Your background is the stuff of Hollywood lore now: you’re the offspring of what has become one of the most prolific artistic families in Hollywood history: the Coppolas. Your father August Coppola was a professor of Fine Arts, right?
But he was also the son of an artist.
Your mother is also an artist, right?
Well, the history of art, and particularly cinema, is littered with the corpses of people who were the architects of their own destruction.
In some capacity whether it’s drugs, high speed driving, or just bad behavior, yeah. This is the very thing that I’m thinking about daily, what we’re talking about now, and I’m trying to think how to express it without sounding like I’ve got my head in the clouds. It occurs to me that we’re on this material plane here and we’re born into it, into matter, and so because we’re on this level, it seems like the people who are the most messed up, and have the largest appetites for the material are the ones we find the most charismatic, and the ones we relate to the most and they sort of take the experience of our lives on Earth and tell the stories. So we go to the theater and we see it, and we say “Yeah, I know what that’s like. I’ve been there. I know what it feels like to drink myself into oblivion. I know what it’s like to want to rob a bank,” and so on. But no one wants to go watch a movie about a guy like The Dhalai Lama. Who’s going to want to go watch that for two hours? As beautiful as it is, people seem to be gravitated toward those who are on this plane and who are succumbing to the plane.
It’s called “drama” for a reason. You know the one word definition of drama, don’t you?
But would you want to be perfect?
It’s also comforting, to a certain degree, to watch people who appear to be far more fucked-up than we are, even though that might be the case. Most likely, unconsciously, we’re relating to that pain and that dysfunction far more than we realize. Is that what you’re saying?
You would have to become Keir Dullea 2001: you would just become light spheres.
From what I’ve read, you’ve always known that you were an artist, and have marched to the beat of your own drummer from the time you were a small child.
Yeah, that’s right.
Did you know you were an actor at that point, or did you just know you were different?
You were also the victim of bullying growing up because you were perceived as being so different.
But don’t you also think that when you don’t fit into the norm, it forces you to develop the part of your brain that forces you to create, in order to maintain some kind of stability?
You were “it.”
Which is what happened at Columbine.
Let’s get back to some of your films.
The first movie I saw you in was Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).
A lot of your scenes are on the TV version, that they air on TNT.
Like American Graffiti (1973), Fast Times turned out to have this incredible cultural and artistic synchronicity in terms of all the actors who went onto greatness.
Cage and Deborah Foreman in Valley Girl.
So it was between Fast Times and Valley Girl (1983) that Nicolas Cage was born.
You got “Cage” from the musician John Cage?
John Cage and also the comic book character Luke Cage. I liked reading comics as boy—I was a nerd—and it was how I learned to read, really. Then I when I went to Horace Mann Elementary School, in music class they talked about John Cage, and I always thought that it was such a cool name. Then I started getting interested in that kind of music, which is what my father listened to. So that was the genesis of the name.
After Valley Girl, everything changed for you.
Yeah, that was the first time I felt like I could breathe on a movie. I walked in on that with a new name. Nobody knew who my uncle was. The other actors weren’t teasing me about it, so I suddenly felt like I could really relax and do what I think I can do. All I wanted was to be on the same playing field as everyone else. Not that I have a problem with my name, but don’t have prejudice towards me because of my name. Just put me on the same playing field because I think I can do this, whether you think so or not. So that’s what Valley Girl did for me.
You did three movies with your uncle. Since there was a familial bond in place already, did they two of you have a sort of shorthand in terms of how you communicated?
Cage in Francis Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married.
But that interpretation was so appropriate, because that guy, in every high school in America, is a cartoon!
Every time that movie’s brought up today, it’s your performance that people talk about.
Wild at Heart (1990) is one of those movies that keeps getting better every time I see it. Although I have to admit when I first saw it, I hated it.
Anytime you elicit a strong emotional response from someone, you know you’re doing your job.
Tell us about the experience of making Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and working with Mike Figgis.
It was just a great time, all the way around. I had a great connection with Mike and Elisabeth Shue. Mike is music. He’s free form and rhythm and melody and it comes out in his direction. He’s even got music on the set that he was composing. So we had a connection and I hope to work with him again some day. We did the film very quickly, in about four weeks and it just was painless, I don’t know why. It just seemed like everything was linking up. It was channeled with the real guy, John O’Brien, almost. (Editor’s note: John O’Brien, who wrote the novel on which the film was based, committed suicide shortly before principal photography started) I felt like I was making moves that I later on found out he had made, like the way he’d light his matches. The car he drove, Mike wanted him to drive an old Jaguar and I said ‘No, he should drive a BMW, like every other agent in town.’ And he had a BMW, and I didn’t know that. His parents came to the set and would comment on how much I reminded them of their son. I don’t want to get too spooky about it, but it was a very special time. We were in John’s mind somehow.
John Woo is one of my favorite directors, and I’m a big fan of Face/Off (1995).Tell us about that.
Face/Off for me is a personal milestone because I felt like I was able to realize some of my independent filmmaking dreams in a major studio film. I was taking a lot of the laboratory of Vampire’s Kiss (1989) and points of expression that I was working on with films like Nosferatu (1922) or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919): early German expressionistic film acting, and with Face/Off, I got do it in a huge genre picture. John had shown me his film Bullet in the Head (1990) and I knew when I saw that where he would let me go. I knew his barometer and that I could put it up against a wall of expressionistic acting, as opposed to naturalistic acting. I’d not done that to that level before in a big studio movie, so it was a real personal best for me. I got to get way outside the box.
Cage and John Travolta in a publicity still from John Woo's Face/Off.
I forgot that you executive produced Shadow of the Vampire (2000), which was a fictional re-telling of the production of Nosferatu. F.W. Murnau, who directed the latter film, is one of my heroes.Yeah, he was amazing. Sunrise (1927) is one of the greatest films ever made.
Nosferatu actually changed my life when I saw it as a kid. It’s one of the movies that made me fall in love with movies and scared me to the depths of my soul.
It’s kismet that we’re talking because that’s exactly the same experience I had. My father used to bring the movies home from Cal State and he’d project them for us, and there I was, looking at this terrifying imagery. It was so uncomfortable and really made me miserable but again, like we talked about, I began to fall in love with it.
Murnau shot it like a documentary, which is what made it so interesting. Wasn’t it one of the first films to go on location?
I think it might have been, yeah. What we did in Shadow of the Vampire was pretty thought-out and accurate in terms of the actual events, except of course that (actor) Max Schreck wasn’t really a vampire! (laughs) All actors by some definition are vampires, I suppose.
I have a theory that all great actors and filmmakers have one overlooked masterpiece, and I think 8mm (1999) is yours. I think it’s such a brave, audacious, deeply disturbing movie.
Thank you. I’m sure Joel (Schumacher) will be happy to hear that. In a lot of ways that movie is kind of a milestone for me, because it’s my first foray into horror. To me, it’s a horror film, and I hadn’t really done that before. It does have weight in my library, but it was, as you said, overlooked and wasn’t something people could respond to at the time because it was so dark and disturbing. It’s not how people want to spend eight bucks to get their minds off their problems. (laughs)
Cage in Joel Schumacher's 8mm.
If it had been made in 1971, it would have been a hit.
But you see, those are my favorite movies, from the 70s. I’m still kind of living that fantasy, trying to do it in 2005. But that was the time, and those were the movies that propelled me into wanting to go for this. The 50s and 70s movies for me are the ones that got me on the track of wanting to be an actor.
I was watching Klute the other day, which was made in 1971. A movie from 1985 is more dated now than that film is.
Yeah, right. I believe that. If you look at A Clockwork Orange (1971), it’s like virtual reality now. Even if you take a single frame of that film, the amount of time Kubrick must have put into lighting that, it just pops! The shot of the droogies as they’re walking out of the milk bar, it’s lit in a way that’s nearly digitally perfect, and he did it in ’71. It’s fascinating.
Tell us what directing was like, with Sonny (2002).
That was a great experience, too. It was a real highlight for me. I was surrounded by some of my favorite actors. I’ve never seen James Franco hit a false note. He’s a great actor, and he’s just fantastic in the movie.
It’s a great kitchen sink drama. Did you study the films of Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson before you did it?
No, I didn’t. It just kind of came out of me, the way I sort of felt it. I didn’t want to take too much away from the actors. I wanted the film to look beautiful, but I really just wanted to focus on performance, and I got that. I was very happy with the results.