'There's no rivalry between us... legends cannot be like that'
Hollywood superstars Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman surely have a picture in their respective attics, writes Anne Marie Scanlon
Screen legends, it turns out, are a bit like buses. You wait all your life to meet one and then two come along at the same time. Morgan Freeman walks into the room without preamble and sits down and I have to remind myself that I'm a professional and not blubber "You're Morgan Freeman!" like the besotted fan I really am.
I say hello and tell him I'm delighted to meet him. "We didn't meet before?" he asks.
"I think you'd remember me," I say, chancing my arm.
"I'd hope so," he replies in that distinctive voice.
Morgan Freeman - I'd be happy to watch a film that was just him reading names from the phone book. At 79 he's still got it. And then some as those who met him during his walkabout in Belfast this week will also testify.
Michael Caine comes in and joins him. I find it hard to believe he's 84 and no, he doesn't look like he's had 'work' done. These behemoths of the silver screen are here to talk to me about Going in Style, their latest movie. It's a heist movie where the collective age of the three lead actors (Alan Arkin is the third) is 246.
Directed by Scrubs star Zach Braff, Going in Style is a comedy about three elderly men who having worked together and lived opposite each other (in the recently gentrified Williamsburg, New York) for over 40 years suddenly find themselves broke. The company they worked for is moving to Asia and the pension fund has been dissolved.
Joe (Caine) has just witnessed the local bank, the one that has played fast and loose with his mortgage, get robbed. He decides that bank robbery is the only way that he and his two friends can have a decent retirement. At first Willie (Freeman) and Al (Arkin) think he's joking but as Joe explains - even if the worst happens and they're caught, they'll get free board and better healthcare.
Caine and Freeman have worked together several times before. I ask them, jokingly, if there was any rivalry, clashes of ego or measuring of respective trailers. "Any Baby Jane moments?" I ask knowing that they're old enough to actually get the reference. "No," says Caine emphatically. "That's why we're legends. You can't be like that if you are a legend."
"Grown ups don't act that way," Freeman says. "We're not lacking in anything," Caine continues, "I can't think of a single thing one's got that the other one hasn't got." "Well, I've got something you haven't got," Freeman teases. "What have you got?" Caine asks in the voice that made him famous. "I've got great-grandchildren," Freeman replies with more than a touch of pride in his voice. Caine goes on to say "we've known each other for years, we like each other". It certainly appears that way.
I ask both icons if they feel a pressure to be this person that the public perceive them to be. "I do," Freeman says immediately. "I can't walk down the street, that to me is pressure."
"I wear a baseball cap and no one knows who I am," Caine says.
"I'm sorry I lost that ability," Freeman says sadly.
Caine remarks that everyone has a camera now and I ask both of them if they find 'selfies' intrusive. "Yes, very intrusive," Freeman answers immediately and raises his voice to stress how much. "People start taking pictures of themselves with you... Get out of my face, who are you?"
"What I hate," Caine chips in, "is signing photographs that I know are going to be sold. I signed a photograph once... the guy couldn't read my signature and said 'what's your name?'." Caine, Freeman and I all laugh heartily at this.
The pair seem not too dissimilar to their characters in the film - men who are comfortable with each other and themselves. Caine says he identified with Joe because "I'm from a very working-class background, from a very poor family. What I found fascinating was to put this story (of globalisation, factories closing, pension funds dissolving) in the middle of a comedy."
The film is full of extremely funny scenes, my own favourites include the trio's escape from their practice run at shoplifting and the subsequent dressing down they get from the store manager. There's also a hilarious scene where the three eat TV dinners while watching the American reality TV show The Bachelorette, and shouting at the telly.
"Everybody jumps on to that scene," Freeman says in surprise. Were either of them familiar with the show before? "No," they say simultaneously. "I like the girl, I like the dress," Caine adds with a glint in his eye.
Caine spends his down time at his house in the country with his grandchildren. He's a keen gardener and cook. Freeman spends his leisure hours playing golf and works out religiously. "And I have a relatively young, younger than me, awfully gorgeous lady I get to spend time with and that's very invigorating," he says in a way only Morgan Freeman could get away with.
Despite their great ages neither star thinks about death. "It's not important," Caine says. Freeman wholeheartedly agrees. Neither actor has any desire to retire either. "Retire?" Freeman questions, "Gee whizz, that's about the furthest thing from my mind. When the phone doesn't ring for me as an actor, I'm going to sell myself as a producer or director. From a wheelchair if I have to."
"I'm only ever going to be an actor," Caine says laconically, "I like to go home early. Directors have to stay late. I never became an actor to make money or become famous," Caine continues. "I just wanted to be the best actor I could be. To this day, I do the next movie and say 'can I do a better performance than the last one?' that's all. But I do have a bit of money now," he finishes laughing.
When I say that a film with three elderly leads (not to mention the wonderful cameos from scene-stealing Christopher Lloyd and Ann Margaret) seems a rather odd move from an industry that is constantly being accused of sexism and ageism, Freeman is quick to set me straight. "Hollywood itself is not sexist or ageist... it's greenish. If it makes money..." Freeman goes on to say that there's a vast audience for the film in the baby boomers who are under-represented on screen. Fair enough, but for anyone who thinks Going in Style is some Hollywood version of Last of the Summer Wine it isn't. It is a genuinely funny film that happens to be about old people.
I ask the pair if there was a 'one that got away' role? "There's quite a few roles that I wished I had gotten," Freeman says. "That's always going to be because there are always other actors like Sam Jackson and Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks..." "Tom Hanks?" Caine quizzes. "Oh yeah," Freeman continues, "I wanted to do The Da Vinci Code. I called Ron Howard and I told him I was interested."
"Tom Hanks does the best impression of me," says the much-imitated Caine. I ask him if he's ever seen The Trip where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon vie with each other to do the best Caine impression. He has. He likes it. I'm not surprised, for a legend he's very down to earth.
Before we began to chat I told Freeman that I had been instructed by my 10-year-old son that morning to tell the veteran actor that he was one of his icons. As I was leaving he calls after me. "Say hi to your son from me." Legend.
Going in Style is in cinemas nationwide