Don't call it a comeback; Nicolas Cage has been here for years. We've watched him do his time in blockbuster franchises and superhero movies (the National Treasure and Ghost Rider movies), heard his characteristic drawl show up in animated features (Astro Boy, The Croons) and giggled as he enlivened everything from nutso indies (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans) to cable-ready action flicks (Drive Angry). But amidst all the over-the-top mugging, the big-budget frippery and the supercuts of Cage losing his shit, we've missed the other guy—the Nic Cage who wasn't a force of nature but an actor.
That's the Cage that shows up in Joe, David Gordon Green's Southern-Gothic character study about a deforestation-crew foreman and a troubled young man (The Tree of Life's Tye Sheridan) he takes under his wings. The titular antihero has his flaws—he's a functional alcoholic with serious anger-management issues—but thanks to Cage's performance, there's a palpable sense of humanity lurking beneath Joe's weary, rough-edged machismo. TONY talked to the star shortly after the film's Toronto International Film Festival premiere.
Time Out New York: What drew you to this? Was there a desire to do something on a more modest scale?
Nicolas Cage: I'd taken a year off and wanted to be very selective as to what my next role would be. I'd done a series of movies where I was experimenting with a kind of operatic performance style; I wanted to push, or even break, the boundaries of naturalism in film acting. You know, how far can I take this character outside of the box?
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Time Out New York: But you've done that throughout your career, haven't you? There's been a certain larger-than-life Expressionism that goes back to your earliest performances.
Nicolas Cage: Sure, but if you look at something like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, I mean…there's big and there's gigantic. I wanted to see where that second option would take me. But after having chased that goal for a good ten years or so, I felt it was time to tether it in a little. Okay, I've done this, but can I take things back to a more quiet, nakedly emotional place? I know that I can put things on top of a performance—but can I take things off it, and just let this character be?
Time Out New York: And this role let you do that?
Nicolas Cage: The minute I read the character, I thought: I really don't need to act this. By which I mean, Act with a capital A. I felt like there was enough life experience I'd acquired that I had something to bring here without bells and whistles.
Time Out New York: Given that this guy is a human car wreck, it's a little disturbing to hear you say that.
Nicolas Cage: Well, without getting too personal….[Pause] Joe is still functional. He still gets up every morning and gets his crew together. He lives by a code, but he's got a temper and he's constantly trying to restrain himself from losing it. I've gone through a number of changes over the past decade, and a lot has happened to me. I didn't really have to program my mind to be in the headspace that Joe is in. It was easy for me to draw on personal stuff to play him in an honest fashion.
Time Out New York: This was all stuff you talked about with David Gordon Green, I imagine?
Nicolas Cage: Yeah, I wanted to be really upfront about everything with him. I told him I really believed we should make this movie, I was ultra-serious about playing the part and that no matter how it long it would take—and it took a while—I'd give him what he would need. So once everything came together, I started telling him a lot of private stuff that I'd gone through over the past ten years, and that ended up working its way into the performance, the dialogue—even the props. The lighter thing was something I brought in, actually.
Time Out New York: It's an interesting piece of business, that lighter.
Nicolas Cage: I had this idea that Joe would be the kind of guy who'd spend more money on his lighter than he would on his truck or his house. And the fact that he treated this lighter as part of his mating call, and then would tell a 15-year-old kid that a fancy lighter is the best way to attract women….[Laughs]. I mean, it just made the character that much more beautifully pathetic to me.
Time Out New York: You mentioned the notion of "stripping things down" earlier, and obviously, there's a public perception of you that is associated with being very large onscreen…did that somehow play into taking a more back-to-basics approach overall?
Nicolas Cage: Let me answer the question this way: Acting is like any other art form, in that you have the option to go very big or go very small. I consciously went after areas that were surreal, or abstract, or in several cases, just straight-up huge. But just because I decide to read a line from, say Spirit of Vengeance like [Screams] "Scraaaap-ing aaaaat the dooooor!" in this almost heavy-metal-singer kind of way doesn't mean there's no emotional content there. To me, that is acting.
People have said my performances are over-the-top, and I take umbrage with that term, because that implies that I'm simply out-of-control. The truth is, it's a style I've gone after by design. I've actively sought out characters that would support me shooting for the stratosphere. A guy who sells his soul to the devil and then his head bursts into flames…you can go operatic with that! A cop who's high on crack and wandering around New Orleans…you can go operatic with that! There still has to be an organic reason, whether it's a comic-book sense of the fantastic or not, to do something on that sort of Kabuki level. For Joe, though, I didn't want to act at all. I just wanted to be.
Time Out New York: Yet you manage to find both comedy and a sympathetic center in these flawed people, wouldn’t you say?
Nicolas Cage: It’s easier with this role, because Eva is a much nicer person than some of the other characters I’ve played. The nicest people can make mistakes. I’m counting myself in there: I’d like to think I’m a good person—and I screw up all the time. [Laughs] So I see where she's coming from. I find a lot of things funny, but I love it when I get to play humiliation and awkwardness. That really is just the best when you’re a comedian.
Time Out New York: There seems to be a need to pigeonhole actors into one type of role or one type of style of acting.
Nicolas Cage: Yes! And it's really frustrating. Look, I love Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. I love Hammer horror films and those old Roger Corman adaptations of Poe stories. I realize that the type of acting you see in those films isn't particularly popular today, but there was a long period where I felt, that's what I want to do!
But you get dinged for that. You get dinged for wanting to do a comedy, then wanting to do a big-budget action film, and then wanting to do an indie. But you can't let other people trying to label you get in the way of trying to do something artistically. Whether you think some of my movies are artistic or not is something else entirely. I go into everything with the same notion of staying true to my impulses and seeing where this can go.
I think that's why I connected with David so much. He's made some commercial movies, but this is a guy who is all about following his impulses. He's not a guy who gets sidetracked by things like fame and money and the sort of stuff that comes up around trophy season. He's just someone who wants to make a good movie, and who knows how to keep things under a certain budget so he can do that, with the same crew he's been using for ages. You have to wait a long time for those people to come to you, but it's worth the wait when they do.
Time Out New York: Do you think you could have played Joe ten years ago?
Nicolas Cage: [Long pause] No. It took the last ten years to get to that part. So not this way, no.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear