Within the confines of mainstream movies, there are few actors as consistently, well, inconsistent as Nicolas Cage. Mind you, I'm not talking about the quality of his movies, although some might say that's true too; I'm referring to the variety of characters he plays in an equal variety of kinds of films. He shows up in comedies, thrillers, crowd-pleasers, grindhouse gems, dramas, horror flicks, and everything in between and around and down as well. That he parlays those impulses almost always into something interesting is a testament to his talent, but in a film like Bad Lieutenant, what he's doing isn't just acting – it's alchemy.
Admittedly, the movie is pretty insane all by itself, thanks in no small part to director Werner Herzog's seeming obsession with working reptiles into as many scenes as possible, no matter how relevant they may be to the plot. But as the title character, a cop overmodulated with painkillers, drugs, and sleep deprivation, Cage's oddest flourishes become soul-baring character development, and his behavior a kind of poetry. In conjunction with the Blu-ray release of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans this Tuesday, Cinematical spoke to Cage via telephone about his turn in the film, and tried t get him to talk about where he gets all of those tics and techniques that distinguish his characters from those of his contemporaries.
Cinematical: Because you take on such an eclectic range of roles, I think people sometimes assume that you are doing weird things for weirdness' sake. In Bad Lieutenant, how carefully did you map out how the character was going to react in these various situations given the substances he takes?
Nicolas Cage: Well, actually quite a bit of thought did go in to that. It was something that I graphed out in terms of what substance he was on, because clearly if he was on coke it would be different tics and rhythms to the speech that might be quicker or louder, maybe more sprawling. There would be more feelings of invincibility. But then when he was on something like heroin, it naturally would start to slow down and become much more methodical. So I would graph out where he was in the scene, in the trajectory of the character, but at the same time it would also be an extended length of time when he hadn't slept and was on coke. So I had known people in my past, if they didn't sleep for three days and were on coke, sometimes their voice would go up there [into their nose] and they would start talking like that – they would hear it in their nose. So that's where I would go in that direction.
But when you say things like "for weirdness' sake," I guess I would ask that you consider for a moment that I'm a fan of abstract style or abstract art. But being that I'm my own instrument, if a film actor wants to get abstract, it's considered crazy or weird, but if a painter gets abstract, he's not crazy, it's just the artist is crazy – or it is what it is. It's a certain style or a certain sound that I find interesting, like I like jazz music or what Miles Davis did with jazz music specifically, so when I think about it in those terms, well I'm like, I do believe in art synthesis, but how can you do that with film acting? So I guess I'm just trying to open things up, find new sounds and look for new gesture and form in film acting, and that's going to inevitably be met with confusion or assumptions, or enjoyment; it depends on however people choose to receive it, or if it's to their tastes, or not, but I know that it is something that I respond to and it's organic to me so that's what I have to do.
Cinematical: How do you decide when is too far? Do you rely on the director to tell you, or do you have an internal gauge for how big you can go?
Cage: Well, I knew I was working with a director who could tolerate size, or extremity because of his experience with Klaus Kinski, who was pretty extreme in his portrayals. But I don't really rely on that; I feel it internally and I know it when I've got it. It's an intuitive thing. I know it when it's happened and when it's on, you know? I also know when it isn't, and I can feel that – I can feel when it's not quite hooked. But it's more of a personal intuition that I have.
Cinematical: Are you surprised when you watch your films when they're completed, seeing how individual ideas you've tried came together to create something different than what you imagined or intended?
Cage: Well, I've been pretty lucky with Bad Lieutenant in the sense that what I had in my head got up on screen. So in terms of the performance and in terms of the character, yeah, I felt pretty fortunate in that specific case. But there have been many cases where it never came to fruition the way I had hoped it would, or other elements or were against it in the filmmaking process, or it didn't tie together as cohesively as I hoped it would. But I won't mention any specific names.
Cinematical: When this was announced, people were surprised about the idea of a sequel to Abel Ferrara's film. Did the fact that you were creating a different character unrelated to Harvey Keitel's embolden you, or was there more pressure to connect your character and his in more subtle ways to sort of cement it as part of a franchise?
Cage: Well, I didn't see it in any way as a sequel; I mean, I saw it as its own thing entirely and with a completely different character, and the only similarity is that we both play cops and we're both on drugs – but that's about it. One movie is a much more kind of a program of a man who's going through Catholic guilt, and the other one is a more kind of existential experience where sometimes the bad get rewarded. But I'm a fan of the original and I'm a fan of Abel Ferrara, and Harvey's a friend of mine, and I love what Harvey did in it. But we're very different actors, and having worked with Harvey a couple of times now, we're not similar at all but I admire him and I admire his dedication to acting and what he's given all of us over the years, but I knew it would be completely different experience because I'm not an actor like Harvey is and Werner is not a director like Abel is. Not that one is better or worse, they're just different, so I wasn't too worried about it.
Cinematical: How many of the rest of the film's ideas, like the iguanas, or the guy's soul dancing, were in the script, and what to you was Werner Herzog's motivation to include them?
Cage: Well, that's all Werner. That's a question you should ask him because he's really the generator of those ideas. They weren't in the script and they were kind of spontaneous; maybe we had a couple of days before to talk about, say, his soul still dancing, and I don't really remember when Werner decided to put the iguanas in which scene or at what time. But I do know he was planning on using some sort of new technology with the way he was going to photograph these reptiles and he showed me that the first day I met him, actually. But I can only say that I was excited when he was doing that because I knew that he was going to bring something special to the narrative by doing that. So I was always encouraging more of that to the point where I think he thought it was full of it, but I was genuinely excited about it. One time Werner said something like, "I have to get my iguanas in the movie. I need at least five minutes of iguana time in the movie, and if I don't get it I'll never make another film again, so I have to cut some of your kind of action scenes." He'd had a couple of drinks and it was at the halfway wrap party of this shoot, and I said, well look, why don't you just cut the six-page scene where I arrest the young couple on the street and then you can get all of the iguana time you want? But he said no, I need that scene also. But he was just adamant about his reptiles in the movie, I supported it because I wanted him to be happy, and I told him it would be a shame if he never made another movie again.
Cinematical: When you go into a scene where your character is asking about these reptiles and interacting with them, what did he tell you for you to connect with that idea and make it meaningful in the film?
Cage: Uh, we never had the conversation. I had my own approach to the iguanas when they were there, and I would ask about the iguanas as [the character] Terence, but I wouldn't really talk too much about it with Werner. It was sort of like an implicit understanding that something remarkable was happening, and I just left it at that.
Cinematical: Currently I'm at South by Southwest, where Kick-Ass premiered. In that film how did you figure out how Big Daddy was going to be as a superhero? Some of my colleagues described your cadence as similar to Adam West's.
Cage: First of all, Damon was somebody that I was playing who I had met many years ago. I had dated a girl whose father was a cop and he had that kind of soft-spoken and somewhat eerie quality to him, and always referred to her as "child." I thought that would give it a counterpoint because of all of the insanity that was ensuing as a result of Damon and Mindy's relationship, I thought that the more mild-mannered I could be as a father, I the more bizarre it would be for all of the right reasons. And then as Big Daddy, Matthew [Vaughn] gave me the yellow belt, and I said "this looks like Batman from the TV show when I was a kid," and he said that's exactly right. He said, do you think we can pull it off? And I said absolutely. I said not only that, I think we should consider going all of the way with this and bringing Adam West back if we can, because we both loved Adam West and grew up with Adam West and the TV show. So anyway, we started rehearsals and I started trying it, and I got different movies to watch, and it was a bit of a challenge at first because I wasn't sure – I was sort of out there really on a limb. But Matthew said no, it's going to work, it's going to work, and he was very encouraging about it.
Cinematical: At this point what helps you decide which roles to pick? Because you find a amazing variety of roles to play, and yet you can go back very easily to something like National Treasure.
Cage: Well, a lot of it has to do with is there anything I can learn from it? Is there any new territory I can explore? Is there some way I can build this character that might be entertaining for me and for audiences and try to build things from scratch. But with National Treasure, that to me is exciting because it does appeal to larger audiences and it does appeal to the whole family, and I feel like that's one of the best ways I can apply myself is to make movies where people can have that ritual of looking forward to it and taking their parents to it and parents taking their kids to it and can congregate. So that's one of the best usages, I think, of what I do in terms of making movies and applying my abilities. Then, I also have other interests. I am interested in the midnight audience, so I make movies like Bad Lieutenant so I can hopefully find, I call them sounds, where almost like music I can find new ways of expressing myself through my imagination and the different sounds that I may or may not hear. But they wouldn't be right, certainly not right for National Treasure. But even in National Treasure, there's moments of choreography and rhythm.