Over the course of 50 years in the movies, Michael Caine has played a suave ladies' man, a psychopathic transvestite and a daring bank robber. But he was convinced his career was over when he released his autobiography, What's It All About? in 1993. In a fortuitous turn of events for the actor, that turned out not to be the case; the following years saw him win a second Oscar, become a knight and appear in blockbusters such as Batman Begins and Children of Men. Now he's detailed that career renaissance in a new memoir, The Elephant to Hollywood. (The title refers to London's Elephant and Castle neighborhood, his boyhood home.) Caine spoke to TIME about accents, starring in the worst Jaws film and the secret of Inception.
You have one of the most distinctive speaking voices in film. Did you realize that early on?
I was very aware of the class distinction in England. I spoke with a Cockney accent, which is obviously working class, and everybody in the theaters was very posh. What I didn't know was that there were drama schools teaching those sorts of things. So I came straight into acting with a Cockney accent, and I was very successful for a period because at that time these working-class writers came along, and they were writing working-class parts. Then after I made Alfie, it was very popular, and then suddenly they said, "You've got to redo 122 lines," because Alfie was being released in America. And that's where my voice came from, the one I have now.
You changed your voice?
I had to make Cockney understandable to Americans. One of the main things about Cockney is, you speak at twice the speed as Americans. Americans speak very slow.
You write that you're nothing like your most famous roles. Have you ever played a character who is like you?
I've never played anyone quite like me. I always play bounders and scoundrels and rakes, but I'm actually a very staunch family man. I believe in the institution [of marriage] as much as I do in any religion. But I have been a scoundrel, I have been a rake, I have been a waster. I can look back and see who I was, but I've never played who I am.
How hard was it to make the transition from leading man to character actor?
It wasn't difficult. I had been a theater actor for nine years. A lot of movie stars are not great actors; they're just very good-looking. And when they start to age and they don't have the looks any more, then it's over. But I'd been a repertory actor, and so I was quite willing to take all different parts, parts that were not glamorous or sexy.
You missed the Oscar ceremony when you won the Academy Award for Hannah and Her Sisters to make Jaws: The Revenge. Do you have any regrets about that?
Not at all. Hannah and her Sisters came out in the dumping period of January and February. It did well, it got very good reviews, but there was no [Oscar] campaign. I'd taken a part that was a week in a movie, which I'd done before several times. They said, "We're making this film about Jaws, will you do seven days on that?" [The Oscars] came out of the blue; I was astonished that I was nominated. I went to Universal and said, "Can you change the schedule?" and they said no: "We can't, because we're stuck with the boats and the traps." And so I had to be there, and so I missed it.
You've been in some films Jaws: The Revenge and The Swarm come to mind that did not have the most positive receptions. Are either of them underappreciated?
No. I didn't think they were very well made. I don't take responsibility for Jaws: The Revenge, because I had a longer part in Batman Begins. But I do take responsibility for when I'm the lead, like in The Swarm. The extenuating circumstance there was I was a young actor from England in Hollywood, and one of the biggest producers there asked me to play the lead in a movie. And it was going to be a special-effects film, all the bees would be swarming and killing everybody. And I said, "Yeah, that would be fantastic!" I didn't realize that if you make a special-effects film, and the special effects don't work, you're in a little bit of trouble.
You've worked with Christopher Nolan, Brian De Palma and Woody Allen. How do their working methods compare?
I think they're all brilliant in their genres. I think Brian De Palma is one of the best thriller directors and Woody is one of the best at romantic comedy. Christopher does bigger pictures, and I think we have to put him slightly up there above those two, in the David Lean class. If you look at the opening sequence of The Dark Knight, it's one of the best opening sequences I've ever seen; and if you look at the closing monologue by Heath Ledger, you see that he can direct actors.
Inception was your fourth Nolan film and you're working on a fifth. Are you his good-luck charm?
I've made four very successful pictures with Christopher. I'm not his good-luck charm; he's mine.
Can you explain Inception in one sentence?
If I'm in a scene, it's real; if I'm not, it's not.