classical music conductor ... if you think in terms of class and accent, that’s one of the hardest things I’ve done and I figure I’ve carried it off.”

Nevertheless, he didn’t warm to the widowed Ballinger, who has lived with regrets over his marriage and endures a strained relationship with his offspring, Lena (played by Rachel Weisz).

“I wouldn’t have done anything he did. For instance, his disinterest in his daughter … I’m so involved with my family. He was a complete stranger to me. I might not have liked him in real life. He was a strange man. He just sat there. And he didn’t like my Queen – and she knighted me.”

Sorrentino has a different take on the character. “Fred is a man that has developed a caring and loving distance from things,” he says. “He’s not cynical, more disillusioned. But he’s not given up hope for being surprised by events.”

Even so, you sense in Youth that his best days are behind him, as he quietly observes life in the spa alongside his old friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a washed-up film director working on a new script titled Life’s Last Day with a group of acolytes.

One of Ballinger’s issues is that he’s primarily remembered for Simple Songs (composed in real life by David Lang, and nominated for an Oscar this year). Similarly, another resident in the spa – a young actor named Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) – is famed for playing a robot in the Hollywood smash, Mister Q.

And it’s not hard to read the 45-year-old Sorrentino’s own paranoia in these characters. “It scares me quite a lot,” he says, “the idea of being remembered for just one thing.”

Admittedly, this is highly unlikely. Youth is the seventh feature of his already acclaimed and diverse career, one that’s seen him go from working with regular frontman Toni Servillo to directing the likes of Caine, Keitel and Jane Fonda, who enjoys a delicious cameo as diva actress, Brenda Morel.

A film like Youth, says Caine, suggests its writer-director is at the peak of his powers. “I’ve worked with Joe Mankiewicz, John Huston, Joe Losey ... he’s up there with them all.”

Fonda concurs, citing one scene she shot with Keitel. “I imagined it would be a small room – an intimate conversation between two friends. No – he shoots it in this empty ballroom; rococo. And then he puts the camera way down at the other end of the room. And then between the camera and us is a ping-pong table. That’s Paolo Sorrentino. He had us do the whole scene from the beginning to the end – I thought that was genius.”

Shooting in the grand 19th century five-star Swiss hotel Waldhaus Flims, Sorrentino also kept his two male leads on their toes for one of the film’s key scenes. The image that dominates the film’s promotional poster, both Keitel and Caine watch open-mouthed as the new Miss Universe (played by Madalina Ghenea) disrobes while entering the spa’s pool.

“I didn’t tell them [this would happen],” laughs Sorrentino. “One thing is to say a naked woman will walk into the pool; another thing is seeing her.”

For Caine, this tapestry created by his director is the perfect expression of the way we live. “The film to me is life: sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes dangerous, sometimes unhappy. There are all these things in here. Life is not a comedy or a drama or anything, is it? It’s all of those things, in little bits.”

Youth opens on Mar 17