Nicolas Cage: ‘If I don’t have a job to do, I can be very self-destructive’

‘It’s like, wow, I’m 54 and single again. Didn’t see that coming. It’s pretty grim’ … Cage. Photograph: John Parra/Getty Images for for The Hollywood Reporter

Nicolas Cage is the greatest American actor working today, full stop. Not very long ago, such a claim would have got you laughed out of the room. Only Cage superfans said such things; in the eyes of the rest of the world, well, sure, he could act – he did win the 1996 Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, after all – but he was too eccentric, too laughably over the top, just too damn Cage-y to be taken seriously.

Ever since I saw him in his 1980s comedies – Peggy Sue Got Married, Moonstruck and Raising Arizona – in which he played, respectively, a nasal-voiced teddy boy, an opera-loving baker and a cartoonish ex-con – I have been a Cage superfan. I had never seen anyone act like him before – wildly mannered but always heartfelt – and there was something about his fearless lurch towards the ridiculous to achieve something unique, and maybe even glorious, that struck me as inspiring. If actors were pop songs, Cage would be Bohemian Rhapsody. As a shy 10-year-old, I would practise his grandiose speeches and even more grandiose gestures from Moonstruck in front of the mirror: I would shout, lifting my arm to the sky. It felt exciting. But thanks to the endless schlocky horror movies he makes these days, coupled with all those internet supercuts compiling his notorious “Cage Rage” freak-outs from various movies (“Nicolas Cage’s Cagiest Moments!”), he is too often regarded as, if not exactly a guilty pleasure, then at least an ironic one. And it is hard to argue the genius of a man who fills his CV with movies such as Season of the Witch and Ghost Rider.

But attitudes have been shifting. Ever since his magnetic performance in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans in 2009, re-evaluations have been written with headlines like Is Nicolas Cage Actually the Most Brilliant Actor of Our Time?, by journalists presumably too young to remember that Cage long ago confirmed this in movies such as David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. In a 2013 Reddit Ask Me Anything, Ethan Hawke confirmed that he, too, is a Cage superfan: “He’s the only actor since Marlon Brando that’s actually done anything new with the art of acting; he’s successfully taken us away from an obsession with naturalism into a kind of presentation style of acting that I imagine was popular with the old troubadors.”

Cage and I meet on a sunny day in the restaurant of the Savoy Hotel in London. He is dressed formally in a grey suit and tie, but his face is friendly. “What’s with all this SUN? I was hoping for London fog and GLOOM,” he says in his distinctive, lilting voice. These days Cage lives in “well, the ROMANTIC way to put it would be the Mojave desert, but the CRUDE way of saying it is I live in Las Vegas”. He moved there a decade ago for, he quietly admits, the rather crude reason of Nevada not having any state tax, “which was helpful at the time”.

Cage famously blew the fortune he made in 90s blockbusters The Rock, Face/Off and Con Air on, among other things, some fabulously eccentric real estate purchases around the world, including a castle in Somerset. The castle has since been sold but he still has a cottage near Glastonbury, having been urged to check out the town by someone he describes as “my philosophy teacher”.

“She thought there was something very ARTHURIAN about me – why, I don’t know – and I went and I fell in love with the place. Glastonbury town is like walking into a pack of TAROT cards: on the one side you have very ancient Christianity, on the other side you have pagan book stores, and someone’s barking about God in the middle of the street. It’s like an Ingmar BERGMAN movie, and I love it,” he says.

He has two chunky rings on his fingers: a block of Tanzanite from Somerset and a tiger from Vegas, “So I always have Glastonbury and Las Vegas with me,” he says, smiling fondly at this hand.

We are here today to talk about his latest film, Mandy, directed by Panos Cosmatos, and if your impression of Cage these days is of someone who squanders his talent in niche horror movies most people won’t see, well, Mandy will not change your mind. Cage is incredibly watchable as the devastated lumberjack, Red, who sets out to avenge the death of his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) at the hands of a cult leader (Linus Roache). But Adaptation it is not. Does he do these smaller movies because they give him the space to experiment with his, shall we say, unique style of acting?

“Absolutely. I like to break forms, try different things, and I don’t think studios are comfortable with that. But in an independently spirited film, I can do that. Also, if I don’t have somewhere to go in the morning and a job to do, it can be very self-destructive. Then I’m just going to sit and order two bottles of red wine and dissolve, and I don’t want to be that person, so I have to work,” he says. After this interview, he says, he has to learn lines for three upcoming films.

Perhaps it is this work ethic that has kept him so healthy. Unlike most other actors who have been around for four decades, and despite his reputation as a man of extremes, there have never been any substance-abuse scandals or allegations of burnout.

With Cher in Moonstruck, 1987.
With Cher in Moonstruck, 1987. Photograph: Allstar/MGM

“I certainly have a work ethic, that I will say. I’m the first to arrive and the last to leave. But also I think my children are to thank for that. When you’re a father, you can’t behave like that,” he says. Cage has two sons: Weston, 27, from an early relationship; and 13-year-old Kal-El, named after the planet where Superman was born, from his third marriage to Alice Kim.

Because of his son’s name, I tell him, there’s an online campaign to make him the next Superman. “Oh, I think my Superman days are long gone,” he laughs with a little pat of his belly. He would be an amazing villain in it, I reply. His eyes light up. “Oh, that would be GREAT! I’d make a great Lex Luther!”

For all its hilariously over-the-top gore, Mandy is really about a man’s grief at the loss of the love of his life, and right before the film started shooting, Cage’s 14-year marriage to Kim came to a sudden end.

“It was a shocker for me – I definitely didn’t see it coming, and those feelings had to go somewhere, so they went into the performance,” he says.

Have he and Kim managed to stay friends? “Oh yes, I want to. She was quite young when I married her and I don’t really have any ill will towards what happened. That’s all I’ll say,” he says, looking genuinely stricken. “And now it’s like, wow, I’m 54 and I’m single again – I didn’t see that coming! It’s pretty grim.”

Presumably he can’t really do Tinder. “No, definitely not. I’m not on social media, but everyone else is so I’m like, well, what do I do?”

His moves might also need some work. When a female friend was over at his place recently, he showed her Vampire’s Kiss, his too-little-known 80s horror gem about a man who believes a one-night stand has turned him into a vampire.

“I think it scared her. She left,” he says, laughing. It’s not really a great date movie. “No, maybe not!”

It is often said that Cage doesn’t look like a movie star, but he actually does look like lots of movie stars, just from different eras: he has the long face and nose of Max Schreck in 1922’s Nosferatu, the high forehead of Werner Krauss in 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and the wild, bug eyes of Klaus Kinski. These are the very actors Cage always wanted to be like, having grown up watching them with his beloved father, Augustus Coppola, who made sure his son was grounded in the classics. He tries to bring the lessons he learned from those films into his own movies; even the hand gestures from Moonstruck that I used to copy were a reference to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. That might sound laughably pretentious, but there is something refreshing about someone from the American film industry who doesn’t think film history means only Frank Capra movies or, a la Tarantino, old Jackie Chan or roadhouse films. “It’s true, I’m a throwback,” Cage nods.

Con Air, 1997.
Con Air, 1997. Photograph: Allstar/TOUCHSTONE

Does he fear looking ridiculous?

“All I care about is the transformation so I never think: ‘Is this ridiculous?’ Even though” – he laughs – “sometimes it is!”

His methods of getting into character are legendary: to prepare for Leaving Las Vegas, he hired the by then permanently drunk poet, Tony Dingman, to be his “drinking consultant”. “I think Mike [Figgis, the director] was a bit: ‘What are we doing?’ Because suddenly there was this drunk poet with me all the time,” he says solemnly.

For Bad Lieutenant, he compulsively snorted saccharine to put him in the mindset of a drug addict. “I think I freaked Werner [Herzog] out a bit, which then freaked me out because you really have to have gone way out to freak out Werner,” he says.

Cage’s various attempts to explain his acting style, using terms such as “German expressionist”, “western kabuki” and, my personal favourite, “nouveau shamanic”, haven’t done much to dispel the impression he is, at the very least, a little bananas. But today he talks about it with relative straightforwardness.

“I can do photorealism, but I wanted to let it be known that acting can break forms and hark back to something else. I’m a big fan of artistic synchronicity, when you do one form in another, like Munch’s Scream in Ghostrider,” he says, pulling the aforementioned face. “Not natural but truthful, not crazy for craziness’s sake.”

But it must be frustrating to aim for Munch and Kinski, only to be reduced to internet supercuts about Cage Rage. “It goes both ways. [The internet supercuts] kept me relevant to a generation that is entirely about YouTube. On the other hand, these larger-than-life facial expressions are made into something called memes,” he says, rolling the word “memes” around in his mouth disdainfully. “But I don’t have any umbrage about it. I’m going to give it my all every time, and I think people know that now,” he says.

They didn’t at the beginning though, so how on earth did he convince his early directors to let him try things that look so, well, weird?

“I was lucky. I had people who went along with me for the ride and, indeed, sculpted it with me,” he says. This is possibly not how the film-makers themselves saw it: the Coen brothers were so unsure about him, they made him audition for Raising Arizona 20 times, and he was nearly fired from Moonstruck when he initially insisted on bringing in Jean Cocteau references. As for Peggy Sue Got Married, he admits: “I was lucky my uncle was directing it,” his uncle being Francis Ford Coppola.

In Raising Arizona with Holly Hunter, 1987.
In Raising Arizona with Holly Hunter, 1987. Photograph: Allstar/20TH CENTURY FOX

“But I think Kathleen [Turner, his Peggy Sue co-star] was amused. I think we were a little bit in love with each other, to be entirely honest,” he says. (Turner, I strongly suspect, would disagree with this take. In a recent interview, she was asked about working with Cage: “He was very difficult on set. The way I saw it, yeah, he WAS that asshole.”)

Nicolas Coppola grew up in Long Beach, California, the son of Francis Ford Coppola’s brother, and from an early age, he idolised his uncle.

“I was in awe of him and wanted his approval. I loved the way he lived his life, always listening to the Beatles and playing guitar,” he says.

But when Cage started acting as a teenager, he quickly realised he would have to change his surname to avoid charges of nepotism.

“Certain actors, whose names I won’t mention, would stand outside my trailer and say: ‘I love the smell of Nicolas in the morning!’ I thought, I don’t need this. So I changed it and I was free.”

Whereas he changed his surname to get distance from his family, his then close friend Charlie Sheen – born Carlos Estevez – changed his surname to his father Martin Sheen’s stage name. Didn’t he think that was weird?

“I did think about that, yeah. That is kind of amazing, isn’t it? Charlie is a great actor – he stole the whole of Ferris Bueller in a two-minute scene. He is somebody I always admired but I thought it fascinating that he took his father’s surname and his brother Emilio stuck with Estevez. Well, it certainly worked for Charlie!”

Two of Cage’s three ex-wives also come from famous families: Patricia Arquette, with whom he co-starred in Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, and Lisa Marie Presley.

“I think I felt a connection there, an understanding of the pressure of having a famous name. One of the things Lisa loved about me was that I changed my name – she thought that was the coolest thing. But I don’t really count those two marriages, I don’t think they belong on my record. The real marriage for me was the 14 years I had with Alice and the child we have together,” he says.

Did Presley not find it strange that, before they married, Cage had dressed as her father onscreen twice, in Wild at Heart and Honeymoon in Vegas?

“Oh no, I think Lisa really dug it! She liked Wild at Heart so much that she wanted to do a sequel. Maybe one day.”Cage and Presley are still friends, but he and Arquette haven’t talked “in a long time”. I ask if he thinks maybe the emotional extremes he goes to in his day job make it hard to have a relationship.

With Laura Dern in Wild at Heart, 1990.
With Laura Dern in Wild at Heart, 1990. Photograph: Allstar/POLYGRAM/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

“Maybe. I hadn’t really thought of it like that. But it’s true, you have to shut it off when you go home and I have a life – well, had a life ...” He still has a life, I say. “Well, I meant when I was married, coming home to that at night. But, yes, maybe it’s hard for people to be around.”

It can’t have been easy turning off Charlie Kaufman every night, I say, referring to his performance as the neurotic, sexually frustrated screenwriter in Adaptation.

“No! God! And I was married to Lisa then …” he trails off again.

Cage’s career has gone from 80s comedies to 90s action movies to 21st-century horror, with oddball classics like Wild at Heart and Bad Lieutenant sprinkled among them. Yet what has been consistent is that Cage himself has been seen as one of Hollywood’s last eccentrics. And yet in person he comes across as surprisingly uneccentric. In fact he seems – “Boring, right?” No! “No, I really am,” he says, and he looks so anxious again that I want to hug him.

Our time is almost up and as we prepare to leave, I hear myself saying: “I used to perform one of your soliloquies from Moonstruck when I was a kid.”

“Well, I would like to see that!” he says, suddenly smiling again, leaning back in his chair.

What, now? “Yes!”

Two waiters are hovering. So is the movie PR. People from the tables next to us are starting to stare.

“Go on,” he says, waving my self-consciousness away like it was a mere fruitfly. And so, gathering together all the lessons I’ve learned from Cage over the years, I do it.

“I ain’t no freaking monument to justice!” I shout in the middle of the Savoy hotel, and I go on to perform the whole damn speech. Halfway through, he joins in with me.

“You brought it BACK to me! That was FANTASTIC!” he says, applauding when we finally finish.

I stammer apologies for my terrible acting, but he shakes his head. “No, that was GREAT. You really COMMITTED. Yes!”

Mandy is released on 12 October

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