Back in 2010, in a Career Watch column on Nic Cage, I wrote: “A solid marquee draw in the right project, cash-strapped Nic Cage, 46, is taking on too many roles, increasing the odds that he’ll pick weak vehicles and make audiences forget what a daring and gifted actor he is. After 60 movies, he’s starting to repeat himself.”
Four years later, Cage seems to have figured this out. He pulled back from taking on so many roles, moved to Las Vegas with his family, and focused on finding just the right part. Thankfully, he found a way to return to naturalism with David Gordon Green’s hardscrabble drama “Joe” (Roadside Attractions, April 11), in which Cage gives his most contained and best performance since his drug-addicted out-of-control police lieutenant in Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.” “I realize people have to make a story about my comeback or return to form, but I’m still the same actor in every movie,” he tells me in a telephone interview. “It’s true. Everything I do– whether comedies, adventure films, dramas, or indie-spirited movies– are still the same actor, from a different POV, trying to invent himself. Don’t judge a book by its cover.” (See “Joe” trailer and YouTube Cage medley below.)
In “Joe,” Cage plays a decent, hard-driving southern ex-con trying to keep a handle on his anger issues. He can explode at any time. He hires and mentors a young teen (“Mud”‘s Tye Sheridan) who is coping with an abusive drunk father (non-pro Gary Poulter) but doesn’t want to leave his family behind. Can these guys overcome their parents’ legacy?
“I had taken a year off,” says Cage. “I wanted to put the mistakes I’d made in the past into a character. I wanted to make a movie with a filmmaker who has an original voice. When I read the script I knew I could connect with the dialogue and understood that man. I wanted to do a quiet dogma style of film performance, designing it not so much from the outside in, filling it with emotion, but just being, to take my experience and the wisdom of my mistakes and infuse the vessel with the character of Joe. I wanted to be, and not experiment with performance. ‘Joe’ maybe reminded me that I can still do this. My other work like ‘Spirit of Vengeance’ is in a different style.”
He liked working with Green, but had never before worked opposite a non-professional actor like Gary Poulter, who Green met at a bus stop and auditioned. He’s scary-excellent as the abusive drunk father. “He was on time, on point,” says Cage. “He knew his dialogue, he showed up every day. He was also a street performer who did breakdancing and could recite Alice Cooper’s ‘Welcome to my Nightmare’ monologue to a T. Because of his looks and charisma, he reminded me of Richard Farnsworth. He could have played well in a Civil War drama or as a captain or western cowboy. I told him if he could just keep it together for one year the phone would start ringing. He looked at me with his sad blue eyes: ‘Really?’ ‘Yeah man.’ After we shot the film, a few months later he passed away. He drowned. I was upset.”
The low-key, slow-paced, small-scale “Joe,” in which Cage does his own stunts, including picking up a live and poisonous cottonmouth, is a far cry from his long spate of formula action flicks. For an actor who says he approaches acting like jazz, Cage has starred in far too many Jerry Bruckheimer pictures with the same plot — “The Rock,” “Con Air,” and “Gone in 60 Seconds” all blur into one another so much that critics have accused Cage of making the same movie over and over again. Familiar markers: t-shirt, stringy hair, racing against time to seek truth, multiple explosions and a flashlight. And who can distinguish between “The Weather Man,” “Family Man,” “Knowing” and “Next”?
In a typical year Cage can knock out four movies in a range of genres, such as Dominic Senna’s period horror B-flick “Season of the Witch,” action-thriller “Drive Angry 3D,” Joel Schumacher’s action thriller “Trespass” opposite Nicole Kidman, and DreamWorks Animation’s Oscar-nominated “The Croods.”
“It’s no secret that I have been trying to break the format of film performance,” Cage says, “with its obsession with naturalism, by approaching it with the philosophy of art synthesis–what you can do in one art form you can do another– like punk rock in music, you can get that in a film performance, or abstract or surreal art in film. I’ve been trying to experiment with that. If you want to design something that’s big or baroque you can get there as long as it has emotional content. You have to do it in contemporary cinema where there’s a mechanism that the audience can understand–like the Bad Lieutenant is on crack, that gave me license to get more jazz or abstract. The ‘Ghost Rider’ character sold his soul to the devil: he can scream with his head in flames. But I had realized those dreams of mine. The point is I’ve done that, I know what to do.”
From the start, Cage fearlessly tested his mettle in a wide range of projects, from his uncle Francis’s “Rumble Fish,” “The Cotton Club” and “Peggy Sue Got Married” (Cage changed his name from Coppola) to the Coen brothers’ zany comedy “Raising Arizona” and Norman Jewison’s romance “Moonstruck,” opposite Oscar-winner Cher. The youthful Cage made an endearing goofy leading man who was willing to take chances, eating cockroaches in “Vampire’s Kiss” and sporting a snakeskin jacket as he channeled Elvis in David Lynch’s Cannes-winner “Wild at Heart.” After holding his own opposite John Travolta in John Woo’s demanding character/actioner “Face/Off,” Cage reteamed with Woo on the ill-fated World War II actioner “Windtalkers.”
Cage won the Oscar for his all-out performance as an alcoholic who drinks himself to death in Mike Figgis’s “Leaving Las Vegas.” He was also nominated for his dual role as twin brothers (aspects of the film’s screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman) in Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation.” (He rejoined Kaufman on the upcoming “Frank or Francis.”)
“I can tell you there have been times when I have had to make money,” he says, “and to survive to put out fires. But within that context I was always looking for scripts where I know I can do my job in one way or the other. Is every scene great, what you want, or memorable? I give 100%. But it can’t always work out that way, often the way it’s edited, or the music, or other actors aren’t on point. I shoot for the best, maybe it’s only two memorable scenes that come out of it, in the true sense. That’s happened. But that makes it worthwhile. I’m a working dog, I have no problem with that. I’m a hard worker. That’s someone to behold, not something to apologize for. I’m at my best when I’m working. It doesn’t mean I cable it in, or roll over. I work through problems, when I have a job to do. It keeps me disciplined. I’m proud of the other movies too. Those ‘National Treasure’ movies make a lot of people happy. I like making people happy.”
Would he work with Werner Herzog again? “Absolutely, Werner is magnificent. I had a great experience working with him in New Orleans. I’m always looking for something hopefully to get with him on.”
Cage doesn’t buy the idea that he’s fallen on hard times as an actor. “I need to make something clear,” Cage says with some irritation. “In my filmography there’s always one movie like ‘Bad Lieutenant’ or ‘Matchstick Men’ or ‘World Trade Center’ that are adventurous films. I am proud of always trying to keep it eclectic. I was trying to be indie-spirited with ‘Ghost Rider,’ ‘Face-Off,’ ‘Vampire’s Kiss.” You can see the stuff I developed on ‘Vampire’s Kiss’ put into ‘Face-Off.’ You can be indie-spirited in a big movie. I have never been a snob. I believe in trying everything…
“I agree with Elia Kazan: talent never dies. It can be discouraged, but it never dies. I have no regrets. I like to work and to have opportunities. I see myself as a student. I take that path, looking to learn and try new things. I never refer to myself as a maestro or master. I’m not going for grades, I’m going for an education.”