“Hurt but not defeated.” That’s the direction filmmaker Martha Coolidge gave to her star Nicolas Cage as they shot the pivotal breakup scene in the ’80s classic “Valley Girl.” In a filmed conversation from 2003 between the two for the film’s twentieth anniversary, Cage told Coolidge that he has “used that direction ever since” in all of his work.
As the iconic ’80s spin on “Romeo and Juliet” celebrates its 40th anniversary on April 29, and Cage returns to the big screen with his latest film “Renfield” — in which he plays the centuries old Prince of Darkness himself, Count Dracula, recovering from the latest attempt on his life with his familiar Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) in New Orleans — it’s clear that the impact of her words still resonate in the performances of the idiosyncratic actor.
He was just 17 years old when he auditioned for the role that would change his life. As “Nicolas Coppola,” he only had a small role in Amy Heckerling’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to his name. Afterwards, he split his time between auditions living in his car and with his maternal grandmother. Not finding much work, and hoping to be judged on his talent alone, he changed his name to “Nicolas Cage.”
While promoting the 2022 meta-comedy “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” in which Cage plays a couple of fictionalized iterations of himself, he explains the name change, saying it was “a combination of Luke Cage from Marvel Comics” and “John Cage, the avant-garde composer. Speaks volumes about everything I’ve been up to ever since.”
His filmography — which now spans over a hundred films — finds the actor bringing his unique exploration of the human condition to almost every genre of cinema, from popcorn fare like “Con Air,” auteur-driven cinema like “Bringing Out the Dead,” offbeat comedies like “Adaptation,” genre-defying films like “Mandy,” and character studies like “Pig.”
Yet, he owes his breakout role in “Valley Girl” to a twist of Hollywood fate.
Sick of seeing what she described as “pretty boys,” Coolidge saw Cage’s headshot in the reject pile and called him in for a reading, unaware of his family connections. She felt he “defined” the character and ultimately won the part of Randy, the punk rock Romeo to Julie, Deborah Foreman’s Valley Girl Juliet. Unlike Shakespeare’s classic, the young couple aren’t torn apart by dueling families. Instead, Randy and Julie face the growing economic disparity between Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley and that age-old villain of many a teen film: peer pressure.
Cage attributes the freedom he found on set with Coolidge for giving him a “sense of dignity as an actor,” and inspired his aim for always trying to find “the truth” at heart of any character he plays. “You basically discovered me. You discovered this surrealistic interpretation of myself, which is Nicolas Cage,” he told Coolidge during the 2003 conversation.
From this early discovery of his artistic self, Cage has become a performer who is, as Keith Phipps puts it in his book “The Age of Cage,” “instantly recognizable but also symbolic of unpredictability of a kind no other actor can claim.” Although this singular unpredictability wouldn’t fully surface until his offbeat turns in films like “Peggy Sue Got Married” and “Raising Arizona” a bit later in the ’80s, the kindling of this unique fire is found in his first leading role.
Despite his unconventional looks, which the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Steven Rae called “goofily handsome,” Coolidge introduces Randy as an object of desire for Julie and her friends. We first see him emerging from the Pacific Ocean — his chest hair shaved in a Superman V, one of Cage’s many creative contributions to the character — as the girls ogle him from afar. Julie wordlessly gazes on him, her unexpected attraction immediately apparent to the viewer.
When Hollywood punks Randy and his friend Fred (Cameron Dye) crash a party in the Valley hosted by Julie’s affluent friend Suzi (Michelle Meyrink), friction flies with the preppy boys when Julie makes her desire for Randy known publicly. The charming Cage crafts an intense chemistry with Foreman, and Coolidge stokes the flames with classic close-up shots, immediately establishing Cage as a capital-M Movie Star.
Cage would show this same flare for being a passionate screen partner in traditional romances like “Moonstruck” opposite Cher, “Honeymoon in Vegas” with Sarah Jessica Parker, and “It Could Happen to You” opposite Bridget Fonda, as well as more offbeat titles like “Raising Arizona” with Holly Hunter, “Vampire’s Kiss” opposite Jennifer Beals, and the sticky, hot, and violent connection he forges with Lauren Dern in “Wild at Heart.”
After Randy convinces Julie and her friend Stacey (Heidi Holicker) to take a ride over the hill to a scuzzy Hollywood bar with them, we see the birth of several Cage-isms. Arriving in Hollywood, the convertible top down, Cage brims with confidence as he greets friends along the street. He even utters for the first time his signature high-pitched screeching laugh, a quirk that would soon define the quintessential Cage performance, and decades later become a fan favorite aspect of a Cage film.
In “Renfield,” he utilizes this laugh in an almost self-referential manner after his crazed Dracula declares he is a god. He seamless blends his trademark intensity and unpredictably goofy facial expressions with the old world charm established for the character by Bela Lugosi in Universal’s original 1931 horror classic, his on screen magnetism and charm flowing through his iteration of Dracula’s persuasive, hypnotic lulling of humans to do his every bidding.
Although the romance sections of “Valley Girl” helped Cage develop this charm and a sense of on screen camaraderie, it’s not until the aforementioned break-up scene that we begin to see Cage at his most creatively intriguing. In the same 2003 interview, Coolidge recalls the stress of the night. They had limited time and limited film to capture this important scene.
Yet, the minute they began filming, she knew Cage had found the character, found the emotion, found the truth. In the scene Cage utters one of the film’s most iconic lines: “Fuck off for sure. Like totally.” This was an ad lib by Cage, inspired by Coolidge’s life-changing direction, that reflects how Randy’s anger is not aimed at Julie, but rather the culture in which she finds herself trapped.
In the following scene, Randy spirals through every emotion in the book. He gets drunk, mopes about in the club he took Julie to on that first night, picks fights with dangerous men, and finds himself alone in the gutter. Although there’s a clear line from James Dean’s performance in the opening sequence of “Rebel Without a Cause,” to Cage’s acting here, there’s also the seeds of what would become the signature physicality he brings to most of his roles. Equally as revered as it is mocked, this total physical commitment to his characters is part of what makes Cage such a unique and beguiling screen presence.
Often described as operatic, over the years Cage has learned how to finely tune his persona for the tone of each specific film project. Sometimes playing up this physicality to an almost cartoonish level, and other times holding it all tightly as if he were about to burst. In “Leaving Las Vegas,” the film for which Cage won the Academy Award for Best Actor, he played an alcoholic on the verge of self-destruction who finds a little bit of love at the end of his life with sex worker named Sera (Elisabeth Shue). Like “Valley Girl,” the film was shot on a tight schedule, but also allowed Cage the freedom to push his craft as an actor.
Due to its small budget and occasional lack of permits, director Mike Figgis shot the film on 16mm over just 28 days. In an interview with Roger Ebert, Cage attributed this short shooting schedule for his ability to “stay on the grill” and get into the headspace of Ben Sanderson, an alcoholic screenwriter on a deathly bender. Ben’s arc in the film is to watch a man go from “hurt but not defeated” to someone who has accepted total defeat. Underneath it all, Cage’s charm and empathy remains, daring the viewer to understand this character the same way he does and to accept his fate as he has.
Along with crafting Ben’s complex interiority, Cage also transformed his body to that of a man who is clearly dying, finding a way to show his dance with death even in the way he holds his body in the most ordinary of situations. It’s a thrilling performance worthy of all the acclaim it brought him. Although it marked a high point in his career, the performance is not as far divorced from any other of Cage’s dedicated turns in lesser material. For almost all of his films, Cage brings just as much of himself to the role, finding a beating heart in even otherworldly situations.
Despite spending nearly three hours a day in the makeup chair for “Renfield,” Cage brings this dedication, physicality, and intentionality to his Dracula. Leaning heavily into his operatic tendencies, there is a balletic grace to his menacing of the beleaguered Renfield and the various other mortals who cross his path.
Betrayed by his familiar, who spends most of the film attempting to take control of his life back, Cage’s center for Dracula is also rooted in the direction, “hurt, not defeated.” Even if the tone of the film leans heavy into the comedy of it all, Cage anchors his performance in that search for an emotional truth.
In his 2003 conversation with Coolidge, Cage shared that he lives by the adage “sincerity in life is sincerity on screen.” If Cage’s ability to excavate these emotional truths in the widest range of characters is any indication, he may well be the most sincere actor working in the business today.
Universal Pictures will release “Renfield” in theaters on Friday, April 14.