You know who Nicolas Cage is. Everybody does. The plane-bound convict in Con Air, the wayward emissary of God in City of Angels, the corrupt cop in Bad Lieutenant – picking a favourite Cage role is like trying to select from an endless cinematic buffet that runs the gamut from weepy schlockfest and brainless action flick to super-serious Oscar fare. His latest film, Joe, sees him playing a grizzled southern ex-con trying to do good. He guzzles whiskey, smashes heads and outwits the law – it's classic Cage at his grittiest. At SXSW, he joined the film's director, David Gordon Green (who also directed the glorious Prince Avalanche), for a discussion of his early insecurities and chewing roaches that also included a few classic Brat Pack anecdotes – including a hair-raising one about hanging out on the top of a car park with Johnny Depp.
David Gordon Green: I’ve been a huge fan (of yours) since the beginning, since Fast Times and Valley Girl. I found your early work personally monumental and inspiring in my own career. Starting at the beginning in a way, we were talking yesterday about the first time you saw Valley Girl...
Nicolas Cage: I was a nervous wreck. It was the first movie being 'Nic Cage'. I had carried the name Coppola for about 17 years and I’m proud of my family name, but it was a bit of a weight. When I’d go into casting offices, we’d predominantly talk about my uncle’s illustrious career and by the time we got to my audition, I’d forgotten all my lines. It wasn’t until I’d changed my name to Cage that I felt this weight come off me. But nonetheless, when I went to the premiere I was a nervous wreck. Beads of sweat were coming down my forehead, kind of like last night’s bourbon is right now. I thought, 'Oh my God, I’m never going to make it as a film actor,' which is all I wanted to be. Robert Carradine was sitting in front of me and I was always a fan. But he turned around and he said, 'Do you have any idea what kind of actor you are?' I didn’t know what he was talking about. But I started to relax and I was like, 'Wow, he actually liked it.' And then people started clapping and I was like, 'Oh my God, I can really do this.' So that was a big night for me.
David Gordon Green: It took that confidence to recognise that there was something that was appealing about you to an audience.
Nicolas Cage: I had gone on millions of auditions, and I’d always had the door slammed in my face. I got sick once, and when I was in the hospital, I said, 'I’m going to go on one more audition and if I don’t get the part then I’m going to be a fisherman or a marine.' Because my first love was the ocean and still is. I wanted to try the next Herman Melville and write stories out at sea.
David Gordon Green: For those of you (in the audience) that haven’t seen Joe, there’s a scene where Nicolas handles a venomous cottonmouth snake. There was certain anxiety that I had as a director in a moment like this, but then I recalled reading about Cage eating a cockroach for Vampire’s Kiss in the 80s.
Nicolas Cage: Yeah, that was rough. Whatever the reason of Robert Bierman, the director... He made me do it twice. It was a nightmare. It’s very clearly uncomfortable, the way I’m chewing it. I don’t wanna go back there.
David Gordon Green: But it’s great when you see the content that takes you to the limit, and you have an actor that will literally open his mouth and say 'ahh' for it. Which is always very cool to me. Are there anecdotes or stories that you can relay to the audience of things you’ve witnessed in everyday life?
“The thing I learned doing adventure films is that I would probably be a good candidate for Adderall” – Nicolas Cage
Nicolas Cage: The thing I learned doing adventure films is that I would probably be a good candidate for Adderall. I’m not on any medication at all, but I’ve noticed if I do stunts or high-performance driving, I calm down. I go the other way. The moment David is talking about in Joe, I had no real business handling a venomous snake because my adrenaline was going in the wrong direction. I said, 'David, would you mind if I pick up the real cottonmouth snake and handle it in the scene?' And he said, 'Well, why would you want to do that?' I said, 'Because it will relax me!' I know it makes no sense, but it did.
I remember doing Gone in 60 Seconds and I’d ordered a Yamaha R1, I was riding on motorcycles at that time. I’m not allowed to do anything like that anymore unless I’m doing it in a movie. But they delivered it to the set, and it was a beautiful motorcycle. It was about four in the morning and I was on the 405 Freeway, and I got up to about 145 miles an hour. But my visor on my helmet was open and a black plastic trash bag got into my face, so I was effectively blind at 145 miles per hour trying to fish the bag out – I don’t know why I’m still here.
And then, uhm – stupid things, just stupid things. Johnny Depp and I used to be really close, and there was a mall at the Beverly Centre (in West Hollywood) and we both had split like a bottle of tequila at the top floor of the parking lot structure. I said, 'Well let’s see if we can hang off the top of the structure. Who can hang on the longest?' We tried that. But I did stay on the longest.
David Gordon Green: One of the things that I’ve taken on in my own career is constantly trying to challenge yourself. Find new genres, find new and unpredictable material to approach. You kind of set yourself up as a very established and acclaimed actor and then you jumped into The Rock, which I loved. Was that a conscious decision of saying, 'Hey, I’ve just done Leaving Las Vegas, Oscar in hand, let’s go out and have some fun'?
“In the LA Times the criticism of Bad Lieutenant also incorporates how many homes I bought and sold. What the hell does that have to do with Bad Lieutenant?” – Nicolas Cage
Nicolas Cage: The truth is before anything happened with Leaving Las Vegas, both Vegas and The Rock were in the can. I actively wanted to zig and zag, I didn’t want to get comfortable with any one particular genre. At that time it was very clear to me that no one in Hollywood thought that I could be in adventure films, except for Jerry Bruckheimer. For some reason, he saw something in me where he thought I could actually deliver in an action movie and that meant a lot to me. I try to pick my material based on where I can challenge myself and make myself uncomfortable. But getting back to Joe, it was time to take my life experiences from the last two years and find a script where I didn’t have to act, where I could just be and hopefully deliver some truth within the dialogue. My wife saw it with me in Venice and she said, 'Well, that’s you!'
David Gordon Green: Let’s talk for a second about your career and the idea of celebrity. In terms of the days of Moon Struck and getting recognised on the street, how has that changed?
Nicolas Cage: I started acting because I wanted to be James Dean. No rock song, no classical music, no painting affected me the way James Dean affected me when I saw East of Eden. It blew my mind, and I was like, 'Wow, that’s what I wanna do.' And that’s why I got into it, but this was before everybody had a thing called a smartphone. And this was before the advent of the – I won’t mention any names – celebutard; the advent of the red carpet and TMZ. I’m not complaining, but it really sucks to be famous right now. Now in the LA Times the criticism of Bad Lieutenant also incorporates how many homes I bought and sold. I mean, what the hell does that have to do with Bad Lieutenant? Or what the hell does Lindsay Lohan’s life have to do with her performance in The Canyons? Film criticism has gone to another place and it is disappointing and unfortunate. And it doesn’t stop there: what difference does it make if Bill Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky? How does that affect his performance as the president? It’s just become a different world.
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