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Great Conversations: Nicolas Cage

05/06/2015 06:03 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2016

It was August, 2005. I knocked on the double door at the Four Seasons. It opened almost immediately. "Hi, I'm Nic," he said, hand outstretched. Nicolas Cage wasn't who I expected him to be. Like all actors, he was smaller and trimmer in person than he appeared on-screen. Neatly dressed in an Armani suit, Cage also displayed none of the manic fervor in real life as had become his signature on-screen. He was thoughtful, well-spoken and incredibly literate in all seven arts. It's an infrequent experience that you leave an interview feeling you've just met someone that you could hang out with regularly, but I got that with Nic Cage, in spades. He was endlessly fascinating, but also kind of a regular guy. Another of my favorite chats I count myself lucky to have been part of.

It's an inevitable event in every accomplished artist's life: if you go back on the timeline of their existence and stop in adolescence, almost all of our greatest actors, writers, filmmakers, musicians and painters went through tumultuous, tortured teenage years, often scorned, almost universally ridiculed by their peers and elders alike for the cardinal sin of being "weird." Most people run from their inner nerd as they grow into adulthood, masking it behind toned muscle, fine clothing and the right haircut, struggling to be that cool guy or gal whom we knew had all the answers and the clearest skin back when such things started to be de rigeur in our lives (and if you live in Southern California, continue to be).

Nicolas Cage is that rare movie star who not only never seemed to care if he was cool, but was one of the few that seemed to run from it, embracing his inner nerd and quirky weirdness wholeheartedly. Yes, he cut quite the impressive figure in the series of box office smash action films he was in: buff bod, cool wardrobe, good with a gun, and almost inevitably got the hot chick in the end, Bond style. However, unlike 007, who is always seen in the final fade out with a dry martini in one hand and a supermodel with a PhD in astrophysics in the other, Nic Cage would turn around wearing horn-rimmed glasses and reading a mint condition issue of Spiderman #2, with a grin that seemed to say "Fuck you Johnny Cool, I'm still a geek!" And herein lies the brilliance of one of our greatest actors.

Cage was born Nicholas Kim Coppola on January 7, 1964 in Long Beach, the youngest of three sons born to August Coppola, a professor of comparative literature, and Joy Vogelsang, a classically trained dancer and choreographer. Born into one of America's premiere artistic families, Nic's father is the eldest sibling of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and actress Talia Shire. Their father, Carmine Coppola, was an accomplished musician, composer and conductor, and composed much of the music for son Francis' films, until his death in 1991.

Life was not easy for young Nic, realizing early that the oft-beaten paths of doctor, lawyer and Indian Chief weren't for him. Instead, he sought refuge first in his imagination, then on the stage and in front of the camera. After graduating high school early (he is not a dropout as has been reported in the past), Nic landed his first feature film role (as Nicolas Coppola) in the classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) in a part that was mostly left on the cutting room floor. The following year, Nic starred (as the newly-christened Nicolas Cage) in the sleeper hit Valley Girl, which made him one of his generation's most prolific and acclaimed actors. The momentum hasn't stopped since, with Nic having starred in over 50 features, producing nine, and directing one (2002's Sonny). Nic won the 1995 Best Actor Academy Award (as well as a Golden Globe, and the LA and NY Film Critics Award) for his searing performance in Mike Figgis' Leaving Las Vegas. Nic was nominated in the same category for his brilliant turn as identical twin screenwriters in Adaptation (2003). Whether he's playing an inbred trailer park denizen who longs to give his wife a child (Raising Arizona, 1987), an Elvis-obsessed hipster on the lam with his true love (Wild at Heart, 1990), or an ambulance driver teetering on the brink of madness (Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead, 1999), Nic Cage is one of the cinema's great chameleons: although he often changes colors with the diverse parts he plays, his quirky intensity and unpredictability make him completely riveting to watch. Even in some of his lesser films, Cage has never given a lesser performance.

Nicolas Cage graces the screen in two wildly diverse pictures this fall. Andrew Niccol's Lord of War features Nic as a charismatic arms dealer who finds himself slowly selling his soul, piece-by-piece, as his fortunes increase. Gore Verbinski's The Weather Man stars Nick as Dave Spritz, a Chicago television weather man who finds life in the shadow of his father (Michael Caine, always a treat to watch), a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, has eclipsed him and his own identity. Lord of War is in release currently, and The Weather Man hits screens Octorber 28.

Nic Cage sat down with Alex Simon recently to discuss film, philosophy, and the liberation of embracing your inner nerd. Here's what transpired:

You have two very different films out right now. Let's talk about Lord of War first. Andrew Niccol has always been a very interesting filmmaker.

Nicholas Cage: Yeah, he does have an opinion and unique ways of expressing it. I think Lord of War is more of a departure for him in terms of the far-out, science-fiction that he's done in the past. This is more of a cinema-verite style of film, which makes it a little bit more uncomfortable, as well, because it's in your face. It's a glaring opinion, with a trigger.

I liked its politics, too, and also the fact that he never crossed the line and made it a polemic.

Yeah, some people have accused him of that, but it felt to me that it still seemed anchored in storytelling and didn't become, in my opinion, too preachy.

Yeah, and it also had a certain amount of ambiguity, which allowed the viewer to draw his/her own conclusions.

Yeah, and that's the most important thing with any form of expression, or art form: to allow people to come up with their own interpretation of the piece. All the greatest art, in my opinion, has been enigmatic art forms. Stanley Kubrick, to me, was a master of that. He never tried to preach what he was trying to do, and he would never give the interviews telling exactly what it was, because if he had, it would have robbed you of your own personal connection with the piece. I have tried to adopt that philosophy, but it's very hard for an actor to do it, somehow. The more I say (about my work) the more it will detract from your own appreciation of the performance or the movie.

Do you find the experience of working with a writer/director, like Andrew Niccol, different from working with just a straight director, like Gore Verbinski?

Yeah, I think when you're working with a writer/director, there can be a tendency to be split-focused. Ironically, they're more interested in the camera than the actual libretto, if you will. Sometimes, even with Andrew, I'd say 'Let's go back to our blueprint for a minute, back to the script,' and he'd be on to other things, having to do with the camera or music, or something technical, and I'd have to steer him back to what he wrote. He'd actually make jokes about it: "Let me ask the writer. Whoops! I am the writer." (laughs)

The Weather Man was a movie that grew on me as I watched it. I found it alternately hilarious, touching and really frustrating. I also admired the fact that it had the courage to be about characters who aren't what we usually think of as being "sympathetic."

And it's actually more honest, too. Let's face it, we're all making mistakes and trying to do the best we can with them and prevent them from happening, but it's easier to relate to a character that's made mistakes that we have in common with them. I've certainly made my share of mistakes, and I think that's why I made the movie. I was going through a divorce at the time, and I wanted to take all that energy, which was negative energy, and put it somewhere that I could do something positive with it. And I don't always do that in my work, but there are occasions when I'll read a script that happens to be in a parallel existence with my own. The two then go together beautifully, and it becomes almost like a therapy. That happened with The Weather Man. It was a real overlay of my life with the character of Dave Spritz.

The search for who we are inside is an ongoing quest, isn't it? It should always keep going, ideally.

Yeah, and it will, until we become...what's the right way of saying this? Until we've overcome it to the point where we can become masters of our own destiny, if such a thing is possible.

We become the directors, not the actors?

(laughs) Yeah, we're no longer at the mercy of the elements, but more in control of them.

Ever met anybody like that?

No. Have you?

Never. (both laugh) I've always wanted to meet The Dhali Lama. I would imagine he's pretty close to that.

Yeah, that's what I've heard, too. When he walks into a room, you feel a different level of vibration, that he's that guy we're talking about.

Your background is the stuff of Hollywood lore now: you're the offspring of what has become one of the most prolific artistic families in Hollywood history: the Coppolas. Your father August Coppola was a professor of Fine Arts, right?

Yeah, comparative literature. He initially taught at Long Beach State and then became Dean of Creative Arts at San Francisco State. Here's the interesting thing about my father in relation to education: he was pretty frustrated with the educational system, so when I went to him in high school and said 'Dad, I'm not a good match for this. This isn't me. I want to go to work. I want to act. High school isn't working for me.' He actually said "Go ahead and take the (GED) exam, and get out." So what one would expect, that he would insist I go to college, wasn't the case. He encouraged me to follow my dream and go on.

But he's also the son of an artist.

Yeah, so he understood that and related to that. Thank you for pointing that out. It has been somewhat confusing to me over the years why he would say that's okay. It was somewhat important to him that I pass the equivalency, which I did do. I passed the GED, but I didn't finish the school year. To set the record straight, I am not a high school dropout, as has been said. I have a diploma. I just wanted to get to work.

Your mother is also an artist, right?

Yeah, she was a dancer, a modern dance instructor. She studied at UCLA. I was surrounded by that kind of frequency, of artistic energy, that was always around my family. When I'd visit my uncle Francis, it was everywhere. It's the kind of thing where, it's madness. There's a level of it that's so eccentric and zany, that if you're not careful, it can catch like wildfire and burn you down. But at the same time, that's the very stuff that makes people fascinating to watch and charismatic. The trick is, how do you keep a balance with it and not blow yourself out.

Well, the history of art, and particularly cinema, is littered with the corpses of people who were the architects of their own destruction.

In some capacity whether it's drugs, high speed driving, or just bad behavior, yeah. This is the very thing that I'm thinking about daily, what we're talking about now, and I'm trying to think how to express it without sounding like I've got my head in the clouds. It occurs to me that we're on this material plane here and we're born into it, into matter, and so because we're on this level, it seems like the people who are the most messed up, and have the largest appetites for the material are the ones we find the most charismatic, and the ones we relate to the most and they sort of take the experience of our lives on Earth and tell the stories. So we go to the theater and we see it, and we say "Yeah, I know what that's like. I've been there. I know what it feels like to drink myself into oblivion. I know what it's like to want to rob a bank," and so on. But no one wants to go watch a movie about a guy like The Dhalai Lama. Who's going to want to go watch that for two hours? As beautiful as it is, people seem to be gravitated toward those who are on this plane and who are succumbing to the plane.

It's called "drama" for a reason. You know the one word definition of drama, don't you?

No. What?

"Conflict."

Yeah, yeah. It's something that I'm really contemplating right now. If I became perfect, which I am not (laughs), would anybody want to see my work?

But would you want to be perfect?

That depends. It's almost like if you want to get to another level, assuming there is another level in the afterlife, I'd rather be an eagle than a monkey. But I don't think anybody wants to watch the eagle. I think they want to watch the monkey.

It's also comforting, to a certain degree, to watch people who appear to be far more fucked-up than we are, even though that might be the case. Most likely, unconsciously, we're relating to that pain and that dysfunction far more than we realize. Is that what you're saying?

Yeah, yeah, that is what I'm saying. The most charismatic stars and performances: Al Pacino in Scarface (1983), Jack Nicholson in a number of movies, Robert de Niro in Raging Bull (1980), these are people who are really beleaguered with issues, but you can't your eyes off of them. I'm not saying the actors themselves are beleaguered, but the characters they play are. If you did become perfect, you would almost have to resacrifice yourself into matter to be able to be someone who would be accessible to people.

You would have to become Keir Dullea 2001: you would just have to become light spheres.

Yeah, exactly! So the artist to me is really the one who, in a sense, is a character who is giving themselves up for the people.

From what I've read, you've always known that you were an artist, and have marched to the beat of your own drummer from the time you were a small child.

Yeah, that's right.

Did you know you were an actor at that point, or did you just know you were different?

I knew I was different. I knew in very abstract ways that I wanted to be an actor. I liked what was happening in a box--which was the television set--more than what was happening in my own family living room. I wanted to figure out how to get inside the box. It was mystifying to me, and thought it was amazing that there were people inside this little box. I vowed in my mind that I'd learn how to get inside it.

You were also the victim of bullying growing up because you were perceived as being so different.

Yeah, those were rough years.

But don't you also think that when you don't fit into the norm, it forces you to develop the part of your brain that forces you to create, in order to maintain some kind of stability?

Yeah, it's a training ground of sorts. Look around, this whole place is a training ground. There's a million opportunities to not give in, and not have it break your spirit. Instead, you can have it be a stepping stone, depending on how you navigate those waters. Our minds are so sensitive at that age. But I had that moment on the football field where everyone in the school starting backing away, and just slamming me with every other name you could think of, and I didn't know why it was happening. Although it turned out it was because I was wearing a t-shirt that had The Incredible Hulk on it. (laughs) And that was it, from then on.

You were "it."

Yeah, I was "it." I was the guy with the cooties. But I remember taking a deep breath, and just kind of gliding out of it, and going home and sort of breathing and calming down, and just sort of making a mental note of it, but not letting it become the wildfire that we're talking about.

Which is what happened at Columbine.

Yeah, which is what happened at Columbine. You have to have a place which can funnel the negative energy and turn it into a positive. A lot of these kids don't have that. They have no identity, or that becomes their identity, being an avenging angel, of sorts. If I could have been there, and had been some kind of teacher or something, I would have said 'What kind of music do you like? Okay, you like goth music. You like it to be really dark and scary. Well, let's see if we can learn to make it together, to put it all there.' People get mad at kids when they draw scary pictures, they think it's the sign of some sort of disturbance. Well, actually it's art. He or she is taking a scary image, getting it out of their head, putting it onto a piece of paper, and alleviating the pressure. They're doing something good with it. To take that away, or not facilitate or educate that is why, I think, we have these problems.

Let's get back to some of your films.

(laughs) Yeah, okay.

The first movie I saw you in was Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).

I had auditioned for Judge (Reinhold)'s part, and did about ten or twelve auditions for it, and didn't get it, but got a supporting part as Brad's Bud #1 or #2, I forget which.

A lot of your scenes are on the TV version, that they air a lot on TNT.

Are they really? That's bizarre. I remember my father driving me to work on that. I was 16. I guess that makes me a child actor, of sorts. It's been over 25 years now. It's very interesting growing up publicly. I was there and most of the actors were five or six years older than me, so I was the nerd again. Another mental note was checked off there. (laughs)

Like American Graffiti (1973), Fast Times turned out to have this incredible cultural and artistic synchronicity in terms of all the actors who went onto greatness.

Yeah, there was a buzz in the air that there was something excellent being created. It was another difficult time, though. I was Nicolas Coppola, and there was a lot of "Oh, he thinks he can be an actor because he's Francis Coppola's nephew." So again, I had to sort of figure out how to deal with that, and achieve my goals if this is being put on me. Now again, with a very young, very sensitive mind. So it occurred to me that one, I'd have to work twice as hard as the other actors in order to be taken seriously, and two, that I'd have to change my name.

So it was between Fast Times and Valley Girl (1983) that Nicolas Cage was born.

Right.

You got "Cage" from the musician John Cage?

John Cage and also the comic book character Luke Cage. I liked reading comics as boy--I was a nerd--and it was how I learned to read, really. Then I when I went to Horace Mann Elementary School, in music class they talked about John Cage, and I always thought that it was such a cool name. Then I started getting interested in that kind of music, which is what my father listened to. So that was the genesis of the name.

After Valley Girl, everything changed for you.

Yeah, 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. The other actors weren't teasing me about it, so I suddenly felt like I could really relax and do what I think I can do. All I wanted was to be on the same playing field as everyone else. Not that I have a problem with my name, but don't have prejudice towards me because of my name. Just put me on the same playing field because I think I can do this, whether you think so or not. So that's what Valley Girl did for me.

You did three movies with your uncle. Since there was a familial bond in place already, did they two of you have a sort of shorthand in terms of how you communicated?

What happened was, Francis saw Valley Girl and got very excited about the possibility of me, and that's when The Cotton Club (1984) happened, and then Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), and all that stuff occurred. And I liked working with him. I found him to be very open to some far-out ideas. Peggy Sue I didn't want to do. I actually turned it down originally. He 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." So I kept turning him down, and finally I gave in on the condition that I could go pretty far out with the character. During rehearsal, I came up with this idea to into Pokey from the Gumby show, and create this cartoon character. Those were some very tense days on the set. Every day I was going to be fired. Kathleen (Turner) was not happy with the performance. She thought she was going to get the boy from Birdy (1984) and instead she got Jerry Lewis on acid! (laughs)

But that interpretation was so appropriate, because that guy, in every high school in America, is a cartoon!

Exactly! Not only that, but the dreamscape that we were playing in was very exciting to me. So I thought since this is about the visions a woman has when she's fainted, maybe I could make Charlie a little more abstract.

Every time that movie's brought up today, it's your performance that people talk about.

That's what's so ironic because at the time, it was really lambasted critically. "The wart on an otherwise beautiful movie," is what one critic said, I think.

Wild at Heart (1990) is one of those movies that keeps getting better every time I see it. Although I have to admit when I first saw it, I hated it.

You know what's interesting about what you're saying now, is I've notice this happen with all kinds of art forms. Apparently 2001 got slammed when it came out. Rock Hudson walked out of the theater. 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. (laughs) And that's why I try to be careful with the movies I choose. I don't want to have one identity. I want to keep looking for different points of expression.

Anytime you elicit a strong emotional response from someone, you know you're doing your job.

You know you're doing something right, absolutely. Owen Glieberman from Entertainment Weekly gave Lord of War a D-, which is basically failing the movie. So I thought 'Okay, I know it's not a D-, otherwise we wouldn't have David Denby from Newsweek saying it's one of the most enjoyable movies of the year. He's a very important critic. So to me, those are very interesting polarities and it says I know I've gotten you, Owen. I know I've affected you in a way that you're going to think about this down the road. So it's actually a good review, if you think about it that way. I actually told them to put (Glieberman's grade of D-) on the poster, but Lions Gate wouldn't do it. (laughs)

Tell us about the experience of making Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and working with Mike Figgis.

It was just a great time, all the way around. I had a great connection with Mike and Elisabeth Shue. Mike is music. He's free form and rhythm and melody and it comes out in his direction. He's even got music on the set that he was composing. So we had a connection and I hope to work with him again some day. We did the film very quickly, in about four weeks and it just was painless, I don't know why. It just seemed like everything was linking up. It was channeled with the real guy, John O'Brien, almost. (Editor's note: John O'Brien, who wrote the novel on which the film was based, committed suicide shortly before principal photography started) I felt like I was making moves that I later on found out he had made, like the way he'd light his matches. The car he drove, Mike wanted him to drive an old Jaguar and I said 'No, he should drive a BMW, like every other agent in town.' And he had a BMW, and I didn't know that. His parents came to the set and would comment on how much I reminded them of their son. I don't want to get too spooky about it, but it was a very special time. We were in John's mind somehow.

John Woo is one of my favorite directors, and I'm a big fan of Face/Off (1995).Tell us about that.

Face/Off for me is a personal milestone because I felt like I was able to realize some of my independent filmmaking dreams in a major studio film. I was taking a lot of the laboratory of Vampire's Kiss (1989) and points of expression that I was working on with films like Nosferatu (1922) or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919): 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 (1990) 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, as opposed to naturalistic acting. I'd not done that to that level before in a big studio movie, so it was a real personal best for me. I got to get way outside the box.

I forgot that you executive produced Shadow of the Vampire (2000), which was a fictional re-telling of the production of Nosferatu. F.W. Murnau, who directed the latter film, is one of my heroes.

Yeah, he was amazing. Sunrise (1927) is one of the greatest films ever made.

Nosferatu actually changed my life when I saw it as a kid. It's one of the movies that made me fall in love with movies and scared me to the depths of my soul.

It's kismet that we're talking because that's exactly the same experience I had. My father used to bring the movies home from Cal State and he'd project them for us, and there I was, looking at this terrifying imagery. It was so uncomfortable and really made me miserable but again, like we talked about, I began to fall in love with it.

Murnau shot it like a documentary, which is what made it so interesting. Wasn't it one of the first films to go on location?

I think it might have been, yeah. What we did in Shadow of the Vampire was pretty thought-out and accurate in terms of the actual events, except of course that (actor) Max Schreck wasn't really a vampire! (laughs) All actors by some definition are vampires, I suppose.

I have a theory that all great actors and filmmakers have one overlooked masterpiece, and I think 8MM (1999) is yours. I think it's such a brave, audacious, deeply disturbing movie.

Thank you. I'm sure Joel (Schumacher) will be happy to hear that. In a lot of ways that movie is kind of a milestone for me, because it's 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, as you said, 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. (laughs)

If it had been made in 1971, it would have been a hit.

But you see, those are my favorite movies, from the 70s. I'm still kind of living that fantasy, trying to do it in 2005. But that was the time, and those were the movies that propelled me into wanting to go for this. The 50s and 70s movies for me are the ones that got me on the track of wanting to be an actor.

I was watching Klute the other day, which was made in 1971. A movie from 1985 is more dated now than that film is.

Yeah, right. I believe that. If you look at A Clockwork Orange (1971), it's like virtual reality now. Even if you take a single frame of that film, the amount of time Kubrick must have put into lighting that, it just pops! The shot of the droogies as they're walking out of the milk bar, it's lit in a way that's nearly digitally perfect, and he did it in '71. It's fascinating.

Tell us what directing was like, with Sonny (2002).

That was a great experience, too. It was a real highlight for me. I was surrounded by some of my favorite actors. I've never seen James Franco hit a false note. He's a great actor, and he's just fantastic in the movie.

It's a great kitchen sink drama. Did you study the films of Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson before you did it?

No, I didn't. It just kind of came out of me, the way I sort of felt it. I didn't want to take too much away from the actors. I wanted the film to look beautiful, but I really just wanted to focus on performance, and I got that. I was very happy with the results.