Nicolas unCaged: Acting, legacy and his search for the Holy Grail

Nicolas unCaged: Acting, legacy and his search for the Holy Grail

The Oscar-winning actor on his legacy, his philosophy of acting — and his search for the Holy Grail. By David Marchese.

THERE are questions I’ve wanted to ask Nicolas Cage for years. A lot of questions. 

I wanted to know why this divisive, mercurial actor has waged a career-long, one-man war against naturalism, refusing to let staid ideas about how people might behave in “real life” dictate his performances.

I wanted to know why Cage, Hollywood’s greatest surrealist, whose personal and creative unpredictability has led him to attain near-mythological status in certain corners of the internet, acts in so many movies — 20 in the last two years — and why so few of them make mainstream ripples. (His most recent release: the straightforwardly titled thriller A Score to Settle.)

However, mostly I wanted to know the method behind the seeming madness that informs so many of his performances.

Unlike most movie stars — who are walking answers, machines who reliably fill expectations rather than confound them — Nicolas Cage rarely does the obvious thing, whether in his choice of roles or how he plays them.

Which is what’s so enthralling about the alien intensity and oddball flourishes that Cage has brought to art-house fantasia (Wild at Heart); whimsical romantic comedy (Honeymoon in Vegas); bleak drama (Leaving Las Vegas), cerebral comedy (Adaptation); sensational Hollywood blockbuster (Con Air); balletic, high-concept action (Face/Off); quiet character studies (Joe); and psychedelic horror (Mandy).

He also, as if living according to lines from a surreal folk song, has owned pet cobras and castles, was forced to return a stolen dinosaur skull, has made and lost a fortune and is keeping a pyramid waiting for him, as a tomb, in New Orleans.

Why has he done all of these things? I sat wondering in a private room at a small Italian restaurant not far from the Las Vegas Strip. 

Cage is a walking why, a performer who sees possibilities in art — and maybe life — that no one else does.

And then the door to the room swung open and in flew Cage, hopefully to provide some answers.

In person, he’s tall, with a jangly energy complemented, on this day, by oversize sunglasses, a dragon ring the size of a walnut and a black velveteen jacket over a Bruce Lee T-shirt.

He said that he’d been busy preparing for a trip to TIFF. Not the Toronto International Film Festival, he clarified — the one in Transylvania.

“I can’t pretend to know what people think or want to think about me,” he said.

I’m not Stravinsky, I’m not Van Gogh, I’m not Monk, but these people were not understood, and my favourite artists were misunderstood.

Then he scanned the menu and asked, in a bemused tone that suggested he was simultaneously questioning the waitress, me and the universe: “Could I get into the branzino?” Yes, and everything else too.

Q: With any movie star, there’s the actor, and then there’s the persona. Earlier in your career, you had an obvious interest in cultivating the latter. Do you still?

A: I once had brunch with Warren Beatty, and I said, “Do you have any idea how lucky you are that you were Warren Beatty in the ‘70s, before everyone had a cellphone with a video camera?” 

He just smiled. It’s so true. You go to a karaoke bar with a male friend in the neighbourhood, the bar says “no videotaping” and suddenly, there’s two different videos of you doing karaoke. 

Who did that? Who exposed the videotape? Who sold it?

Q: You’re talking about the clips that went around of you singing ‘Purple Rain’.

A: Yeah. It was around the anniversary of Prince’s passing. Everyone knows how much I admire him as an artist. But honestly, I wasn’t even doing that to sing. 

It was more like primal-scream therapy. It was a holiday weekend, and I didn’t want to go anywhere, but my friend who was with me said: “You can’t sit here in your apartment. You’ve got to go out.” 

So I went to the one place in my neighbourhood that I knew had no video recording, just to have some fun, and that became everybody’s business.

Q: What were you primal-screaming about?

A: I have to be careful about what I can divulge. 

There was a recent breakup (Cage filed for annulment four days after marrying his girlfriend at the time, Erika Koike, in Las Vegas in March). I don’t really want to talk about it. 

I was pretty upset about that and the way things happened. To answer your question, earlier in my career I was very specific in my concept of who I wanted to be. 

Nicolas unCaged: Acting, legacy and his search for the Holy Grail

I saw myself as a surrealist. This is going to sound pretentious, but I was, quote, trying to invent my own mythology, unquote, around myself.

Q: Has that mythology shaped the perception of your work? I mean, you went on Letterman and talked about your pet cobras wanting to kill you and about getting high on mushrooms with your cat. You were clearly trying to project a certain image.

A: I know what you’re asking, and it’s a good question. But let me say one thing: I am completely anti-drug. I don’t do drugs.

I don’t drink when I work. Sometimes in between movies I’ll have some drinks, but not always. 

I make so many characters, and I go so internal with them, that sometimes, when I’m not filming, wine or champagne is like an eraser to a chalkboard. 

You can erase the character and make a clean slate so you can start making a new character. I hope that makes sense.

Q: Yeah, it does.

A: Okay. So those stories that you mentioned, those are true stories. I did have two king cobras, and they were not happy. They would try to hypnotise me by showing me their backs, and then they’d lunge at me.

After I told that story on Letterman, the neighbourhood wasn’t too pleased that I had cobras, so I had them rehomed in a zoo. 

The cat — a friend of mine gave me this bag of mushrooms, and my cat would go in my refrigerator and grab it, almost like he knew what it was. He loved it. 

Then I started going, “I guess I’ll do it”. It was a peaceful and beautiful experience. But I subsequently threw them out.

Q: Have animals ever influenced your acting?

A: The cobras, definitely. They would try to hypnotise you by going side to side, and when I did Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, that’s something my character does before he attacks. Animals are fun places to get inspiration. 

Actually, I thought Heath Ledger was doing some reptilian stuff as the Joker, with the tongue darting out all the time.

Q: I can’t think of another actor whose performances so frequently pay homage to other actors and movies. 

In Mandy there’s a scene in which you snort angel dust or whatever it is and then give the camera a look that’s similar to one Bruce Lee used to give. 

In Moonstruck, there’ s a moment where you put on a glove that’s intended as a nod to Metropolis. There were Max Schreck-in-Nosferatu nods in Vampire’s Kiss. The list goes on.

A: It speaks to my truth as a film enthusiast. It’s also that these are moments that I know work. 

Right before I snorted that stuff in Mandy, I asked the director to look at that Bruce Lee shot. I said: “Is it going to work?” And he said: “It already has worked.” 

That’s what I mean. I knew it would be satisfying. And when I saw that movie with an audience, they erupted at that moment.

Q: What happens when your director isn’t interested in your experiments?

A: As a film actor, my job is to facilitate the director’s vision. If there’s something I’m doing that they don’t agree with, I drop it.

Q: Always?

A: In the beginning, there were examples of locking horns. Raising Arizona: Perhaps there was confusion about where I was going, but the Coen brothers went along. 

They didn’t mind that I was channeling Woody Woodpecker. They, on some level, got it. With Francis, he didn’t. I didn’t want to make that movie.

Q: Let me ask you something unrelated: Is it true that in the early ‘80s you met Johnny Depp playing Monopoly?

A: The true story is that we were already friends. 

I was living in an old building in Hollywood called the Fontenoy, and I think I ultimately rented the apartment to Johnny, and he started living there. He was at the point in his career where he was selling pens or something to get by. He would take my money and buy cocktails but wouldn’t tell me about it. 

He admitted it later. But anyway, we were good friends, and we would play Monopoly, and he was winning a game, and I was watching him and I said, “why don’t you just try acting?” 

He wanted to be a musician at the time, and he told me, “No, I can’t act.” I said, “I think you can act.” 

So I sent him to meet with my agent. She sent him out on his first audition, which was A Nightmare on Elm Street. He got the part that day. Overnight sensations don’t happen. But it happened with him.

Q: In the past you’ve talked about your acting in terms of specific styles you’d developed: nouveau shamanic and Western Kabuki. Do you think about your acting in that way now?

A: Yeah, I do. Laurence Olivier said: “What is acting but lying, and what is good lying but convincing lying?” I don’t want to look at acting that way. Why not experiment? Western Kabuki to me was, let’s go all the way out.

Nouveau shamanic is nothing other than trying to augment your imagination to get to the performance without feeling like you’re faking it. 

This author Brian Bates wrote a book called The Way of Wyrd, and he put forth the notion that actors hailed from the old shamans. 

So I was kind of making a statement about that, and I added ‘nouveau’ to be fancy.

Q: Could you teach nouveau shamanic acting?

A: I put this line in Mandy: “The psychotic drowns where the mystic swims.” 

You either have the proclivity to open up your imagination or you don’t. 

If you have that propensity and are on camera about to do a scene, what would make you believe in what you’re about to do? Say you’re playing a demon biker with an ancient spirit. 

What power objects could you find that might trick your imagination? Would you find an antique from an ancient pyramid? Maybe a little sarcophagus that’s a greenish colour and looks like King Tut? 

Would you sew that into your jacket and know that it’s right next to you when the director says “action”? Could you open yourself to that power?

Q: Those aren’t rhetorical questions, are they?

A: Right. I did that.

Q: I would hope there are ways of teaching nouveau shamanic acting that don’t involve acquiring ancient artifacts.

A: True. There are other ways. 

What is a poem that you like? You could take that poem and write it out by hand on paper, then fold it up and put it in your pocket. 

Nicolas unCaged: Acting, legacy and his search for the Holy Grail

The trigger doesn’t have to be something that’s extraordinarily expensive.

Q: You grew up middle-class among a lot of rich people, right?

A: Dad was a professor. 

He was teaching at California State Long Beach, then he was writing books. We lived modestly. We were on the outskirts of Beverly Hills, right next to the Porsche dealer. I would take the bus to school, and some of the older boys were going to school in Maseratis and Ferraris. 

I felt because of my name being Coppola, there was a misunderstanding as to what I did and didn’t have. So it was frustrating for me because, like any other young man, I was interested in dating and wanting to be impressive, and I didn’t know how to do that taking a young lady out on the bus while the other guys were taking her out in Ferraris.

ut my uncle was very generous. I would visit him for summers, and those summers — I wanted to be him. I wanted to have the mansions. That was driving me.

Q: Did being a young man who was insecure about money color your attitude about buying things and what success looks like?

A: You have good investments and bad investments. The good investments came from personal interest and my honest enjoyment of the history.

For example, Action Comics No. 1: I bought that for $150,000. Then it was stolen. 

I got it back and sold it for $2m. But that was a good thing to have, because I had an interest that was sincere. 

The funny thing is, my real estate-buying spree was what the real problem was. It wasn’t these other things like shrunken heads that the media liked to talk about.

Q: Or that dinosaur skull?

A: Or an octopus. What is an octopus, $80? 

You’re not going to go into dire straits buying an octopus. 

The dinosaur skull was an unfortunate thing, because I did spend $276,000 on that. I bought it at a legitimate auction and found out it was abducted from Mongolia illegally, and then I had to give it back. 

Of course it should be awarded to its country of origin. But who knew? Plus, I never got my money back. So that stank. 

But I went years where all I was doing was meditating three times a day and reading books on philosophy, not drinking whatsoever. 

That was the time when I almost went on — you might call it a grail quest. I started following mythology, and I was finding properties that aligned with that. It was almost like National Treasure. 

Of course, that didn’t sustain. 

On top of which, I said, “I’m going to get off philosophy,” because I became like a kite with a string but no anchor. No one could understand what I was talking about. 

And I thought people would rather see me as an orangutan than as an eagle meditating on the mountaintop anyway.

Q: Wait, what did you mean when you said you were on a grail quest and finding properties that aligned with that?

A: One thing would lead to another. 

It’s like when you build a library. You read a book, and in it there’s a reference to another book, and then you buy that book, and then you attach the references. 

For me it was all about where was the grail? Was it here? Was it there? Is it at Glastonbury? Does it exist?

Q: Oh, okay I thought you were being metaphorical about going on a grail quest.

A: Yeah, if you go to Glastonbury and go to the Chalice Well, there’s a spring that does taste like blood. 

I guess it’s really because there’s a lot of iron in the water. But legend had it that in that place was a grail chalice, or two cruets rather, one of blood and one of sweat. 

But that led to there being talk that people had come to Rhode Island, and they were looking for something as well.

Q: That’s why you bought property in Rhode Island?

A: I don’t know if I’m going to say that’s why I bought the Rhode Island property. But I will say that is why I went to Rhode Island, and I happened to find the place beautiful. 

But yes, this had put me on a search around different areas, mostly in England, but also some places in the States. What I ultimately found is: What is the Grail but Earth itself?

Q: I find that grail quests tend to be more fulfilling when they’re metaphorical.

A: Well, I knew that, and the metaphor for me is the earth. The divine object is Earth.

Q: What’s your grail quest now?

A: There’s this old sci-fi movie called Quatermass and the Pit. In the movie, someone says to Professor Quatermass, “Do you ever find your early career catching up with you?” 

And he says, “I never had a career, only work.” I feel like that’s where I’m at now. I never had a career, only work. I’m just going to keep working.

Q: Why do you work so much? You’ve said you wanted to make 150 films.

A: That’s me speaking to my golden-age heroes. Those guys all did like 150. I also want to argue with the concept of supply and demand. 

I grew up in the ‘70s watching Rock Hudson on McMillan & Wife, Dennis Weaver in McCloud, Charles Bronson in the movie of the week, Peter Falk in Columbo. 

I began to develop a relationship with these characters and these actors. The more I saw them, the more I wanted to see them.

And by design, with video on demand, I felt that if I made more movies, not only was it good for me financially, people would be able to tune in at home and go, “what’s the next movie that Nick made?” They’d have a large selection. 

So I’m not worried about too much supply and not enough demand. I’m just trying to get back to a feeling that I enjoyed as a child on my little Zenith television in the ‘70s.

Q: I don’t want to dance around this: How much has money driven your work choices?

A: I can’t go into specifics or percentages or ratios, but yeah, money is a factor. I’m going to be completely direct about that. There’s no reason not to be. 

There are times when it’s more of a factor than not. I still have to feel that, whether or not the movie around me entirely works, I’ll be able to deliver something and be fun to watch. 

But yes, it’s no secret that mistakes have been made in my past that I’ve had to try to correct. 

Financial mistakes happened with the real estate implosion that occurred, in which the lion’s share of everything I had earned was pretty much eradicated. But one thing I wasn’t going to do was file for bankruptcy. 

I had this pride thing where I wanted to work my way through anything, which was both good and bad. Not all the movies have been blue chip, but I’ve kept getting closer to my instrument. 

And maybe there’s been more supply than demand, but on the other hand, I’m a better man when I’m working. 

I have structure. I have a place to go. I don’t want to sit around and drink mai tais and Dom Pérignon and have mistakes in my personal life. I want to be on set. 

I want to be performing. In any other business, hard work is something to behold. Why not in film performance?

Q: Are there things about you and your work that people don’t get?

A: For an actor to say, “I want to try something else,” is a challenging road to take. 

I can’t worry that people aren’t going to get it. I think the movies have matured well, Lord of War or Peggy Sue Got Married. Raising Arizona. I knew that my cartoonish behaviourisms would play well. 

Vampire’s Kiss is still on the fence, but I’m happy with those results. I’ve taken risks. But there has been a collision between the acting experiments and the memeification extrapolated from them. 

That has not been intentional. I have no social media presence. I’m not on Instagram. I am not on Facebook. I have no Twitter account. 

I genuinely am a private person who does not want his personal life exposed. I wanted to have the mystery of the old stars, always preserved in an enigmatic aura. It’s hard to do that now.

Q: Your aura is plenty enigmatic to me.

A: At this point in my life, David, I heavily prefer to not go out. I’d rather just stay at home. I don’t think I can decompress ever again, even at a karaoke bar. It’s too vulnerable. I’m not trying to complain. It’s a fact of life that I have to accept. I’d much rather let my work and not my personal life speak for me. Rob Zombie once said to me, “be as normal in your own life as you can be, so you can be as messed up as you want in your art.”

Q: I think Rob Zombie took that from Flaubert.

A: That’s what I want. I want to be on the Axl Rose programme. I don’t want to go anywhere. I just want to look at my aquarium, look at my sea horse, read my Murakami, watch Bergman. 

I’ve been on a great Bergman run. I just saw The Virgin Spring, Hour of the Wolf, Persona.

I also love Tarkovsky. I love The Sacrifice. I looked at Stalker again. I have all the time in the world in between movies to lose myself in these maestros’ films.

Q: Your acting has gone through very distinct phases. Near the beginning of your career you were trying radical things; then you had your “sunshine trilogy” of whimsical comedies; and after that you tried to bring weirdness to big-budget Hollywood action films. What phase are you in now?

A: Well, what you described is a true reflection on everything I was experimenting with. My roots, though, were in independently spirited cinema. Movies like Raising Arizona, Vampire’s Kiss, Birdy. 

That’s my base, and my journey has been about getting back to that with movies like Joe or Mandy.

Q: How do you define good acting and bad acting?

A: It can be a very blurry line. I’ve seen some horrible acting that I think is wonderful.

Q: Like what?

A: Well, it cracks me up, and I don’t want to mention names, but in film acting you can do things that seem erratic or out of touch or not in sync, but it’s a valid stylisation as long as you anchor it within the context of the character and situation. 

When you listen to Stockhausen’s “punkte”, or “stimmung” or “mantra” — it’s all these voices and quick, snappy chords that seem discordant to a point and as if they don’t make any sense. 

Yet it is of a piece and does belong together. Similarly, you can read a script and go: “Why would a character do that? That doesn’t make any sense.” 

Nicolas unCaged: Acting, legacy and his search for the Holy Grail

But people are like weather vanes. We don’t always blow in the same direction. Sometimes you do things that there’s no explanation for other than that we’re human, and that can apply within a performance. 

So can I get back to your question?

Q: Yeah.

A: What is good acting? What is bad acting? 

Olivier had his argument, but look at James Cagney in White Heat. “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” That’s not ‘real’. 

But is it fun to watch? Is it exciting? Is it truthful? Yeah, and to me, that is great acting. It’s a matter of which paintbrush you want to work with.

I can look at TV commercials and see cringeworthy acting, and it makes me laugh, and I’m probably going to wind up putting it in one of my performances. I mean, I’ve done it.

Q: When?

A: No offense to John Stamos, because he’s a beautiful man and a lot of fun to watch on camera, but a million years ago he did a commercial for L’eggs pantyhose. 

In it he said, “I love L’eggs pantyhose!”. And the way he went “love” — he expressed it with almost a rock ’n’ roll screech.

I saw that commercial, and I had to put it in Peggy Sue Got Married. I was playing Charlie Bodell, and I’m with Kathleen Turner, and I said: “I’m in love with you.” 

I’ve told John about this. He took the compliment.

Q: Do you know when you’re good or bad?

A: I have a pretty good barometer of when I’m on point. 

Which is why I can tell you right now without fear of seeming like I’m boasting that I’m at the top of my game by virtue of the fact that I’ve been practicing so much.

Q: What’s the interplay of sincerity and irony in your work? Sometimes it feels as if the almost operatic sincerity you’re going for — in your death scene in Kick-Ass for example — comes back around to irony.

A: It’s a great observation, and this is something that I have put a lot of thought in to. I have gone out of my way not to be ironic and — with the risk of looking ridiculous — to be genuinely emotionally naked. And that gets uncomfortable. 

There were times where people saw Mandy, and I was having to break down in a scene, and people were laughing. They don’t know how to handle it. 

But that’s not ironic, that’s naked, which is embarrassing for people.

Q: Are the things that make you a great actor, like an inclination toward risk or emotional abandon, ever a problem in your personal relationships?

A: I think there has to be some unusualness to be able to be in a relationship with me. I feel things very deeply. I have had melancholia my whole life. I am sensitive to my environment.

Q: I know when you were growing up, you felt a sense of being different from other kids. Do you still feel alienated at 55?

A: Not as much, but yes. 

As a child I was always shocked when my father would take me to a doctor and they didn’t tell me that my blood was green and I had 20 ribs, that I wasn’t some anomaly from outer space.

Q: Do you think your talent ebbs and flows depending on the material?

A: Elia Kazan said talent never dies. It can be discouraged, but it never dies. I also like to use the words “genius loci”. My ability coalesces with the genius of a place. 

I’ve made very good movies in Las Vegas; there’s a genius loci that is a good match for me. New Orleans has a genius loci.

Q: That city must have special meaning for you. It’s where your tomb is.

A: I became a man in New Orleans, if you know what I mean. The city has a soft spot in my heart, though there are things that can go horribly wrong there.

Q: At this point in your career, do you still have something like a dream role?

A: Captain Nemo. 

My first love, even before my parents, was the ocean. 

When I read Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the depiction of Nemo was that he was also in love with the ocean. He had freedom, and he lived in a palace that was also a submarine, playing the organ.

To me, that was a beautiful life.

Q: How do you think your life’s work will be remembered?

A: I think time is a friend. 

Many of my movies that were mocked are enjoying a renaissance. So I’m hopeful that time will be on my side.

This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

c.2019 The New York Times


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