Nicolas Cage: trash or classic? It might be the defining thespian debate of our time. Since winning an Oscar for his fearless portrayal as a fearless alcoholic in 1995's Leaving Las Vegas, a number of strange roles and even stranger performance choices have left movie viewers wondering if Cage is actually talented or a hack who crescendos his line readings and occasionally scores a win because even a broken clock is right twice a day. In the past decade or so, Cage has seemingly risen to the challenge, with increasingly enigmatic behavior and film choices that seem downright trolly. Is he a filthy rich actor who got his statue and is content to fuck with people's minds for his entertainment for the duration of his career? Or is he a misunderstood thespian who doesn't deserve to be a punchline?
When I hopped on the phone with Cage under the auspices of discussing his new supernatural thriller Pay the Ghost (out today), the man I talked to seemed bored. Potentially because he had been on multiple calls that day. But more-so like a person trying to stave off boredom with the industry and down to do whatever script offered the opportunity to bring something new to the table, even Ghost, which while inoffensive is an otherwise fairly child-in-danger horror B-movie. And also every bit as casually enigmatic as his reputation implies.
How do you pick which projects you’re going to do these days?
I like to give it some variety and I certainly prefer to mix it up at least in terms of, is there something else I can do with the character? Is there something else I can do with the genre? I like the idea of, for example, going from a political drama like The Runner into a suspense and horror film like Pay the Ghost. But I also have to have something in my own life that I feel like I can pull from in order to play the part honestly and to give it some integrity, at least from an acting standpoint. Whether or not the movie ultimately comes together, that’s pretty hard to determine because there’s so many other elements in making a movie besides performance, that go into making a movie besides performance. But I think that’s the main thing. Is there something interesting about it that I haven’t done before, that challenges me in some way, or also that I can bring to it from my own life experiences to give it some integrity?
In what ways did Pay the Ghost fulfill those two check points?
I like the idea of going from an emotional horror, that I think all parents can relate to in terms of the nightmare of losing one’s son or one’s daughter in public, and then having it evolve into plunging the depths or accessing the depths of another dimension that just turns out to be a supernatural dimension. I thought that that was an unexpected evolution for that script. So when I read it I was like, “Wow, this is different. I’ve not done anything like that before.” And that compelled me to make the movie.
Would you say you have an attraction to the supernatural genre too, given your recent filmography?
Yeah, I do. I like to keep it eclectic and I like the idea of going from a political drama to a horror film, or then into some sort of absurdist comedy. But horror and fantasy have always been something I’ve tried to cultivate in my filmography. I find the genre very liberating in terms of the things you can do with expression as a film actor. Certainly with Ghost Rider, that’s a movie about a guy who transforms into a flaming skull, so I thought, ‘Well, there’s a lot I can do with that.’ If you look carefully at the Ghost Rider movies, and I realize this is going to sound absurd, but the way I’m holding my head, I was actually trying to mimic an Edvard Munch painting, “The Scream.” You can do that kind of stuff with horror films, even if it’s comic book horror. It’s not so easy to do that sort of stuff with more cinéma-vérité style drama.
But one of the things I like about Pay the Ghost was that having studied The Exorcist and the profoundly authentic performance of Ellen Burstyn, I thought the way to really make movies about the supernatural work is to try to be as naturalistic and believable as possible within the drama so that the audience goes on the ride with you when it comes to the more far out elements of the movie. So that was what I was hoping to achieve with Pay the Ghost. Not that the movie would be The Exorcist, per se, but that the acting would try to get to a level of almost naturalism from docu-drama so that by the time the collision with Annie, the ghost, occurs, hopefully the audience is really along for the ride.
Going off what you just said about the detail in Ghost Rider, do you ever feel like your dedication to the craft doesn’t get the respect it deserves these days?
I can’t really think about that. It is what it is. If people get it, great. If they don’t get it, that’s fine too. I just have to hopefully do something that keeps me interested. It’s been 37 years at this now and I’m thankful that I’m still making movies.
Have you ever seen the episode of the TV series Community that’s dedicated to determining whether you’re a great actor or not?
No, I don’t watch television.
Not at all?
Well, I watch the news.
Interesting. What types of scripts are you offered these days in a general sense?
Pretty wide spectrum. I just did a cameo in an Oliver Stone movie about Edward Snowden. I did a Larry Charles film which is a comedy called Army of One about Gary Faulkner, who is this person who was a construction worker out in Colorado who got a bee in his bonnet to bring Osama Bin Laden to justice in a very strange way. As long as I can keep the variety going it keeps me interested. But yeah, I would say that I’ve been lucky to have a pretty eclectic range of different kinds of movies to choose from.
So what are the scripts that you say no to?
If I find a movie that I think is too similar to another movie that I made, especially in recent times, I’ll pass on that. Or if I don’t feel there’s anything I can do with the character to at least make it honest in its portrayal or have some integrity in its portrayal, I’ll pass on that. I know that there seems to be this opinion that I only do movies for the paycheck, which is completely false. I’m not defending myself, it’s a matter of fact that I’m not going to make a movie if I don’t think I can do something with the part.
Have you ever read a script and been like, “This is too ridiculous, I can’t do this”?
Yes. I’m not going to mention the names, I don’t want to insult anybody. But yes, that has happened, believe it or not.
What is your personal favorite role or movie that you’ve been in from the past five years?
I really liked a movie I made called Joe, directed by David Gordon Green. I liked the whole movie. I liked everybody I worked with on that movie. I really enjoyed Bad Lieutenant with Werner Herzog. I like Pay the Ghost, I’m excited about Pay the Ghost. They don’t all work, but I have good experiences working on them.
What about overall? Or what would you say you’ve done that’s underrated?
I don’t know if I could pick a favorite movie overall that I’ve made, because that would get traction as “That’s my favorite movie I’ve made” and I don’t really think that’s necessarily fair, because there’s so many different ones in the filmography.
I think my personal favorite is probably Matchstick Men, do you remember that one?
Oh yeah, sure. I enjoyed working on that. Alison Lohman was brilliant in that movie, and so was Sam Rockwell. That was a great movie to work on. I think it really came together quite beautifully. It’s funny that you ask me if I remember it, because a lot of people don’t seem to remember it, which is a shame because I think it’s a pretty good movie.
Yeah, it’s underrated.
Yeah, I would say that’s accurate.
What’s up next? What’s coming in the future for Nic Cage?
I’m going off to work in a couple weeks here again with Paul Schrader on a movie called Dog Eat Dog, which is based on the Ed Bunker crime novel. He’s a fascinating person to me, Ed Bunker. I knew him a little socially, but also he’s one of the only writers out of prison to actually really reach a level of literature in his novels and high quality literature. I do put him in the same sentence as Steinbeck in many ways and I’m excited to work on that. To be reuniting with Paul Schrader and also Willem Dafoe. It’s going to be a three-hander, so it’ll be a lot of work but I think it’ll provide another experience for me, playing this ex-con who’s on another job with his comrades, so to speak.