Having long embraced Asian filmmakers, Nicolas Cage, 54, was one of the early Hollywood stars to appreciate how Chinese financing can greenlight a movie when US studios are unwilling to take risks.
He was a natural choice to serve as Talent Ambassador at the 3rd International Film Festival & Awards Macao where his latest film, Mandy also screened.
You often take risks working with unknown directors, sometimes to great success, for example with Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy.
Firstly, Panos had a fantastic freshman effort with Beyond the Black Rainbow which I thought was unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. It disturbed me. The imagery in it was compelling and it really got into my psyche and I didn’t sleep for a couple of weeks. I thought that any filmmaker who could do that to my physiology was someone I should try and work with. I have to give credit to Elijah Wood because he’s the one who put the two of us together, because he’s the one who firmly believed in Panos. Elijah and I were working on a movie called The Trust and so I read the script for Mandy and immediately flipped for it and of course I wanted to play Red Miller. I didn’t want to play Jeremiah Sand which was the part that Panos wanted me for because he thought I was kinda Californian Klaus Kinski and wanted me for that in the movie. But I didn’t respond to Jeremiah Sand and he was very upset about it and that was that. I think the word he used was “gutted”. But then a couple of years later he had a dream that I was starring in his movie as red which was wonderfully bizarre and esoteric and kinda strange but nonetheless he called and offered me the part and this was before I’d broken my leg on a film set in Bulgaria and I almost didn’t make the movie because I was stuck in a wheelchair. Panos didn’t give up. Against my manager’s wishes, I got out of the wheelchair and started doing the stunt rehearsals which, oddly enough, helped my body rehabilitate even quicker going through all those moves. I got out of the chair, off the cane and started going through the battle axe sequence and I started getting my muscles back to full strength and it helped me. So that was the process – the fact that I knew that the part of Jeremiah Sand didn’t work for me, and if the movie works at all it’s because of Linus’ [Roache] portrayal as the antagonist [Jeremiah Sand]. He was absolutely brilliant, so it worked out for the best.
How do you make artistic choices when most studios are risk adverse?
I think it’s very hard for the studios with these big budget adventure films to take risks on film performance. Understandably, they want to play it safe and contained because so much money is on the line. Having said that, I fundamentally believe that there’s been a handful of us over the years that have experimented with film performance – like in movies such as Face/Off – and it’s worked and tickets were sold. I put myself in that group of people that were taking risks and challenging myself to just not get locked into a traditionally naturalistic style of film acting. And, because it worked, I do think that there are people in the film studio business that are willing to take chances and cast what I like to call iconoclastic actors who are not afraid to get somewhat operatic. People who come to mind are Chris Pine and Aaron Johnson in the Netflix film Outlaw Kings. I thought that was really compelling and powerful with big acting; you can go as far out as you want as long as there is an emotional content to it that is authentic and truthful in which case people are, by and large, willing to go along for the ride with you.
You’ve been working almost 40 years now and enjoyed such an interesting career. As well as winning an Oscar. Do you feel you are in a happy place in your career?
I am very happy. I’ve been blessed to work with people that I like that stimulate me in my creativity and imagination; I’ve been blessed to work in places that I like being all over the world. I made Mandy in Belgium. I thought that was a great experience and I enjoyed working with a Belgian crew. Without sounding like I’m tooting my own horn, I also feel like now that I’m more on top of my game as a performer than I ever was by virtue of the fact that I have been performing and practising and taking risks…. Not all of them have worked but I’ve learned quite a bit. I also think that – you never say never – but I think it’s time for me to diversify my portfolio right now and maybe look at TV. But I also think that I embraced video-on-demand at a time when other people probably thought it was a mark of failure to be relegated to that community. It actually turned out to be a great successful marriage for me because the small independent movies are deployed on video-on-demand and it enables unusual storylines to be made whereas big studios might not be willing to make a weird or unusual storyline, like with Mandy.
What do you think of the Asian impact on cinema?
Huge. Fortunately for me again, I’ve had a great relationship with the Chinese film industry and made movies that have been financed by the Chinese film industry including Outcast . One of the reasons I’m still working today is that I‘ve been able to visit all over Asia and have a relationship which is something that I know my fellow actors want to foster as well because most of the financing now is coming out of China and people in the US know that it’s important to come to Asia. And it’s very important for me because I know who to say thank you to because I know who has kept me in business – and that’s been the Chinese film industry. I would say that I’m probably more popular in China than I am in the US. That’s just been the way it is and I’m very thankful.
You’ve worked a lot in Asia. Any stories you can share?
I have been blessed to work on several Asian productions. The funniest version was Bangkok Dangerous done by the Pang brothers and they would have fun with me, pretending to be each other so I never knew which one wad directing me. There was a military coup that happened while we were in production and I could tell it had happened because the gun wrangler on the set removed all the weapons. I didn’t know what was about to occur and at the time I was with my family, with my then-wife Alice and my son Kal and my father-in-law was in from Korea and I looked at the two brothers and they said, “Hey, it’s Bangkok Dangerous!” I said, “I’m getting off the set”, and I got into a little boat and went back to the Mandarin Oriental hotel, woke up my father-in-law, got Alice and Kal, and found a way to get on a private jet; flew to Korea to drop them off, and then got right back on the jet and flew back to Bangkok to finish the movie. But I had no idea which way it was going to go. It was wild. Fortunately, it worked out peacefully. John Woo is interesting because John showed me Bullet in the Head, one of his great operatic movies and I knew when I saw it how I could go for the size of a performance like in an opera. I had a great time working with John Woo, he is a true cinematic maestro.
What would you like most to be remembered before, not just as an artist, but as a human being?
Well, I’m not a gambler but I have taken risks. I have taken risks in my work because of visions that I’ve had and potential that I saw within for film performance, and I’ve taken risks in my life because of visions that I’ve had of having a happy marriage and blessed with children. And they haven’t always worked out but because I wanted to materialise my dreams in cinema and in life. I feel like these risks have been inspirational, not only to me, but particularly in film to my audience. But I never played it safe – not because I was a gambler but because I had a vision of what I could do with film performance. And I never played it safe in my life because I had a vision and a feeling of what love meant to me and what I wanted to share with a young lady or with my children. And I’ve been blessed with both I think. I still care about everyone I’ve ever met so it’s been good for me.
You tend to play wild and intense characters. Where does your taste for extreme roles come from?
A lot of it comes from a very mischievous sense of humour. I’m the guy that when you go to dinner and people have those awkward silences and just don’t know what to talk about, I love that. I think it’s hilarious when people are uncomfortable and clearing their throat and fidgeting. I just think it’s hilarious. I try to take those awkward moments – whether it be an uncomfortable dinner conversation or a wild public outburst – and put them into film performance because I think they’re impossibly funny. I think we all have these fantasies and dreams of doing that which is taboo or unacceptable because we have to live in these polite and happy boxes in order to be a good and positive community. But movies are where you can let off a little steam and live vicariously through your film stars and watch them be complete trainwrecks and do everything that is wrong to do and make all the mistakes because it brings about vicarious relief and release.
What did winning the Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas mean for you?
I think Gary Oldman recently said “the sound of applause is never to be ignored” and I appreciated it and I was very thankful that my fellow actors and peers thought to do that and so I thank them for that. And I remember Sean Connery told me to forget about it. But it’s not something I think about every day or I want to really recall because I want to move forward and have new experiences.
What attracted you to your latest role in Maria Pulera’s Between Worlds, starring with Franka Potente?
Well the reason why I did it was, very simply, because I wanted to work on a predominantly female set. Maria as the director and Franka was starring in it and Penelope Mitchell. And I was pretty much supporting the three of them. And because in cinema I’ve worked predominantly with male directors and male actors, I wanted Maria’s take on it and support Franka and Penelope and I was excited by a movie that was being powered and engineered by female creativity. I wanted to see how Maria would direct me and what she responded to in terms of my instrument. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I know it,s pretty wild! It certainly wasn’t in the script like that but she was pushing all the… how shall we put it? All the “passion”.
And the interesting snakeskin underwear?
That was all Maria. I said “really, you want me to wear this?” And she was “Yes!” So I was “OK! Here we go!” I’m a little bit scared to see it to be honest.
Looking back over your incredible career, are there any movies that particularly stand out?
I have a very fond spot in my heart for Face/Off as an example of how I could take what I learned in the laboratory of independent cinema, that would be Vampire’s Kiss where I was trying to do different things with film performance; be impressionistic; be larger than life in terms of gesture and body language. And I have to give some credit to my aunt Talia Shire because she was the one who said to me: Naturalism is a style, don’t forget that so why don’t you try exploring other kinds of approach to film performance – surrealistic, abstract, impressionistic etc.
So, what I learned in Vampire’s Kiss, I applied to Face/Off – but in a big Hollywood production with John Travolta and with John Woo directing and it worked. Certainly, I have great memories of Adaptation which was the most acrobatic film performance I’ve ever had to do, and I don’t think I could ever do it again. It was just crazy the challenge of waking up in bed and going, ‘Oh, I don’t feel so great today so maybe I’ll start with Charlie,’ until I was feeling positive enough to move on to Donald Kaufman, the two twin brothers. It was a wild experience, working with a tennis ball and having to remember what I’d done with each brother. After that I’d say Raising Arizona and Bad Lieutenant with Werner Herzog.
You live in Las Vegas and have made many films there. Do you see Macau as a sister city to Las Vegas?
I think that everyone is Las Vegas is very well aware of how successful Macau is and I know that the governor [of LV] comes out to Macau and thinks it’s quite remarkable. But I think they’re two entirely different cities with the exception that some of the hotels are similar. Macau has the Portuguese influence with, naturally, the Chinese cuisine and style. So, I don’t really think I would pair Las Vegas with Macau. When people ask me where I live, the romantic way of replying is to say, “The Mojave desert” whereas the crude way is to say “I live in Las Vegas”!
You’ve also made quite a few films in Las Vegas as well as living there?
I did Con Air in Vegas where I took out the Hard Rock sign in an airplane; I did Leaving Las Vegas where I drank myself to death and I did Honeymoon in Las Vegas where I jumped out of an airplane looking like a lit-up Elvis Presley. I also did Next where I was a Las Vegas magician who could read the future, and I filmed The Trust there with Elijah Wood. Every one of those movies had something interesting about them. I think Las Vegas is a great place to make movies. I can live in Las Vegas because I don’t participate so I can be fine; I’m not a part of the whole gambling culture. I go to work and I come home and then I’m with my son so that’s how I’m able to live there and keep my nose clean, so to speak.
What keeps you interested?
I’m going to be 55 in two weeks’ time, so I have to find ways to stay interested not only for you but also for me, so what that means is that it’s a good idea to travel and enjoy other people’s visions and concepts of what it means to make a movie all over the world.