Nicolas Cage talks 'Bad Lieutenant'

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There’s barely a moment in Werner Herzog’s spin on 'Bad Lieutenant' when Nicolas Cage's troubled cop isn’t snorting coke or smoking crack. He talks to Time Out about this insane leading role

Nicolas Cage has a reputation for on-screen excess: the likes of ‘Wild at Heart’, ‘Con Air’ and the notorious remake of ‘The Wicker Man’ have established him as a bug-eyed maverick guaranteed to go overboard whenever possible. But none of those performances come close to the sheer, manic hysteria 46-year-old Cage displays in his latest movie, Werner Herzog’s wild, wonderful cops ’n’ crooks ’n’ cocaine thriller ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’ – a loose spin on Abel Ferrara’s 1992 original.

Is it true you were under the influence of medical cocaine when you first read the script?

‘It was one of those marvellous examples of synchronicity. I don’t do drugs. I may have had a couple of lost weekends 25 years ago, but I haven’t done drugs in a very long time, I’m quite against them. But I had a massive sinus infection while I was filming “Knowing” in Australia, and I had just gotten the script to “Bad Lieutenant”. I didn’t know how I was going to play the part, because I was stone-cold sober. I went to the doctor and I was shocked to find out that they still use a tiny percentage of cocaine in a saline solution to open your sinus so that the doctor can go in and use a little camera to see what’s going on. It’s standard procedure in Australia.

‘So I took it as an opportunity to go back to my room, start writing notes and see if I could recall anything that would help me. And I did notice that if I opened myself to it, I recalled certain sensations, behaviourisms, swallowing, dry mouth, feelings of invincibility and sexuality and all that stuff. I made notes and then I started rehearsing the scenes. It was a strange little gift in the most odd way.’

Did you know from the start that Werner Herzog would be involved?
‘That was why I wanted to make the movie. I love Werner’s work, having grown up watching it and knowing that my father thought he was the greatest director in the world, having memories of watching Klaus Kinski in “Aguirre, Wrath of God”. I wanted to find a way I could enjoy the relationship that Werner had with Kinski, but in such a way that it wasn’t so frustrating for Werner. I felt he would respond to that manic volatility, that kind of intensity on camera, after seeing where he went with Kinski.’

Did you have a creative partnership? Was there a lot of improvisation?
‘There was quite a bit. We were in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, and my understanding of jazz, as I would try to explain to Werner, was that you’re aligned so well, you know your notes so well, that you start riffing on top of them. You improvise. You free associate.’

Was there an intense mood on set?
‘Yes and no. There was an intensity because we had to get so much done very quickly. But it went smoothly and
I enjoy myself when I’m playing a character that’s kinda whacked out.’

Was this character an attempt to see how far you can push yourself and still be truthful?
‘I thought: Well, I have a licence here because the character is fuelled on a multitude of different substances. When you have a chance to go for it, to take it to the extremes, I say do it because those opportunities don’t come up very often.’

How did you approach playing someone so off their head on drugs?
‘Well, I wanted to make a physical statement, because I didn’t want to glamourise the drugs. Werner told me this movie was about the bliss of evil. He was right to look at it that way because audiences enjoy seeing someone doing things that they think about doing but they know they shouldn’t do. But at the same time I didn’t want people to go: “Oh, that looks fun, I’m gonna go snort blow right now.” I wanted them to say, “This guy looks like Richard III, he’s degenerating.” There wasn’t any desire on my part to advertise drugs.’

Do you see it as a moral film?
‘No, I see it as an existential film. There’s no rhyme or reason: this man is doing everything wrong and yet he still gets rewarded. Whereas in Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant”, the character suffers from Judeo-Christian guilt and finds redemption, in this one, my character simply is, and things just happen around him. Not because he’s being punished.’

You’ll be starring in five movies released in the UK this year. Do you have a powerful work ethic?
‘Necessity is the mother of invention. I felt I needed to work, I felt I needed to do good work and be as creative as I could be in that process. On “Kick-Ass”, originally I was there for another part, but I didn’t want to play Frank D’Amico, Mark Strong’s part, because it wasn’t somewhere I felt I could get to. But with Damon Macready, I thought I might be able to come up with something in my imagination, where you could see a counterpoint between a very knowing, nerdish father and a complete badass.’

Read our review of 'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

Author: Interview: Tom Huddleston



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