Back in 1972, Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine starred in a film version of Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth, as two men who face off over a woman in a witty, cerebral game of extended one-upmanship. Their marathon work netted them both Best Actor nominations. Thirty-five years later, a new version of Sleuth, directed by Kenneth Branagh, remains an acting showdown (it opened last Friday in limited release). Caine is back, but now he’s playing the older man to Jude Law’s young upstart. Their battle is, again, over a woman, but almost nothing else remains the same. While the original film was written by Shaffer himself, this time the play has been very loosely adapted by Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, and he’s made the piece faster, meaner, and weirder.
Last month at the Toronto Film Festival, EW.com sat down with Caine, Law, and Branagh to talk Pinter, remakes, English accents, Olivier, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Michael and Jude, how long have you known each other?
MICHAEL CAINE: About four or five years.
JUDE LAW: We went to dinner.
But weren’t you up against each other for the Academy Award in 2000? [Law was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for The Talented Mr. Ripley, but Caine won that year for The Cider House Rules.] Jude, have you forgiven this guy from stealing your Oscar?
LAW: I’ve really just gotten over it!
CAINE: We met then, but it was a year or two after that we went to dinner.
A new version of Sleuth was entirely your idea, right, Jude?
CAINE: It’s his fault! If it works well, it’s mine.
LAW: Let me tell you, from the start, it wasn’t an idea to remake the 1972 version, because that’s a great film. It was simply about taking the essence of it. And the essence of this story is very simple, and kind of timeless — it’s the idea of two men fighting over a woman, and it’s about why we fight, and then the strange kind of camaraderie that sometimes kicks in.
Did you talk to Michael about it first?
LAW: I mentioned it, but he was very blunt —
CAINE: Because I wouldn’t have made it. Because when Jude asked me, I thought he was going to remake the Shaffer script. We were eating, and he said, ”How would you feel about a remake of Sleuth?” I said, ”All right.” But I would never have remade this with the Shaffer script, you see.
CAINE: How are you gonna improve on the first one, really, when it had Larry [Olivier] and [director] Joe Mankiewicz, and we had 16 weeks to shoot, you know? In the end, we made this one in four.
How did you approach Pinter to write it?
LAW: We made a wish list. Harold was at the top of it. To be honest, I just wanted an excuse to go to lunch with Harold Pinter. But his involvement, I think, signaled to everyone that this was going to be something different. It was gonna be his. And the essence of the story was very well suited to him and his style. I think that really attracted all of us.
KENNETH BRANAGH: Because Pinter says himself, ”I don’t do plot.” So it’s very handy for him to get something that’s already got the mechanics in place.
CAINE: It’s a great plot!
BRANAGH: So he didn’t need to do anything complicated. That way, it’s about atmosphere and character. And of course he absolutely went to town on that — and he made it an hour shorter than the previous film; it’s much shorter than the play.
CAINE: Yeah, what the hell else did we do in the original one? [Everybody laughs] Because, you see, I haven’t seen the first one in 30 years. And Pinter’s never seen it!
BRANAGH: Yeah, he read the play twice and that was it. He ran with it. He retained one line — ”It’s only a game” — and the rest of it was his.
NEXT PAGE: ”The whole movie was an adrenaline rush,” Caine says. ”When I got home, I slept for two days.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Michael, you didn’t want to watch the old one again?
MICHAEL CAINE: No. And also, I had a history with Pinter, because I did his first play at the Royal Court Theater [in 1957]. But then, for 50 years, he wrote all this great stuff. I was the first one [to work with him], and I never got another bloody movie out of it! Nothing!
JUDE LAW: It was a match made in heaven. That’s what I felt. I was so excited and proud to have brought these guys together.
This Sleuth is much, much darker than the old one.
CAINE: It’s Pinter, isn’t it? [Laughs] It’s our Harold. Well, I wanted to go darker with it.
LAW: Also, am I right in thinking that the humor works because we committed to the darkness?
KENNETH BRANAGH: You kind of laugh, because you need to, because it’s so tense. It’s so twisted from early on.
Jude, I read something interesting you said, that Michael is the reason British actors don’t have to hide their accents. What did you mean by that?
LAW: What I was saying was that there was a period in the ’60s when finally the class structure was permeated in film. Prior to that, everyone had to speak [poor English], and [turns to Caine] it was only then some of your contemporaries lost their accents, wasn’t it?
CAINE: Like Roger Moore. He’s from exactly the same place as me. But he talks like this [slows down his speech and sounds very proper] you know… unless you tread on his foot. [Everybody laughs]
LAW: It was as important as Bogart’s influence on American acting, the way Bogey shifted away from that awful English-American accent that there used to be.
Michael, was this a weirder job than usual because you had done a Sleuth before?
CAINE: No. Like I said, I hadn’t seen the old movie for 30 years. And this is so different. It’s a different director, I’m playing a different part anyway. It was just like getting a new script. I had no sense of a remake whatsoever.
BRANAGH: Also, we really didn’t talk about the old one.
CAINE: We never discussed it. Because no one knew what to say about the other one because we haven’t seen it.
Do you have fond memories of making the first one, working with Olivier?
CAINE: We had a wonderful time, yeah. We had a good time. But, I mean, it was very hard work, because Olivier, he could be a bugger. I always remember Olivier trying to turn me around on my own close-up. He was up to all those tricks. And when I said to [Mankiewicz] ”Did you see what he did there, Joe?” He said, ”Yes, Michael, don’t worry, I’ll take care of it in the editing.” He said, ”I will protect you.” And he did.
BRANAGH: It was very different than the atmosphere on this one. It was a very level playing field. It was very nice.
Did Michael pull any of that stuff on you, Jude?
BRANAGH: And also, I’ll say that from my point of view, when you’ve got two guys like this, and it was my 11th movie —
CAINE: You’ve done 11?
BRANAGH: I’ve done 11, whether you like it or not. And it was the first film, where I felt we were all directing. I never think of this as my film, I think of it as our film.
CAINE: And we all had a laugh as well. You’ve seen the way we all are. And there were no nerves. But the whole movie was an adrenaline rush. I was never so exhausted at the end. When I got home, I slept for two days.
LAW: We’d generally start pretty early in the morning —
BRANAGH: And it was like two athletes coming down. They were very aware of what was ahead of them. I’d say, ”The boys are in tiptop form. We’ve got nine pages of dialogue today.” In another life, they wouldn’t remotely be expected to do this.