Few American actors swing for the fences with the gusto of Nicolas Cage. Over 20 years after his Oscar-winning turn in “Leaving Las Vegas,” Cage has cycled through more career phases than most actors endure in a lifetime.
He’s anchored franchises (“National Treasure”) and character studies (“Matchstick Men,” “The Weather Man”), voiced animated movies (“The Ant Bully,” “The Croods”), and explored a whole lot of wild action (“Kick-Ass,” “Drive Angry”). Then there’s the auteur collaborations with the likes of Brian De Palma (“Snake Eyes”) and Werner Herzog (“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”).
But there may be no better example of Cage’s range than his unhinged turn in Paul Schrader’s “Dog Eat Dog,” which just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution. The film finds Cage playing Troy, one-third of a deranged criminal trio that also includes Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe), and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook).
Fresh out of prison, Troy winds up leading an ill-fated attempt to kidnap a baby for ransom, feuding with his companions along the way, and ultimately facing down hordes of police. Schrader’s stylized approach, cribbed from Edward Bunker’s novel, shifts tone from scene to scene — and Cage follows suit, playing a straightforward thug, then a collected schemer, and finally unleashing his best Humphrey Bogart impersonation.
This uncompromising approach is quite different than Cage’s experience in his previous Schrader collaboration, police drama “The Dying of the Light.” Both actor and director disowned the film after the financier recut it for release.
That experience, among others, has led the actor to speak candidly about the challenges of finding projects that liberate him to try new things.
“The thing that has happened a lot in recent years, I’ve noticed, is that the filmmaking process has been hijacked by the money people,” Cage said after the “Dog Eat Dog” premiere in Cannes, where he sat down with Dafoe at the Majestic Hotel for a round of interviews. “The financiers and the producers have a certain box they want to check: ‘We need another action set piece.’ They change the script during production and they make it fit where they can get more money in places like Cannes. That can happen on a small movie as much as it can happen on a big movie.”
It didn’t happen on “Dog Eat Dog,” Cage added, “because Paul had final cut. There were less cooks in the kitchen. He had the reins and let us play. Acting is like putting puzzle pieces together… you build that puzzle.”
Dafoe agreed, emphasizing the need for actors to feel in tune with their characters on set. “Sounds a little dry, but it isn’t,” he said. “You’re not trying to sell anything. You’re trying to live a life. And that’s a big difference. You always adjust your process because your job is different and your function is different. But one thing that remains the same is that you find a way to make it engage you so you can bring all your energy to it and be transformed.”
How do these actors find those opportunities? For Cage, it’s been a process of shifting between newcomers and veterans.
“I went through a phase where I wanted to partake of really young filmmakers who I thought were breaking out, because I thought there’d be an enthusiasm there,” he said, noting his recent collaboration with sibling directors Alex and Benjamin Brewer, whose “The Trust” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival this year. “But I want to mix it up, work with veterans like Paul and Werner [Herzog], as well as people who haven’t had their dreams whipped out of them yet. I’m always looking for who I think has verve and style.”
He’s grown increasingly picky and director-focused in his upcoming projects — which include collaborations with Oliver Stone and Mario Van Peebles — and with good reason. “A film actor’s life is a freelancer’s life,” he said. “We don’t have the luxury of going nine to five with the devil you know every day, knowing how to work with that boss or this colleague. You can sign on for your movie and your director can be someone who’s horrible to work with or someone who’s great to work with. Your co-stars might be people who really piss you off. You never know what group you’re going to get. I like to work with people I think I can do good work with.”
Hence his need to juggle diverse projects. “You have to change it up every time and see how you’re going to fit with this group,” he said. “That keeps you on your toes.”