Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)
The Role: Brad’s Bud
Why It’s The Best: It’s Nic’s first screen credit, and his last using his original name Nicolas Coppola. Mostly notable as his entry into the movie world rather than for the actor’s earth-shattering performance. He wasn’t the only movie newbie, though – this was also Eric Stoltz’s first film.
Iconic Moment: The whole film’s full of iconic lines/dialogue/scenes, sadly not so much for Cage/Coppola, though.
Nicolas Says: “I was getting a lot of pressure from other actors who basically thought I only wanted to be an actor because my uncle was Francis [ Ford Coppola ]. It was always a bit uncomfortable for me.
“When I changed my name and went into an audition and got the part, it was this incredible weight off my head because Amy Heckerling didn’t know I was related. It felt like I’d been given this opportunity because of what I did, not because of what he did.”
Valley Girl (1983)
The Role: Randy
Why It’s The Best: Nic drops the Coppola surname for good and embraces a new one: Cage. He also bags his first lead role with Valley Girl , and appears on the film’s poster with giant spiky hair and a bare chest.
As Randy, he’s a punk who falls for the titular valley girl, Julie. But can their two worlds really co-exist?
Iconic Moment: “You make me get out of here.” Randy doesn’t like it when he’s told to leave a valley party…
Nicolas Says: “That was the first time I felt like I could breathe on a movie. I walked in on that with a new name.
“Nobody knew who my uncle was. Suddenly felt like I could really relax and do what I think I can do.”
Rumble Fish (1983)
The Role: Smokey
Why It’s The Best: Cage is directed by his uncle Francis Ford Coppola for the first time, bagging a minor role as a member of tough guy Rusty James’ circle of friends. He’s the “wily” Smokey.
Iconic Moment: When Smokey starts seeing Rusty’s ex-girlfriend Patty, they have a little chat about it .
Nicolas Says: “There is an undeniable charm to the earlier work that is also very present, although, I must confess, I haven’t really watched those movies in many, many years. I don’t tend to look back.”
The Cotton Club (1984)
The Role: Vincent Dwyer
Why It’s The Best: Despite attempting to distance himself from the Coppola name, Cage gives good as he teams up with uncle Francis once more for this crime drama. The plot centres on the titular club when, in the 1930s, business was thriving.
Iconic Moment: Vincent holds Frenchy hostage, having been recruited as a gangster in Schultz’s mob…
Nicolas Says: “A lot of my early work happened out of New York and I found myself playing these horrible characters, like Mad Dog Cole in The Cotton Club .
"That was probably the zenith of my Method acting and my ‘living the part’ and here I was playing a psychotic gangster.
“I went to the set with that kind of energy and consequently the crew probably thought that was who I was. What made it worse was that I was the director’s nephew. It took a while to lose that.”
Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
The Role: Charlie Bodell
Why It’s The Best: Considered among the best high school movies ever made, this early era Cage film finds the actor already experimenting with his craft, basing Charlie’s strange voice on Pokey from The Gumby Show . Somehow, it works.
Iconic Moment: Charlie kidnaps Peggy, and professes his love, which has a profound effect on her…
Nicolas Says: “ Peggy Sue I didn’t want to do. I actually turned it down originally. [ Francis ] really went through the paces with me on that. TriStar wanted to fire me and he talked them out of it.
“I was going for something different with that character, and he didn’t know 100% what he was getting into when he cast me. I told him I didn’t quite know why he wanted to make the movie, and he said, ‘Well, it’s like Our Town .’
“During rehearsal, I came up with this idea [ to ] create this cartoon character. Those were some very tense days on the set. Every day I was going to be fired.”
The Role: Ronny Cammareri
Why It’s The Best: Cher famously refused to make this movie if Cage wasn’t cast as her co-star. Which effectively landed the young, burgeoning Cage one of his biggest breaks.
A feel-good classic that garnered Cher an Oscar, the plot sees her widowed book-keeper Loretta stuck in-between her new fiancé and his brother…
Iconic Moment: After moaning to each other about their miserable lives, Loretta and Ronny end up back at her place for more than just coffee…
Raising Arizona (1987)
The Role: Herbert H.I. McDunnough
Why It’s The Best: Cage breaks into dramatic comedies with the help of the Coen Brothers, bagging a role originally intended for Kevin Costner.
Cage plays Herbert, an ex-con who’s dating an ex-cop (Holly Hunter). When this odd couple discover that they can’t have a baby of their own, they kidnap one from a rich tycoon.
Iconic Moment: Herbert gets his heroic moment when he fights with Smalls and manages to pull pins from the grenades inside the bounty hunter’s vest…
Wild At Heart (1990)
The Role: Sailor Ripley
Why It’s The Best: Cage works with David Lynch, and shows he’s up the quirky demands of the notoriously nutty director. The film itself isn’t celebrated as one of Lynch’s best, though it’s earned a name for itself as a cult classic.
Cage plays Ripley, who goes on the run with Dern’s Lula in order to escape the latter’s overbearing mother.
Iconic Moment: When Lula picks Sailor up from jail, she hands him a hellacool snakeskin jacket…
Nicolas Says: “Apparently 2001 got slammed when it came out. Rock Hudson walked out of the theatre. The very things that really kind of rub us the wrong way at first, become the things we connect with so deeply later.
“That’s why I think I get as happy with the bad reviews as I do with the good ones. I don’t want to make people too comfortable right off the bat. If I can really do my job well and get to the truth of something, inevitably that might be a little bit painful.”
Red Rock West (1993)
The Role: Michael Williams
Why It’s The Best: Well-received at the Toronto Film Festival but later condemned as DTV fare, Red Rock West is nevertheless a decent showcase for Cage’s burgeoning charisma.
His drifter Michael wanders into the town of Red Rock, where he’s mistaken for contract killer ‘Lyle from Dallas’ and offered money by a bar owner to kill his wife.
Iconic Moment: The real ‘Lyle from Dallas’ turns up, and makes his displeasure at having a fake assuming his identity known through a torrent of bullets…
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
The Role: Ben Sanderson
Why It’s The Best: Cage well and truly proves his acting mettle with the role that bagged him an Academy Award (he was the fifth youngest actor ever to land one, aged just 32).
He plays a suicidal alcoholic who ends up in Las Vegas drinking himself to near-death. Then he meets a tough-as-nails hooker (Elizabeth Shue).
Iconic Moment: Ben checks into a squalid motel called The Whole Year Inn. But as he looks at the sign for the motel, the wording knowingly transforms into ‘The Hole You're In’…
Nicolas Says: “A lot of people like to say things like ‘over-the-top’, but you can’t say that about other art forms, such as a Picasso, or a Van Gogh, but why can’t it be the same with acting?
“In Leaving Las Vegas , I had a couple of drinks. I wanted to. I had prescribed scenes where I decided I would get drunk, and anything goes. And I’m glad I did it.”
Con Air (1997)
The Role: Cameron Poe
Why It’s The Best: Shot while Cage waited to hear if he’d won that Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas , Con Air represents a shift in gears for the actor’s career, as he heads into big, explosive action fare.
The result, Con Air , is a guilty pleasure that sees a bulked up Cage play a paroled ex-con who gets stuck on a plane with a bunch of criminals looking to escape. It’s big, dumb, loud, popcorn entertainment.
Iconic Moment: For giant explosions and Cage looking mean, the confrontation at a deserted Air Force base is hard to beat.
The Role: Castor Troy / Sean Archer
Why It’s The Best: Another daft actioner, this one from director John Woo, Face/Off nevertheless features Cage at his maniacal best.
He plays Castor Troy, a criminal who killed the son of FBI Agent Archer (John Travolta). When Archer gets a face transplant to look just like Castor, he attempts to infiltrate the criminal’s organisation.
Iconic Moment: Castor and Archer come face to face for the first time, guns at the ready…
Nicolas Says: “ Face/Off for me is a personal milestone because I felt like I was able to realise some of my independent filmmaking dreams in a major studio film.
“I was taking a lot of the laboratory of Vampire’s Kiss and points of expression that I was working on with films like Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari , early German expressionistic film acting.
“And with Face/Off , I got do it in a huge genre picture. John had shown me his film Bullet In The Head and I knew when I saw that where he would let me go. I knew his barometer and that I could put it up against a wall of expressionistic acting. I got to get way outside the box.”
Bringing Out The Dead (1999)
The Role: Frank Pierce
Why It’s The Best: Nic teams up with Martin Scorsese and his then-wife Patricia Arquette for this tense drama. Frank Pierce is a Manhattan medic who is haunted by the people he’s been unable to save. One of Cage’s most intimate, affecting portraits.
Iconic Moment: Frank is haunted by visions of a woman he failed to save six months previously…
Nicolas Says: “It definitely got me in touch with a sense of mortality. That it doesn't matter who you are, that we are all going to end up in the ER at some point. The whole concept of being born and knowing that you are going to die is an alarming notion.
“I knew that working with Patricia I wouldn't really be able to fake it, because she knows me so well. When you're that intimate with somebody, you really can't act.
"I always knew she was a great actress, and her performance here is quite remarkable, because I don't think there's a dishonest moment in it.”
The Role: Tom Welles
Why It’s The Best: Controversial upon its release thanks to its squelchy subject matter, 8MM nonetheless shows off Cage’s willingness to travel into dark, morbid territory in search of interesting roles.
With 8MM , he finds just that. He plays Tom Welles, a private eye who’s hired in order to uncover the truth behind a supposedly authentic snuff film.
Iconic Moment: Tom watches a horrific film through splayed fingers…
Nicolas Says: “ 8MM is my first foray into horror. To me, it’s a horror film, and I hadn’t really done that before.
“It does have weight in my library, but it was overlooked and wasn’t something people could respond to at the time because it was so dark and disturbing. It’s not how people want to spend eight bucks to get their minds off their problems.”
The Role: Charlie and Donald Kaufman
Why It’s The Best: Nic undergoes one of his most impressive transformations as he piles on the weight (or at least creates the illusion that he has) while sporting a bushy, unruly wig.
It’s one of his most accomplished performances, the actor playing twins Charlie and Donald. The former is a scriptwriter who turns to his layabout brother for help.
Iconic Moment: Charlie finds himself staring down the wrong end of a gun in a swamp…
Nicolas Says: “At this point I had already decided not to go down that path [ of putting on weight ] with the process, so I went more Lon Chaney than De Niro on Adaptation .
“I decided to find other ways to create the fat effect without actually eating myself into oblivion. I had wires and different displacers built to push my cheeks out to make me look bigger.”
Matchstick Men (2003)
The Role: Roy Waller
Why It’s The Best: Cage takes on one of his most difficult and fascinating roles – that of a man suffering from numerous mental disorders, among them mysophobia, agoraphobic, OCD and a tic.
Of course, Nic’s always best when he’s a little nuts, as proved in his portrayal of LA con artist Roy, whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of his teenage daughter.
Iconic Moment: When Angela leaves, Roy suffers the mother of all panic attacks…
Nicolas Says: “Actors work with their look. I come from the Lon Chaney Sr. school of acting. I’ll wear wigs, I’ll wear nose pieces, I’ll wear green contact lenses in my eyes.
“I’ll do whatever I need to do to create a character. That’s what it’s about. That’s the fun of it, you know?”
Lord Of War (2005)
The Role: Yuri Olov
Why It’s The Best: Cage again proves he’s the best at blending comedy, drama and explosive thrills into one easy-to-digest milkshake. Here he’s Yuri Olov, an arms dealer who begins to wonder if his work is really devoid of morality.
Iconic Moment: That stellar opening, which finds Yuri standing in a sea of used shell casings, and pondering his unique business.
Nicolas Says: “The script just stuck in my mind after I’d read it. There was something unusual about it. The fact that it was this story of a gunrunner was something I had never seen treated before.
“I thought it was dark. Initially, I didn’t think the character would be likeable or that people would want to see this man, and then I thought, ‘Well, that’s what’s unique about it.’”
The Weather Man (2005)
The Role: David Spritz
Why It’s The Best: Cage returns to darker, more independent film-y material in this unconventional, under-appreciated black comedy.
He’s a Chicago weather man who’s separated from his wife – and subsequently his kids – despite his career flourishing before him. But which is more important? A significant job offer means he has tough issues to face down.
Iconic Moment: David learns just how much he’s despised as local people hurl fast food at him unprovoked. Tough innings.
Nicolas Says: “That [ weather map ] was daunting, yes. That was interesting because it's all backwards and I don't know what these symbols are and you have to look in the camera and point to the symbol, even though you can't really see it and it's flipped.
“The image is flipped because of the nature of the lens so you have to do it in a backwards fashion and then you have to rattle off a million things that don't really mean anything to you. So it was a memorisation challenge as well as a physical challenge.”
Bad Lieutenant (2009)
The Role: Terence McDonagh
Why It’s The Best: Nic finds a kindred spirit in the form of filmmaker Werner Herzog, who directs our star in one of his best movie roles of the last decade.
Slipping free of his sanity collar, Nic runs wild with one of his craziest, most energised performances ever. He’s Terence McDonagh, stumbling about in a Hurricane Karina-savaged New Orleans and having trouble finding the line of the law amid all the cocaine.
Iconic Moment: Tripping off his head, Terence cackles: “I can still see his soul dancing.”
Nicolas Says: “I think Werner and I had a perfect marriage. He moves very quickly. My best takes are my first two takes. He has confidence in what I’m going to do and I have confidence in what he’s going to do, that he’ll get it.
“Sometimes I do love to rehearse, but I always switch it up depending on whom I’m working with. I know Werner likes to do as little rehearsal as possible, because he likes freshness and spontaneity, and I appreciate that.”
The Role: Big Daddy
Why It’s The Best: Cage returns to comic adaps after the disappointing Ghost Rider. This time, he’s got a far cooler character to play – that of Big Daddy, a vigilante ex-cop-turned-superhero
It’s a magnetic turn, and one given extra shades of awesome thanks to Cage’s out-there, hilarious Adam West-inspired hero persona. The fact that he’s also the father of mini avenger Hit-Girl only adds to his cool factor.
Iconic Moment: In a found-footage moment, we see Big Daddy take down a legion of mob goons in a fiery factory confrontation that’s both epic and beautiful. Even Batman struggles to be this good.
Nicolas Says: “There was a kind of playful creativity to the experience of making Kick-Ass that I enjoyed thoroughly, particularly because of Matthew Vaughn’s direction and his willingness to go in these pretty unusual waters.
“He was open to the idea of me channelling Adam West to play Big Daddy. I can’t think of another director who would allow that, but at the same time he was really the captain of his own ship.”