Role Recall: Nicolas Cage on his greatest films – from 'Raising Arizona' to 'Face/Off' to trippy new 'Mandy'

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From left: Nicolas Cage in <i>Raising Arizona</i>, <i>Face/Off</i>, and <i>Honeymoon in Vegas.</i> (Photos: 20th Century Fox/Paramount/Columbia Pictures)
From left: Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona, Face/Off, and Honeymoon in Vegas. (Photos: 20th Century Fox/Paramount/Columbia Pictures)

Nicolas Cage is an actor like no other. In an illustrious career that has spanned close to four decades — and included an Oscar for 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas — the 54-year-old star has exhibited an idiosyncratic magnetism without precedent in Hollywood history. Equally capable of unpredictable volatility (affectionately labeled Cage Rage by fans) and poignant reserve, Cage first made his name in the 1980s with a series of performances defined by intense expressiveness and empathic heart, only to shift into marquee-movie-icon mode in the 1990s with a string of action-oriented efforts energized by his distinctive personality. Whether stealing babies alongside Holly Hunter in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Raising Arizona, saving San Francisco in Michael Bay’s The Rock, or battling the forces of hell in Marvel’s Ghost Rider, Cage has always been an A-lister with popcorn-entertainment instincts and an avant-garde soul — a duality that’s made him a one-of-a-kind presence in projects both modest and blockbuster-size massive.

His inimitable charisma will once again be on full, fearsome display this Friday in Mandy, a hallucinatory descent into torturous loss and righteous vengeance from Beyond the Black Rainbow director Panos Cosmatos. Playing a woodsman named Red Miller, whose life is torn apart when a cult led by lunatic guru Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) invades his home and abducts his wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), it’s a dark, demented saga of psychotropic goo, supernatural creatures, and chainsaw fights of truly epic proportions. In short, it’s one of the year’s craziest — and best — films, and provides Cage with one of his most forceful, and finest, roles to date. That’s saying something, given the acclaimed actor’s résumé. To mark the debut of his latest feature, we thought it was an ideal time to sit down with Cage to discuss some of his most famous parts, as well as the new feature that’s about to melt fans’ minds. As you’ll see from our exclusive, extended Role Recall, he doesn’t hold back.

Raising Arizona (1987) — H.I. “Hi” McDunnough

After memorable turns in Valley Girl, Rumble Fish, and Peggy Sue Got Married, Cage made an indelible leading-man mark in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1987 comedy, in which he starred opposite Holly Hunter as an ex-con who steals a wealthy man’s child — a performance marked by gonzo cartoon energy that the Coens weren’t initially sure was right for the part.

I read the script, and I immediately responded to it. I felt connected to it. I felt I knew where the humor was, and what beats, musically, to hit. But I also saw the character as a kind of Woody Woodpecker come to life. An outlaw version of Woody Woodpecker. I remembered all those Thrush muffler stickers, where you had a woodpecker with the red feathers blowing in the wind and a cigar dangling out of his mouth, so I had that drawn onto H.I. McDunnough’s arm, really kind of as an homage, or a hint, suggesting that this was really Woody Woodpecker come to life.

I also went through a series of Polaroids to show the transformation, physically, in terms of my eye would close up or my right hand would become claw-like when I started to get angry — those were like symbolic gestures of the dark side coming out. Or, I would say, the criminal side of H.I.

I remember when I auditioned for the film — and I must have auditioned about 10 times — every time, the Coens were cracking up, but they were also saying, “We don’t know why we’re laughing.” So I think they were very particular and very careful when they cast me, not entirely certain that they had made the right choice. When we got to rehearsals, I remember they were mentioning other actors, and I just said, “Fine, then why did you hire me?” And then it stopped, and we made the movie.

I always felt tremendous joy when Ethan [Coen] would start laughing. He was the best audience — Ethan would be in the corner of the house, cracking up about the stuff I was doing with Glen [Sam McMurray], or about adoption. I would say something like, “Well it’s all who you know, and over here, you have favoritism,” and Ethan would just start cracking up [Laughs].

I have great memories. “Super-8 feeling,” I would say. “I’m getting that Super-8 feeling.” I used to make movies with my brother in the backyard when we were kids with a Super 8 camera that our father bought us. And I said, “Right now, I’m getting that Super-8 feeling” when we were doing a scene with Randall “Tex” Cobb, and Joel [Coen] would say, “Well, you know, that’s good, you gotta keep that Super-8 feeling going.” I’ve been using it ever since. The Super-8 feeling is when you know you’re making a movie for all the right reasons. You’re not doing it for money, you’re not doing it for awards, you’re doing it simply because you love the movie.

Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) — Jack Singer

Cage’s love of Elvis was felt throughout this 1992 romantic comedy, especially during its signature scene, in which he takes an airborne dive with a group of Vegas impersonators.

What drove me to the movie was really Andrew Bergman’s writing. He had a wonderful way of italicizing words and expletives and moments of frustration. I was just in sync with all of the italics. I could hear it in my head. I knew where the humor was.

Originally, Andy told me I was going to be on a plane with Siegfried and Roy and a bunch of white tigers. That would have been marvelous and hilarious in its own right. In some ways, I kind of wish I had that experience — I was a big fan of their show. And I love white tigers. Then the Flying Elvises came into it, and I just thought the dialogue was hilarious, and that suit that lit up — which is kind of interesting, because many years later, I still had the suit. I actually gave it to Lisa Presley [Cage’s second wife]. I think they used to have it in Graceland, in one of the museums. I thought it was a fun thing to give to her.

Leaving Las Vegas (1995) — Ben Sanderson

Mike Figgis’s 1995 drama provided Cage with a Best Actor Oscar-winning role as an alcoholic trying to drink himself to death in Vegas. To prepare, he took to the bottle himself — and then recorded his behavior for later study.

It’s all true. I did do that. I did videotape myself drinking, and I also hired a family friend who was a drunk and a poet named Tony Dingman. My cousin Roman Coppola was the one who told me I should hire Tony, and I just kept Tony with me the whole time. He was in Vegas with me, and I would watch him when he would get drunk, and I would have him in my camper and I would study him. Some of the things he would say — the things that would come out of his mouth. Things like, “You don’t kick the bar; you lean into the bar. Because it’s not vino veritas — it’s IN vino veritas. In — to be in drunk!” I just put all that stuff in the movie.

Then, he would give me notes. Like he said, “Well, I read that John Barrymore would have a ripe banana, and he would eat it so that no one could smell alcohol on his breath. Why don’t you try that?” Because we would prescribe different scenes where we might try just a drink here or a drink there — never in an abusive way, unless there was a scene that we’d both decided we should go completely out of control on, and that was usually a no dialogue scene. But he would give me a ripe banana, and I would try it, and it worked.

Also, little excerpts from books. Like, imagine there’s an imaginary hook that you’re trying to grab to hold yourself up, but you can’t grab it because it’s not really there, and you fall. These kinds of little notes from a true drunk were all very helpful for the performance.

The Rock (1996) — Dr. Stanley Goodspeed

Never one to shy away from risks, Cage followed up his Academy Award triumph by trying his hand at action-adventure heroics with Sean Connery and Michael Bay set on Alcatraz — resulting in a genre classic. Cage stepped into the role after Arnold Schwarzenegger backed out.

I took a lot of flak for zigging instead of zagging right after the Oscar, because I did go and do a lot of adventure films. Truth be told, I was already signed on to The Rock before the Oscar happened, and before Leaving Las Vegas came out — and indeed, I was already filming The Rock. So it was a decision of my own, that I wanted to explore all kinds of film expression.

I had grown up on a steady diet of art films and dramatic films. My father was playing Citizen Kane, and I was going to art-house theaters and discovering Juliet of the Spirits by Fellini. But then again, I would run home from school and turn on the TV and there was the Million Dollar Movie. We had the Million Dollar Movie back then, which was always a big event because they had that great music, and then it would be “Tonight, Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West!” or “Tonight, Sean Connery in Dr. No!” I was thrilled, and I wanted to be those guys too. So when I found out I was going to do The Rock and I was going to star opposite Sean Connery, that was a dream come true for me.

I must say I did take a lot of flak for it. It wasn’t very well-received by critics at the time. Although if you look at what people are doing now, it seems like it’s the norm. Everyone’s hopscotching from independently spirited dramatic films to big adventure films. At the time when I started doing it, it was a bit taboo. But now it seems to be the norm.

Face/Off (1997) — Castor Troy/Sean Archer

John Woo’s over-the-top 1997 action film required Cage to act like John Travolta (and vice versa), which Cage did by employing methods he’d first honed on an earlier starring vehicle.

It was a magnificent challenge, for sure, to have to embody another thespian’s behaviorisms and mannerisms. I would say, of the two of us, I’m probably the more idiosyncratic actor. But it was still a challenge for me to get John [Travolta]’s nuances onto my body, if you will. I think, once we had done the first week of photography — and I think I’m only Castor Troy until the credits end — I went kind of balls-out with that. And John just took it and ran with it, and kept it going for the rest of the movie. Whereas I had to try to see, in John, what was there that I could apply to the character with the context of also acting like Castor Troy while I was in prison — even though I was Sean Archer at that point.

It was kind of a cubist mindf***, for lack of a better word, to try to get this thing all worked out. It wasn’t until Adaptation [Spike Jonze’s meta 2002 comedy co-starring Cage and Meryl Streep], I think, that I had anything quite that acrobatic to do again. But John Woo is someone who really has a signature style — he’s a genius filmmaker. He showed me Bullet in the Head, one of the pictures he made, at home. Even though we didn’t talk a great deal, I thought we were friendly. Once I saw that picture, I fully understood the edge at which I could go to. Go right up against the edge of emotion and gesture. I started to recruit some of the experiences I had — or, rather, experiments I had — on Vampire’s Kiss, and put them in a big movie. I was thrilled with the results. What I could do in Vampire’s Kiss actually worked wonderfully in a big adventure film like Face/Off.

Ghost Rider (2007) — Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider

A year before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was launched with Iron Man, Cage, a lifelong fanboy who had previously been tapped to play Superman for Tim Burton’s aborted feature, brought to big-screen life one of the comic-book giant’s most memorable — and, to him, thought-provoking — characters.

Boy, did [superhero films] take over. I knew they would. I was about 10 or 11, and I had the prescience to know that once the technology got there, the comic-book movie would dominate the industry. And it has.

I always liked the monsters; I liked the complexity of the monsters. I grew up reading The Incredible Hulk and Ghost Rider, because I could understand how these horrifying characters were also meant to be good. Ghost Rider took it to even another level, in that he was a superhero who had sold his soul to the devil. So it was philosophical; it was complex. I don’t think [director] Mark Steven Johnson appreciated it when I said the first one was kind of like a fairy tale, but I meant it in the highest way. Whether it’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Doctor Faustus — it was almost like if Walt Disney had taken the story of Faust and made one of his animated features out of that story. Which is an important story.

The problem is, it’s very hard to take a family of children to a movie — and they made it a PG-13 movie — about a superhero who, oh, by the way, also happens to have sold his soul to Satan. So it’s not going to be the most commercial concept or vehicle. But it certainly is the most interesting, and the most thought-provoking. I think if you look back on the movies today, they age well.

Also, as a young man going to bed at night, I would hear these motorcycles running around my house. I always imagined some guy with a leather jacket and a flaming skull on his head running circles around my house on the motorcycle, and it scared the hell out of me. So I really wanted to play that part, as it being organic to my childhood. And it was like a tattoo come to life. It was that kind of art.

Had Ghost Rider been made in R-rated format, the way they had the guts to do with Deadpool, and they did it again today, I’m fairly certain it would be enormously successful. Having said that, I still think the movies were a hit. People don’t look at the subsidiary outlets, like DVD and streaming and whatnot. When you look at what Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor did [on 2012’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance] for $50 million, and they got a $250 million return, you begin to see the genius of the sequel.

Mandy (2018) — Red Miller

A match made in midnight-movie heaven, Cage’s partnership with director Panos Cosmatos is a trippy saga of loss and madness that affords him one of his greatest parts, complete with a chainsaw fight for the ages.

What happened was, Panos [Cosmatos] saw me as Jeremiah Sand. I was playing in Army of One when we met, and I had long white hair and a long white beard. I looked like Father Time. He said it was a movie about age versus youth, and “I see you as Jeremiah Sand.” I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because I see Jeremiah Sand as a California Klaus Kinski.” And I said, “Well I am the California Klaus Kinski. But I don’t want to play Jeremiah, I want to play Red.” We went our separate ways, which was fine. I thought he was fascinating, and I knew he was a genius when I met him. A year later, I got a phone call and he said, “OK, you can play Red.”

The reason I was attracted to Red was similar to the reason Panos made the movie, which was that I was contending with loss. The loss of love. My father had died — I’m still not completely over that, and it’s been several years — and [Panos] had gone through loss. And also, I was on my way to a third divorce. So I was dealing with a lot, and I wanted to express that in a positive way rather than a negative way. Red was the outlet for me to do that. I thought I had the life experience to play the part authentically.

The whole chainsaw sequence, I had to really get up and running with that in terms of the stunt rehearsals. I do think there’s a poetry to the violence in the movie — that it’s not just straight-up slasher or gratuitous. I think there’s a kind of poetic, lyrical quality to it. Panos’s first picture, Beyond the Black Rainbow — I saw that and I couldn’t sleep for a week. The visual and the audio are very strong for Panos. He has a real sense of visual style that’s uniquely his own, and I think it creates a world for his actors to walk in that compels performance almost more than the story.

[WARNING: Mandy spoilers ahead!]

Nicolas Cage in <em>Mandy.</em> (Photo: <span>RLJE Films)</span>
Nicolas Cage in Mandy. (Photo: RLJE Films)

[The unforgettable final smile Red gives] came from a place of story. I was finally reunited with my girl, who I was deeply in love with. And we got through it, and she’s been avenged. We did it. But he’s coming out of a place of skull juice and supernatural aura and wreaking havoc and barbarianism, and yet there she is — she’s in the car with me, and isn’t it wonderful, and aren’t we happy, and here we are together again. It’s beautiful.

Mandy debuts in theaters and on video on demand this Friday.

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