How do you get a grade-A movie star like Nicolas Cage to play an amoral gunrunner? Simple: put a pistol to his head. “Andrew Niccol picked up this Uzi machine-gun, pointed it at me and said, ‘Are you in this movie or not?’” grins Cage. “I said, ‘Well, yeah...’” For the record, the gun Lord Of War writer/ director Niccol used to coerce Cage was made of plastic, but Total Film wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been real. After all, we are talking about Nic Cage – a magnet for the strange and outlandish.
This is a man who’s eaten live cockroaches (Vampire’s Kiss), experimented with binge-drinking (Leaving Las Vegas) and allegedly had his wisdom teeth removed without anaesthetic (Birdy), all in order to ramp his performances up an extra notch. He proposed to his first wife Patricia Arquette the day he met her, his second missus was Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie Presley and his third – and current – better-half, Alice Kim, used to be a waitress at a sushi bar he ate at. Their first child – Cage’s second after the son, Weston, he had with model Kristina Fulton in 1992 – is due imminently.
Born into the Coppola clan (he’s Francis Ford’s nephew) he ditched the family name and took the surname of his favourite Marvel comic-book character, Luke Cage aka Power Man, in order to sidestep claims of nepotism. He follows up Oscar-winning dramas with glossy popcorn action-flicks, mixes comedies with unashamed tearjerkers and takes criticism for the occasional horrible flop, like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, on the chin. “It’s easy to stay safe in one style, to stay in the box that everyone’s accustomed to seeing you in and to do what is considered the right type of acting at the time,” he says. “What do you learn from that?”
When Total Film catches up with him, the 41-year-old is on set in Vancouver, shooting a “recreation” of the 1973 Hammer Horror classic The Wicker Man.
“My late friend Johnny Ramone [of the punk band The Ramones] invited me to come over and see this movie The Wicker Man,” he recalls. “I was extremely disturbed by it and it stayed with me for a couple of weeks because I had no idea how the movie was going to end!”
Cage seems exhausted when we first start talking. He perks up as the chat ranges from Lord Of War to his life and movies in general, but the initial sleepiness is understandable. He got up early to talk to Total Film after a long shoot the day before on a remote Canadian island, but that’s the tip of the work-iceberg for a man who clearly doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘holiday’. Tom Cruise, say, averages only one movie a year; Cage has seven films due out before the end of 2006...
What caught your eye about Lord Of War, other than being threatened with a gun?
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.’
Where do you stand on the whole firearms issue? Have you ever owned a gun?
I have, yeah. Where do I personally stand on it? I think that arms sales are dangerous, I think that there need to be more controls on it. I don’t think that guns should go into the hands of children. There are 300,000 child soldiers in the world. They haven’t even kissed a girl yet, they haven’t even fallen in love, and now they have to go kill somebody or be killed. But, on the other hand, I also understand that there are times when violence seems to be necessary. In America, the slaves would not have been freed if there wasn’t the civil war. So, it’s a tough question.
You must be knackered at the moment – you don’t seem to have stopped working for the last year...
Well, it’s seemed that way. It’s been almost a year since National Treasure but this year I’ll have Lord Of War and The Weather Man. Next year will be a pretty heavy year – I’ve got Ghost Rider, Next, [Oliver Stone’s] World Trade Centre Project and The Wicker Man. I’ll take some time off after all that!
Do you have a sense that there’s only so much time in which you can cram all these films in?
I remember hearing a friend of mine mention that Dustin Hoffman once said that he wished he had made more movies. He was very selective but, in retrospect, he would have liked to have made more films. And I often think about that. If I ever meet him, I’ll ask him about it. It seems to me that making as many movies as you can makes sense if you can do it in a way that doesn’t blow out the audience and overexpose yourself. If you’re genuinely exploring new characters and different directions and have some reason for having a more prolific body of work, then why not do it? I was asking myself, ‘Would I rather be HG Wells or Franz Kafka?’ Would I rather have this mountainous, voluminous body of writing that Wells had or have just a few great novels like Kafka did? It’s a good question.
You don’t just make a lot of films, though; your work is so varied.
That’s what keeps it interesting for me: to constantly make different types of movies. I think if I wasn’t doing that, I might get a bit bored with it.
Not many Oscar-winning actors go straight into action movies...
That was a first, I think, and it was a definite choice on my part to do something unexpected, to take a left turn that no one would really agree with. For me, that was the reason to do it – it was the wrong thing to do and, therefore, it was the right thing to do. I never like to stay too comfortable in anything I’m doing. If I’m comfortable then that means I’m resting and I don’t want to rest, I want to be challenging myself and, hopefully, challenging the audience as well. To be fair, I was already shooting The Rock when Leaving Las Vegas went to the Academy Awards, so I didn’t know Vegas was gonna be critically acclaimed. But I had already made the conscious decision that I wanted to make many different kinds of movies and not be trapped in one genre. Now, consequently, that pissed a lot of my fellow actors off for some reason – I don’t know why.
Didn’t Sean Penn make a crack about you: “Nic Cage is no longer an actor”?
Yeah. That was his opinion and, you know, we’ve since left it all behind us. But I think any time an actor does something unusual it’s going to be met with a certain amount of criticism. I’ve actively searched for that. When I did Peggy Sue Got Married I wanted to play the character with this ridiculous voice and look, and I knew that it would be criticised, but I thought that it’s much more interesting to take the bad critical hits and know that you’ve really done something. What’s the point in just getting good reviews? At the end of the day, I want people to go, ‘Well, what the hell was that?’ What’s that line in Tootsie? Bill Murray leaves the movie theatre saying, “I don’t want people going, ‘Hey, that’s great!’ I want people to go, 15 years from now, ‘What the fuck was that? ’”
If you screened Raising Arizona and Face/Off for some people, they probably wouldn’t believe it was the same man.
Yeah, that’s really what I want to achieve. I want people to be concerned they’re not seeing the same person. That would be great and yet, on another level, I still want to project a style, a charisma, if you will, that’s coming from me.
Do you ever regret changing your name from Coppola to Cage?
No, I needed to recreate myself, reinvent myself. Nicolas Coppola had a hard time believing he could do it. Every time I would go into a casting office or talk about acting with a casting agent, I was talking about my uncle’s illustrious body of work and it was getting in the way of the movies. It was making me feel like I was a victim of nepotism and no one would really take me seriously.
You dropped out of high school to act, didn’t you?
Yeah, I started out very young. I was basically a child actor at 17. Anyway, 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. 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 [director of Fast Times At Ridgemont High] 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.
The irony is that your role in Fast Times got cut back to almost nothing and it was a part in your uncle’s Rumble Fish that got your career back off the ground...
Yeah, that’s right. Fred Roos, the producer, called and said, “Could you help us out by just coming in to read with the actors auditioning?” I said fine. I went in to basically help other people get their parts, so the pressure wasn’t on me. And then Fred went to Francis and said, “Why don’t you give Nicolas a part, ’cos he’s pretty good? ” Francis said, “Well, okay, let’s try that. ” And I was shocked to know that I had gotten a part in Rumble Fish.
Total Film has this image of a mythical Coppola family Thanksgiving dinner with you, Francis, Sofia, maybe Spike Jonze and maybe your cousin Jason Schwartzman...
Ha! Yeah. I think the last mythical Thanksgiving dinner I had with everybody was 15, maybe 10 years ago. There have been family gatherings but everyone’s doing their own thing. It’s hard to co-ordinate schedules.
You’ve not worked with Sofia yet, but you did cast your brother Marc [Coppola] in your directorial debut, Sonny, didn’t you?
Yeah, he came and acted for me. I actually go on his radio show in New York a lot, he has a pretty successful radio show out there. It’s funny, every family member’s got their own area and he’s sort of king of the airwaves.
Any more plans to direct?
I do want to do it again. I just haven’t crystallised my thoughts on a script, but I’d like to write it.
But not appear in it? You only gave yourself a small part in Sonny, after all...
Yeah, at the very end. It was the only way I could get the movie made with the cast I wanted. The money people wanted me to cast a bigger name actor than James Franco at the time. Then after I cast him, he went on to win the Golden Globe for his performance [in a 2001 TV movie] as James Dean and then they were all relieved. Before that, they said the only way I could cast him was if I played one of the parts, so I chose the part I could disguise myself the most with to sort of not be in the movie. So I played the gay hustler, the pimp, at the end.
You had a rep for going the extra mile when you were younger. Would you still do any of that cockroach-eating stuff now?
I think that I would if I thought it would really help the role, but it’s been 25 years and I’ve become a little more seasoned in the work that I do. In the first five years, I was desperately grasping for ability, so I felt like I had to ‘live the part’ to play the part. It was very taxing on my relationships, on my social life, on my mind. I cultivated a pretty bad reputation because of some very crazy behaviour on the set and, right off the bat, I was labelled as a very strange, difficult actor. De Niro had just done Raging Bull and everyone was talking about the weight-gain, so I thought, ‘That’s what I’ll do, I’ll just live these parts.’ And the thing is, it works, it really does work, it’s just very, very demanding. It’s one element to acting, but it’s not the complete bag of tools. There are so many other things that I learned down the road.
Living the part of, say, Sailor Ripley in Wild At Heart must have been fun...
I was starting to come out of that whole style of Method acting at that point. By then, I was learning to have a sort of mischievous sense of fun while playing parts. It was David Lynch who made it clear to me that if you’re not having fun then the audience isn’t going to either. That movie was very playful and there wasn’t a whole lot of time to think about things on the set because David would come in with new monologues on the day and actually trying to memorise any of it was just absurd. You couldn’t over-analyse, you just jumped in and did it.
Was that ‘difficult’ rep hard to shrug off?
It was. 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, but I’ve done a lot of other movies now and found a new way of acting and now I think I’m not seen that way any more.
You’re a legendary comic-book fan...
I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the comic-book. I don’t read them any more. I did when I was a boy, when I was 10 years old.
When you talk about changing your name, you make it sound like an alter-ego, almost as if Nic Cage is Spider-Man to Nicolas Coppola’s Peter Parker...
Yeah, it was almost like Clark Kent and Superman; I needed something like the S or Batman’s mask to make me feel I could do it. I needed to recreate myself.
Speaking of Superman, you were linked with the new one for a long time...
Yeah... Well, what’s interesting is that movie’s now coming out with another actor. I’m sure it will be very good, but it’s being released in the same summer that Ghost Rider’s coming out, who’s not nearly as well-known a superhero as Superman. The one time that I do try my hand at a comic-book character in a movie, it’s going to have to compete with a Superman movie!
You were linked with Constantine for a while and weren’t you pencilled in to play the Green Goblin, too?
I was gonna do Constantine, but that just didn’t work out. And they came to ask me to play the Green Goblin, but I said I’d rather, at that time, do Adaptation.
Which brings us nicely to Adaptation. In a sense, your De Niro weight-gain movie...
Except I approached it from a different angle. At this point I had already decided not to go down that path 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.
When you look back at your early movies, do you wince? Do you enjoy them? Or do you feel nostalgic?
If something comes on TV, I’ll look at it and then I go through everything you just said. I wince. Sometimes I find myself enjoying it. Sometimes it’s like a trip down Memory Lane, as I remember different people I’ve worked with. But, to be honest, I don’t make a habit of watching myself on my old movies, I feel it’s better to look to the future and not dwell on the past.