In the late Spalding Gray’s wonderful monologue movie Terrors of Pleasure, he describes an early event in his film acting career by telling a story about the time he was called in to do a screen test opposite Farrah Fawcett—a made-for-TV production boasting the fabulously cheesy working title Leftover Life to Kill. In spite of the sometimes befuddling direction he receives (“Take it from the neutral heart”), he feels he’s done reasonably well after reading multiple scenes with Farrah. The casting director permits Spalding to remain (“Farrah, you can go; Spalding, you can stay.”) so that they can have a look at the tape together. Gray is instantly horrified by the results, reeling in amazement at the “still,” “Zen mask” qualities of Farrah’s expressions while hilariously lamenting the out-of-control facial gymnastics that turned his own face into a “protean amoebic mass.” Clearly, he could have benefited from some Michael Caine Film Acting Tips!
Beloved movie star Sir Michael Caine conducted a (now pretty well-known) movie acting workshop filmed by the BBC in 1987; out of that presentation came the book Michael Caine Acting in Film—An Actor’s Take on Movie Making, published by Applause Theatre Book Publishers in 1990, with a revised and expanded edition appearing in 1997. The one piece of advice that quickly entered the popular imagination was the admonition Caine gave about blinking your eyes, especially during close-ups. If you blink, as he helpfully illustrates for the camera, your character comes across as weak. Keeping your eyes open and focused has the opposite effect, and makes your performance appear strong and assured.
As much as that tiny pearl of wisdom became something of a joke, and now forever to be associated with Caine, it’s 100% right on the money, and it’s a technique employed by all great film actors.
When you watch professionals at work on the screen, film acting looks easy, because it so closely resembles what we think of as real life behavior. In practice, it’s anything but, as most everyone knows now to some extent. Just as the good dialogue in playwriting or screenwriting bears little resemblance to the way that conversations actually take place in the everyday world, good acting—for the stage or the screen—involves an enormous amount of artifice to produce results that seem natural.
Caine’s compact instruction book for the art and craft of film acting (the revised edition weighs in at just 146 pages before the short bio and filmography that appears at the end) features, yes, his very famous piece of advice about blinking—“And I don’t blink” pops on page 61—and more than a few other very specific tricks of the trade that would be useful for any up-and-coming cinema star, including why it’s better to fight tears than shed them, and how to properly act drunk by struggling to appear sober.
He also includes a wealth of behind-the-scenes anecdotes about his own history as a film actor. Readers will learn the surprising advice Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda gave him about working in Westerns; the unexpected classic film performance he “stole” from to help him realize his challenging role in Educating Rita; just how he and Christopher Reeve prepared for their unforgettable on-screen kiss in Deathtrap; the differing shooting styles of John Huston and Woody Allen; and the actor with whom he feels he had the best relationship with onscreen.
Caine amusingly admits to the truth of that old rumor that actors sometimes choose their scripts based more on favorable locations than the quality of the writing or the role (“I did The Magus without ever reading the script because the weather in England is lousy in January and I’d get a few weeks in the south of France out of it.” “I close a script quickly if it starts, “Alaska: our hero is stumbling through a blizzard…”) and is just as amiable when an observation about colleagues cuts pretty deep (“What makes me laugh is that the only time a director ever demonstrates things to you is in the love scenes. Suddenly he feels the need to show you exactly how to hold the actress.”).
When Caine discusses how his past experiences and education might seem to mark him as having little chance of success in the movies (“I had worked in a laundry. I’d done a stint in a tea warehouse. I worked pneumatic drills on the road. I was the night porter in a hotel. I washed dishes…and I was a soldier.”) and remarks on the traits you must bring to bear in order to succeed (“…without the cool steely focus of a safecracker, without the tenacity and wiliness of a weasel, this book and a dozen years of intensive scene study won’t add up to diddly squat in the way of a movie career.”) it brings to mind the kind of philosophy that director Werner Herzog articulates as the main focus of his ongoing Rogue Film Schools, in which you’re taught that walking on foot, being able to pick locks, and reading Virgil’s Georgics might be far more useful than the hours you spend in a classroom poring over arcane theory and working towards your film school diploma. At the same time, Caine is a champion of the mastery of acting craft and, from the get-go, emphasizes that dogged persistence is the singular quality necessary to flourish in a pursuit that demands obsessive dedication.
Michael Caine comes across as a very confident but appropriately humble collaborator; he’s open about sharing his moments of growth as an actor, whether it’s suddenly learning that you are often called upon to do your best acting while someone else is speaking, or being convinced that losing your cool on a movie set, no matter how “right” the reason for doing so, does little but tarnish your own reputation.
The final and perhaps most useful takeaways from the book, though, are the things that we discover about Caine’s general attitude about his work, and how much of the film acting advice he offers can easily be applied not just to strategies for success in other disciplines in the dramatic arts, but also to excellence in any professional undertaking. What Caine points out about acting is true of life in general: auditions don’t just take place at a casting call. You’re auditioning everywhere, all the time. Paraphrased at times for brevity now, and sometimes word-for-word, here are some of Michael Caine’s most valuable suggestions:
Get a good night’s sleep and set up a fool proof wake-up call.
Get reliable transportation and don’t be late. Your time is their money.
Unoccupied time isn’t dead time unless you kill it.
If you feel the wrong actor has been cast, recast him in your mind.
Listen and react.
However your voice sounds, use it.
Don’t interfere with anybody else’s performance. Get on with your own contribution and leave everybody else to the boss.
Never, ever, under any circumstances, shout at somebody lower on the ladder than you are.
Make every part the one you’ve been waiting for.
Michael Caine: Acting in Film—An Actor’s Take on Movie Making is mandatory reading for actors, and more than worthwhile for movie lovers and anyone else who wants to cultivate a reputation for themselves as a “class act” in any field of endeavor.
And yes, it will make you want to watch some Michael Caine film acting right away.