Nicolas Cage: “I’m not nostalgic about my early work”

After a decade spent in the doldrums of straight-to-video schlock-busters, Nicolas Cage has carved himself a new niche in art-house cinema. We met the Hollywood icon to talk over-acting, tense fan run-ins and the next stage of his career

Reel Talk is NME’s weekly interview feature with the biggest names in film and TV

Nicolas Cage is well aware of his recent patchy record. “I can’t guarantee every movie is going to work,” he tells NME, on one of his rare days off from filming. “It’s hard to knock every scene out of the park with all these other cooks in the kitchen. I can’t edit every movie – that’s not my job – and I can’t choose the music and I can’t cast the movies. But as long as I can give you two good scenes, then I’m happy.”

Over his career, the man behind hit films like Leaving Las Vegas, Raising Arizona, Face/Off and many more has undoubtedly given us far more than two good scenes. But after a meteoric rise to power during the mid-’90s, including a Best Actor win at the Oscars in 1996, Cage became a caricature. Renowned as a party animal, and for blowing his huge fortune on everything from shrunken heads to a serial killer’s haunted mansion in New Orleans, the actor swapped blockbusters and awards-friendly pictures for straight-to-video action flops (Stolen, 2012) and crackpot sci-fi thrillers like Knowing (2009).

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However, after several critically acclaimed turns in the last few years – most notably gonzo-horror Mandy and the gore-filled comedy Mom and Dad – Cage seems to have turned over a new leaf. Could his latest film, Richard Stanley’s sci-fi shocker Color Out of Space, make Hollywood’s big wigs sit up and take notice again?

Nicolas Cage
Credit: Studio Canal

Adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s short story of the same name, Color Out Of Space is perhaps Cage’s most intense performance yet. He plays a loving father who moves his family to a secluded farm as his wife battles cancer. But when a meteorite crashes into their front garden, a strange, mutating ball of colour is unleashed which genetically alters everything in its path and has apocalyptic consequences for the surrounding population. For Cage, it was an excuse to marry two of his favourite genres.

“I loved that there’d be a collision between the family drama and the horror genres. Not unlike Hereditary, another movie I enjoyed,” he says. “When that’s done well, it can be some of the most exciting filmmaking there is, like The Exorcist with Ellen Burstyn’s spectacular performance [as retired actress Chris MacNeil]. It’s the idea that family is unravelling due to alien or supernatural forces, and that gives the actors a lot of room to explore striking and unusual behaviour.”

Born in swingin’ California during the mid-’60s, Cage didn’t have the happiest of childhoods. Sadly, his mother suffered from mental illness and it fell to Nicolas’ father, a university professor, to bring him up. Nephew to director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now), it seems to us now that Cage was always destined to go into the family business, but the American icon always refused to let his nephew screen test for him and Cage later ditched the family surname to strike out on his own.

Color Out Of Space
Nicolas Cage in ‘Color Out Of Space’. Credit: Studio Canal

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Obsessed with acting since the age of six (when his father bought the family’s first colour TV), Cage got his break with minor roles in teen comedies like Best of Times and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, alongside Crispin Glover (George McFly in Back To The Future) and Sean Penn.

As a start, his early appearances served nicely, but the work left Cage craving more experimental, boundary-breaking gigs that would allow him to let loose a little more. As a result, he developed his trademark exaggerated style – you know, eyes wide, frothing at the mouth, vein bulging in his forehead. In later years, Cage would dub this technique of over-acting: ‘Nouveau Shamanic’.

“It allows me to be open to flashpoints that give you answers about how you want to play a scene,” he says. “It’s a matter of me being open to the idea that anything that I have experienced will give me something in an almost trance-like state where I can create something authentic that doesn’t feel forced or even feel like acting.”

Nicolas Cage
Credit: Studio Canal

That’s not just it though, Cage literally believes he is channeling the supernatural, like a shaman. “They would go into a trance mode to search for answers to help whatever was wrong in the village,” he explains, before raving about two recent movies he believes embody his ‘Nouveau Shamanic’ code: “I love Marriage Story because it’s a movie that answers questions for people who may be embarking on a divorce. Then there’s Joker, where Joaquin Phoenix [Cage’s co-star in 1999’s foreboding thriller 8MM] is totally shamanic. That film is looking at something which is an [important] issue today – that mental illness is rampant and [the government] is cutting funding.”

Unfortunately for Cage, ‘Nouveau Shamanic’ and his obsessive commitment to the job started to affect other aspects of his life too. His glitzy, excessive lifestyle proved effective fuel for tabloid headlines and frequent spending sprees left him no option but to rely on ‘starring’ roles in low-quality schlock-busters as a means to pay off fast-growing debts.

In addition, the frenzied manner of his acting philosophy had slowly turned to near-parody. Bonkers scenes in 2006 remake of The Wicker Man – “Not the bees!” – and similar episodes in comic book fantasy Ghost Rider (2007) or creepy horror Season Of The Witch (2011) had a negative impact on an already-flagging reputation. Mercilessly, keyboard warriors took to crafting memes of his faces, contorted in pain or anger. Casting agents, once queuing out of the door for Cage’s signature, grew reluctant to give him the jobs he used to be first in line for.

Nicolas Cage
Credit: Studio Canal

Until now, that is. After racking up mostly glowing reviews in 2019, Cage seems to have carved a new niche for himself in experimental films with an almost supernatural sensibility. These projects are still invariably low-budget and schlocky, but respected in critic’s circles, rather than looked down on. Color Out Of Space, which mixes tart B-movie pulp with visually alluring horror, is more of the same.

Elsewhere, the public perception of Cage as a grumpy old codger holed up in a mansion in Beverly Hills, only coming out at night, has dissipated too. Gone also are the vicious newspaper stories about him stumbling out of nightclubs, usually accompanied by bleary-eyed pap shots. Instead, we now read heartwarming puff pieces about late night trips to karaoke bars, such as the one where Cage was filmed belting out his favourite Prince song (‘Purple Rain’, of course). His image has definitely softened – and the respect he used to command has started to return. His often invasive fans can still be a problem, but Cage has even found a way to cope with them better.

“Collisions with strangers are just as rewarding as receiving praise,” he says of his encounters with fans. “If you’ve made someone angry then you’ve done something that’s stimulated them to think; otherwise it wouldn’t have gotten under their skin.

Nicolas Cage
Credit: Getty

“I don’t have a security detail. I’m very much in the real world and I have good experiences with strangers and not so good encounters with strangers,” he adds. “By being a part of the community, inevitably I’m going to have memories and connections and contacts and collisions that will inform me and keep me authentic and truthful.”

Looking ahead, 2020 could well be a milestone year for Cage. Aside from stepping into a truffle hunter’s wellies alongside Hereditary’s Alex Wolff in Pig, he’s also starring in independent horrors Prisoners of the Ghostland and the aforementioned Wally’s Wonderland, the set of which he is busy packing his suitcase for as we speak.

There’s also The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, perhaps his Cage-iest role yet. Directed by unknown filmmaker Tom Gormican, the quasi-biopic will see a fictionalised version of Cage – played by Cage – working towards a role in a Quentin Tarantino film, but instead reluctantly accepting a job to attend a Mexican billionaire’s birthday party due to a handsome $1 million fee. Things take a turn for the worst – there’s kidnapping and drug cartels get involved – and Cage must rise to the occasion to save lives.

“It’s hard to talk about this movie because I have to speak about myself in the third person, which is always kind of gross,” he says of the surreal chance to play himself on screen. “I don’t want to be that guy.”

Despite his comments, it’s actually quite easy to get Cage to speak about the film: “This role is going to be a complicated one, but it’s based on my early days of grafting [for work]. It would be a collision between perhaps Dave Spritz in The Weatherman [a film in which he played a local meteorologist] as the contemporary Nic Cage, and then I’d have to go into protracted dialogue scenes with a young Nic Cage, and that would be the Nic Cage you saw in the [viral videos from my appearance on ‘80s UK talk show] Wogan, back when I was promoting [David Lynch crime drama] Wild at Heart with the karate kicks and the front handsprings. But it will still be stylised and meta – and therefore it’s not really me but more of a pushed version of me on both ends.”

With big studio funding getting easier to come by, and a growing personality cult emerging around Cage – he has his own annual festival now – cinemagoers seem to be getting excited about ‘Crazy Nic’ again. He agrees that ‘90s nostalgia has something to do with it, but not his own.

Mandy
Nicolas Cage in ‘Mandy’. Credit: Alamy

“There seems to be something happening on the Internet with people who have followed my career. Some of the movies are returning in a way that I think is making them more interesting, which I’m thankful for.” He pauses, before adding: “It’s truly something that I see as good news. But I’m not nostalgic about my early work and I’m always trying to feel where I can go and how I can go forward.”

If our short time with Nicolas Cage has taught us anything, it’s that the fires still burn. His passion for show business is as strong as ever, no matter how many times things haven’t gone to plan. And the buzzy vibe that surrounds each of his new films, even in the pre-production stage, makes it feel like he may be approaching a new golden chapter in his career. Whatever happens next – be it a return to DVD ignominy or further Oscar nominations – you can be sure Nic Cage has plenty more “good scenes” for us to enjoy.

‘Color Out Of Space’ arrives in cinemas on February 28

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