Movie Interview: Acting weird

Nicolas Cage talks about selling imperfection.

Published August 8, 1998 4:33PM (EDT)

When Nicolas Cage was a much younger man given to saying poetic things that surely must haunt him now, he put himself recklessly on record about his Coppola ancestry -- that Neapolitan clan that includes cousins Sofia and Roman, his composer grandfather Carmine, Uncle Francis, DJ brother Marc and indie director brother Christopher ("Deadfall"): "We come from a long line of robbers and highwaymen in Italy. Killers, even. It's loaded with grudges and passion. Very intense."

It's not a thing he'd say now. Indeed, the former misfit kid has become so respectable, one could mistake him for his favorite alter-ego, Elvis Presley, who inspired several of his best roles ("Wild at Heart," "Honeymoon in Vegas"). His recent roles in several "boy movie" blockbusters -- "The Rock" "Face/Off," "Con Air" -- left longtime fans wondering whether it was a sign that he'd finally sold out to big-budget Hollywood. But Cage insists he's as weird as ever as the fast-talking, corrupt cop Ricky Santuro in Brian De Palma's "Snake Eyes" -- he even picked out the loud Hawaiian shirts his character sports himself.

Salon caught up with Cage at the San Francisco International Film Festival last spring, where he spoke about some of his favorite roles and why he moved from method acting to "Warholian" acting.

What does acting mean to you?

I've always seen acting as medicine. When I first saw James Dean in "East of Eden," that scene where he wants to give his father all the money, and his father gives it back, saying, "I don't want it," and he's weeping and weeping -- well, it just ripped my heart clean out. I felt so, so sad. And it was at that point that I thought, well, that's what I want to do. That's what I want to say. I think audiences can relate to having problems in their homes and schools and lives, so I wanted to rip the mask off the superhero and get in closer to the community that way.

The characters you play are often flawed, in an almost cartoonish way.

When you play villains you can go one of two routes: You can make that villain so unglamorous that nobody would ever want to be that kiss-of-death ugly person. "Gee, don't want to go there. God, that looks ugly." Or, you can go the other, cartoon route, the overblown villain nobody believes in anyway.

I remember once my father said to me, "Tom Cruise sells perfection, you sell imperfection." My characters are generally flawed -- neither all bad, nor all good. So I always look for a little bit of humanity in them, give them hope. It's irresponsible not to.

Do you remember when you first got the bug for acting?

I first knew I wanted to be an actor when I was about 6 years old and watching the television. There were people moving around inside that thing and I thought, "Wow, how do they do that -- how do they get to be inside?" When I was 8 or thereabouts I was bullied on the school bus by a boy who kept stealing my Twinkies. So I got dressed up as my bigger brother, slicked back my hair and put on his shades and boots, along with a lot of attitude and swagger, and tried to pass myself off as Nicky Coppola's brother Richard, and told him I was going to kick him right up his ass. Nobody stole my Twinkies again.

Also, my family, and Uncle Francis [Ford Coppola], were very inspiring for me. They cultivated me, exposed me to great works of art. They played me movies like "Nosferatu" and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," with great stars like Max Schreck and Conrad Veidt. There were other things that really stayed with me, and really wonderful old movies bring it all up for me again.

What was it like playing Ben, the suicidal alcoholic in "Leaving Las Vegas"?

I had a very unique connection to the character in "Leaving Las Vegas." When I read the script, the lines just sang to me. That script affected me deeply, not so much because of all the drunk stuff, but because it's about the love between two people who had been broken in life, yet had this incredibly beautiful, cool relationship. They were giving to each other without judging each other.

When I was preparing for it, I watched a lot of movies about alcoholism, like "Days of Wine and Roses," where Jack Lemmon gets delirium and phobias, and "The Lost Weekend" with Ray Milland. Dudley Moore in "Arthur" was excellent, I got into his idea of talking too loudly. With "Leaving Las Vegas" I wanted to embrace all those aspects and add something else -- make it fun and funny, not just to have Ben traipse off to the Betty Ford Clinic, or have him consider doing himself in. He wasn't a Skid Row person, he could still get cash from his credit card. He just sort of took himself out of the equation. I wanted to take the label off some of his behavior and really play up the love that these people still had. I mean, if you do drink that much, you're gonna pay the consequences and the bottom line is eventually you die.

Typically, great English actors like Laurence Olivier start with the makeup and voices and work backwards, while Hollywood method actors like yourself grow the inner psychology first.

Yes, but the best acting mingles the two. That way you cultivate longevity. I've seen a lot of actors who have not cultivated the more external technique and unfortunately what happens is they eventually intense themselves right out of business. They become so way-down they become that teardrop in the corner of the room.

Stanislavski said that nothing changes but change itself; so you try, hopefully, to find new ideas all the time. He also said that imitation was the worst form of acting. So when I was trying out Sailor in "Wild at Heart," my playing Elvis Presley for two hours was imitation at a higher level. I tried to think of it as my Andy Warhol performance, because when you take these big icons and make them your own, you then create these images over the icon. I thought if Warhol could do it with painting I could do it with acting, be Warholian.

You've had your share of critics, particularly for your role in "Peggy Sue Got Married," which your uncle [Coppola] directed.

Oh yeah, I was going through a tough period just then. I was very influenced by the painter Edvard Munch, and read this book about how he was completely slammed by the critics and got this idea that if you were young and great you had to be slammed by the critics. I remember the whole of Tristar studio flew up to the set and sat around my uncle Francis, and Francis cooked a big pot of spaghetti and said, "Look, this is the character and this is what he's doing, don't worry, it'll all work out in the end." So Francis was my champion -- he really did stick by me on that one. And I'm happy with the results, as well as with the critical backlash. I was so over-the-top I remember doing one scene with my cousin Sofia at the piano, and she was going, "Down! Down! Keep it down!"

You seem to be very supportive of your female costars -- Meg Ryan, Elizabeth Shue, Kathleen Turner, Cher, among others. But lately you've been working more closely with male actors -- is it different?

Because love is the white light at the end of the color spectrum, you can show anger, bliss, any other emotion, all of which makes more sense when acting with actresses. I've always felt an actual connection that is like a dance and which just occurs naturally. There's an energy there.

With male actors, it's not quite as magical. It's more technical, but still fun. Working with Sean Connery [in "The Rock"] was a blast, because he came on the set and he was, uh, Sean, and it took me three weeks just to get used to looking at him. But he was incredibly giving and dignified, and I learned so much from working with him. He was mentoring me.

And with John Travolta, it was all, well, a laugh. We were a couple of kids playing in the backyard together in "Face/Off." We were always teasing the other guy while muttering "Die!" or getting caught in one of those "Are we in trouble yet?" moments.

Do you have any plans to work on any projects with your wife, Patricia Arquette?

Yes, and we want to redo "The Thin Man," but the studios won't hire married couples -- they think it takes the magic out of the movie. There is this perception that couples don't do well at the box office.

But at this point I want to step back and recharge, maybe go to Europe and learn something about culture and art. It's time for me to go back to that learning mode, like when I was a kid.

By Elgy Gillespie

Elgy Gillespie is a writer for the Irish Times and the Guardian in London.

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