In “Mandy,” Nicolas Cage sits at the center of a hypnotic cinematic experience that’s equal parts deranged revenge story and abstract study of grief. Director Panos Cosmatos’ follow-up to “Beyond the Black Rainbow” stars Cage as Red Miller, who lives an isolated existence in the wilderness until the demented cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) shows up and destroys Red’s life. The second half of the movie finds Cage taking on Red and his goons with a series of weapons — an ax and a chainsaw both get their due — while delivering a wild, kooky performance that ranks as one of his most memorable in ages.
Cage knows that most people will lump “Mandy” in with any number of the extreme, genre-based roles that he’s tackled over the years, but has long felt that these decisions reflect a cogent philosophy. In the following interview, he explained his frustrations with being reduced to an internet meme, and why he’s made peace with his status in the VOD marketplace.
You tend to play very unstable people, and as a result, sometimes people think you’re over the top. How do you feel about that characterization?
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I had made a decision a long time ago that I wasn’t only going to explore naturalistic acting. I would do that sometimes — like I did in “Joe” — but I also wanted to look at some of my other inspirations. I believed in art synchronicity, that what you can do in one art form, you can do in another. So if I wanted to be abstract, like imitating Edvard Munch’s “The Shout,” as I did in “Ghost Rider,” I could do that. If I wanted to be more operatic or Western kabuki, I could do it. And I’m not the first.
Ethan Hawke said he was obsessed with your performances, and compared them to the old troubadours.
He’s right. That made me feel good. They were exploring this kind of performance as well, and so were the classic film stars. Look at James Cagney in “White Heat,” when he says “Top of the world, ma!” Was that realistic? Hell no. Was it exciting and truthful? Hell yeah. Or Richard Burton in “Night of the Iguana,” or Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon.” The list goes on and on about these old troubadours who embraced a kind of charismatic and larger-than-size stylization. A grandeur, if you will.
How do you relate to all the internet memes out there?
The issue is, with the advent of the internet, doing these mashups, where they pull these choice moments without the context of the whole film around it to support it, has created this meme-ification, if you will. It’s been branded “Cage Rage,” and it’s frustrating. I’m sure it’s frustrating for Panos, who has made what I consider a very lyrical, internal, and poetic work of art, to have this “Cage Rage” thing slammed all over his movie. It’s one thing for me, because I’d like to think I could continue to work with Panos, but the internet has kind of done the movie a disservice.
Do you think that’s specific to this film or does it relate to other films you’ve done as well?
I think that the movie haven’t been given perhaps a fair viewing by virtue of the fact that the internet has mashed them up with these moments that have been cherry-picked, that aren’t really in the context of the character or how the character got there. I have to be honest. I did make certain choices to realize my abstract and more ontological fantasies with film performance, by playing people who were crazy, or by playing people who were on drugs, or supernaturally possessed — so that I have the license, if you will, to explore the German Expressionistic style of acting, or the Western kabuki. Whatever you want to call it.
I had to find some sort of engine to attach it to, so it could coalesce, and gel, in some way. I chose to play Peter Loew [in “Vampire’s Kiss”], the literary agent who was losing his mind, to think he was Nosferatu so I could channel some Max Schreck–like acting. I chose Terence in “Bad Lieutenant,” who was high on coke, to be able to use drugs — not literally — so I can add more James Cagney into it. There’s always some sort of a reason you can attach to it. It’s all very thought out and carefully planned.
How do you see the market for your work right now? You appear in so many films, but many of them go straight to VOD.
The thing is, like any other film actor, at first I took umbrage with the idea of video-on-demand because you want your movies to be on the big screen. And then I began to embrace it. It has quickly become the model and the format that is most watched. Nobody looks at video-on-demand numbers. People don’t actually understand how many people are tuning in and how much money these people are making. The only reason I’m still making movies is because the video-on-demand format has been very, very successful for me. People have noticed that in the industry who are putting movies together.
What it has provided me is an opportunity again and again to make movies that would normally not get made. Studios are primarily concerned with sequels and comic books, which is fine, but they’re not going to be making a movie like “Mandy.” Video-on-demand has provided filmmakers the chance to get edgy and challenging scripts made.
So how do you feel about people consuming most of your newer work at home?
I realized something: To take out the whole family, with the kids, the wife, the husband, is expensive. You have to buy the tickets, the popcorn, the candy. So we’re getting close to $100 for a night out. Very quickly you don’t spend that $100 and you wait it out for two months. You can buy a home-entertainment system that is going to blow your mind, and you’re going to watch movies in the comfort of your own home with your family there, and eat whatever you want to eat, drink whatever you want to drink. You can have a blast. That is where movies are going.
When I was a child in the seventies, I would run home from school to watch “Million Dollar Movie.” They had this tremendous music: “Tonight…da-da…on the Million Dollar Movie…Charles Bronson in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West!’ And it was thrilling, man. I would sit on my living room floor, tuned into my Zenith television, and I watched that Million Dollar Movie. For me, I feel like video-on-demand has enabled me to have that kind of relationship with my audience. They can go home and get together and check out any one of the movies that I have on Netflix, or on iTunes, or whatever, and they know that I’m going to give it my all and I’m not going to let them down. The movie may not entirely work, but they know that I’m going to throw down. I care. I care about my work and I care about my audience. I’ve come around full-circle and totally embraced video-on-demand.