In introducing his “Joe” star Nicolas Cage to the stage at a SXSW panel held in the actor’s honor, director David Grodon Green called the Oscar-winner a “mysterious and magical man.” His words couldn’t have been more apt. Over the course of the hour-long “fireside chit-chat” (per Green), the idiosyncratic icon did not disappoint, answering every question posed by Green and his well-prepared fanbase in attendance with a mix of gusto and humility. He even at one point offered to buy a fan a flight home after learning that she had missed hers to make his talk.
The highlights gleaned from the conversation are a must-read for any Cage fan. Below he talks about a crazy day out with old bud Johnny Depp, reveals what his two favorite roles are (the answer is sure to surprise you), explains why it “sucks to be famous right now,” and much, much more.
Why he changed his name from Coppola to Cage.
Before making the 1983 romantic comedy “Valley Girl,” Cage went by his born name, Nicolas Coppola (his uncle is Francis Ford Coppola). “I’m proud of my family name,” Cage explained, “but it was a bit of a weight. When I went into casting offices, they’d talk about Francis’ illustrious career and by the time we came to the audition, I’d have forgotten all of my lines.”
After first watching “Valley Girl,” he never thought he’d make it as an actor.
Cage admitted to being a “nervous wreck” at the film’s premiere. “There were beads of sweat coming down my forehead, like the ones of bourbon right now from last night,” he said. “I thought I was never going to make it as an actor. It was terrible.”
What Cage would likely be doing had he not stuck to acting.
Anything on the sea. “My first love was the ocean, and it still is,” Cage said.
Shooting action calms his nerves.
Talking about making action films with the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer (“The Rock”) and John Woo (“Face/Off”), Cage said the biggest takeaway from appearing in those spectacles was that he’d be a “good candidate for Adderall.” “If I do stunts, or I drink a lot of coffee, I calm down. I go the other way. My adrenaline goes in the wrong direction.”
He did something crazy with Johnny Depp years ago.
Back when he was just starting out, Cage said he and his close friend at the time, Johnny Depp, hit up the Beverly Center mall in Southern California, split a bottle of tequila, and dared each other to hang off a structure on the top floor of the building. Cage recounted that he held onto it longer than Depp, who wimped out.
Cage made “The Rock” because he didn’t want to get “comfortable.”
Following his Oscar-winning turn in “Leaving Las Vegas,” Cage surprised many by following the dark character study up in the Jerry Bruckheimer action blockbuster “The Rock.” “I didn’t want to get comfortable with any genre,” Cage explained. “It was clear to me that no one thought I could be in adventure films, but Jerry Bruckheimer did. That meant a lot to me. Before I discovered James Dean and Marlon Brando, I was watching films starring Sean Connery and Charles Bronson. I wanted to show my reverence for these men.”
Cage is always up for a challenge.
“I try to pick and choose my material based on what I can do to challenge myself and make myself uncomfortable,” Cage said, when asked how he goes about selecting his projects. “Always stay a student, never be a maestro.”
That’s why he made “Joe.”
“When I did ‘Joe,'” Cage said, “it was an opportunity for me to get what I call ‘naked’ as a film presence. It was time to not put things on top of a performance, but take things off — where I could take my life experience of the last years and find a script where I didn’t have to act. Where I could just be and not think too much about it. What was a great compliment was when my wife saw it with me in Venice and said, ‘That’s you.'”
He thinks it “sucks to be famous right now.” Here’s why:
“I started acting because I wanted to be James Dean,” Cage recalled. “I saw him in ‘Rebel Without a Cause,’ ‘East of Eden.’ Nothing affected me — no rock song, no classical music — the way Dean affected in ‘Eden.’ It blew my mind. I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ This was before everyone had a thing called a Smartphone, and before the advent of the ‘celebutard’ — just being famous for famous’ sake. I’m not complaining, but it really sucks to be famous right now.
“Now even the art of film criticism… now in the LA Times, the critic who reviewed ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,’ incorporated how many homes I bought or sold into the review. What the hell does Lindsay Lohan’s personal life have to do with her performance in ‘The Canyons’? It should always be about the work itself. What difference does it make if Bill Clinton had an affair — how does that affect his performance as President?
“In my opinion, I don’t want to see personal aspects of someone’s life eclipse the work itself.”
Cage’s advice to actors: “Put a frame on it.”
“If you’re doing something really extraordinary,” Cage said when asked to give advice to aspiring actors, “chances are you’ll be an original. That might scare some people in the casting office. They might not know what to do with that. What I would suggest it to put a frame on it. Tape your audition. Put your performance in a frame so they can see it, and then go into the office. But I would send the tape. If you are genuinely talented, you are to be doing things that are special. So put a frame on it.”
Cage loves using Facetime.
One of the more touching moments of the talk came when an audience member told Cage he had recently gotten hitched and needed advice on how to keep the fire alive, even when separated for long periods due to a grueling work schedule. “There is one aspect of technology that has been helpful,” Cage responded, “and that is Facetime. It’s been an enormous help with my eight-year-old and my wife. I would also try to work in some summer vacations.”
Cage is all about keeping it simple now.
“I’ve satisfied a certain need in my own head about performance style,” Cage said. “I think ‘Face/Off’ is the best example of that. I’m at this time wanting to get more ‘quietude,’ what Hemingway would call the taut fishing line. I wanted to have that simplicity again. I want to stay in that world a little longer. ‘Joe’ gave me the opportunity to explore that.”
How Cage taps into that rage he showcases in almost every performance.
“I just open myself up to the zeitgeist,” Cage said. “I think about what’s happening in the news, tap it in and get there.”
How Cage sees himself in film history.
“I think the jury’s still out,” Cage said. “I see myself as a student. I’ll hopefully do more seasoned kinds of performances as I get older. I don’t know what the final evaluation is going to be and I try to not think about it.”
He really loves science fiction.
Asked about his known love for the genre, Cage said, “There are two aspects to science fiction that I think are important. One is that it can provide an engine to get far out in terms of performance style. But the more significant one… ‘District 9′ is one my favorite movies. With science fiction, we get to make social comments. You can speak your mind as the people about what’s frustrating you. It’s a great way to be political in a way without getting people hurt.”
Cage initially didn’t want to do “Moonstruck.”
When asked about the making of “Moonstruck,” Cage admitted that he didn’t want to do what he deemed a “Hallmark movie” at first. As a deal to his agent for allowing him to make “Vampire’s Kiss,” Cage signed on for “Moonstruck” after Cher sought him out. “I don’t really know why she wanted in the movie,” he said. “She kept fighting for me. She saw me in ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ and said it was like watching a two-hour train wreck. It was pretty intimidating to be her leading man.”
Cage’s two favorite roles.
As Policeman Edward Malus in Neil LaBute’s critically reviled remake of “The Wicker Man,” and as a literary agent who gets bitten by a vampire in “Vampire’s Kiss.”
The film Cage wants to be remembered by.
“This one,” Cage said, meaning Green’s film, “Joe.” “This is the one I would like, because it has a little bit of everything in it. He [Green] understood me and my instrument. ‘Joe’ is the best showcase I have to offer.”
Cage’s advice to anyone going through a difficult patch.
Near the end of the panel, a woman who works for the publication Dazed and Confused opened up to Cage and the audience, saying that she went through a difficult period following a DUI incident last year in Austin. Relating it to Cage’s recent brush with the law in New Orleans, she asked Cage how he soldiers on. “The thing that I would say is you gotta be an alchemist,” Cage responded. “You gotta turn lead into gold, turn negative into positive. For me, I’m able to put my mistakes into my work. Because of my arrest, I was able to do some scenes in ‘Joe’ and mean it.”
“I’m certain you can do the same thing,” he told the woman. “Now you have that so-called mistake, but it’s also a life experience that’s going to deepen the way you receive people in the world. Don’t shit on yourself. I would be proud of yourself and do something positive.”
Nicolas Cage, spiritual leader.
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