Interview: Nicolas Cage, actor

The prospect of an encounter with Nicolas Cage is daunting. but the ghost rider star saves his demented energy for iconic performances on the big screen

How old is Nicolas Cage? Seriously, try guessing. Trace it back – it started with Rumble Fish and Fast Times at Ridgemont High and continued with Peggy Sue Got Married. There was Moonstruck and Leaving Las Vegas. There was Raising Arizona and Vampire’s Kiss, Wild at Heart, Face/Off, and ConAir. There was Gone in 60 Seconds, Knowing and Drive Angry, and there was Adaptation and Bad Lieutenant. Frankly, it feels as though Cage has been around forever. And that list is far from the complete – and confounding – Cage back catalogue.

“I started when I was 15,” he says, the drawl both unmistakable and inimitable. There are two empty cans of diet Red Bull on the table in front of him, but the caffeine isn’t troubling him. If you were going to describe his voice as a posture, it’d be a slouch. “That was 33 years ago. That’s why people think I’m older than I am. I’ve just turned 48.” He sounds a little plaintive, as though he genuinely cares. Maybe he does.

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The prospect of meeting Cage is nerve-wracking. Will he be a disappointingly pale imitation of his onscreen persona, the inspiration behind a YouTube montage called Nicolas Cage Losing His Sh*t that’s been viewed 4,586,376 times? Or will he be just that – a twitching, ticcing, bundle of frenetic energy? It’s not easy to decide which version I’d rather encounter.

As it turns out, Cage is neither and still just as I’d hoped he might be. He really does talk about surrealism and acting being “like jazz”. He really does talk about entering other dimensions and getting inspiration from dreams, about sewing ancient artefacts into his costumes to help him channel energy into his performances. His eyebrows really do slope at that vertiginous angle above blue eyes that are simultaneously rheumy and piercing. But Cage is also gracious and, in a way, remarkably low key. His handshake is soft, but not creepy, his jewellery, a gold ring on both hands, one with a diamond big enough to cause temporary blindness, is ostentatious but not tacky. Tall and fit-looking, he’s dressed like a Hollywood leading man – a white shirt beneath a roll-neck cardigan above black jeans and black, well-worn biker boots.

But if Cage is a leading man, then he’s one who broke the mould. There is no one quite like Nicolas Cage.

“I can’t believe it. It’s bizarre,” he says, still ruminating on the longevity of his career. “It’s like what it would be like for me if James Dean had made movies from when he started working in the Fifties all the way into the Eighties.” He shakes his head. “I can’t imagine what that would be like.”

It was James Dean who made Cage want to be an actor. It wasn’t the Jimmy Dean image – the jeans, the hair, the cigarette smouldering in pouting lips – it was more specific than that. Cage can pinpoint it not just to a single movie but to a particular scene. It was the moment in East of Eden when Cal (Dean, in his first screen role) tries to give his disapproving father, Adam (Raymond Massey), the money he’s made only to have his father throw it back in his face. Cage was 14 and it broke his heart. Sitting in the darkness of the New Beverly Cinema he knew then and there that he wanted to be an actor. A year later, he enrolled at the Beverly Hills High School (alumni include Angelina Jolie, Albert Brooks and Betty White) but quit when he was 17 after being overlooked for a part in the school production of West Side Story. His love of acting was set, though. His career had begun.

But with Cage, nothing is straightforward. Finding a pattern, or any kind of logical development, in Cage’s work is an impossible task. It’s as though the demented energy that has made his performances iconic (screaming “put the bunny back in the box” in ConAir, or wailing “I lost my hand” in Moonstruck) has governed his choice of movies to make. There has been brilliance, but there have also been bombs. The apparent randomness has irritated his contemporaries (Sean Penn claimed Cage was “no longer an actor”), confounded critics and won him legions of devoted fans.

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And so we come to Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, the new 3D comic book adaptation in which Cage brings his, well, Cage-ness to the character of Johnny Blaze and his demonic alter ego the Ghost Rider. Blaze is a stunt rider who sells his soul to the devil and winds up cursed for his trouble, sharing his body with an ancient demon who happens to have a flaming skull for a head. Here’s the thing – who else could play Blaze other than Cage? Tim Burton once had Cage pegged to play Superman and that might’ve been hard to comprehend, but a motorbike-fixated stunt rider-cum-demon who uses the forces of evil to do good? The words “perfect” and “match” come to mind. Cage smiles a slow smile that only makes it halfway across his lips.

“When I was eight I would look at the cover of the Ghost Rider comic book in my little home in Long Beach, California and I couldn’t get my head around how something that scary could also be good. To me it was my first philosophical awakening – how is this possible, this duality? From then on I wanted to explore characters who are overcoming obstacles within themselves or outside of themselves and who try to live life and survive with those obstacles.

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“He is a perfect match for me. And he had a tremendous influence on my other work as well.”

Cage hasn’t made any secret of his love of comics. It’s not only his role as Blaze and, of course, he plays Big Daddy, father of Chloe Moretz’s Hit Girl in Kick-Ass. Off screen, Cage named his younger son Kal-El (Superman’s Kryptonian name) and wrote a comic called Voodoo Child set in his beloved New Orleans with his elder son, Weston. And at the start of his career, when he decided he needed to ditch the baggage that went along with his real surname, Coppola (his uncle is Francis Ford Coppola) he took Cage from Luke Cage, one of the first African-American comic book heroes. Comics and Cage go way back, but still, he says, he wouldn’t want anyone to misunderstand his affection for them.

“There is a bit of a misperception about me,” he says, leaning forward to make his point. “I don’t want you to think that I’m up late reading a stack of Spider-Man comics and eating a tray of lemon cookies while sucking my thumb. I’m not doing that. But I am loyal to the influences of my childhood.”

Cage loves comic books because they’re a uniquely American invention. As far as he’s concerned, the mythology they provide is no different to Greek mythology or Norse myths or Grimm’s fairytales and these stories fascinate him now just as they did when he was a kid in California.

“As a child, these colourful superheroes that could fly, or were horrifying like Ghost Rider and the Hulk, with this tremendous rage or these supernatural powers, provided an escape for me from my mundane existence, from my lack of friends or my inability to communicate well with people. They liberated me.”

Cage was born Nicolas Kim Coppola in Long Beach, the son of August Coppola, professor of comparative literature and choreographer and dancer Joy Vogelsang. Life at home wasn’t easy. Cage’s mother was schizophrenic and spent much of his childhood in psychiatric institutions. His parents divorced when he was 12. Comics were an escape, for sure, but in a sense so was acting. It was somewhere to put all his energy and imagination. It’s the same even now. With Cage, no matter how popcorny the part, his performance is delivered with complete commitment. He could phone it in, of course he could. But he doesn’t, not ever. What’s interesting is that many of the tics that have made Cage’s characters, and him, a cult figure, came from Cage himself. No one told him to say “I’m a prickly pear” as he did in Leaving Las Vegas. No one guided him through the scene in Bad Lieutenant in which he terrorises two old women with a revolver. Those aspects of his performances weren’t given to him by directors or written in the script; they were his own.

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“Acting is interpretive,” he says. “I have a script and sometimes when the script is one hundred per cent I facilitate that and only that, I don’t make any changes. But sometimes with acting, if you understand a libretto so well that you can go off the page into other dimensions to express the character you can get to an even deeper truth, an even more honest truth in the writing, in the improv. That’s what jazz is. Jazz music is when the players all come together and they know the music so well they can riff off each other and improvise and make a form together with it, which is in my opinion the highest form of expression because it’s so spontaneous and truthful. If you can get to that, exciting things can happen.”

Even when the quality of the project has been debatable, it’d be hard to argue that excitement is something Cage lacks on screen. His performances are big, sometimes so big they skew the rest of the film. But it’s hard not to like someone who keeps on trying, keeps on experimenting.

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“I have dreams with film acting that I want to see realised. If you can do it with writing, poetry, music, painting – if you can become surreal like Francis Bacon – why can’t you do it with acting?

“Critics by and large are fearful. By and large they have to play it safe because they don’t want anyone opening the box for them. So, when I have an image in my mind of a sound or a movement that is big, or what I call outside the box, I try to put it into a movie in which the character will support it. I have to find characters that work within the real world that support my surreal world dreams.” He pauses, maybe to check whether I look convinced, or maybe just for effect. “The public gets it more than the critics, because the public aren’t snobs.”

Cage is sanguine about the flak that he and his choices have provoked. His first explanation is elitism, closely followed by his belief in the inherent conservatism of critics. But that’s not to say he’s doesn’t want to hear what the doubters have to say. When I mention the criticism he attracts, it’s the only time in the interview that he interrupts.

“And by the way, they’re entitled to their view,” he says. “I’m not going to tell anyone how to think or how to receive something. I’m just going to explain, this is the way I see it.”

What’s interesting, though, is that brickbats or not, Cage keeps on turning in the over-the-top, eccentric performances that his fans adore, but which offer no end of opportunities for those who want to take pot shots. He’s either a masochist or he really is attempting to do something experimental with every single performance.

“It has to come from the necessity to get it out,” he says. “It can’t be for awards, it can’t be for money, it has to be just to get it out. Otherwise it’s not truthful. When I did Leaving Las Vegas, I said I was never going to win an Oscar anyway so what difference would it make if I just made the movie I wanted to make? And then it happened, ironically. But if you don’t go for it with that kind of target I think it’s better.”

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Cage moves his smartphone from the table and tucks it down the side of his seat. He looks at me, waiting for the next question, unperturbed by the silence. It’s hard to square the calmness with his onscreen tantrumming and craziness. But that’s not to say that off screen there hasn’t been a fair bit of craziness too. Not so much in his romantic life. He’s currently with his third wife, Alice Kim, after previous marriages to Patricia Arquette and Lisa Marie Presley. Pretty tame by Hollywood standards.

But his business affairs are something else. For years there were rumours of a hugely extravagant lifestyle – a Bel Air mansion, a castle in England, Rolls Royces aplenty, motorbikes galore. But all this was before a truly gigantic bill for unpaid back taxes arrived, which led to Cage sueing his former business adviser, who then countersued Cage. Money problems are at least a part of his motivation for keeping up such a hectic pace of work, making two or three films a year, he admits. But they’re not the only one.

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“There are many reasons why I have to work a lot and some of them are very public.” He shrugs, looking more resigned than embarrassed. “But the point is, within the understanding that I have to work a lot, to find roles that I can play honestly, roles that I can be inventive with on some level.”

He pauses, tries unsuccessfully to squeeze the last few drops out of the empty can in front of him, and then says something truly surprising.

“The other reason I work a lot is that it keeps me sharp. If I don’t practise and if I don’t keep in front of a camera and on a movie set I find my anxiety levels become augmented and I’m not as loose on camera. If I continue to work then I feel like I’m fresh and relaxed.”

Struggling to process the fact that Nicolas Cage, after a 33-year career, is worried he’ll lose his mojo if he takes a break, I forget what I wanted to ask him next and we just stare at each other. He breaks first.

“Memorising lines is a daunting task and it takes a lot to get it all in there,” he says. “When you go up on a line it can be quite traumatic and things like panic can set in. I don’t want that. I don’t want that. That’s death for a film actor. So I’ve got to keep working at it.”

Acting is art for Cage. It’s how he channels his weird and wonderful imagination. He doesn’t watch movies much when he’s not working because it’s a bit too much of a reminder of his day job. He prefers reading or going for a walk. But if forced to choose, he’d go for something “absurd”, a Godzilla movie, maybe, or a Hammer horror film, he says, before adding: “That’s not to say I don’t watch current films because I want to be a part of what is happening now and understand where they’re going with film and offer what I have to say about it.”

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I can’t help but like the fact that Cage still feels that he does have something to say, that after three decades and scores of movies he still has ambitions. I wonder if he has others?

“Most of my favourite moments in film have been when I’ve had an opportunity to say something from scratch, something original, whether I jotted down a few lines or it came out in improvisation.” He frowns. “What I’m trying to say is, it’s those lines that connect with my audience. They seem to respond to the lines that came out of the ether like ‘I’m a prickly pear’ or ‘Put the bunny back in the box’, or the whole thing in Bad Lieutenant with the two old ladies. That was all written down. And so these things lead me to believe that if I could write a book I might find that very satisfying. So that’s a dream of mine, to write.”

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Again, I find myself trying to imagine the unimaginable. A surrealist tale written by Nicolas Cage. I think I’d probably want to read that.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is on general release from 17 February.