LOS ANGELES — Nicolas Cage and I sit in the middle of the Nuart Theater, the arthouse bastion that’s been a fixture on Santa Monica Boulevard since it opened in 1930. Cage saw David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” here, more once, at midnight, shows that remain etched in his memory forever. He took his son Weston to Nuart to see a James Dean double feature of ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and ‘East of Eden’ because he wanted him to feel the power of great acting and learn from the legend that inspired Cage to pursue movies as a career.
“I used to work at the Fairfax Cinema in Beverly, selling tickets and popcorn,” Cage explains. “It was my first job. I was 15 and I was only interested in cinema. I wanted to be in movies. Cinema has always been a friend to me when I was a child. It helped me through different difficult times. So working at the Fairfax, between all the things I had to do, I was just standing in the back of the theater and dreaming. How am I going to get out of here,” and Cage pauses, pointing first to his seat, then to the screen in front of us, “until there? It was meditation.
If you like movies, you know Cage has gone back and forth in a singular career that started with a small role in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” took off with the Coen brothers’ “Raising Arizona” and the comedy romantic “Moonstruck”, put him on stage at the Oscars (“Leaving Las Vegas”), made him a successful action hero (“The Rock”, “Con Air”, “Face/Off”) and then stabilized when, as Cage puts it, he became “marginalized by the studio system”.
“I had a few flops in a row, so I wasn’t invited anymore,” Cage says, evenly, without complaining. When I tell him it’s hard to understand how he’s been able to star in about three dozen movies over the past decade, most of them straight-to-video, and not have a decent, interesting offering from a studio, Cage , 58, replies, “Well, you and me both. But that’s OK.”
It’s OK because, as mentioned, Cage never stopped working. And the last film he directed, Neon’s “Pig,” earned him his best reviews in years, rekindling public and studio interest in the actor. In April, Cage will be seen – twice – in Lionsgate’s “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent”, playing a marginalized movie star named Nicolas Cage who, thanks to a small problem with bad spending habits, takes a salary of 1 million dollars to appear at a super fan birthday party. Things go awry and Cage is haunted by an alter ego, Nicky Cage, who mocks Nicolas’ career choices, telling him it’s time to stop acting in all those crummy arthouse movies. .
“I was very excited to do this because I’m playing two enhanced versions of myself,” Cage says. “But then I realized that everything that happened to me led to this movie, hot or cold, high or low…there’s an arc in the story. Not that I’m comparing myself to Muhammad Ali, but I like that he lost to Joe Frazier and then came back, fought him again and won. It gives him pathos and a dramatic arc.
There’s a touch of pathos to spending time with Cage…but just a tinge. Regrets? He has a few. But again, too little to mention. We were, for some reason, singing “My Way” together shortly after we met. Cage’s birthday is January 7. I was born a day later. “You have Elvis and David Bowie…those are my heroes,” Cage says, referring to the two rock stars who share my birthday. Cage, it turns out, had just been listening to Presley’s version of “Always on My Mind” – he had it on loop – and, uninvited, he begins, showing off his baritone.
“Little things I should have said and done…he loses the word ‘said’,” Cage says. Her connection to the king is deep. He was married to Presley’s daughter, Lisa Marie, for a time and played an Elvis obsessive in David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart.” “It’s clear to me that Elvis was an opera singer,” Cage says, launching into another verse of “Always on My Mind.” He smiles. “I like to sing. It helps me relax.
Cage says he accepted the role of Rob, the exhausted star chef in “Pig,” a man haunted by tragedy and, yes, the theft of his beloved truffle-hunting pig, because of a line in the scenario. This comes during a scene in which Rob meets Derek, a former prep cook who now runs a hip, pretentious Portland restaurant.
“We’re interested in taking local ingredients native to this region and deconstructing them, making the familiar foreign,” Derek told Rob, explaining the restaurant’s “concept.” Rob looks at him in disbelief, reminding him that his dream was to open a real English pub. He launches into a rebuke that culminates with the line that hooked Cage, “We don’t have a lot of things that we really care about.”
“That’s what it’s all about,” Cage says. Earlier we talked about karaoke, something Cage really cares about but doesn’t do in public anymore after someone filmed him playing what he calls a punk-rock version of ” Purple Rain” by Prince two years ago. (“I like my version, but it’s not to everyone’s taste,” Cage says. “They clearly said it.”)
What else does Cage really care about these days? He’s serious and thoughtful as he rolls out a list of his favorite things. He starts the list with his wife, Riko Shibata. “I’m really happy in marriage. I know five is a lot,” he says, a nod to the number of times he’s been married, “but I think I got it right this time.
He also cares about his cat, Merlin, a 4-year-old Maine Coon, whom Cage calls his “best friend” more than once. He cares for his two adult sons, Weston and Kal-El. He has two other pets, a cat named Teegra, who apparently doesn’t care that he ranks second to Merlin (“He doesn’t give like—”) and a crow, Hoogan, who lives in a geodesic dome at Cage’s house in Vegas. (“He made a habit of insulting me…it’s comical, at least it’s comical to me,” Cage says. “”Cage laughs. “Crows are very smart. And I like the way they look, the Edgar Allan Poe look. I like the goth element. I’m a goth.”
Which is part of why Cage has happily signed on to play Dracula in an upcoming Universal Pictures horror-comedy, “Renfield.” As Cage previously portrayed a man convinced he was a vampire (“Vampire’s Kiss”) and himself was accused of being a vampire (“I don’t drink blood,” he told David Letterman in 2012), this casting seemed both inevitable and necessary. Cage begins filming the film next month.
“The key, I think, is movement,” Cage says, “I saw a movie called ‘Malignant’ and the director James Wan and the actress (Annabelle Wallis) created this choreography which was terrifying. so do something like this where Dracula can either slide or move like Sadako in “Ringu”.
He has other thoughts on the subject, of course, saying how much he enjoyed Bela Lugosi’s turn in 1931’s ‘Dracula’, Frank Langella in 1979’s ‘Dracula’ and Gary Oldman in the 1992 by his uncle Francis Ford Coppola, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” (“I called Uncle”, Cage usually calls Coppola “Uncle” or “Uncle Francy” in conversation), “and told him that every frame of this film is a work of art”) And that leads into a discussion of acting in general, long and interesting digressions on the styles of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson and how he thinks actors like Brando channeled their easy and naturalistic game.
“It’s a word I don’t like anymore, ‘play’,” Cage says. “I look like a pretentious fart for saying ‘thespian’ but acting now has become like lying. Sounds like I’m lying. If you’re a great actor, you’re a great liar. ‘Thespian’ seems more that it’s about finding a truth within and then projecting it for others to get. At least it does that to me. He lets out a conscious laugh. “But I’m not always sure the same wavelength as everyone else.”