Thousands descended on downtown Austin last week for the return of a beloved festival, but nobody was having a better SXSW than Nicolas Cage. The actor came to town just long enough to bathe in a hero’s welcome: He starred in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” playing a fictionalized version of himself coming to grips with his rocky career, which received such extensive applause throughout its premiere at the Paramount Theater that it may as well have been a rock concert.
One Cage obsessive posted flyers around town begging the actor to call him, which he eventually did. Lionsgate paid a trio of performers to dress up in oversized Nicolas Cage costumes, and hosted a late-night after-party for the movie where his face was adorned on colorful sequin pillows. During the Q&A, festival director Janet Pierson awarded Cage with a rodeo champion belt dubbed the “40 Years of Massive Talent” award.
And by Sunday, Cage had returned to his happy place, on set, resuming production on the Dracula spin-off “Reinfeld” — the latest project sure to lean into the eccentric swings of an actor who seems more willing to embrace the extremes of his performative energy than ever before. But something has shifted: With the one-two punch of “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” and last year’s revered genre-bender “Pig,” Cage seems to be in the midst of a career renaissance that steps away from his recent years of VOD muck with more substantial efforts that build on their 21st-century appeal.
“You may have noticed I’ve been trying to get back to my dramatic roots,” he said during the Paramount Q&A, though with Cage, that concept has different connotations. “Massive Talent” is less drama than humorous meditation on Cage’s dramatic propensity to overact, and turn that impulse to a gonzo art form that has been recently embraced by younger generations. He eventually accepted the self-reflective gig after much uncertainty. “It scared the crap out of me, so I had to do it,” he said.
Promoting “Massive Talent” provided a welcome opportunity for Cage to wax poetic on the latest phase of appreciation for his skills, a millennial-driven blend of irony and sincere appreciation unique to the present moment. “James Dean and Marlon Brando did not have this audience that exploded with the advent of the internet and the memeification as a result of that,” Cage said in an interview with IndieWire shortly before his premiere. “This is something that is very much a part of our worldwide culture and it’s something that’s not going away.”
He learned to embrace everything from the concept of “Cage Rage” to the “You Don’t Say” GIF from “Vampire’s Kiss,” the ultimate illustration of his kabuki-like inclinations. “It is a new audience that has rediscovered some of the facial expressions and attitudes of the characters I’ve played,” he said. “As over the top as some people want to call it, it’s genuinely filled with true emotion, which is important to me. I’m hopeful that these mashups like Cage Rage or ‘not the bees’ or whatever they’re having fun with inspires the millennial or the Z generations to go and look at the movies that got them there. I’m playing with their creation, this Frankenstein’s monster of internet meme culture. They built that, so why not have fun with it?”
The surprise of “Massive Talent” is that it goes beyond the meta conceit to actually function as an endearing and thoughtful buddy movie. Lionsgate produced the $30 million project as a theatrical release with an April release date, marking the unique occasion of a theatrical event movie designed to capitalize on a VOD phenomenon. Shepherded along in part by “Euphoria” producer Kevin Turen with the full weight of a studio marketing engine behind it, the movie is the first bonafide commercial release to center on the actor in years. However that gamble plays off, Cage wins.
Cage has passed on meta opportunities before, including the long-gestating “Action #1” project about the 2000 incident when his multimillion-dollar comic book collection was stolen from his Bel-Air home. “That version of Nic Cage, to me, was very obviously a real caricature and exploitational, so I said no to that,” Cage said. “I do feel that the work I’ve done has been sincere even though not all the movies have worked as a whole.”
Directed by Tom Gormican (“That Awkward Moment”) and co-written by Kevin Etten, “Massive Talent” finds the depressed actor incapable of scoring the roles that appeal most to him (he makes a desperate, failed pitch to David Gordon Green in an early scene). On a lark, he accepts an opportunity from a wealthy screenwriter in Spain (Pedro Pascal) to spend the weekend at his palatial Mallorca home to brainstorm about a screenplay.
In the process, he bonds with the superfan and gets drawn into an outrageous espionage plot that makes the meta components of “Adaptation” look meek. The story also finds Cage interacting with “Nicky,” a de-aged CGI version of Cage from his wild early days who implores him to embrace his zanier instincts, and references galore to every phase of his career.
Cage passed on the offer several times, expressing concerns that the movie would merely parody his career. “Then I got a letter from Tom, a smart letter, a well-written letter,” Cage said. “He went on about some of the early work and his genuine enthusiasm as a cinephile of sorts, a film enthusiast with movies like ‘Leaving Las Vegas,’ and ‘Face/Off.’ He was somebody that seemed to be coming from a genuine place in terms of the early work.”
But Cage was eager to address the later work as well, that flurry of VOD paycheck gigs that dominated the last decade as he worked his way out of debt. “I started making movies that were streaming before it was cool,” he said. “I knew they would have a life. I could find these scenes I wanted to play, not unlike a rock album where maybe most of it is crap but you’ve got one song you want to sing. I could find one or two good scenes in these scripts that I was proud of and I stand by that. I do feel that the work I’ve done has been sincere even though not all the movies have worked as a whole.”
It was his idea to include a reference to the much-parodied “not the bees” moment from the 2006 remake of “The Wicker Man,” a movie that sounds as though it might have been even crazier if Cage had any say in the famed “not the bees” moment.
“I know people had fun with that even if they thought the comedy was not intentional,” he said. “I’m going on record right now: That is not a fact. Neil and I both knew how funny it was. It probably would’ve been more clear how funny it was if [producer] Avi Lerner let me have the handlebar mustache that I wanted to wear and be burned in the bear suit. That would’ve been so horrifying, but they didn’t go for that because all the comedy would’ve emerged from this horror. But Ari Aster did it brilliantly in ‘Midsommar.’ That was terrifying, but they didn’t have the vision that Neil and I had for it.”
Such are the joys of a Cage interview, a plethora of self-awareness doused with a genuine love for the medium. “If you want to talk movies, I’ll talk with anybody,” said Cage, whose adoration for “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is so extreme it became a recurring plot device in his new movie. (Gormican even shot a series of “Caligari”-inspired black-and-white sequences riffing on earlier Cage movies that the actor can’t stop talking about and said he hoped would wind up as a special DVD feature.)
“I always designed my performances with the cinematic dream of getting back to silent film performance in general and German Expressionism performance in particular,” Cage said. “But for it to work with modern audiences it has to be emotionally authentic as well.”
That was especially true with “Pig,” in which he played a somber ex-chef in search of his missing pig, at the center of a movie that turned out to be less “John Wick” than a poignant meditation on alienation and loss. Cage made the rare effort to campaign for an Oscar on the movie at the behest of distributor NEON, and sounded content with the experience even though he didn’t make the cut.
“I don’t normally go and do the things like campaigning, but ‘Pig’ is one of two movies that I’ve made in 43 years that really was like lightning in a bottle, where the people you’re working with, everything is just flowing in a way where the ship is sailing and the wind is blowing from a place that you don’t know,” he said. “The other one was ‘Leaving Las Vegas.’”
He singled out NEON executive Tom Quinn for pushing the performance on the Academy. “He’s like the anti-Harvey Weinstein,” Cage said. “I mean, he’s genuinely interested in film performance. When he took a part to it, he was advocating for a campaign because he simply loves film performance.” Cage also saw it as an opportunity to keep “Pig” in the public eye as it made its way from theaters to Hulu, where — per usual with Cage — it became a genuine VOD hit.
“When I saw the movie, initially I thought it would antithetical to the character for me to campaign,” he said. “But these people were a joy to work with. The movie came out in July and it didn’t get any love from the film festivals. [Cannes head] Thierry Fremaux said no, so I was like, ‘Let’s give this movie a little bit of attention so people may discover it because I think it’s worthy of that.’”
When he was left out of the Best Actor category, he shrugged it off. “I never expected a nomination. The movie has already told a story and that’s why we’re in this business,” he said. “It became almost like a folk song, especially with what we were all going through coming out of feelings of isolation with the quarantine. So the movie already achieved what it was trying to achieve.”
There is one recent Cage undertaking that won’t get that far. Last year, Cage was attached to play Joe Exotic for an Amazon miniseries riffing on the enthusiasm for “Tiger King.” He wasn’t expecting to return to that opportunity, which would’ve marked his first major TV role.
“People were fascinated by the show on Netflix during the pandemic, but I think Amazon felt that it’s no longer relevant, and I’m actually in accord with that,” Cage said. “I’m still predominantly interested in what I can do with movies, whether they’re streamed or in the cinema. I like the finite aspect of two hours or so. But I don’t know that I ever really wanted to be trapped in one place for six months to a year with a group of people who I may or may not want to get in step with. That seems like a pretty daunting task. I like that I can get in and out with movies and explore different places.”
Never say never. “One of my other mandates is that the very thing you’re afraid of, as long as it’s not hurting somebody else, is probably the very thing you should go toward,” Cage said.
Nearing the end of the interview, the conversation turned back to the main object of adoration for the actor. “I’m that kind of film enthusiast where if you’ve got ideas for movies or recommendations,” he said, as he Googled a Mondo poster for “Dr. Caligari” that came up in conversation.
“If I can get at least one or two scenes that linger in your imagination I’ve done my job,” he said of his own work. “That’s why I’m able to find things in movies that perhaps to other actors might be considered not appropriate to one’s career trajectory. That doesn’t bother me, because I like to work.”
“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” opens theatrically on Friday, April 22.