Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Nicolas Cage Is Still Evolving

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The wobbly distinction between reality and artifice fascinates Nicolas Cage. The first time we encountered each other was in 2001, during the making of “Adaptation”—a film based on Charlie Kaufman’s struggle to adapt my book “The Orchid Thief” for the screen—in which Cage played Kaufman and his twin, Donald. He was in the middle of a scene, and I tiptoed onto the set as quietly as possible, convinced that any distraction would trigger one of the eruptions for which Cage had become famous. Between takes, he glanced at the handful of people watching, and exclaimed cheerily, “Oh, guys, look!” He pointed at me and a small, fuzzy-haired man I hadn’t noticed beside me. “It’s the real Charlie and the real Susan!” He seemed tickled by this collision between the characters in the movie and their real-life counterparts, and insisted that the crew take note. (Kaufman and I, who had never met before that moment, slunk away sheepishly.)

Where was the rager, the explosive madman who years later would inspire a viral supercut on YouTube of the climactic outbursts that marked such films as “Moonstruck” and “Face/Off” and “Vampire’s Kiss”? From what I can tell, Cage leaves it all on the set. In person, he’s courtly, gentle, careful with his words, reflective, and quick to be silly. The yawning divide between his performances and his personality is deliberate: having appeared in more than a hundred films since he began acting as a teen-ager, he counts on this separation to keep him sane, and to permit him a bit of mystery. We spoke recently at the Forge L.A. while his latest project, “Longlegs,” a horror movie directed by Oz Perkins, was being readied for its release in theatres on July 12th. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You asked me how I came up with ideas. “The Orchid Thief,” for example, was an accidental notice of a little newspaper article. I thought, Why would people steal orchids? Why wouldn’t they just go to Home Depot and buy them? I didn’t know people collected orchids. So, the less I know about something, the more interested I am.

I feel the danger in what we’re doing is that you’re going to know more about me. I’m always trying to keep it enigmatic and a little bit mysterious. So, it’s a bit of a tap dance. Familiarity breeds contempt, and I don’t want people to know too much. I want to stay a little aloof.

From the little I know you—admittedly little—I feel like the public persona is very much at odds with what you’re really like. I mean, people expect you to be a madman. Is that partly intentional?

Yes, it was all by design.

Because you’re almost scholarly, you know? You have a very mellow, thoughtful manner.

True. I’m attracted to things that are different. I think of film performance almost musically. And I want to make different kinds of sounds and put it in my music. It can be totally eclectic. It can be Stockhausen, or it can be punk rock, or whatever it is. And I’m not afraid to use repetition or copy another actor to get a sound that I’m looking for. That, to me, is more approaching it from a composition or a musical standpoint: “There’s a sound that that actor had that I think would work for this character.” But for some reason the explosive, more operatic crescendos in the performances have made people think that’s who I am.

I love that way of thinking of acting, because it is so tonal, more than academic.

Well, you know, acting has gone through phases of what is considered great. And it’s been around for a long time. Somewhere along the way we got obsessed with the nineteen-seventies naturalism style of film performance, which is good. Look at Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver” or Jon Voight in “Midnight Cowboy”—it’s great. But that’s not all acting can be. It can go even further back to the Billy Wilder movies and the kind of repartee that these actors had, like Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney. That’s something I’m curious to bring back. To me, it’s all different styles. And why not try a little bit of everything? Why get stuck?

I found your appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show.” Was that your first television interview?

With Miles Davis?


He was so interesting, Miles. I thought, O.K., I’ll bring a trumpet on. Maybe he’ll give me a trumpet lesson. He was, like, [does a rasping impression of Miles Davis] “You be careful with that instrument!” ’Cause it fell on the back of the chair, and I couldn’t get a sound out of it. I was completely mortified. But he was looking at me in my suit. He said, “Where’s your leather jacket?” I said, “I’m sorry, what, sir?” “Where’s your leather jacket? Did you learn nothing from Dennis?” “Dennis?” “Hopper!” And I thought, What a character! What a sound! And I did a little supporting role in a movie [“The Gunslingers”] recently—Stephen Dorff is the star. But I did it just because I wanted to try to bring that sound, that [does the voice again] Miles Davis sound.

Do you sometimes take a part just because it’s going to be fun to try?

Absolutely. That’s exactly the reason. I’d rather do that than a TV commercial. I mean, I hope I don’t have to do a TV commercial. I’ve done them in the past, a long time ago, but I don’t want to do them again. I’d rather do a supporting part for a couple of days in a movie and, you know, pay the bills, but also play with it.

I was bringing up “Dick Cavett” because at the time you said, “Hey, we’re going into the nineties now”—which is so weird, because that feels like yesterday—but you said, “I think we’re going to see new things in acting.” Did we?

Yeah. Well, I tried to do something new with it. I was a big believer in art synchronicity—that what you can do in one art form, you can do in another. So, if you want to be a Surrealist painter or a Surrealist musician, how can you be a Surrealist film actor? There has to be an engine to it that makes it land with the audience so they feel like there’s a connection. It has to be genuine—something that they can either be afraid of or laugh with or cry with—but you cannot limit yourself. What I think I was saying is “Try different styles.” And Miles responded to that, I think, because that’s what he was doing.

Do you see other actors doing new things now? Are you enthusiastic about what’s going on in film?

I think that there have been remarkable performances. I don’t know if it’s new, per se, or a kind of recycling or return to an older style where people are less afraid to express themselves in a larger format. They’re breaking free from “if it’s quiet and minimal, it’s great.” They can liberate themselves and use their voices and gesture and go bigger. I’ve seen it in different actors—for me, Cate Blanchett certainly reminds me of the Golden Age vanguard style of film performance as well.

Yeah, she’s amazing. What are you reading or watching these days?

Well, the reading is not where it should be. I’ve been very immersed in raising my daughter.

How old is she?

She’s going to be two in September.

Oh, my God!

So sleep is gone, and really what I’m trying to do is read my dialogue and memorize it. But the books that I gravitate toward are more books that I feel I know what I’m getting in terms of the translation, or there is no translation. It’s usually in English, so I’m not worried about them corrupting the words of choice of the author. I have gone back to Hermann Hesse. I finished “Magister Ludi.” That was hard to get through. [Laughs.] That was the last book I read.

What are you like as a parent? You have older children . . .

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